Ayesha Kazmi is a specialist in UK anti-terrorism policy at London-based Cageprisoners. She has written for The Guardian and for the American Civil Liberties Union Privacy Matters site. She blogs at AmericanPaki. Follow her on Twitter @AyeshaKazmi.
2011 marked the shift many Middle East observers had been anticipating. Since their formation, nations stretching between the Maghreb and beyond the Levant have endured decades of authoritarian rule. Mohamed Bouazizi’s self immolation within the last year in Tunisia was the ground breaking spark producing an unprecedented defiance to the status quo and has since made revolutionary language requisite to discourse all over the Muslim world – a much needed air of refreshing change.
As protesters demanded fair elections, freedom of speech and expression, and an end to emergency laws, police brutality, and corruption, the world watched the Arab Spring unfold with exhilaration as the Middle East began the process of reinventing itself. Irrespective of the incompleteness of the Egyptian revolution, the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime has symbolised a transformation for Egyptian self determination, and with it an opportunity for the Egyptian people to demand accountability from their Israeli neighbours with regards to Palestine.
While subsequent revolutions have provided a necessary breach to inspect the crises plaguing the Muslim World, critically bringing the Palestinian question to the forefront, there remains a harrowing gap in the conversation with regards to the Kurdish question.
Almost 100 years since the failure of the Treaty of Sevres to allocate a Kurdistan for the Kurdish peoples, the absolute silence from the world, particularly the Muslim world, with regards to the treatment of ethnic Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and, most notably, Turkey, is bewildering.
Since, 30 million Kurds in the Kurdish region of the Middle East have been subjected to invasive military incursions and restrictions assaulting basic rights of movement due to international borders between the Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian states, speaking their native language, and even expressing their culture. Kurdish activists, academics, and journalists are frequently imprisoned, tortured or killed.
Most repressive toward its Kurdish population is Turkey where the largest region of Kurdistan lies, approximately 15 million Kurds reside, and yet the constitution makes no recognition nor provides any protection to this rather substantial minority. Instead, Kurds have been turned into second class citizens barred from using their own language and suffering discrimination of the worst kind in the public space and complete economic disenfranchisement, resulting in criminalisation of the worst kind equating resistance with terrorism. Under the guise of this terrorism threat, the Turkish state has built up an extensive military complex with an arsenal that includes F-16 jets and its most recent addition, predator drones.
In a public meeting hosted by Hywel Williams MP at the British Parliament in London, the co-chair of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Selahattin Demirtash, clarified that the standpoint of the Turkish/EU/US designated terrorist organisation, Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), is that violence is unlikely to resolve the Kurdish question. Demirtash further elucidated Kurdish demands stating that the Turkish state must recognise the Kurdish identity by also legalising the use of the language, provide Turkey’s Kurds the right to democratic autonomy in the Kurdish regions including the right to politically organise. These are hardly revolutionary demands.
Audience members of Kurdish origin expressed frustration over attempts to lobby the British Parliament and the failure of MPs to take up the cause. Others criticised Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic reform government alleging it was as nationalistic and authoritarian as previous secular governments.
Certainly within the Muslim world, Erdogan’s government has been received as the moderate peace negotiator given its recent shifting relationship with Israel, its position on Gaza, and Ankara’s criticisms of Syria’s brutal crackdown on recent democratic protests. Yet the Muslim world’s virtual non-recognition of the Kurdish crisis is remarkably incongruous with its persistent position on the deadly nature of western military expansion in the region – particularly with regards to Palestine.
Given Muslim concern for Muslim life, also taking into account that Kurds make up a significant part of the Sunni majority in the Muslim world, why is it that certain victims of military aggression in the Middle East are more noteworthy than others? The Muslim world’s non-recognition of the Kurdish crisis is tinged with a dark underbelly of criminalisation that has bred an exceptional hostility consenting to the systemic racism and violence targeting of ethnic Kurds – most recently in the Roboski massacre when the Turkish Air Force flew F-16’s into a Kurdish village and killed 35, including children as young as 12.
Perhaps Noam Chomsky’s analysis of worthy versus unworthy victims elucidates it best. “A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy,” states Chomsky. In this case, the existential threat posed by western expansion, including Zionism, into the Muslim world, and the victims that western military incursions produce, are the worthy victims, whereas Kurds, who are the victims at the hands of their very own people, will be treated as unworthy.
Full scale acceptance by the Muslim world of the brutality aimed at Kurds is disquieting. Given that the four main states that house the Middle East’s Kurdish population are also the very states that explicitly reject Zionist expansionism and Israeli treatment of Palestinians is even more baffling. The Middle East is in the midst of a brand new era in which their crises are propelling their way to the surface. Let us hope for a real genuine revolution for all peoples – in which the will, self determination, and democratic representation for all is given equal priority and an even more equal fight.