Kurdish studies seem to gain momentum whenever there is an international crisis regarding the political conditions of the Kurds in the Middle East. This was the case when the Gulf War created a massive Kurdish refugee crisis in the beginning of the 1990s. The recent attacks by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on Kurdish towns have once again turned international attention on the Kurds. This makes Conflict, Democratization, and the Kurds in the Middle East both timely and relevant.
Editors David Romano and Mehmet Gurses begin by introducing the historical background of the Kurdish question in the Middle East, underlining the crucial relationship between genuine democratization and a viable solution to the Kurdish issue across Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. They argue that democratization would be incomplete without accommodating Kurdish demands in the region. The first four chapters constitute the first section, "Authoritarianism and the Kurds." In Chapter 1, Michael Gunter highlights the interdependence between the "deep state" culture in Turkey that is attached to Kemalism — the founding ideology of the republic — and the revival and evolution of pro-Kurdish political claims. Gunter defines the deep state as "a mentality concerning what Kemalist Turkey should be, namely strongly nationalist, statist, secular, and right-wing; not Islamist, multiethnic, reformist, and/or a member of the EU" (p. 33). Gunter concludes that pro-Kurdish demands would be less likely to be accommodated by Turkey unless the deep-state culture is weakened. Ozum Yesiltas, in Chapter 2, discusses the post-Ottoman state formation of Iraq under the British mandate and how it gradually evolved into a state legitimized by Arab nationalism, along with the securitization of Kurdish identity, which triggered Kurdish revolts throughout the twentieth century. In a similar narrative in Chapter 3, Gareth Stansfield provides a historical account of transformation from Qajar Iran toward a modern Iranian state through centralization and modernization projects at the turn of the nineteenth century. Stansfield then discusses Kurdish political development and the rise of Kurdish intellectualism — such as the Ismail Agha (Simko) mobilization in the early twentieth century and the formation of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in the mid-twentieth century — in relation to the dominant nationhood based on Shia Persian identity. In Chapter 4, Eva Savelsberg "focuses on the question of to what extent the Syrian Kurds or their different movements functioned as an obstacle to the democratization of the Syrian state" (p. 85). She concludes that various Kurdish groups in Syria, especially the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have been ineffectual in making a positive contribution to democratization attempts. They tend to have a Baath-style authoritarian system under the cover of Kurdish nationalism.
The second section primarily covers the literature of democracy in divided societies with comparative perspectives. In Chapter 5, T. David Mason frames democracy as an antidote to ethnic violence and civil war, discussing the characteristics of Iraqi and Turkish democracies in relation to pro-Kurdish political claim-making. Mason provides an insightful discussion of how different institutional designs of democracies — presidential versus parliamentary systems and various electoral schemes — might be more appropriate in ethnically contentious democracies. Chapter 6, by John A. Booth, turns attention to the role of indigenous communal groups in the democratization process of Latin America after the 1970s, concluding with potential implications for the Kurdish territories of the Middle East. In Chapter 7, Nicole Watts focuses on the internal dimensions of democratization in Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and articulates the party-state culture and patron-client nature of the Kurdistan government as obstacles to further democratization. Watts also emphasizes the positive role of ordinary citizens, as during the Halabja protests in 2006 and the Sulaimaniya protests in 2011, in democratizing the KRG.
The third section of the book, "The Kurds and Democratization," begins with Gunes Murat Tezcur's realist perspective on the prospects of peace negotiations between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Turkish state. In his empirical analysis of violence, reform and negotiation, Tezcur argues that "the negotiations are not effective in bridging the gap between the demands of the insurgents and the expectations of the Turkish state" (p. 171). Tezcur concludes that a negotiated settlement would only be more likely if Kurdish nationalists were given access to executive power in Turkey. In Chapter 9, David Romano analyzes the characteristics of the 2005 Iraqi constitution with an emphasis on its federal nature. As the formation of the new constitution was the grounds for political competition among Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and the Kurds, Romano argues that "most Sunni Arabs initially failed to recognize the extent to which they shared Kurdish interests in a federal, democratic, and highly decentralized post-Saddam Iraq" (p. 191). In Chapter 10, Nader Entessar argues that "Kurdish demands for greater cultural and sociopolitical space will have a spillover effect into the larger Iranian society and will help the country establish a transparent and democratic political system that is responsive to the needs of all of its constituent elements" (p. 212). Chapter 11, by Robert Lowe, critically examines the emergence of Rojava (Western Kurdistan) in Syria after the 2000s. Lowe argues that the PYD-controlled Rojava is unlikely to give up the practices of autonomy, even after the Syrian civil war ends.
In the final section of the book, regional dimensions of the Kurdish question are discussed. In Chapter 12, Mehmet Gurses states that the existing civil-war literature neglects the transborder aspect of domestic ethnic conflicts, which inherently changes the balance of power between an ethnic group and a government. Overall, Gurses demonstrates "how the unfolding of events in Turkey's southeastern border in northern Iraq has provided incentives to address the demands from Turkey's Kurdish minority" (p. 251). In the last chapter, Ofra Bengio evaluates the regional foreign policies of Baghdad, Erbil and Ankara and how their relations have changed in the last decade or so.
In conclusion, this edited work follows a linear narrative on the rise of modern Kurdish nationalism across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey: all of these states were simply built on exclusionary nationhoods, which automatically triggered a reactionary Kurdish identity. Although this narrative is partially correct, it is mostly taken for granted in the sense that the existing literature lacks critical discussion and more nuanced explanations. This linear narrative tends to homogenize Kurds across borders as a single, unified and collective group; it fails to explain the emergence of separate and fragmented Kurdish movements across borders. Yet, comparative perspectives of the chapters and their historically rich accounts across the four countries are the strongest aspect of this volume. I strongly recommend the book, not only for those who study Kurds but also for those who study the Middle East in general. Still, a critical reading of the book as a whole can contribute to the scholarly progress of Kurdish Studies and the understanding of ethnic mobilization in general.