Similarity and separation: Kurdistan to Catalonia

Similarity and separation: Kurdistan to Catalonia
Comment: Separatist movements in Iraq and Spain are paying the price for dreams of independence, writes Sam Hamad.
7 min read
04 Oct, 2017
Both Spanish and Iraqi governments say the referendums are stirring up trouble through divisive nationalism[AFP]
Following the continuing upheavals of the Arab Spring, and their global ramifications, it's no coincidence that two of the most recent and visible political struggles have been for national self-determination, in Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan

Both are ethno-linguistically distinct regions of centralised, increasingly anti-democratic and malfeasant states, and both have acted through peaceful and democratic means.

The prevailing narrative by the Spanish and Iraqi governments for both situations is that Catalans and Kurds respectively are stirring up trouble through "divisive nationalism", but the reality is that both these quests for separatism are determined more by the endemic problems of centralised states, namely Spain and Iraq, than some regression to tribalism. 

Though the Iraqi constitution stopped short of providing a means for secession, it allowed for other regions to create their own devolved executives, in the same manner as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). 

This was of course progressive in spirit, but the sectarian regime of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shia Islamist Islamic Dawa Party immediately sought not simply to curtail such autonomy in particularly Sunni regions, but to socially and economically alienate them through "de-Baathification" and other sectarian measures.

When the Arab Spring washed across the region, Sunnis protested peacefully demanding both integration into Iraqi society and more regional autonomy - Maliki granted them neither, and instead reacted brutally, culminating in the Hawija massacre.

One of the consequences of this, in grotesque harmony with Assad's sectarian slaughter across the border - facilitated by the Iraqi government allowing its country to be launchpad for Iran's genocidal intervention in Syria - was the rise of the Islamic State group. It was IS, whose parent organisation had been all but defeated by Sunni Iraqi fighters by 2009, who managed to thrive on the increasingly sectarian violence. 

Of course, when IS launched its blitzkrieg on much of northern Iraq, seizing one-third of the country as the hollowed out, sectarian Iraqi army collapsed, it was Kurdistan that bore the brunt of their fascistic violence, which could now be carried out with state-of-the-art US weapons seized from stockpiles abandoned by the Iraqi army in Mosul. 

IS then pushed into the majority-Kurdish Sinjar region launching genocidal assaults and sieges on Yazidi Kurds, among others. Once again, following the horror of the sarin gas attacks perpetrated by the Hussein regime in Halabja in 1988, Kurds faced the most brutal precarity due to an Iraqi central government.  

Though IS has been effectively driven from Kurdistan, the prevailing attitude among most Kurds is that Iraq is a failed state or, as Masoud Barzani, president of the KRG, described it, "effectively partitioned".

It was precisely because the Kurdish Peshmerga worked with Iraq's forces, including the sectarian Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), in the fight against IS that they came to realise not just that Iraq would return to the same sectarian cycle that helped give birth to IS, but that things were becoming worse. 

Iran, facing its own domestic Kurdish separatism and unbendingly opposed to Iraqi Kurdish separatism, has become an immovable hegemonic force over and through the Iraqi government. 

The trend in Kurdistan towards separatism has been one determined not by "divisive nationalism" or "tribalism", but rather a reaction to the divisive sectarianism and increasing incompetence of the Iraqi central government. It's hardly a surprise that 92 percent of residents of Iraqi Kurdistan voted for independence. 

And while it's perfectly true that the KRG is not without its own instances of chauvinism, such as demolishing the homes of Sinjar Arabs forced to flee by IS in areas such as Kirkuk, wherein 30 percent of the population are Arabs, the vote was still 92 percent in favour of independence. 

Meanwhile, in Catalonia, we've seen a similar phenomenon. 

While the quest for Catalonian independence from Spain has deep historic roots, its modern spike can be located less in nationalist fervour and more in political factors relating to the Spanish central government. 

