The birth of a Kurdish minority in Iraq

The birth of a Kurdish minority in Iraq
Comment: An inconsistent British strategy in Iraq undermined any attempt at unification in Kurdistan, and their orientalist gaze saw the Kurds as ultimately incapable of claiming self-rule, writes Jean-Baptiste Begat
8 min read
31 May, 2016
The League of Nations 1920: A new theory of imperial governance was taking hold [Getty]
Massoud Barzani, president of the regional government in Kurdistan, Iraq, has announced a referendum for the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. This serves as a reminder of the extent to which it has become normal to consider Kurds in Iraq as a minority.

The League of Nations had however entrusted the political development of Mesopotamia to the United Kingdom in 1920 leading it towards independence, and the Kurds were assured on many occasions, through declarations and treaties, that their thirst for self-rule would be satiated. What then, explains their change in status from that of a people in itself to that of a minority?

Under the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were a people like any other - the Arabs, Druzes, Assyrians and Turks etc. In an empire, the notion of 'minority' had little meaning, and the main tenet of Ottoman rule - based on the confessional millets system - favoured the majority of Kurds who were Sunni.

In the mid 19th century, the waning powers of the Mesopotamian Empire in Constantinople saw increasing power grabs among local elites, to the detriment of its central rule. In response, the spirit of reform began to dominate in the 1830s, and was known as the Tanzimat period. During this time, power was centralised by nominating figures who were faithful to Constantinople in key positions of regional government in Mesopotamia, aiming to reduce the political influence of the sheikhs or tribal leaders.

A real centralisation of power ensued, empowering individuals at the expense of tribal systems. The Kurds were no exception and while Ottoman rule continued to rely on tribal clientelism to govern, the general dynamic was one of weakening local influence to the advantage of central rule.

'Indirect rule' decided by London           

In 1920, just as it was decided in San Remo that Iraq would be placed under a British mandate, a new theory of imperial governance was all the rage in the United Kingdom: "Indirect Rule". The concept - theorised by Lord Frederick Lugard in 1922 - involved colonial rule through local elites, thereby 'respecting' local cultures with the ultimate aim of incentivising local dignitaries to act for British interests.

Imbued with this spirit, British administrators used their positions as political advisers in Iraqi territory at the start of the 1920s to try and build cordial relations with the local sheikhs in order to guarantee the compliance of the tribes they ruled over. At this stage, their aim was simply to watch over Iraqi Kurdistan in the absence of any clearly defined strategy from London concerning the future of the region that was firstly laid claim to by the French, then by Kemal's Turkey until 1925.

In reality, they simply grafted the old practice of governing through clientelism on to a new, fashionable theory of imperialism

They succeeded in doing so thanks to their knowledge of Kurdish history and local dialects (Kurmaji and Gorani). But in concentrating on a comprehensive diplomatic strategy for Iraqi Kurdistan and the game of tribal clientelism advocated by Indirect Rule, without realising it British political advisors undermined the dynamic of inclusive centralisation so staunchly defended by the Tanzimat.

In reality, they simply grafted the old practice of governing through clientelism on to a new, fashionable theory of imperialism. Worse still, in granting the faithful sheiks a kind of artificial power, the British actually undermined their own initial authority with the local people, which sometimes gave rise to internal disputes over tribal leadership.

Shaped by their orientalist education, they formed a primarily tribal interpretation of politics in Iraqi Kurdistan. They were unable to recognise the legacy of the Tanzimat's western inspired policy of centralisation followed by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP also known as the Young Turks, Mustafa Kemal was one of its most influential members).

The art of local rule

Considered a standard form of rule by the British, reliance on tribal networks firstly meant that maintaining order in the region was dependent on the quality of the relations between the Kurdish sheikhs and the British political advisers. Regional administration therefore became a real 'art' in which the sensibilities of the leaders had to be accommodated and long-lasting family feuds taken into consideration.

As a result, each British administrator formed his own personal opinion based on the quality of relations with the sheikhs of the administrated territory, on what was to be done with the Kurds.

At the same time, Arab Iraq was gradually forming and London remained incapable of defining a comprehensive Kurdish policy. While opinions of British 'experts' on Iraqi Kurdistan (Cecil J. Edmonds, Wallace Lyon, Rupert Hay, E. Noel, etc.) differed, the High Commission in Baghdad - the centre of British authority in Iraq - found itself in the uncomfortable position of having no precise instructions from above, while receiving a deluge of contradictory opinions from below.

