In mainstream policy analyses, Kurds feature as victims of the post-World War I international order, a nation without a state, who were excluded from the Wilsonian moment by geopolitical compromises. Too often commentators frame Kurdish politics as a series of futile political struggles, failures to gain self-determination or communal rights, and overwhelmed by hostile nation-states, divided territories and antagonistic ethno-nationalisms. Facing these obstacles, this passive understanding of Kurds leaves them with little option other than to navigate the shape-shifting regional politics and ebbs and clashes among global powers by making strategic alliances, only to see them repeatedly abandoned by those determined to preserve the state system.
While this grand narrative strives to summarize the main contours at a macro-level, it renders various Kurdish movements and people passive bystanders. This issue of Middle East Report aims to explore the concrete social struggles that actualize Kurdistan in relation to a rich history, intersectional demands and the shifting political terrain of the twenty-first century. It captures a wide array of political engagements from the perspectives of agents as they deal with various domestic constituents, nation-states, political ideas and global politics. These include revival of cultural memory, negotiation of identity politics, implementation of securitization projects and articulating transnational cosmopolitan imaginaries.
In a very real sense, today’s Kurdish politics in all its valences are a microcosm of Middle East politics as a whole. The ever-contested socio-political space of Kurdistan reveals the promises and limits of both desiring and undoing the modern nation-state framework in the region. The porous nature of the borders that cut through Kurdistan, regularly defied by communal memories and political imaginaries, as well as by the everyday practices of its residents, demonstrates the limitations on the will and ability of these border regimes to fully regulate the people. At the same time, the extent of violence that is often unleashed upon the movements and practices that challenge the political status quo is a testament to how far the regimes in Baghdad, Tehran, Ankara and Damascus will go to prevent transgression.
Widespread and central demands for accountability, fair distribution of resources and meaningful avenues for participation in governance that are mostly shared by Kurdish political movements are both compatible and resonate with parallel demands of numerous peoples and movements throughout the region. Hence, the Rojava project now includes Arab Syrians, while Turkey’s HDP brings together urban leftists, feminists, LGBTQ activists and Kurdish nationalists under a single coalition. Meanwhile, Kurdish nationalists in Iran have joined forces with labor and broad-based reformist movements in common cause to achieve common aims. Nevertheless, internal rifts and contradictions also demonstrate the multiplicity of ideologies and motivations at play within a Kurdistan whose political divides have only become more apparent by the creation of newly autonomous Kurdish polities in both Iraq and Syria, the former exhibiting first a de facto independence following the Anglo-American no-fly zone imposed in 1991 and then a de jure autonomy in the wake of Iraq’s 2003 reset and the latter characterized by de facto autonomy in northern Syria’s Rojava.
The level of political complexity and societal fluidity exhibited by the plethora of political engagements in today’s Kurdistan provides a glimpse into possible alternative ways of imagining nationhood, popular sovereignty and transnational politics. The destruction and wreckage that continues to rummage this space, on the other hand, reveals the high price of realizing these alternatives. The stakes in grappling with the multiplicity of ways in which Kurds mobilize themselves and forge solidarity and alliances with others has only increased in the past dozen years.
[The editors of Middle East Report 295, “Kurdistan, One and Many,” are Ayҫa Alemdaroğlu, Elif Babül, Arang Keshavarzian and Nabil Al-Tikriti.]