Jonah Naghi

The Case for Kurdish Independence

I would first like to dedicate this article to my cousin Liat Barad and her Fiancé Josh Kersner on their recent engagement. I am proud to write about a topic that is so important to me in honor of them, and I wish them a lifetime of health, happiness and sweetness.

It felt like almost every morning this previous summer that the first thing I did was to go onto CNN’s website to check the latest events in Iraq. Daesh (Arabic acronym for ISIS) grabbed the world’s attention when they rampaged and conquered northwestern Iraq, including the prominent city of Mosul. However, there was another group that stood out to me. That group was the proud, the forgotten, the Kurds.

I had always taken the Kurds for granted, that they were just another ethnic-group in the Middle East, but after learning about them I realized that they have a truly inspiring story. That is why I felt compelled to advocate for their independence.

The Kurds are possibly the largest ethnic-people in the world without a state, 20-25 million. They have had their state stolen from them, divided between four countries, and have experienced genocide.

In 1920, after the end of WWI, the Western Allies promised the Kurds a state through the Treaty of Sevres. However, Turkish President Mustafa Kemal rejected it and instead implemented the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which chopped up the Kurds between the sovereign states of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. Divided and ruled by four different countries, yet the Kurds have preserved their identities.

Of course, not just anyone can have a state. There are many stateless people in the world who could make a case that they deserve independence just like any other group of people, but the Kurds don’t just deserve a state, but need a state.

The Kurds were severely repressed in the countries they resided.

In 1937, Turkish forces massacred over 13,000 Kurds in the region of Dersim. On a positive note, however, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologized for the tragedy in 2011.

In Iraq, over a million Kurds were killed under Sadaam Hussein’s tyranny. The most notable event was in 1988, when Sadaam used chemical weapons that killed over 5,000 Kurds in the city of Halabja in a matter of hours. Many have considered it to be an act genocide.

As we can see, the Kurds are not just an ordinary stateless people who have been oppressed. They have experienced genocide. Thus, they need a state. They need a place where they can practice self-determination and seek refuge to in case of a time of Kurdish discrimination abroad.

The Kurds have also proven to be capable of building a state.

After the Kurds assisted the United States in their campaign to stop Sadaam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait during the Gulf War, the US created a “no fly-zone” in the north of Iraq, which would eventually grant the Kurds an autonomous region. This is where the Kurds would begin to build their state from the ashes, literally.

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the official governing body of Iraqi Kurdistan, has built a thriving economy with oil revenue and tourism. For example, It has the lowest poverty rate in Iraq and, since 2003, over 20,000 workers from Iraq proper have come into Iraqi Kurdistan to seek work. Let me say that again: Iraqis, from the country that is essentially occupying Kurdistan, are seeking work in the occupied territory because the KRG has done such a better job in creating economic opportunities than the central government in Baghdad.

Furthermore, the Kurds have been able to miraculously build an overall vibrant society, again literally from the ashes, after Sadaam Hussein’s chemical attack in 1988. As Kurdish expert Stephen Mansfield says, “In a land that once grieved some 4,000 villages destroyed by Saddam, there are new and stunning hospitals, schools, restaurants, five star hotels, parks and airports.” In fact, the New York TimesNational Geographic Traveler and Conde Nast have all listed Iraqi Kurdistan as a “must-see” tourist sight.

Iraqi Kurdistan is also one of the more progressive and religiously tolerant societies in the Muslim world.

In June 2012, the KRG issued their schools to be “religiously neutral.” Meaning, schools teach world religions, not just Islam, do not give preference to a particular religion, and do not require what is taught about any of the religions they went over for their final examinations in order to graduate, even though 94% of the population is Muslim. Therefore, as of now, Iraqi Kurdistan is one of only two countries or regions in the Middle East, the other being Israel, not to press on a specific religion in public schools. Additionally, there is a “Christian department,” which serves the Christian minorities’ needs and rights.

The Kurds are also progressive in women’s rights. Women serve on the Supreme Court and as commanders of the Peshmerga, the Iraqi Kurdish security force, which proved to be the only formidable force against Daesh over the summer.

Speaking of the Kurds’ security force, they have been the recent heroes in not only fighting off Daesh, but also saving hundreds of Yazidis from genocide. On December 21, Kurdish forces broke part of Daesh’s siege of Mount Sinjar, rescuing hundreds of Yezidi members who had been trapped on the mountain with little to no food or water since early August.

Nevertheless, I understand that pursuing Kurdish independence is all easier said than done. The KRG and Baghdad are still in the process of coming up with an agreement over their oil dispute. Such an agreement could change the balance on whether the Kurds would have enough resources to run their country independently with Daesh near them, but the point, or the case rather, is to support the idea of Kurdish independence in general.

The Kurds are a stateless people who need a state after having experienced genocide. The Kurds are a people who have proven they are competent enough to run a functioning government. The Kurds are a people who have stood up to Daesh, could help the international community in their fight against them, and have saved a religious minority from genocide. The Kurds have created a relatively progressive society that promotes moderate Islam, and giving independence to such a people would be beneficial for the Muslim world.

As I said before, rewarding independence to a nation that has embraced a moderate version of Islam would help promote that version throughout the Muslim world.

It’s time these proud people who have endured so much pain over the years received the recognition they deserve.

About the Author
Jonah Naghi is a Boston-based writer and the Partnership Chair of Israel Policy Forum's IPF Atid Steering Committee in the city of Boston. A frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, Jonah has spent extensive time in the region and received his Masters in Social Work at Boston College (2020) and LICSW (2023). All the views expressed are his own.
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