Such confusion made it difficult for the High Commission to objectively evaluate Kurdish public opinion, and so reinforced the British assumption that Iraqi Kurdistan existed in a solely cultural capacity - again reflecting the legacy of orientalist thought - that it was politically divided along tribal lines and that no credence would be paid to claims for Kurdish independence.

Yet the Kurds, according to British orientalist thinking, were fundamentally divided

Despite this, calls for independence grew louder during the first half of the 1920s, and petitions were sent to The Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations.

Similarly, Kurdish initiatives for the unification of Iraqi Kurdistan were treated very severely by the British Authority. They were either seen as a Kurdish tribe's attempt at unwarranted domination led by a megalomaniac figure, as in the case of the insurrections led by Mahmud Barzanji, or as the result of external meddling.

According to this understanding, any Kurdish nationalist movement taking up arms would actually be organised by the Turks or the Persians in order to indirectly target the British administration. The basic assumption was that as a very diverse population divided into tribes, the Kurds would not want to claim independence for themselves.

For the British, any Kurdish movement had to have been manipulated by other forces they were obliged to stand up to, in order to preserve the status quo and their interests in the region.

Through the eyes of the League of Nations

In 1925, a report by the enquiry Commission sent by the League of Nations was published. It stipulated that the northern region of Mosul (one of the three administrative regions of Iraq) would be granted to the Iraqi representative, to the detriment of Turkey. In addition, this could only happen provided that any move towards Iraqi independence would be subject to the League of Nations first ensuring the issue of Kurdish identity was respected by the Iraqi Arabs, thereby putting the United Kingdom in a delicate situation.

The fact that these measures were not accompanied by any serious Kurdish representation on the level of Iraqi politics appears to have shocked no one

On one hand, it had to accommodate a Kurdish entity that was fragmented due the policy of tribal clientelism, and therefore politically incapable of protecting its own interests before the Iraqi government in Baghdad. On the other, the Labour Party's victory in Britain meant withdrawing from Iraq as quickly as possible (the expensive mandate was very unpopular at home and Labour had promised to end it), forcing the United Kingdom in the late 1920s to take Kurdish will to protect their national sovereignty much more seriously.

The High Commission therefore commanded the Iraqi government to apply new measures, such as the establishment of Kurdish rather than Arabic as the official language in the Kurdish regions, the mandatory nomination of Kurdish-speaking administrators on the ground and even the use of Kurdish in school books. The fact that these measures were not accompanied by any serious Kurdish representation on the level of Iraqi politics appears to have shocked no one.

It is hard to say whether the administrating powers were conscious of the impacts of their policy in Iraqi Kurdistan. To begin with, they undermined any attempt at unification or political centralisation in Kurdistan, due to an orientalist gaze, incapable of crediting the Kurds with the wherewithal to fight for a shared trans-tribal political identity.

In doing so, and in a climate of total strategic quagmire, they in practice prevented the constitution of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, ignoring petitions and putting down revolts

Any attempt to do so would have - in the eyes of the British - been of western inspiration, the very same that had influenced the move towards centralisation in the Tanzimat and the 1908 revolution.

Yet the Kurds, according to British orientalist thinking, were fundamentally divided. This, it was thought, had been their character for centuries, and Indirect Rule made it possible to view this perceived division as intrinsic. In doing so, and in a climate of total strategic quagmire, they in practice prevented the constitution of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, ignoring petitions and putting down revolts.

Later, when at the end of the 1920s Iraq was heading towards independence, British administrators had to apply measures cementing Kurdish national identity in Iraq as set out by the League of Nations. In doing so, they sowed the seeds of a situation in which the Kurds had to exist in Iraq as a minority, convinced of its legally enacted cultural existence, but powerless to rule over its political future within the country.

Neither independent nor integrated, the Kurdish population in Iraq has had to live as a silent, and sometimes persecuted minority, for almost seventy years.

Jean-Baptiste Begat is a student in history at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and is currently on an exchange year at the University of Oxford. He is researching the Kurdish question in Iraq at the time of the British mandate.

This is an edited translation, originally published in French by our partners at Orient XXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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