In the summer of 2015, I had the opportunity to talk to Halo, a Kurdish peshmerga, severely maimed in the fight against the Islamic State. I asked how he felt after being so severely injured. He expressed no regrets and replied, “I would fight again for the freedom of Kurdistan if I’m released from the hospital tomorrow.”
For much of the world watching the fight from afar, Kurds have been fighting terrorism. For the Kurds, however, this has been a fight against terrorists along with the hope that this would be the latest battle in a long struggle for freedom.
Nearly two thousand peshmerga have lost their lives fighting terrorism while protecting Kurdistan and its people. Let’s not forget that the peshmerga lived long before IS. Peshmerga literally means those who face death.
The Kurdish call for independence, ironically, has met considerable opposition. The opponents of Kurdish independence point to such ‘problems’ as Kurdistan’s imperfect democracy, the breakup of Iraq, and the objections of Iraq’s neighbors. The way such problems are framed, however, overlooks the wider historical and geopolitical context of the Kurdish struggle.
Kurdish democracy is far from perfect, yet the Kurds’ experiment with democracy is unique in the Middle East.
The plurality of voices in the Kurdish political system is unparalleled in the region. Kurdistan has a variety of political parties, including leftists, liberals, conservatives, and even Islamists. Unlike other countries in the region, Turkey, for example, the opposition in Kurdistan is not jailed, banned, or exiled, but they express themselves through their own TV channels and newspapers.
Kurdish democracy is resolutely secular. While Kurdistan has integrated Islamist parties into the political process, forming an ‘Islamic’ government has absolutely no currency. Kurdish secularism is working in a region that routinely fails to separate mosque and state.
In Kurdistan, Christians and other minorities are able to live peacefully and participate in political and social life. The level of freedom and peace of mind that minorities enjoy in Kurdistan is unparalleled in the region. Since the IS onslaught, Kurdistan has hosted refugees from other parts of Iraq, and from neighboring Syria, including thousands of Christians, Yazidis, and many more Sunni Arabs.
The criticism, that Kurdistan’s independence would ‘undermine Iraq’s territorial integrity,’ ignores the fact that Iraq exists more as a cartographic construction than in reality. Iraq is already effectively partitioned. The main reason for the collapse of the Iraqi state has been the absence of a truly ‘national’ Iraqi identity, something that is unlikely to change anytime soon. A lack of commitment to an Iraqi state was precisely why the Iraqi army fled IS, despite the infusion of billions of American tax dollars.
Even the rise of IS was not the cause of the failure of the Iraqi state; it was its inevitable outcome. Those who have lived in Iraq, have traveled there, or have studied the place know that throughout much of the country there is no trace of an ‘Iraqi state.’
Far from contributing to the collapse of Iraq, the Kurds tried to forge a pluralist federal state after 2003. Alas, they could not stop the Shiite-Sunni sectarian bloodshed that tore Baghdad apart. In contrast to the chaos in Baghdad from 2003 to 2014, Kurdistan managed to build a peaceful and prosperous region, dubbed the ‘other Iraq.’ Thanks to this peace, no American soldier lost her/his life in Kurdistan.
Opponents of Kurdish independence point to the dangers of angering Iraq’s neighbors. Such an argument implicitly endorses the perpetual subjugation of millions of Kurds to the whims of neighboring powers.
For generations, the promise of Kurdish self-determination has been sacrificed to maintain a regional status quo, no matter how anti-democratic and inhumane.
The chronic weakness of Iraq has invited its neighbors to pursue expansionist geopolitical agendas that will not only destroy the advances made in Kurdistan but will destabilize the entire region. Kurdistan’s independence would critically thwart such expansionist geopolitical designs of Iraq’s neighbors.
Supporting Kurdistan’s independence means supporting the democratic movement of a nation that upholds democratic values. Kurdish independence might even compel neighboring states to expand the rights of their own Kurdish (and non-Kurdish) populations, in the process helping to turn the Middle East in the direction of peace and tolerance. It is time to support Kurdish independence.
Editing by Ava Homa
Sanan Moradi is a PhD candidate in political geography, at the University of Oregon. His research interest includes territory, nationalism, the Middle East, Kurds, and Iran.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.