What Black Americans Can Learn from Kurdistan

Just over one year ago, I had the privilege of attending a seminar on the Iraqi-Kurdistan independence referendum in Washington, DC. The keynote speaker was the Kurdish representative to the US, Bayan Sami Abdulrahman. As a Jewish Black-American, I couldn’t help but identify with the Kurdish struggle for freedom and independence. After suffering from centuries of oppression by Arab, Persian, and Turkish-majority societies in the region, being displaced and betrayed time and time again, and finally suffering genocide under the rule of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Kurds have still persevered and gained the admiration of millions around the world. During the lecture, I also noticed the similarities between Iraqi-Kurdistan’s revival post-Halabja, and the struggle of the Black Panthers in the US. To this day, I continue to see examples in Kurdistan of self-reliance and self-defense that the African-American community should emulate.

Under the rule of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Kurds faced harassment by the police. Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party was essentially a party of Arab Nazism. It was anti-Semitic, upheld theories of Arabs as a superior race, oppressed the Kurdish people, discriminated against the Shiite majority, and disseminated racist literature about Persians. The Arab majority in the Iraqi police forces and military, despite sharing the Sunni religion with the Kurds (Sunnis were privileged under Saddam’s rule), murdered, beat, jailed, and otherwise humiliated Kurds at an unprecedented level. After the 1991 Gulf War, when a no-fly zone and regional autonomy were beginning to be established in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, the Kurds began to police themselves. Representative Abdulrahman shared that there was deep mistrust among the Iraqi Kurds about the institution of police, given the decades of oppression against their people. Yet, faced with the necessity of maintaining law and order amongst their region, the Kurds had no choice but to embrace a police force, and began doing it themselves. The results were successful—minimal police brutality (particularly along ethnic lines) and a safer society.

The story of police brutality is not new to me. As a young African-American man, I have received lectures since a very young age about how I am viewed differently than others by police. Like others in my community, I was lectured about how to behave should the police stop me. I have seen countless news reports, whether from the past or in modern times, about young Black people being beaten, wrongly imprisoned, or mercilessly and often needlessly murdered, by those who are supposed to “protect and serve.” I have also seen as the victims are put on trial for their own murder, rather than those who kill them.

While I had not previously heard the details of the Kurds’ brutal treatment by police in Iraq, I wasn’t surprised and could sympathize with it. Out of the ashes, though, Kurdistan became a relatively prosperous region. It fought against jihadists—and saved the world from the scourge of ISIS—with little real support from the West. It held its independence referendum, despite nearly universal outrage and opposition. It sheltered millions of refugees, often from communities that oppressed them, despite not being as rich as many Western states that turned them away. It established its own paramilitary force to defend its people, even though the Iraqi (and Syrian) armies already existed and, in theory, were supposed to protect them as well. Even though they have a narrative that consists of a lot of oppression, betrayal, slaughter, and dispersal, the Kurds have not stopped that from letting them move forward with autonomy. Kurdistan has become a relatively progressive region, and relies on itself above all else. If one examines the parallels, for example, between Syria’s majority-Kurdish Rojava region and the Black Panther Movement, they would find striking similarities in accomplishments and goals.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Panther Movement aimed to achieve many of these goals for Black Americans. When the state wouldn’t provide for impoverished and victimized Black communities, they would. When the police wouldn’t protect us from racist attacks, the Black Panthers would police our own communities—also taking care of criminals from within. They preached self-reliance, such as buying from Black-owned businesses and going to Black banks and doctors. While some of this is coming back today, our community is shattered and has embraced an endless narrative of victimhood that doesn’t serve us at all. The US government launched a campaign that ultimately destroyed the movement, and the crack epidemic of the 1980s degraded us further. The Black Panther Movement is often demonized in modern American political discourse as an “extremist” or “racist” organization. In the Arab World, the Kurdish cause is dismissed as a “Zionist plot”or the work of “Western imperialism”, ignoring the fact that the West opposes Kurdish independence. While there were certainly questionable characters in the movement (as is the case in all movements), the goals of the movement were not racist. In fact, it is racism that gave birth to the ideas of the Black Power movement and its eventual emergence. Sadly, today, there are no such revolutionary ideas. Black Lives Matter and many African-American activist groups have abandoned the ideas of self-reliance (or self-determination, along the lines of Marcus Garvey) in favor of an endless narrative of “gimme.” Why any oppressed group—particularly Black Americans—would expect the government that has oppressed them to offer repatriations for discrimination (in this case, slavery) is beyond me. It does nothing to advance our goals or achieve anything for our communities other than keeping a false hope alive, much like the Palestinian demand for a “right of return.” It makes us look weak and pathetic for pleading to a government that, now more than ever in recent times, demonstrates it couldn’t care less about us. It diverts our attention from more pressing issues, such as the Flint Water Crisis. It also feeds into the narrative often used by racists that we “can’t move on from the past” or are “beggars.”

