In the early 1990s, Bernard Lewis published an article entitled “Rethinking the Middle East” in Foreign Affairs. Echoing a common, yet simplistic claim, Lewis contended that many states in the region are simply artificial Western creations. He also predicted, among the most likely future scenarios, that the Middle East would have collapsed “into a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions and parties.”
To what extent have these predictions turned into self-fulfilling prophecies? The answer, from the perspective of three decades later, is open to debate. What is certain, however, is that especially since the beginning of this century, the remodeling of the “greater Middle East” – that is the division of large states into small and mostly homogeneous entities incapable of posing any mutual threat – has been advocated by a number of influential think tanks in Washington, including Project for the New American Century (PNAC).
Among the twenty-five political figures who signed PNAC’s founding statement of principles in 1997, ten went on to serve in the administration of former US President George W. Bush. Some of them – including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz – were charged with highly influential positions that had direct repercussions on key-aspects pertaining to the region. The then President expressed his support for the remodeling of the “greater Middle East” also in his State of the Union speech on January 20, 2004.
It is virtually impossible to assess if and, in case, to which extent the arguments promoted by PNAC’s members and others have effectively impacted both policy-makers and the development of the contemporary Middle East. What is certain, however, is that a growing number of academic and journalistic publications are describing the region as inherently divided and “splintered by sects and tribes”.
In these works, the whole area appears as a distant and somehow obscure and artificial arena, in which local people are influenced by ancestral “tribal” and religious cleavages, and live “in a system based on opposition”. Peace, noted McGill Professor Philip Carl Salzman, “is not possible in the Middle East because values and goals [“kinship”] other than peace are more important to Middle Easterners.”
The sense of a largely “artificial” region, characterized by “sealed off” minorities (or “mosaic of minorities”), ancestral cleavages and historical discontinuities, has become widespread to the extent that the word stability often continues to be paired with concepts such as division, partition or “natural borders” (that is the adjustment of border features to mirror ethnic or religious differences).
Yet, the perception of an inherently segmented and violent “Islamic Middle East” is largely a-historical. The region has always been characterized by a sum of particularisms. While hybrid identities have been the norm for centuries, the “segmented identities” that are currently emerging represent, to a large extent, one of the side effects of the ongoing processes of homogenization.
How do the referendum of September 25, 2017 and the political situation in Rojava fit into all this? They fit in as much as new “sealed-off” Kurdish entities would represent a step toward “Shiitestan” and “Sunnistan” in Iraq. More generally, they would provide an additional boost to the homogenization of the region, increasing its divisions, vulnerability and dependence from external actors.
This appears even more cogent if considering that, for instance, an independent Kurdish State, established on the areas – in Northern Iraq – subject to the September 25th referendum, would have encompassed a number of highly mixed areas, in which fluid identities have been the norm for much of pre-modern and modern history.
Yet, among local people different senses of identities (connected to religious, local, transnational, land and family-related aspects) have coexisted for millennia, without any contradiction between them. It was for instance a quite “average” Kurdish woman, Asemath Barzani (1590–1670), who was the first known female rabbi in history: her “Jewishness” did not prevent her from experiencing and living other identitary dimensions. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Abd al-Karīm Qāsim (1914-63), just to name a more recent and prominent example, was the son of an Iraqi Sunni man of Arab descent and of a Shiite woman of Kurdish origins (still today about one fifth of Kurds are Shiite). These were overlapping and fluid identities and features that, until a relatively recent past, continued to prosper within cultural and social milieux deprived of almost any geographical frontier.
The future’s past
Kurdish claims, increasingly used by Washington and its allies to push back against Iran’s Shiite allies in Baghdad and Damascus, have been massively influenced by the collapse of the Iraqi Kurdistan oil economy and by the impact of the refugee population (30% percent of the population in Iraqi Kurdistan is now composed by refugees). In other words, when being increasingly deprived of social security networks by their local institutions, Kurds have turned increasingly inward (toward, first of all, their families) looking for solutions and protection.
Yet, these considerations should not prevent us from acknowledging that identity politics is a recipe for disaster and that its side effects are already spreading (also) in the areas subject to the September referendum. These include voter fraud, land theft, and the deposing of democratically elected Assyrian officials and their replacement with unelected party-appointed KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) personnel. Turkmens – who formed the majority group within Kirkuk city until the 1940s, before demographic shifts occurred as Kurds migrated from the surrounding villages to work in the city – reported intimidation and attacks on their party both before and after the referendum, and are now more united and confrontational than ever. Christians, Yazidis and other ethnic and/or religious groups, particularly in Sinjar and the Nineveh Plan, experienced similar treatment and fates. Violations of human rights and the disregard of basic democratic practices are well documented also in Rojava, the Kurdish-held enclaves in Northern Syria.
In the coming years, the Iraqi (and Syrian) context – like the broader region in general, and the Kurdish context in particular – will likely experience a growing number of these kinds of violations and a further strengthening of rigid ethnic and religious identities. Proxy interests fostered by external powers and actors will likely accelerate these processes and the ongoing fragmentation of ancient plural identities. In order to counter these trends, it is necessary once again to look back to history, providing context to a number of ongoing phenomena.
In the case of Iraq, looking back to history enables external and internal observers to understand why only a consensual Iraqi federation, with a new and more inclusive executive power sharing and representative arrangements, will be able to spare the Iraqi people a new season of hatred – characterized by proxy-interests and wars.
Those observing the region from the outside often have the tendency, paraphrasing Amílcar Cabral’s words at the Conference of Dār Es-Salām in 1963, to believe “that it was they who brought us into history: today we show that this is not so. They made us leave history, our history, to follow them, right at the back, to follow the progress of their history”. Despite easy impressions, millions of human beings in Iraq and neighboring countries are acting or speaking driven by this very same spirit. It is time for scholars and policy-makers to pay closer attention to their voices, sustaining the growing efforts that they are making in order to get back into their own histories.