Catalonian separatism or nationalism is much like its Scottish counterpart in that it conceives of 'nationality' in civic and not ethnic terms

Catalonian separatism or nationalism is much like its Scottish counterpart in that it conceives of "nationality" in civic and not ethnic terms, while it embraces a multicultural, pro-European vision of a Catalan state. 

While successive Spanish governments have gone down the road of deindustrialisation and privatisation, the Executive Council of Catalonia has attempted to retain an industrial economy and bolster social provisions. Not only has this been contrary to the policy of Madrid, but the Spanish government has drastically undermined it, refusing to give Catalonia a meaningful form of fiscal autonomy. 

The economic case put forward by the separatists is that the prosperous and populous Catalonia must pay $12 billion more tax revenue to Madrid than it receives from central government, while Andalusia, the poorest region in Spain, recieves nearly $10bn more than it contributes. This lack of fiscal independence, say critics, has left the Catalan executive struggling to provide basic services. 

In comparison to the one-sided but lucrative economic grasp Spain has on Catalonia, Iraq has a similar situation with the oil-rich areas of Kurdistan, such as Kirkuk, which Iraq's sectarian militias have threatened to invade and occupy; effectively declaring war.

Only independence would allow Catalans and Kurds complete and uninhibited access to and control over their wealth and resources without being accountable to Madrid or Baghdad.

The Spanish state argues that the referendum is illegal and unconstitutional, but, forgetting even the fact that the Catalan parliament voted to hold it, the primary reason they did so was due to the right-wing Spanish government's striking down of the 2006 Statute of Autonomy which gave Catalonia more powers. 

This is precisely why, despite the huge amounts of state intimidation and brutality by Spain, 91 percent of Catalonians supported independence. If the Spanish government had been willing to cede these powers, it's almost certain that the independence referendum would not have taken place in these circumstances. 

We live in an age that has simultaneously witnessed the breaking up of national and state order

The reaction to the votes in Kurdistan and Catalonia by the Iraqi and Spanish governments typifies a wider trend engulfing the world. We live in an age that has simultaneously witnessed the breaking up of national and state order, and what appears to be the bolstering of such order. Beyond the domestic confines of revolution and counter-revolution, such as we've witnessed in Egypt, Syria and Bahrain to name but a few, the dynamic of popular revolt against centralised authority and the often-brutal reaction to such challenges is by no means confined to these localities.

The Spanish state, an alleged liberal democracy, has reacted to the vote with vicious violence, including allegations of torture and sexual assault against protesters. 

The EU has done little to pressure the Spanish state to curtail its violence, while the international community, terrified as ever of separatism, has been equally toothless in the face of the gross violations being carried out against peaceful Catalans by the Spanish state. 

The Iraqi state has similarly refused to recognise the vote in Kurdistan, a refusal that could in theory lead to armed conflict.

The US and Iran have followed suit, with Ayatollah Khamenei calling the KRG "opponents of Iraq's independence" and one of his leading advisers accusing Barzani of being a "middleman for Zionists". 

Read more: Israel 'sole supporter' of independence referendum in Iraq's Kurdistan

Assad similarly denounced the vote, while Hizballah called the vote "a step towards partition" in the Middle East, seemingly forgetting their role in viciously carving up Syria. 

It was Vladimir Lenin who once wrote of the 1917 Russian revolution not as an abberation, but as a "weakest link" in a chain of globalised states that had been rocked by the events of the First World War.

Russia was the first to "fall", so to speak, following the huge social and moral upheavals of the war because its social structures were weaker than those of western liberal democracies, while its society was in general more repressive and directly exploitative. 

This is the way the world must be viewed, whether it's in more extreme cases such as Syria or Egypt, where oppression and exploitation is of a higher and more explicit level, or in western liberal democracies, where oppression and exploitation are more gradually erosive. Each represents a link in a chain that itself has been generally weakened by a world that is determined to steep itself in regressive self-interest. 

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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