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Scrutinizing the Kurdish referendum

It was really significant that the coffin of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was wrapped with the national flag of Kurdistan rather than Iraq during his funeral. We are witnessing a virtual divorce between the Kurds in northern Iraq and all Arabs. Even if this divorce is neither final nor official yet, it is a psychological divorce, the reality of which cannot be diluted by polite and tactful words.
With a psychological divorce like the one we see today in Iraq, Arabic and Islamic names such as Jalal, Masoud, Mustafa, Salaheddin and Ahmad are fast disappearing, replaced by Kurdish names like Kamran, Dilshad and Showan.
It is thus highly unlikely that a friendship between neighbors will be maintained, as friendships require trust. The Kurdish leadership does not trust the Arabs anymore, and many Arabs no longer view the Kurds as partner in destiny, history and geography.
No one should blame Iraq’s Kurds for their negative attitude, given their suffering under Saddam Hussein’s authoritarianism and Nouri Al-Maliki’s sectarian subservience to Iran. But it would be unfair for the Kurds to regard their long association with their fellow Iraqis as an unequal relationship, whereby the Arabs discriminated against them and sought to marginalize and even obliterate the Kurds’ national identity.

Geography dictates that peoples of the world cannot choose their neighbors, but they can choose to make them friends or enemies.

Eyad Abu Shakra


It is true that there are factional trends throughout the Arab world, but they are not really different from what is prevalent in similar societies. In many cases they are religious or sectarian, but mostly they are tribal and clannish. It is noteworthy that besides periods of extremist chauvinism, Arabs had no problem living under a Kurdish prime minister or provincial governor.
For that matter, they never minded living under a Turkmen, Circassian or Bosnian prime minister or governor. Before the Ottoman Turks ruled the Middle East for four centuries, the region lived for centuries under the Kurdish Ayyubi dynasty and the Turkic, Mogul and Circassian Memlukes, yet there are no records of Arabs mistreating Kurds simply because they were Kurds.
Later, during the periods of the British Mandate and independence, I — the son of a father who lived with and befriended Kurds for years — know of no specific anti-Kurdish discrimination.
In post-1920 Iraq and in previous periods, the Kurds lived almost like every other Iraqi community. From their ranks rose prominent figures, such as Jalal Baban, Jamal Baban, Gen. Bakr Sidqi, Musleheddin Naqshbandi and Ahmad Mukhtar Baban, Iraq’s last prime minister before the republican revolution of 1958.
All the above are facts, and any Arab not inclined to delusions and self-loathing must realize the dangers faced by the region, and indeed beyond, if we see what is happening in the West. The concept of the nation-state is relatively recent, as are national boundaries.
Germany, the leading country in central and Western Europe, did not develop its national identity until the 19th century. Before that, the Wars of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), following the death of King Charles II without an heir, set in motion great political developments and redrew the map of Western Europe.
A big problem with our dangerously unstable world lies in trying to agree on definitions, as there is disagreement on defining political terms and interests. After Brexit, Europe is no longer the embodiment of the dream of great pioneers such as Robert Schuman, Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer and Paul-Henri Spaak. Europe now needs to redefine itself as an idea, a political term. The national unity of its entities is no longer a forgone conclusion.
Scotland is now waiting for a rise in world oil prices, Catalonia is trying to avoid economic boycott, and other dreamers pursuing secessionist projects are diligently working out their feasibility amid the struggle between expansive globalization and reclusive racism.
US President Donald Trump is keen to build a wall along the border with Mexico in order to separate the two nations and prevent immigration from the south, while insisting that the Mexicans pay for it. He also wants to “stop exporting” American jobs to Mexico, in the hope that the US maintains its economic wellbeing and industrial base. This will make Mexico’s poor even poorer, and more insistent on immigrating despite the wall.
But north of the US, Canada’s young Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is happy to head a record-breaking ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse Cabinet, one that he says “looks like Canada.” After his appointment of a Lebanese Canadian as chief science adviser, the opposition’s left-leaning New Democratic Party elected a young lawyer of Indian Sikh origin as its leader.
It is this real world that the Kurds need to recognize before they reach the point of no return against the principles of friendship and good neighborliness. Geography dictates that peoples of the world cannot choose their neighbors, but they can choose to make them friends or enemies.
Furthermore, millions or tens of millions do not automatically qualify any group for independence. Otherwise, why is Uttar Pradesh (with a population of more than 204 million) a state in India just like Manipur, which is inhabited by only 3 million people?
Turkey and Iran oppose the referendum of Iraq’s Kurds, relying on their size, influence and exploitation of current interests in international affairs. The same applies to Spain, which opposes the Catalan referendum. The US would not be the power it is today had it accepted the secession of the southern confederate states.
In politics, proper calculations are a must, and they should take into account not only internal wishes but also external conditions. It is vital to appreciate the dangers of bad timing and double-standards, and also changes of governments and shifts in alliances.

• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article is also published. Twitter: @eyad1949