An Independent Kurdistan in the Middle East and Tamil autonomy in Sri Lanka

Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas on an armed patrol in the countryside of Makhmur. Makhmur, Erbil Governorate, Iraq, March 3, 2015. Image courtesy:

Fundamentalist movements in Sri Lanka and Turkey are the unsophisticated responses to the cultural disarray in their respective countries. Infuriated, they attempt to evade the chaos by sentimentally seeking an unreal utopian future.

by Lionel Bopage and Michael Colin Cooke

A comment one of my LinkedIn friends had made on one of my posts led to the following write up, which would be useful for wider reference.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic group without their own state. Since becoming a republic in 1923 to this day, Turkey has supressed the cultural, linguistics and economic rights of the Kurds. Instead of meeting their just demands it has imposed a military solution.The Turkish government regardless of their political hue continue to conduct ground and air operations against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) that is outlawed by the state. Turkish drones hit ordinary Kurdish civilians including internally displaced people living in camps across the region. Turkey justifies such acts and other military incursions under the pretext of fighting the PKK, which it deems as a terrorist organisation.

This situation is analogous to Sri Lanka since independence in 1948, where there has been a push through constitutional and military means to ensure the country was a unitary state, ignoring its history and rich multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural heritage.

The post-independence Sri Lanka saw the disenfranchisement of Malaiyaha (Plantation) Tamils, the Official Language Act of 1956 making Sinhala the official language of the state, communal riots, a pogrom, and constitutional provisions giving prominence to Sinhala language and Buddhism. All these climaxed in a twenty-five-year civil war.

Background for emergence of fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is "a religion of rage." As Pope Francis declared, fundamentalism is a sickness that is prevalent in all religions and is always a tragedy. It strikes at the heart of the common good, because it prevents people from growing as individuals contributing to the welfare of others. However, fundamentalism is not limited to religion as evidenced by what is happening in Sri Lanka in Asia and the Kurdish regions in the Middle East.

Nationalist protagonists advocating fundamentalism destroy each other with no room for compromise or co-existence. Nationalistic tendencies become predominant during the periods of radical socio-cultural and economic change. Such change subjects a society as a whole and its constituent communities to traumatic stress. They will look for quick explanations for their trauma and easy ways to wriggle out of their desperate situations. Such change is perceived as destroying personal values and cultural identities that are historically treasured and respected, and cause mass anxiety, feelings of panic and exasperation in the affected communities.

This provides a fertile environment for putting forward what appears to be straightforward and naive solutions, most often proffered by certain populist, fundamentalist and demagogic leaders. 

Desperation drive communities who feel their ethnic, linguistic, religious or cultural identities being tampered with to become outraged. In the fear of losing their identity they resort to simplistic to dangerous risk taking, moving away from using ballots to using bullets and bombs. Those who dare to question them become renegades, traitors, and enemies of the State that need to be eliminated, as they become opponents of the absolute truth those fundamentalists advocate.In the process, some get annihilated.

Kurdish history

Historians generally agree that Kurds were a part and parcel of the Iranian segment of the large family of Indo-European races. Sometime in the B.C. era, Medes, who were the equivalent of Kurds, had an empire whose reign extended over Assyria, Iran and part of Anatolia, but ended towards the end of 6th century B.C. For some time after, the fate of Kurds remained associated with other communities of the Iranian empire. Ultimately the Kurds became integrated with Islam, yet resisted Arabisation, as they were culturally and linguistically different.Later on, a Kurdish lord built an independent principality of Kurdistan that extended to four Kurdish principalities.

However, when the Ottomans conquered Iran and part of Iraq, they annexed the Kurdish principalities and created a Turkish province. Later, recognising the distinctiveness of the Kurdish cultureand languages, they named it Kurdistan. With the disappearance of the Kurdish dynasty, the most famous Kurd in history Saladin (Salah al-Din), and his descendants took over the leadership of the Muslim world for about a century. Saladin was a prominent figure in Muslim, Arab, Turkish and Kurdish culture.

Saladin’s empire incorporated Syria, Egypt and Yemen, and almost the whole of Kurdistan. The Nestorian church with metropolitan centre in Kurdistan, spread across Tibet, Sinkiang, Mongolia and Sumatra.In the latter part of the 15th century, Kurdish land took the form of an autonomous entity, united by its language, culture and civilization, but administratively existed as a series of separate principalities. Yet the aspiration for a single Kurdistan remained. In the 16th century the Kurdish land was contested by boththe Ottoman and Persian empires, and the Shah of Persia wanted to impose Sufism as the state religion. The Ottomans resisted, but they still wanted to conquer the ‘Arab land’. So, the Kurds could not remain an independent entity.

Ayyubid expansion 1174-1193

When the Ottomans defeated the Persians, the Kurdish leaders committed to guard the border to prevent Persian invasions on condition that Ottomans would recognise the previous Kurdish rights. This allowed Kurdistan’s peaceful existence for nearly three centuries. The Ottomans controlled some strategic strongholds on the Kurdish territory, and Kurdish lords and princes governed the rest. At the turn of the 19th century, Kurds were virtually independent, but split into a series of principalities. This period was the golden age of Kurdish literary, musical, historical and philosophical creation.

Capitalism, the promise, and the betrayal

With the onslaught of capitalism and its nation-state concept, there were calls for the Kurdish principalities to unite to create their own unifiedKurdistan state. Interfering in their affairs, the Ottoman Empire tried to bring an end to Kurdish autonomy. Wars for the unification and independence of Kurdistan marked the first part of the 19th century. The European powers helped the Ottoman Empire in its fight against the Kurds. All sporadic and regional revolts were harshly quelled andthe last independent Kurdish principality collapsed. The Turkish elite became pan-Turkish and were in favour of creating a Turkish empire extending from the Balkans to Central Asia.

The First World War fragmented the Kurdish society without a collective plan for the future. In 1915, France and Britain wanted to dismember Kurdish land and the Kurds were against it. Some demanded cultural and administrative autonomy within the framework of the Ottoman Empire. Others, inspired by the French Revolution and, President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, fought for the total independence of Kurdistan. When the Allied Powers of WW1 defeated the Ottoman Empire, a Kurdish nation was advocated for and the international community became more aware of the Kurdish national question. An International Treatysigned on August 10, 1920 recommended the creation of a Kurdish state.

Fighters sharing smile
However, the Kurdish internal political dynamics – with some against the spread of Christianity and others for a state of Turks and Kurds – prevented this from happening. An alliance of Turkish nationalists and Kurdish leaders wanted to liberate occupied Anatolia and the sultan-caliph from the occupying imperial powers. With the open support of the Soviet Union, and the discreet support of France and Italy, Turkish leader Mustafa Kamâl Atatürk promised a Muslim state of Turks and Kurds. Even after the victory over the Greeks in 1922, Turkish nationalists advocated a Muslim state of Turks and Kurds. But what they really wanted was to establish a Sunni Muslim state with other communities playing a secondary role. And so, Kurds were tobe assimilated. In 1923, a new treaty was signed which did not respect Kurdish rights. A major part of Kurdistan was forcibly incorporated into the new Turkish state.

Earlier in 1921, France had already annexed some Kurdish provinces incorporating them into Syria. IranianKurdistan was in conflict with the Persian regime. The Turks and the British both claimed the Kurdish province of Mosul, despite the inhabitant Kurdsbeing in favour of an independent Kurdish state. The Iraqis, on the other hand, claimed they would not survive without the agricultural and petroleum wealth of that province. In 1924, all Kurdish schools, associations and publications were banned and speaking Kurdish was made a criminal offence. The following year, Britain annexed the Kurdish territories and incorporated them into Iraq, despite promising to set up an autonomous Kurdish government. Neither the British, nor the Iraqis kept that promise. That is how at the end of 1925, the land of the Kurdish people that was known as Kurdistan since the 12th century, became divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Kurdish and Turkish nationalisms

What Jawaharlal Nehru wrote while he was held in prison (as quoted in Chaliand D 1993, A People Without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan, p.54, Zed Books Ltd, London) is relevant here: “the Turks, who had only recently had to fight for their own independence, crushed the Kurds, who were seeking theirs. How strange, that a defensive nationalism should turn into an aggressive one, and a fight for freedom becomes one for dominion over others.”

This was the situation in the Middle East with the Turkish leader Kamâl and the Kurdish leader Sheikh Said leading their own nationalist struggles. Despite the Turkish allegations that the Kurds were agents of colonialism, the core of the whole conflict was nationalism that was emanating under capitalist path of development. The primary goal of both their movements was national independence. Both sides had Muslims and used religious slogans in the conflict, and they were not fighting for an Islamic caliphate, but for the liberation aspirations of the Turkish and Kurdish peoples.
When the Kurdish land was annexed or conquered previously by warlords and empires, they kept to themselves certain economic, political and military advantages and privileges.The conquerors did not prevent the Kurdish people from enjoying their cultural identity or deter practicing their faith. They did not attempt to destroy the Kurdish personality or to cut an entire race off their ancient cultural roots. But the division of the land of the Kurdish people between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, deprived them of even the cultural autonomy that they had previously enjoyed.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was founded in 1978 under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan. An armed uprising was launched in 1984 and continued till 2013 with the PKK declaring a ceasefire. The human and economic cost of the uprising was colossal. The PKK is still active and controls parts of the mountainous region of northern Iraq bordering Turkey and Iran. Öcalan was forced to leave Syria in 1998 and American agents captured him while in Kenya and handed him over to Turkey. Though he was sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Map and Flag of Kurdistan

But the current emphasis of the PKK on grassroots democracy, ecology, and a harmonious multi-ethnic and multi-religious society with women extraordinarily empowered needs the attention of all progressive thinking people of the world.

There are some striking similarities in the Tamil – Sinhala conflict that are hard to ignore. In Sri Lanka, the democratic formations of the Tamil people were seeking a peaceful solution to their issues within the parliamentary setup. But they were met with legislative and constitutional changes that further reduced their rights that reinforced their secondary status in the land of their birth. The result has been a long-drawn-out ethnic conflict, human rights abuses, war and wartime excess, lack of accountability and the hollowing out of democratic institutions which continue to the present day.


As elsewhere in the globe, capitalism brought nationalism and nation-state to the fore. Yet capitalism is encountering new barriers to the path of development due to its intrinsic characteristics. In response, ruling elites have resorted to creating more and more fundamentalist currents of nationalism based on ethnicity, religion, language and culture. This is evident in Africa, China,Europe,Middle East, Russia,South Asia, UK and the USA, including Sri Lanka. 

Fundamentalist movements in Sri Lanka and Turkey are the unsophisticated responses to the cultural disarray in their respective countries. Infuriated, they attempt to evade the chaos by sentimentally seeking an unreal utopian future. Regrettably, they and their institutions become out of touch with the realities of a changing world and narrow-mindedly disparage those who reject to follow them.

The Turkish regime has committed many atrocity crimes by invading Kurdistan and killing the Kurds. Previously the Turkish state could get away with their military incursions under the pretext of fighting terrorism. However, such Turkish invasions of the Kurdish region in Afrin and Serekaniye in Western Kurdistan, and the mass displacement of thousands of people are increasingly condemned by the international community, the Kurdish diaspora and non-Kurds. Turkey needs to be held accountable for its past and current criminal actions against Kurds. Otherwise, Turkey will continue to commit international crimes against Kurdsunhindered by guilt or remorse.

Silence emboldens tyranny. We have a moral imperative to act when we see, read and hear a wrong, unjust or barbaric act has been committed. Social media abounds with video footages of Turkish state atrocities against Kurdish fighters and civilians. These videos show the brutality of the state and its defenders carrying out extrajudicial killings, torture of civilians, and desecration of graves. This tragedy goes back to the formation of the modern Turkish state. Only the terminology being used has now changed from killing “mountain Turks” (an old reference to Kurds) to fighting PKK terrorists.
With the colonisation of the Middle East, Turkish nationalists initially wanted to build a multicultural, multiracial and multinational society in Turkey. Now they have gone to the extreme of wanting to build a uniform nation, not a unified nation. We need to do our best to raise awareness of the injustices committed to many thousands of Kurds in pursuit of this goal.

In Sri Lanka there is a long-term goal to build a uniform homogenised nation on the basis of Sinhala Buddhism. One could draw a comparison with the Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil Hindus first leading a unified face in their appeals for national liberation from British colonial yoke. When the British colonialists bequeathed independence on a platter to their pro-British ruling elite in Ceylon, the pro-colonial Sinhala elites driven by their own separatist and conniving nationalist ego pushed the pro-colonial Tamil elites aside, bringing Sri Lanka to the devastated situation it is in today.

The ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant contraction of our fragile economy have highlighted the need to change our past economic and political trajectory to create a new political and economic climate that is more inclusive and fairer. We must build a society whose bedrock should be based on social justice and harmony!

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