By Chia N. Mustafa
Chia N. Mustafa ’09 attends Harvard College and is a Government concentrator living in Kirkland House.
As I learned it growing up in Kurdistan, the myth of the creation of the Kurdish people goes something like this: long ago there lived an evil Assyrian king named Dehaq, cursed with two giant man-eating snakes extending from his shoulders. The snakes grew and slowly took control of the old king’s mind. To sustain the snakes, the king ordered that human brains be mixed into a stew and fed to them everyday. As the snakes began to demand ever more food, the king sacrificed ever more of his subjects. One of the palace guard sabotaged the king’s plan to slaughter innocents by mixing sheep’s brains into the vile stew and saving half the people who would otherwise have been slaughtered. These survivors were sent to the far eastern corner of the kingdom, where they lived in the mountains and became the mythic founders of the Kurdish nation.
On their inadequate diet of sheep’s brains, the snakes grew weaker. The king soon uncovered the deceit of his guard, who was promptly killed and fed to the snakes. After weeks of welcoming new arrivals to their refuge in the mountains, the Kurds noticed that something was amiss when the stream of visitors and exiles stopped. Even though they now thrived, they could never forget the terror of King Dehaq and constantly thought of those who were still suffering in their homeland.
One day, a brave blacksmith called Kawe decided to stand up and fight the tyranny of the evil king. Arming himself with the finest blade in his masonry, Kawe led a revolution. After breaking into the castle, he confronted the king and killed one of the snakes, forcing the last snake to devour the king and itself in an act of cowardly surrender. After the king was dead, Kawe climbed the great mountain near the castle and lit a great flame on the summit to signal to the people that they were now free. Across the land, people followed Kawe and lit their own fires in the hope that the smoke from their flames would rid the land of the smell of Dehaq’s evil deeds. That night, on Kawe’s mountain, the Kurdish people were born.
The true origins of the Kurdish people are somewhat different from the beautiful myth I was told as a child. In Mehrdad T. Izady’s essay, The Origin of the Kurds, he outlines the complexity of the Kurdish ethnic history: “the Kurds are the end-product of numerous layers of cultural and genetic material superimposed over thousands of years of internal migrations, immigrations, cultural innovations and importations.” As Izady points out, numerous studies in Kurdish genetics have already linked the Kurds to Georgians, Jews, Armenians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, and European peoples. While all these links may be the result of centuries of inter-continental wars and migrations, the Kurds trace their roots back much further than any of the aforementioned groups to an ancient people know as the Halaf.
The Halaf people settled in the region of modern Kurdistan approximately 8500 years ago in 6500 BCE. Archeological research has uncovered evidence of their technologies, lifestyle and culture. The Halaf civilization was displaced by the Ubadians in 5300 BCE and then the Hurrians in 4300 BCE. Little is known about the Ubadians and their influences upon the evolution of the Kurds, but the Hurrians left a lasting influence on Kurdish culture and history. Many of the most prominent modern Kurdish tribes such as the Talabani, the Barzani, the Jelali, and the Mardin all trace their tribal identity, names, and history to Hurrian tribes that lived in the region. In addition, the origins of the Yezidi Kurds – a small secretive religious sect – trace their religious practices back to those of the Hurrian people.
By 2000 BCE, the Hurrian civilization began to decline. Waves of Indo-European tribes conquered, or traveled across, modern Kurdistan in its wake. The Hitties, Mittanis, Armenians, Persians, Scythians, Sarmathians, and Sagarthians all migrated and settled in the region, and by 300 BCE the ethnic Hurrians had been completely Aryanized through intermarriage and rape. In fact, the Kurds inherited their modern name from the Akkadian term “Kurtei”, a word historically used to refer to the tribes living in the Zargos Mountains.
Today, Kurds are in a far more precarious situation than any of their ancestors were. Approximately twenty-five million Kurds live in their historical homeland, which has since been divided between Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq.
Numbering almost 35 million worldwide, the Kurds are the largest national population without a homeland. Modern Kurdish history is littered with examples of national struggles for independence, almost all of which have failed miserably and been met with brutal retribution by the occupying states. Somehow, despite the oppression of the Kurdish people, the international community has remained silent—most likely because it fears offending Arab allies that currently occupy Kurdish land.
As a result, the Kurds have often viewed themselves as the victims of constantly changing international policies and foreign interests, none of which have coincided with their own. I have never been able to understand how in a modern world built on international ideals of self-determination, freedom, and human rights such a large, cohesive, and historic people can be denied their right of national recognition. Why the plight of the Kurds goes almost unmentioned on our campus—let alone on the international stage—I will never understand. While the entire Kurdish population is subjugated in the national interests of its corrupted neighbors, the world is silent.
There is no legitimate reason why the Kurdish people should not enjoy the right to self-determination. Under the Ottoman Empire the Kurds controlled the three major principalities of Baban, Soran, and Botan. The Baban province alone stretched from the Zab River to Sirwan and existed for over a century in relative peace and prosperity. In one of Britain’s many postwar blunders, it divided the Kurdish provinces between its Arab allies as war spoils after defeating the Ottoman Empire.
A united Kurdish national state would benefit both the Middle East and the West. I advise the skeptical to consider the cultural and ethnic homogeneity of Kurdish areas, the past successes of Kurdish autonomy, and the present-day success of Kurdish northern Iraq—my home and birthplace.
