Kurds as Liberals

Thank You.

This will be my last post for the Washington Monthly. I want to thank Kevin Drum for taking interest in my trip to Iraqi Kurdistan and offering me a forum to discuss some of the issues it has raised. I also want to thank the readers of this blog, whose comments and e-mails preserve me from the feeling that when I write I’m merely dating myself.

KURDS AS LIBERALS….In Halabja we ended our work March 3rd, having interviewed three hundred patients about their experiences of the chemical weapons attacks in 1988. We have yet to do a statistical analysis, but my sense from an initial glance is that we may have underestimated the extent to which psychiatric and physical ailments continue to plague the community.

One final excursion took me to a region called Howraman, which towers amongst the mountains bordering Iran. In her travels through Kurdistan in 2002, Christiane Bird, the author of A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts, was unable to visit the area. This is because until 2003 the mountains were occupied by the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam, which consisted of Kurdish, Arab, and Afghan radicals, and the region was cut off from the secular Kurdish government in Sulaimania. Despite this the Howramis have a reputation amongst Kurds for cleverness, and after the American air force and Kurdish peshmerga pushed the terrorists out, many people returned to their villages to rebuild. Howramis are talented in medicine, and I am told there are more doctors in Tarwela, a small town we visited during our drive, than in much-larger Halabja. The region is also a visual feast, with small towns built into the sides of mountains, terraced hillsides that turn bright green even in early March, and deep gorges where springs support the growth of pomegranate and walnut trees.

What relevance does Howraman have for Americans? In his recent essay titled “After Neoconservatism,” Francis Fukuyama takes issue with the notion that Americans can “‘impose’ democracy on a country that doesn’t want it.” Instead he defines democracy promotion as “a long-term and opportunistic process that has to await the gradual ripening of political and economic conditions to be effective.” Sensible enough, but I am surprised that Fukuyama finds no place in his seven pages to discuss Kurdistan. One thing that impresses me during my visit to Howraman is that it is an example of US policy actually working in the region. Unlike other parts of Iraq, the Kurds in Howraman were not fundamentalist by inclination, and a limited action by the American and Kurdish governments was able to restore their land and rid the area of terrorism. This is important specifically because it is not the case in most of Iraq, and yet it draws little attention in the West.

After two months in Kurdistan I am convinced that what applied to Howraman in 2003 can apply to the Kurdish region in general. The people here have many problems ? a meddling and opaque government being one of them ? but they also have many of the core qualities neccessary for liberalism to take root. Most importantly, they are not chauvinists. There is no theory of Islamic or Kurdish exceptionalism that is spread through the media or popular culture; on the contrary there is a great curiosity about outsiders and a desire to form personal and professional links with visitors. There is also the widespread expectation that the government must answer to the people and that delays to improve civic society represent genuine failures of leadership.

There is an argument pursued by some in the United States that Iraq consists only of factions, not citizens. This is true enough for much of the country, but in this argument the Kurds are inevitably presented as no more than the faction obsessed with seizing Kirkuk. The fact that they have built a university system, allowed a free press, begun to embrace feminism, and held successful elections makes no impression on proponents of this thinking. The Kurds’ eagerness to work with UN agencies, NGOs, and private investors also leaves them cold. And the fact that the Kurds have done all of this while upholding minority rights and inviting displaced Arabs to settle in their territory, even after suffering a genocide conducted by an Arab government, produces only an icy shrug.

This thinking, which often masquerades as realism, is no less petty than claiming that Lebanese are responding only to clan politics, or that Ukrainians are motivated only by their phobia and hatred of Russians. In each of these instances there is an element of truth ? the Kurds do want Kirkuk, the Lebanese are fractured, the Ukrainians do fear the Russians ? but to reduce these groups only to their visceral motivations is to lie and do so cynically.

The future of Kurdistan is all the more important because of America’s inability to stabilize Iraq. The people I am living amongst, whose friends and family members are fighting alongside American troops, wonder what will happen after a US withdrawal. The signs are not reassuring: Iranian meddling in Iraq’s south is already a reality, and Ibrahim Jafari’s recent visit to Turkey created panic that a deal is in the works to curtail Kurdish autonomy after America draws down its forces. What is certainly clear is that the Kurds face hostile neighbors on all sides, and the failure of American policy in Baghdad runs the risk of leaving them at the mercy of governments with no interest in their welfare and development.

As difficult as this situation is, America could easily consolidate liberalism’s gains in Kurdistan, and in all likelihood it could do so without further violence. The most important thing we could do is simply keep Turkey and Iran out. In the longer run we could facilitate the democratic transition by working with nascent Kurdish institutions ? the universities, the press, the courts ? to ensure their relative independence from the political parties. This would be a greater challenge than merely preventing foreign interference, but a walk through Sulaimania would convince most visitors that even minimal investments in the region have made a positive difference.

Most importantly liberals in America should understand that to toss Kurdistan out the window alongside the rest of Iraq would be to waste a prescious opportunity, as well as to disgrace any notion of internationalism within our party. Kurdistan is not yet a full member of the free world, but you will not find a people more favorably inclined to America and its aspirations. That’s worth remembering the next time you go to vote.

Jonathan Dworkin, a medical student in his final year at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan from January to March of 2006. Other posts in this series:

March 5: Kurds as Liberals
February 18: In The Pediatrics Hospital
February 5: Halabja
January 25: Kurds and Jews
January 18: At Home in the New Kurdistan
January 14: City of Refugees
January 11: First Impressions

Jonathan Dworkin

Jonathan Dworkin Dworkin is an infectious diseases doctor. He’s the author of the first medical study to investigate the long-term social impact of chemical weapons on the people of Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan. His more recent work has focused on typhoid fever in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimania. He has written several articles on Kurdish culture, Kurdish politics, and relations with America.