Using previous atrocities and now IS as an excuse to justify or ignore Kurdish terrorism is merely adding fuel to an already raging fire
When it comes to the various Kurdish nationalist and separatist movements, the position of the majority of Western mainstream media outlets and politicians appears to be hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Most people will be acutely and thoroughly aware of what the media peddles as “fact” about any number of crimes of displacement, dispossession and outright murder of Kurds by Arab regimes in Syria and Iraq, Turkey and, rarely, Iran. The picture that is oft painted is one of Arab and Turkish fascist barbarians bearing down on a defenceless, innocent people and trying their utmost to wipe them off the face of the earth. In a way, this narrative mirrors the Israeli tale of how a bastion of innocence is in danger of being defiled by hordes of savage Arabs. However, as with most things we hear and see in the mainstream media, these stories have a somewhat tenuous relationship with reality at best.
In a nation-state obsessed era embodied first by the League of Nations and its successor United Nations that (selectively) advocates national self-determination, this narrative doubtless has its appeal. The Kurds are seen as another kind of “Other” to the Arabs, who are frequently painted as being a backward, misogynistic people whereas the Kurds emancipate their womenfolk and stand, like a kind of “noble savage”, against the base Arabised barbarians of the Islamic State (IS). This picture is almost always placed alongside the aforementioned crimes committed by governments under whom the Kurds live. In light of all these crimes and calamities inflicted upon the Kurds, and their “last stand” struggle against IS, what can possible be wrong with the Kurdish people banding together as one, carving out their own territory, and ruling themselves?
As an Iraqi of mixed Arab, Kurd and Turkmen descent, this ethno-nationalist rhetoric has always baffled me. After all, if these ethnic divides were real and not part of very contemporary, very imagined communities forged from the exportation of nationalism from Europe to the Middle East, I would not exist to write this article today. However, what baffles me more is how Arab and Turkish crimes against Kurds are placed front and centre, without any context whatsoever of the previous coexistence and how these crimes were encouraged by the post-World War I order established by the West. Moreover, when Kurds themselves commit acts of terrorism, ethnic cleansing and sexual violence against members of other ethnic groups, they are conveniently glossed over or even justified as some kind of retaliation against the brutality of dictatorships and now IS.
Does the terrorism of IS justify terrorism against Turks, Arabs and others? Does sexual violence against ethnic Kurdish Yazidis justify the abduction and sexual abuse of Arab women? Does the ethnic cleansing of previous governments and regimes justify the ethnic cleansing of Arabs and Turkmens from their ancestral homes and villages? Of course not, but it would be difficult to find a narrative that sharply focused being presented in most Western media sources. By reporting irresponsibly, and likely even in collusion with Western governments with designs and agendas on the Middle East (whether this collusion is witting or unwitting is another matter entirely), these media agencies and pundits are encouraging the perception that IS and brutal regimes in the Middle East are somehow analogous to the local Arab and Turk populations.
This is not to make light of the crimes that racist, mostly Western-backed regimes have committed against the Kurds. The Turkish Republic has a long history of discrimination against their Kurdish ethnic minority, from banning them from using their own language to setting loose ultra nationalist Turkish gangs such as the “Grey Wolves” who did not just kill violent terrorists, but terrorised Kurds who had nothing to do with separatist terrorists. In Syria, the Assad regime also has a track record of banning the various Kurdish languages from being used (another ignored fact is the lack of homogeneity amongst Kurds themselves), economically isolated them, and generally made life difficult for them. In Iraq, indiscriminate force was again used to silence separatists and those supporting them, which did nothing to stem extreme Kurdish nationalism but enhanced it. That said, one of Iraq’s first dictators was General Bakr Sidqi, a Kurd who seized power in 1936, and who had earlier massacred thousands of Assyrian civilians. The fact that he was both Kurdish and a mass murderer is not commonly mentioned in the West.
In the modern day, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Syria that have now been sidelined by the media due to the concurrent war against IS have enabled Kurdish separatists to make great strides. In Iraq, as soon as the fighting against former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s forces began, the Kurdish Peshmerga scrambled to swallow up land they claim is theirs by force under the guise of protecting it from IS. They forcibly annexed Kirkuk into the Kurdish-controlled region that Masoud Barzani has constantly claimed he will carve from Iraq whilst, ironically, still claiming to be “Iraqi”. When IS began attacking the Peshmerga and Yazidis, thereby drawing the United States into the conflict, the Peshmerga and Yazidi militias were praised as heroes whilst they ethnically cleansed villages such as Makhmur and Buhanaya of its Arab population and raped their women, and did not even spare the Turkmens.
The leftist terrorists of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and its sister PYD and YPG organisations in Syria actually cut deals with the Assad regime who had brutalised the Kurds for decades rather than ally with the moderate rebels. Assad’s forces withdrew from Kurdish populated regions in exchange for Kurdish non-involvement with the Free Syrian Army and other multi-ethnic Syrian rebel groups. When IS bounded onto the scene and started attacking Ayn al-Arab (Kobane), Western news was replete with stories of the courage of Kurdish forces, yet seemingly ignored or skimmed over their atrocities against Arabs and Turkmens living in northern Syria.
It seems that most analysts are obsessed with bashing regional governments rather than accurately reporting on the crimes of both sides, or indeed their reconciliatory actions. Although the Turkish government initiated a peace process with the Kurds that has now led to the PKK-aligned HDP to cross the 10% parliamentary threshold, the media demonises the Turks and allows the Kurdish separatists to continue to play the victim card. The renewed conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK is now framed as a political dispute, rather than the peace process failing due to the refusal of PKK terrorists to disarm. The problem is not isolated only to the media, as I have yet to hear a single senior Western politician condemn Kurdish acts of ethnic cleansing, rape and wanton destruction.
Using previous atrocities and now IS as an excuse to justify or ignore Kurdish terrorism is merely adding fuel to an already raging fire and encourages distrust toward Western intentions. It also sends the frightening message that it is fine for a group to engage in terrorist activities, as long as it does not conflict with Western interests and is not related to Islamism in any way. In other words, ethno-nationalism is good, even if it is involved in terror, whilst Islamism is bad, even if it is moderate and peaceful like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and we all know what happened to them.
- Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy & Security Institute, and winner of the Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. He blogs at thewarjournal.co.uk and tweets from @thewarjournal
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
A member of PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) blocks the road at Cizre, in southeast Turkey near the Syrian border on 27 December 2014 (AFP).