The Kurds, who are often referred to as the world's "largest stateless" nation, have rebelled numerous times in the past century against repressive and assimilationist policies in four key Middle Eastern states: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Broken promises and a series of failed attempts for better status have given rise to a widely quoted expression: "Kurds have no friends but the mountains," the Kurdish rugged homeland that has historically served as a refuge against persecution. Kurds have proven to be resilient. As Robert W. Olson, to whom this volume is dedicated, aptly stated in his The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheik Said Rebellion, the Kurds are not people "without history" but rather a nation with a "denied history."
Today, Kurds are enjoying a political resurgence, due in part to the monumental changes taking place in countries in which they make up a sizable minority. The Kurds in Iraq, who gained official recognition in the 2005 constitution, have not only solidified their gains of the 1990s; they have emerged as a key player in the new Iraq. The onset of civil war in Syria in 2011 and the ensuing events, particularly the rise of the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS and ISIL), have brought the Kurdish Democratic Union party (PYD) to the forefront of regional and global politics. In Turkey, despite the ongoing conflict and a bleak prospect for peace, the Kurdish Peoples' Democratic party (HDP) has proven to be a significant player in Turkish politics.
This volume, edited by Michael M. Gunter, a veteran scholar of Kurdish politics, in honor of one of the most notable scholars of Kurdish studies, is hence a welcome addition to the literature on the Kurdish people and their century-long struggle for recognition. The volume, as the title suggests, is a compilation of several essays dealing with the multifaceted Kurdish question.
It starts with a brief yet helpful chapter by Michael B. Bishku. While Chapter 1 does not directly examine the Kurdish question, it is nonetheless a nice addition to the volume, in that it offers a comparative analysis of state- and nation-building processes in Turkey and Tunisia, two Muslim-majority countries that have managed to transform their societies, albeit in quite different ways. Vera Eccarius-Kelly, in Chapter 3, draws attention to the significance of the Kurdish struggle and the recent victory in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. She elaborates on the role the battle there played in generating long-sought recognition abroad and unity among the Kurdish diaspora in Europe.
In Chapter 4, Nader Entessar provides a useful summary of the promises and limits of the principle of self-determination. Despite its moral and psychological appeal, he points out the contingent and contextual nature of this principle, which has resulted in the refusal of the United Nations to equate this doctrine with the right of secession. Entessar concludes with two main mechanisms to reduce conflict between the Kurds and the central governments of Turkey, Iran and Iraq. These are the establishment of genuine federal structures and the introduction of a proportional-representation electoral process that may not necessarily require a federal system. However, as he aptly warns, these changes not only require constitutional restructuring; they also are likely to be shaped by both domestic and international politics.
Cengiz Gunes offers an excellent account of the origins, rise and evolution of the Kurdish national movement in Turkey. This chapter is complemented by Joost Jongerden's Chapter 6, tackling the transformation the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Turkey has experienced since its inception in 1978. Jongerden offers an elaborate account of the PKK, arguably the most important secular insurgent political movement in the Middle East. In responding to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ideology it represented, the PKK managed to reexamine its position vis-à-vis its earlier demands and formulated a new, grassroots-based understanding of the right of self-determination.
In Chapter 7, Till F. Paasche, Mohammed M.A. Ahmed and Gunter shift gears toward the role Kurds could play in combating the Islamic State. The authors outline key states (e.g., the Syrian and Iraqi central governments and Turkey) and nonstate actors, most notably the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and the PYD of Syria. Drawing attention to the need to acknowledge that both Iraq and Syria have become failed states and to doubts about the ability and willingness of Sunni "moderate" forces to effectively fight IS, they conclude with two key observations. First, despite Turkey's opposition to the PYD on the grounds that it is simply an extension of the PKK, and the unsubstantiated claims of the PYD's oppression in Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan, the PYD appears to be the most reliable and effective force to fight Islamic radicalism. Second, the authors draw attention to the KRG's fairly longstanding and reliable partnership with the United States, arguing for a decentralized Iraq that could bring back the now-marginalized Sunni Arabs to the political process. The Kurds, the authors contend, can moderate such a restructuring of Iraq.
David Romano and Rikar Hussein examine the complicated history Kurds have had with the United States (Chapter 8). While the authors rightly highlight the American priorities of stability in the region and good relations with Turkey as key obstacles to establishing a relationship with the Kurds, they also draw attention to the deepening relations over time, due partly to the collapse of the state system in Iraq and the rise of IS.
In Chapter 9, in line with the argument advanced by Paasche et al. in Chapter 7 (that Kurds could help "salvage" Iraq and Syria), Michel Rubin points to the key role the Kurdish political movement can play in democratizing Turkey by serving as "the single check-and-balance" against Erdogan's plans to consolidate his grip on power.
Kamal Soleimani in Chapter 11, drawing on a number of articles written by Kurdish intellectuals or about the Kurds in the late nineteenth century, makes a strong case for the primordial existence of the Kurds as a distinct nation. Soleimani underscores the significance of the timing of these efforts; they coincided with the first Kurdish revolt that had a clear nationalist tone, the Sheikh Ubeydullah Revolt of the 1880s. Soleimani also notes that religion was not necessarily a deterrent factor for the rise of Kurdish ethnonationalist consciousness.
In Chapter 12, Jordi Tejel offers a theoretically rich and insightful look at majority-minority relations. Arguing for the need to examine them from a broader perspective that can better capture the dynamic relations minority groups have with the state, he reaches two important conclusions. The Kurds in Syria and Iraq do not necessarily face a choice between accommodation and resistance. Instead, they have historically engaged in a constant negotiation process to guarantee their individual and collective rights in the context of federalism and decentralization of the political system. Tejel concludes that commitment to the principle of federalism will largely be shaped by the willingness of central governments or majority groups to implement legal arrangements.
The volume ends with a chapter by Abbas Vali in which the author, drawing on his extensive knowledge of Kurds in Iran, sheds some important light on this relatively less-known Kurdish community. Finally, reflecting the increasing demand for Kurdish studies and the fact that a significant number are conducted in languages other than English, Hamit Bozarslan presents Chapter 2 in French, on which I am not able to comment.
To conclude, despite Eva Savelsberg's critique of the PYD in Syria (Chapter 10), the overall picture from this volume as well as other recent works points to a rather constructive role the Kurds could play in bringing about peace and democracy in war-torn Syria and Iraq and help stabilize and consolidate Turkish democracy. Overall, this book has much to offer to a wide audience interested in the Middle East and the Kurds.