Unlike most of the countries in the region, a Kurdish state would encompass a highly homogenous population that is unlikely to be destabilized by religious or racial infighting. It would most likely be a moderate, democratic, secular, pro-western country in a region that is often fanatical, oppressive, and violent.
Consider Iraqi Kurdistan. It is situated in the Northeastern corner of Iraq and encompasses about 80,000 square kilometers and a population of around five million people, ninety-six percent of whom are Kurds. Unlike most disputed regions in the world, there are no ethnic, linguistic, religious or cultural divides between its people. In 1991, in reaction to Saddam Hussein’s chemical gassing of Kurdish villages, the U.N. established the area as a safe-haven for Kurds. It has been governed with full autonomy at the local and provincial levels ever since.
The Kurdish Regional Government was originally drawn from two independent Kurdish parties: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democrat Party (KDP). Since 1991, these two groups have independently governed Iraqi Kurdistan in complete isolation due to the Clinton Embargo on Iraq. In 2003, the two groups united to form the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and have successfully transformed the region from a third-world country into a pro-western, secular, capitalist democracy.
While the KRG still faces many challenges in dealing with internal corruption and violence, it has achieved remarkable levels of economic growth and development that have set it apart from most of the region. Kurds take great pride in their semi-state, which is a model of progress in a region that has been plagued with backwardness and autocracy. To many, the sheer success of the Kurdish micro-experiment in Northern Iraq is enough to justify full national recognition and support.
It is all too often argued—with condemnable political expediency—that support for a Kurdish state would hurt American interests by upsetting America’s relations with its Arab allies. Well, I say, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, so here is an expedient argument of my own: America could make huge profits from its support for a Kurdish state because modern Kurdistan rests on some of the world’s largest oil reserves, many of which have not yet been tapped. So far, only the oil fields in the Diyala province near Kirkuk have been monopolized, but the region appears to be rich in oil throughout. If this oil is utilized correctly, and not mismanaged by the inefficient Iraqi bureaucracy that governs it today, America could gain handsomely.
And oil is not the only commodity available in large quantities in Kurdistan; Northern Iraq is rich in natural gas, uranium, plutonium, coal, marble and water. An established Kurdish state could provide the Western world with the perfect opportunity to secure alternate routes for oil and natural gas pipelines, decreasing the influence of countries like Russia in the natural gas industry, and organizations, like OPEC, in the oil industry. Within the next couple of years, three new oil pipelines will be built in Kurdistan, with two running through Turkey and one through Azerbaijan and Armenia. These new infrastructure projects could secure a stable source of income for Kurdish people and create alternate trade routes for the Western world.
A Kurdish state can also provide many military, political, and social benefits to its western allies. These benefits become most evident when one looks at the number of U.S. soldiers who have been stationed within Kurdistan since 2003. In a report on 60 Minutes, Bob Simon observes that while Iraqi Kurdistan is the safest and most stable region of Iraq today, there are currently only forty U.S. soldiers stationed in Kurdistan and their presence is a mere formality. Unlike other Middle Eastern states—apart from Israel—Kurdistan could become an entryway for Westerners who wish to gain a foothold in the Middle East. Because of its location, a friendly Kurdish state could also offset America’s loss of any strategic assets offered by Turkey and other nearby Arab countries.
At the same time, a pro-western, secular, democratic Kurdish state could act as a buffer state or counter-force to regional aggressors such as Iran and Syria. If the Kurds take up an active role against regional terrorism (a fight in which they have already been quite active and successful) they would have the ability to cut off funding and smuggling to groups like Hezbollah, the Taliban, and Al Qaida. Kurdistan could be one of the greatest assets to the West. It shares many of the same traditional enemies and has never been hesitant to combat their aggression.
Aside from these tangible benefits, the ideological and psychological benefits of an independent Kurdish state would be equally meaningful. Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the few places in the Muslim world where Jews and Christians can travel freely and safely. During a recent controversy, the Sunni and Shia blocks of Iraq objected to the closeness and peacefulness of Kurdish-Israeli relations. In response, Massoud Barzani of the KRG came out in strong defense of amiable Kurdish-Israeli relations. His sentiments were echoed in a recent poll in the city of Sulaymaniyah (among the biggest cities in Kurdistan and my birthplace), which reported that over seventy percent of Kurds believe strongly that the two nations should increase relations.
Kurds should be encouraged to create a successful, modern, moderate Muslim country with a liberal government. Recent polls in Iran claim that approximately seventy-five percent of Iranians support stronger ties with the West. A strong, liberal Kurdistan could encourage the rise of moderate factions in neighboring countries.
The more one examines the Kurdish question, the clearer the case for an independent Kurdistan becomes. Based on the strides Kurds have made to build a modern economy, a democratic government, and a liberal civil society in spite of the damage they have experienced while fighting for independence, it is clear to me that the question of a Kurdish state should not be one of if, but one of when. Kurds have remained united and resolute in their push for national recognition. Their mission is so positively aligned with the ideals and interests of the West that the dearth of vocal Western support for their cause is perplexing. The West cannot afford to stand by and lose the opportunity to support a nation that so deserves and needs support. I only hope the West learns from its historical missteps in the region and takes care to put the right foot forward this time, before it is too late.
 Izady, Mehrdad T. “Exploring Kurdish Origins.” Kurdish Life 7 (1993).
 Simon, Bob. “The Other Iraq,” 60 Minutes, CBS News, 18 Feb. 2007.