On September 18, 2014, Scotland held a landmark referendum to determine whether it would remain in the United Kingdom or plot its own course as an independent state pivoted toward Europe. Both sides’ justifications were varied, but it suffices to say that Scotland obviously remains a part of the United Kingdom. According to the final vote count, 55.3% of Scots voted “No” to the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
As interesting as the contours of the referendum in the UK, though, is the way Scotland’s bid for independence played in US media, particularly in outlets typically associated with the left. A Slate piece, “More than Scottish Pride,” detailed precisely how observers shouldn’t read Scottish agitation for independence as another manifestation of nationalism, but “a rejection of gradualism in favor of more ambitious, and even radical visions of change.” [We might well wonder, then, how the author can account for the difference between UKIP and the SNP— in fact, couldn’t any political party, even Golden Dawn, purport to be rejecting gradualism? But I digress.] So for Slate’s op-ed, the question of Scottish independence becomes a phenomenon of the left precisely because it allegedly eschews any vestige of nationalism for a drastic change in the status quo.
Jacobin, despite promises to cover a variety of perspectives on Scottish independence, published far more articles making the case for a Scottish breakaway than maintaining the Union. But in what becomes a common refrain in liberal calls for Scottish independence, Jacobin too carefully suggests that nationalism plays no part in the Scots’ national aspirations. Some of Jacobin’s articles ring of schoolyard Marxism, suggesting that an independent Scotland is a good way to stick it to the financial elite in London— this kind of analysis isn’t uncommon, but in it Scots take a back seat to pseudo-Marxist schadenfreude. “Why Scotland Should Vote Yes” offers a more cogent analysis of the independence vote, suggesting that Scotland’s breakaway from the United Kingdom signals its unwillingness to continue in the imperialistic vein of the US and the UK–a message contradicted by the author’s earlier admission that an independent Scotland’s EU-status would make it a member state of NATO. Yet another Jacobin article maintains that Scotland should secede to become a model state for the rest of the UK and Europe; also denying nationalist overtones, this piece dismisses out of hand [Labour leader] Ed Miliband’s suggestion that socialists are internationalists, not “narrow nationalists.”
These examples were typical of liberal attitudes toward the question of Scottish independence, at least in the US media. On Twitter, US liberals’ obsession with an independent Scotland bordered on the hysterical. In no uncertain terms, liberal writers reminded us that we could, indeed that we should, support Scotland’s independence from the UK, and that, moreover, we could do so without resorting to a pernicious variety of nationalism that might best be avoided.
Given American liberals’ enthusiasm for 5 million citizens of a wealthy, industrialized constituent nation declaring their independence from a larger wealthy, industrialized nation, one might expect a coherent ideology when it comes to other groups agitating for independence and autonomous rule. Insofar as the sovereignty and autonomy of nationally-based ethnic groups is supported by the left, there are few peoples who would benefit more from the nominal and material support of the United States than the Kurds of Northern Iraq.
For those interested in a detailed sketch of the Kurds’ centuries-long subordination to various nation-states, David McDowall’s A Modern History of the Kurds, now in its third edition, is still unsurpassed. For the more casual researcher, Wikipedia offers a broad summary of the Kurds’ history in the Middle East and West Asia since antiquity. PBS’s website yields a compilation of interviews with Kurds and Kurdish scholars that highlights the ethnic group’s turbulent history in the region since it was carved up by colonial powers after the end of World War I.
Since the fall of the short-lived Iraqi Republic in 1968, the Kurds in Iraq have struggled against the Sunni-dominated pan-Arabism that defined the Ba’athist era, as well as the sectarian conflicts occasioned by Saddam Hussein’s ouster. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds emigrated from Hussein’s Iraq, and thousands were murdered by his regime. But despite the US granting some local administrative power to the Kurds after the 2003 invasion, the Kurds of Northern Iraq again find themselves the victims of Islamist militants and a failed state unable or unwilling to provide resources to stem ISIS’s encroachment in the region, or to protect its minorities from increased sectarian strife. Indeed, even with its cultural cohesion, relative pluralism, defensive capabilities, comparatively well-regulated oil economy, and friendliness to the US, neither the Bush nor Obama White Houses have supported the 6 million Iraqi Kurds’ push for independence.
When US media even discusses the Kurds’ plight, the conversation is ordinarily fairly limited in scope. A Slate piece on ISIS’s incursion into Kurdish territory in Northern Iraq remarks (in the subtitle, no less!) that “a thriving Kurdistan is necessary for a democratic Iraq.” There are echoes here of the earlier argument about Scotland–for many of the writers on Scottish independence, the secession of Scotland from the UK is more about hurting the London financial class than it is helping the people of Scotland. Here, Obama’s decision to provide material support to the Kurds in their fight against ISIS is seen not as a decisive political, or much less ethical, consideration advocating Kurdish autonomy, but a move to strengthen the precarious political order installed (by the US) in the rest of post-occupation Iraq. Another Slate piece from June 2014 suggests that the gains in Iraq that Kurdish forces have made while fending off ISIS– both the city of Kirkuk and the exportation of oil without involvement from the central Iraqi government–are unlikely to be ceded back to the central government when, or if, it expels ISIS from its territory.
An essay in Mother Jones suggests–against what seems to be the sound logic of Jonathan Dworkin–that American strategy in the region is largely coherent, but that US officials have decided long ago to support a unified Iraq only, and that changing the course is a dangerous threat to our allies in Baghdad. Jacobin Magazine, a strong supporter among liberal publications of Scottish independence, has been totally mute on the issue of an independent Kurdistan in Northern Iraq.
The fact is, unlike the Scots, the Kurds have been subjected to brutal persecution at the hands of tyrants and religious extremists. They face, on a regular basis, an existential threat not only to their culture, but to the modicum of hard-fought autonomy they have gained against Ba’athists and Islamists. Whatever zeal Americans, particularly liberal Americans, could muster for Scottish independent, they should more than match it in demanding that the US government formally recognize an independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq.
Support for an independent Kurdistan fulfills all the wishes expressed in many liberal outlets’ endorsement of Scottish independence–it places the cultural self-determination of a minoritarian group over the centralizing authority of the majority culture; like Scottish independence, Kurdish sovereignty would mean control over vast natural resources; and, to the concern of rejecting gradualism for a “more ambitious, and even radical visions of change,” I can think of no better way for the US or Europe to reject the status quo in the Middle East than to reverse a decades-old policy that marginalizes Kurdish autonomy in favor of a central government in Iraq that is unable or unwilling to protect its minority populations.