A lot of left-wing activists in modern times try to conflate the issue of the Palestinians with the struggle for African-Americans. But there are a number of problems with these comparisons. One is that it does nothing for our cause. The Palestinians are on a sinking ship, because they have refused offers for peace to them in the past that were more than fair. If the Black community in the US were offered sovereignty—even autonomy—in part of America, would we turn it down? Moreover, the Palestinian “struggle” and narrative is often based on denying the narrative of another oppressed community and seeking to exterminate them. African-Americans have never sought to eliminate or marginalize any other group in our quest for equality and justice.

As tragic as the Palestinian situation may be for ordinary people there, much of it has been brought on by themselves and their fear of losing privilege in a region where Arabs have long dominated and oppressed indigenous minorities, including Black Africans and the Kurds. The history of the Arabs in the Levant & North Africa is one of colonialism, as is the history of Europeans in the New World. Expanding out of their Arabian Peninsula, the Arabs launched an imperial campaign that included the slave trade of Black Africans, forced conversion, the plundering of native Levantine communities such as Jews, Kurds, and Assyrians, and the oppression and subjugation of native groups to North Africa, such as the Amazigh.

The descendants of these imperialists include the modern-day Palestinians, although part of their population are also descended from migrant workers from elsewhere in the 19th Century Ottoman Empire. Morally and strategically, it makes no sense that Black Americans would identify and side with a movement and groups that, much like our own oppressors, is steeped in racism (and denial of said racism), colonialism, and slavery. It also opens up the Black Rights Movement to criticism (from bigots and others) that it is hypocritical and aligns with prejudiced groups. As this sentiment grows, we will find ourselves without allies and with our legitimate concerns dismissed.  If we are tying ourselves to the Palestinian “struggle,” we are embracing a narrative that has not only failed in bringing about Palestinian independence, but has also preached violence and racism—the very things that our heroes have fought against or died trying.

There are other reasons that we ought to look to the Kurds, rather than the Palestinians, as brothers in the same struggle. Our narratives are largely identical. We have been dispersed from our homelands (or, in the Kurdish case, parts of it). Occupiers and imperialists, who denied us self-determination, stole and exploited our lands. We have been raped, brutalized, massacred, used & abandoned for as long as our communities can remember. And yet, here we are, still pushing for our rights and fighting the good fight.

The revolution in Rojava shares many characteristics with the Black Panther Party in terms of building something by ourselves and for ourselves, while neither begging oppressors for it nor seeking to oppress other communities. The Palestinian strategy is to try and destroy another oppressed people, maintain their regional privilege as Arabs, and also perpetuate a narrative of eternal victimhood—not unlike Southern poor Whites. Poor Southern Whites may have shared a sense of being discriminated against by wealthy Whites in power, who also victimized Black Americans. Yet this didn’t stop them from trying to destroy Black America rather than joining us in the struggle against injustice from our common oppressor. In Mandatory Palestine, for example, Jews and Arabs both wanted to get the British out. Yet despite a UN proposal that would divide the land between the two communities, the Arabs launched a war of extermination and a series of pogroms.  Kurdistan, by contrast, continues to host millions of Arab refugees from the

Top: Kurdish victims of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Al-Anfal Campaign in Halabja, Iraq.
Bottom: Two African-American victims of a lynch mob in Indiana.

wars in Iraq & Syria, despite the history of bad blood between the two communities. If it sounds familiar, it’s probably because it is. Look at how Black families forgave the racist Charleston shooter for murdering their beloved.

Moving forward, we need to end the current strategy employed by too many “woke” Black activists. The strategy so far has been to demand things from the very institutions that oppress us. Instead, we need to embrace the reawakening in Black consciousness that encourages shopping at Black-owned businesses, investing in Black-owned banks, and the like. Much as the Kurds did in northern Iraq, we should be encouraging our own youth to become the police officers that patrol areas like Ferguson, Oakland, Baltimore, or Philadelphia. Body cameras, sensitivity training, and the like have a limited effect on reducing police-minority tensions or racist brutality. Instead of demanding that the government—now run by the likes of Donald Trump and his bigoted cronies—give us free college tuition as reparations for slavery, we should be sending our children to study abroad, where tuition is cheaper (or free) and where racist violence against African-Americans is often much lower. Instead of only complaining about how Black history—whether in America or beyond—is virtually ignored in school, we should be teaching our youth these things ourselves, much as the Kurds do for their children about their own historic heroes. The Black Panthers may have been exterminated in the United States, yet, as is often the case, the ideology of a group lives on. The ideas of the Black Panthers have been resurrected in Kurdistan, and can re-emerge here, if we align ourselves with the morally correct and comparable overseas struggle. Biji Kurdistan! Power to the People!

About the Author
Dmitri Shufutinsky is a graduate of Arcadia University's Masters program in International Peace & Conflict Resolution. He made aliyah to Kibbutz Erez through Garin Tzabar in 2019. Dmitri is an ardent Zionist and a supporter of indigenous rights, autonomy, solidarity, and sovereignty. He currently lives in Hadera, and is a veteran of the IDF.
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