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May 13, 2004

The Kurdish "difference"?

Randall Parker has an excellent post up about the growing tension between Kurds and Arabs. Randall has been arguing for a partition of Iraq, and I am sympathetic to that idea. One point to note is that of the dozens of Arab nations, only a few like Jordan or Morocco are making moves toward genuine democratic liberalism, while the one Kurdish polity happens to be semi-democratic and partially liberal. What is it about "Arab culture" that makes it so prone to authoritarianism, as compared to other Muslim peoples like the Turks, Senagalese or Malaysians, who have, like the Kurds, made some steps toward establishing liberal democratic traditions?

I don't know the answer to that, but one thing to note is all the evidence I have seen does not indicate a great genetic difference between the Kurds and the Arab Iraqis. Additionally, it is likely that the Persians of western Iran cluster with the Kurds and peoples of Iraq & the Levant, while those of easern Iran are affinal to those of Afghanistan and central Asia, indicating that the connection between ancestry and ethnic identity can be quite loose in southwest Asia (see Journey of Man). Finally, there is also a connection between Turks and Kurds (as well as Iraqis in general). Needless to say, there is a great deal of genetic diversity between various "Arab" cultures, from Oman, to Syria to Morocco.

Who are the Kurds in any case? Their language(s) (there are several dialects from what I know) are related to Persian and the other Iranian tongues. While the Persian ethnic group has its origin in the Fars region of southwest Iran, the Kurds occupy the ancient homeland of the Medes, who in alliance with the Babylonians and Lydians overthrew the Assyrian empire. Therefore, I think it plausible that the Kurds are the lineal descendents of the Medes. While other groups came and went in the lowlands of Mesopatamia, the mountains to the north preserved the ethnic identity of the highland peoples over thousands of years (though intermarriage and movement in and out of the mountains over the generations blended their genetic heritage with that of their neigbhors). The Kurds are mostly Muslims, but traditionally there have been Jews, Christians and Yezidis (and deep into the Ottoman period, pagans).

So anyway, why aren't they as preoccupied with "big men" as the Arabs in recent years? Well, the two major parties in the Kurdish autonomous regions are not particular liberal, with Marxist inclinations. Abdullah Ocalan might have been the perfect candidate for a "big man" if a Kurdish polity in southeast Turkey ever came about. But in general Kurds do not seem to figure large in history, aside from Saladin and their role in the genocide/massacre of the Armenians during World War I. Perhaps this is part of it...they have no "glorious golden age" to hark back to. A fractured people who could never be brought together because of their isolation in their mountain valleys, it seems possible that a centralized dictatorship might have been impossible in the mountains of Kurdistan, though the same could be said of Afghanistan, and we know how faction has promoted liberalism in those parts.

There probably isn't a magic exiler, and there must be a combination of things that are difficult to enumerate or discern. But it is curious that Iran, Turkey, the Kurdish region of Iraq, have mading halting steps toward democracy in the Muslim Middle East, while Arab nations like Jordan or Kuwait are going slower because they fear the rise of fundamentalism and extremism. If Islam was the gift of the Arabs to mankind, perhaps the vision of the early caliphate with its "pure" Islam is the curse of the Arabs. A significant portion of the electorate in Turkey seems to favor some sort of liberal democracy, and even the Islamist minority now advocates a democratic path. In Iran, the electorate is unsatisfied with a mullahocracy, though I suspect that they have not quite become Englishmen in the shadows of Mt. Damavand. Change comes from below, and though it seems likely that "Iraqi democracy" is not a good bet, Kurdish democracy might pay off....

Posted by razib at 09:09 PM