Kurds and Statelessness

Kurdish peshmerga--literally "those who face death"--standing guard at Shenarwe Mountain

Kurdish peshmerga–literally “those who face death”–standing guard at Shenarwe Mountain

Last week one of my academic heroes, James C. Scott, came to Duke to give two talks. The first was a lunchtime discussion of his recent book, Two Cheers for Anarchism. The second was a lecture elaborating on The Art of Not Being Governed. We have discussed the argument of the latter book here before. To oversimplify quite a bit, Scott says that the upland peoples of Southeast Asia consciously evaded the intrusion of lowland governments into their lives.

Scott recognizes that his argument applies outside of Asia as well, but does not delve into specifics. My favorite example of this is the Kurdish people, who are located in the mountainous region of northern Iraq, southern Turkey, northeastern Syria, and northwestern Iran. As Scott would say, they are at the periphery of several states and the center of none. It is also an increasingly strategic region, and Kurds find themselves in a position to shape the balance of power:

After decades of persecution and genocide, the Kurds have found a way to operate in a neighborhood where clear-cut borders can often be more of a nuisance than a boon. Loosely promised a state by the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, the Kurdish people have learned the hard way that maps don’t necessarily dictate facts on the ground, as any observer of Mideast history and politics can attest. “Though the Kurds are said to be the world’s largest stateless people,” writes Time contributor Pelin Turgut, “Kurdish leaders … say they are no longer interested in a single Kurdish state but in a loose federation that spans various national borders.” Rather than waiting for Mideast leaders or the international community to make a deal for a state, the Kurds seem to be playing a regional game of “Let’s Make A Deal.”

With the recent call for a ceasefire by PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, Kurdish-Turkish relations appear to be improving. This is an important transition since until now Kurdish leaders have been closer to Baghdad than Ankara. Bashar al-Assad has recently increased Kurdish autonomy as he seeks their support in Syria’s civil war. To take an optimistic view, this stateless people may soon find themselves playing kingmaker in the region.

See also: The Kurdish Factor” by Matthieu Akins

Politics of Beards: Post-Mubarak Egypt Edition

An Egyptian protestor compares Hosni Mubarak (right) with Mohammed Morsi (left). The poster's caption reads "Mohammed Morsi Mubarak".

An Egyptian protestor compares Hosni Mubarak (right) with Mohammed Morsi (left). The poster’s caption reads “Mohammed Morsi Mubarak”.

In Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood members generally tend to go with the full but well-groomed beard and moustache. However Salafists – the ultraconservative fundamentalist Muslims – like to let their beards grow long and wild, often leaving their upper lip clean-shaven as a nod to how the Prophet Mohammed wore his own beard 1,400 years ago.

Some within the Salafist camp take things an extra step and dye their beards with henna, producing a range of colours from maroon to bright pumpkin orange.

In a post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt, beards have made a big comeback. For years, beards were frowned upon as symbolic of the Islamist movements that Mubarak considered a threat to his reign. Government employees, ranging from police officers to EgyptAir pilots, were forbidden from growing a beard.

But now, civil servants across the country are are calling for the ban to be lifted. Suddenly wearing a beard in Egypt has become an issue of civil rights and freedom of expression.

From the BBC. You may also like our discussion of facial hair norms among Syrian rebels from back in December.

Thoughts (and links) on the Turkish Election

Topline: Erdoğan will now become Turkey’s longest serving prime minister as his Justice and Development Party (AK) achieves its third consecutive general election victory.

Foreign policy: From The Guardian,

The AKP will face a rocky third term. Analysts predict a dangerously overheating economy, and Turkey’s “zero-problem” foreign policy is being challenged by regional uprisings such as that in neighbouring Syria, long an ally of AKP-ruled Turkey.

I would just point out that Turkey’s “no problems” foreign policy has been challenged almost since its inception by politicians and pundits in the US and Europe. We will probably see even less attention given to EU accession now.

The challenge with regard to Syria is two-fold. First, Assad’s government–which has recently been warming to Ankara–will likely turn cold toward Turkey (last week Erdoğan called the Syrian government’s behavior toward protestors “savagery”). Second, Turkey now has a refugee problem on its hands akin to the one Syria was experiencing with Iraqi refugees. One difference is that these refugees could further destabilize things in the poor, Kurdish-populated south.

Turkey’s domestic politics: I found it interesting that within hours of counting the votes, the AKP-favoring Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman was already remarking on the possibility of a new constitution, which Erdoğan promised on the campaign trail without getting into specifics. Here’s the second paragraph of the Zaman article:

The AK Party won 49.9 percent of the vote, up 4 percent from the last elections, but this translates into 326 seats in Parliament, meaning it will be more than 40 seats short of the two-thirds majority needed to amend the country’s constitution unilaterally and about four seats short of the 330 seats needed to refer a Constitutional reform to a public vote.

This is a higher percentage for the AKP than they got in 2007 (46.6 percent), which was considered a landslide at the time and likely gave Erdoğan and Davutoğlu the confidence they needed to start implementing their current policies, including “zero problems.” It won’t be hard to get the votes needed in parliament for the constitutional referendum, and that fact that the AKP can’t amend the constitution entirely on its own doesn’t strike me as particularly bad for the country’s future.

For more detailed results and a basic visualization by region, see here.