At first glance, there might seem to be little geopolitical similarity between the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan and the Kurdistan Region. However, on the important issue of identity formation, the two share some significant and striking similarities.
In both countries, ethnic identity largely influences politics, making this an important issue worthy of study. In East Asia, as in the Levant, nations are roughly divided according to ethnicity, tribe, or some similar expression of the concept of Jus Sanguinus, or right of blood. This is contrary to the practice in the United States, Canada, and other Western nations around the world where nationalism is expressed more as a set of common values.
While many Kurds like to trace their heritage back millennia, the modern Kurdish identity, or Kurdayeti, is heavily influenced by the nation building that took place following the fall of the Persian and Ottoman empires and the division of the region into nation states roughly delineated along ethnic lines. As the Arabs, Persians, and Turks obtained their lands following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the geopolitical gerrymandering that ensued after World War I, the Kurds were left out. Today, their territory is divided by the borders separating Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
In Taiwan, the concept of Taiwanese ethnic identity as separate from Chinese began to emerge during the Japanese Colonial Period (1895-1945) and only grew after the Republic of China took over the island in 1949. During the White Terror period, the political expression of this distinct identity was met with harsh reprisals. But under the surface, society continued to become more ethnicized. The end of the Martial Law era imposed under the regime of Chiang Kai-shek unleashed the population and freed them to embrace their Taiwanese identity openly, and further democratization allowed for the opening of a new channel in which to express and explore that identity in the political realm.
Moreover, under the KMT regime – and, indeed, in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, which seeks to rule over Taiwan – the Taiwanese ethnicity did not exist per se, as the Taiwanese people were merely a sub-group of Han Chinese, indistinguishable from their counterparts on the mainland. Under the Ottoman and Persian empires, as under Zhongnanhai today, ethnicity was a tool of psychological and sociological control.
Kurds, like the Taiwanese, are acutely aware that they are not just outsiders, but outsiders under constant threat of being subsumed by the tyranny of the majority. Kurdish history is replete with reminders of this dynamic, not the least of which is the Anfal Genocide, the most infamous incident whereKurds in the Kurdistan Region city of Halabja were gassed, a crime perpetrated by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. Even today, Iran and Turkey are collaborating on a joint strategy aimed at neutralizing the Kurds, according to Arif Qurbany, a writer from Kirkuk.
In Qurbany’s words, the Kurdish nation “has been well ahead of the Turkish and Arab nations in terms of society, customs, behavior, respect for human values, equality and tolerance of other religions.” This is evidenced by Erbil’s banning of forced marriages and female genital mutilation, restrictions placed on polygamy, and amendments made to the Iraqi Personal Status Law that resulted in a marked decline in honor killings.
According to a report in The Hill, the Kurdistan Regional Government has been largely successful in its efforts to protect members of the nation’s Christian, Jewish, and Yezidi minorities from persecution—groups that widely suffer from ethnic-based violence elsewhere in Iraq, and the region as a whole. More recently, speaking on the periphery of an event to mark the International Day for Eliminating Violence Against Women, the Head of the European Union’s Liaison Office in Erbil, Clarisse Pásztory, remarked on Nov. 25, 2018, that the Kurdistan Region “has a great reputation of inclusivity”in all aspects of society, ranging from ethnicity to religion.
Taiwan is likewise ahead of its regional neighbors in terms of respect for human rights and institution of legislation and practices predicated upon such concepts as gender equality, freedom of speech, and respect for human rights. While the recent plebiscite on same-sex marriage failed to pass in Taiwan, the very fact that Taiwan society is having this public debate puts the nation at the forefront in Asia on this progressive issue.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that both Taiwan and the Kurdistan Region make for natural allies of the West in that they share a degree of classical liberal values, primary among which are the advances made toward freedom as evidenced by their respective periods of democratization in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It would be beneficial to see ties between these two nations, separated by geography, grow and flourish as well.
Dr. Dean Karalekas is a Canadian researcher specializing in Asia-Pacific security, identity, and civil-military relations.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany