Chapter 5 Theory in Practice case studies

New Waves of Theorizing in Global Politics


Kurdistan and the claim to be established

If we put anthropological ideas about cultural relativism alongside political ideas about national self-determination, popular sovereignty, and identity politics, and stir it all in a pot with geopolitical and geostrategic affairs, we arrive at the Kurds. They are certainly not the only example of what Byman and King (2012) call ‘phantom states’, but they are one of the most well-known. They constitute a distinct ethnic and cultural group, and though theorists might disagree on whether “recognition of an authentic Kurdish identity is problematic sociologically” (Kuzu 2016), the people themselves are pretty clear, and have been fighting for autonomy for quite a while.
This in itself is an interesting field, of how people with disparate identities can inhabit the same ethno-cultural grouping. Another question arises about representation, which might illuminate the regular splitting of Kurdish parties.
A region called ‘Land of the Kurds’, or Kurdistan, has been around for a very long time. Its origins are both hazy and matters of dispute, with claims stretching back to late antiquity. The geographical area changed hands regularly between Rome and Persia. By the turn of the first millennium AD the name is clear, although the area is divided among several sub-groups. Kurdistan is one of those places, like Afghanistan, which have occupied territory near the boundaries of great empires, consequently suffering regular changes of hand and artificial divisions.
More recently the Kurds were recognized after WWI and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when much of the region was divided among the Allies as League of Nations Mandates. Then, in one of the most important outbreaks of the new nationalism, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (“Father of the Turks”) occupied the area in the name of the Turkish nation. This was an example of “ethnic and cultural identities [translating] into politics” (Kuzu 2016), a phenomenon which Kuzu argues is not ‘inevitable’. The situation with the Kurds provides a counter-example.
As the Age of Empires passed, overwashed by the simple elegance of the nationalist ideal that every nation should have ‘its’ state, Kurdistan was again divided. This time the lines were disputed among states, which owed their existence to the Mandates. The Kurds didn’t fit. Currently “Kurdistan” is a region but not a state, occupying parts of five such nation-states: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Armenia. Each enclave has its own identity, and often political representation. In Iraq, they have an officially autonomous region comprising four provinces.
Is this racist? Culturalist? Many who comment on the Middle East (or West Asia) emphasize the importance of religion. The Kurds comprise diverse religions, languages, and lineages as do a number of other entities in the region, including states.
It would seem, then, that Kurdistan has as good a claim to be an established state as any of the other states in the region whose borders also follow the Mandate lines. The question of Kurdish identity has featured as a persistent geopolitical and geostrategic issue precisely because of this tension between ideal principles and state interests.

Byman, D. and C. King (2012). “The Mystery of Phantom States.” Washington Quarterly 35(3): 43-57.

Kuzu, D. (2016). “The politics of identity, recognition and multiculturalism: the Kurds in Turkey.” Nations and Nationalism 22(1): 123-142.

Kuzu, D. (2016). “The politics of identity, recognition and multiculturalism: theKurds inTurkey.” Nations and Nationalism 22(1): 123-142.

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