On the Kurdish Question with Muhammad Waladbagi

On the Kurdish Question with Muhammad Waladbagi, PhD Candidate at Durham University/ UK:

Lecturer at Salahaddin University/ Hawler

Interviewed by Aras Ahmed Mhamd

“It’s more practical to have four independent Kurdish states than the Great Kurdistan” 

1. Aras Ahmed: How do you look at the Kurdish Question both historically and politically? What do you think is the roadmap to independence?

Muhammad Waladbagi: Well, this is a broad topic to cover in a single question. It is not easy to cover Kurdish history, politics and a roadmap for Kurdish independence in few sentences. Kurdish Question is in no way one-dimensional and even exploring its recent history demands in depth investigation of Kurdish socio-political life in four different states.

What is evident in the case of Kurdish history is the fact that Kurds have historically lived in the mountainous areas of the Middle East for centuries and in the modern history they have been the victim of both global power reality and their inexperience and unpreparedness for changes in their region.

As far as a roadmap for independence is concerned, I should clarify that I am against the idea of having “a” static roadmap. The reality of the political life demands the international actors to be tactful and well-prepared for the sudden changes and upheavals in the domestic and international realm.

Kurds should start establishing prestigious indigenous think tanks through which roadmaps and not just a roadmap are drawn for the future of the Kurdish nation. However, personally I believe the road to independence starts from reformulation of domestic socio-cultural and political life of Kurdistan. Prior to international recognition of Kurdistan as an independent state Kurds need to set themselves free (or independent) of social and political practices that undermine the emergence of a strong sovereign modern state. After accomplishing internal independence, Kurds can easily find the path to international independence.

2. Aras Ahmed: Kurds are the largest nation without having an independent national territory. Have you ever felt the strain of answering questions about your national and cultural identity as a Kurd living and studying in England?

Muhammad Waladbagi: In most cases explaining where Kurdistan is and why Kurds consider themselves a distinct nation with their separate culture and identity takes few minutes. However, it has never made me feel embarrassed or sad to be a stateless person.

On the contrary, due to my knowledge of Kurdish history, it makes me proud to be a member of a nation that in spite of centuries of oppression and assimilation has successfully preserved its culture and is thriving ahead in spite of all the difficulties and obstacles. Meanwhile, Kurds should not forget that they are not alone in this case and there are many other stateless people all over the world who are proudly introducing their nation and culture to others.

3. Aras Ahmed: Are the Kurds victims of history, circumstances, international interests or they are to blame themselves and their politicians in not having an independence state?

Muhammad Waladbagi: All arguments can be supported in a way or another. Geography, the role of international and regional powers and Kurdish politicians can be blamed to differing degrees based on specific historical incidents.

Modern history reveals that Kurds have never been united under one banner and leadership in their fight for independence. In fact, internal rivalries have been one of the major reasons behind the collapse of Kurdish Emirates and more recently failure of Kurdish political parties in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria fighting the regimes in their respective countries.

It seems Kurds have and are investing more on their internal rivalries and feuds than on the Kurdish aspiration for independence. In addition to the internal factor, regional powers and global superpowers except for limited occasions based on tactical reasons have often been in opposition to Kurdish demands and aspirations.

4. Aras Ahmed: Kirkuk has been throughout history the center of immense conflict between Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional Government. What do you think is the best solution for Kirkuk?

Muhammad Waladbagi: Many issues have turned Kirkuk into a complicated territorial conflict case. The history of Kurdistan-Baghdad conflict over this city is one reason. Oil, external interference and multi-ethnic and multi-religious nature of its residents are some others. Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, Turkmen and External Powers each have their vision, story and solution which are very different.

Personally, I believe all the parties involved in this case should actively engage in constructive negotiation and make concessions in the interest of the Kirkuk people and give the final say to Kirkuk citizens to decide on the approved proposals for the future of their city in a peaceful environment void of any internal or external interference.

The solution could be anything from incorporation of Kirkuk to Kurdistan region or Baghdad, declaration of Kirkuk as a new independent federal region or any other arrangement agreed on by the involved sides and approved by Kirkuk citizens. In my view, forcing any arrangement on Kirkuk will fail in future and the only way forward is negotiation, agreement and vote of Kirkuk citizens.

5. Aras Ahmed: The US led invasion of Iraq has brought about a huge change in Kurdistan Region with regard to economic boom and the explosion of media channels. How do you observe the future of the region’s economical infrastructure and the level of freedom?  

Muhammad Waladbagi: Indeed the downfall of Saddam opened new horizons for Kurdistan region. Economic boom and consequential increase in the number of media outlets were among many of the changes followed the 2003 War. Assessing and explaining the success of the economic boom and the extent of media freedom need in depth researches conducted by experts in media and economy fields.

Nevertheless, one point is obvious. Maintaining the economic development and freedom of press requires an efficient institutional government and a vibrant civil society. Otherwise, crony capitalism, rentierism, nepotism and mismanagement will destroy the economic potential of Kurdistan and corrupt officials suffocate the freedom of press.

6. Aras Ahmed: Opposition parties, PUK and PDK usually blame and accuse each other of being unpatriotic in national matters. What do you think is the best strategy for “unifying Kurd’s home”? How should they resolve their internal issues and conflicts to represent Kurdistan in a strong manner in international platforms?

Muhammad Waladbagi: One of the main problems of the Kurdistan region is the absence of strong institutions. This has made Kurdish political parties compete in an anarchic domestic environment very similar to the environment described in Steven David’s omnibalancing theory.

A successful democratic state needs such institutions to function properly, prosper and preserve the national cohesion. In Kurdistan region such overarching technocratic institutions can take over the tasks of formulating Kurdistan’s foreign policy, fostering a unified Kurdish identity with standard language and national symbols, and protecting Kurdistan’s citizens via a well-trained professional Kurdish army among other tasks related to civil liberties and political life.

Unfortunately, what is witnessed on the ground in Kurdistan is the existence of zones of influence, each dominated by a party. Strong institutions mentioned above which can prevent mismanagement of foreign policy, military power, economic revenue and so on, are to a great extent non-existent. In such an environment accusations, mismanagement of resources, violating civil rights and even internal fighting among the competing parties (which have their own military forces as well) are not unexpected themes.

Therefore, I strongly believe that the way forward for Kurdistan is establishing strong functioning institutions, independent of any interference from political parties, religious and tribal forces or any other force that can hinder their work.

7. Aras Ahmed: The 1991 uprising has brought self-autonomy for the Iraqi and Bashar Al-Assad is in a bloody war against his own people since 2011. Do you think similar uprising are expected in Turkey and Iran?

Muhammad Waladbagi: Predicting what happens next in a region as turbulent as Middle East is almost an impossible task. No one predicted Arab Spring and it happened with a great speed, and when everyone was talking about adopting Turkish model in Egypt, Tunisia, etc, demonstrations erupted in Turkey, the elected president of Egypt was ousted Syria drowned in civil war and one can see what is happening in Tunisia nowadays. Having this in mind, the only thing one can say is nothing is impossible in the Middle East.

8. Aras Ahmed: Kurdish people exist in four separate nations. Internal conflicts and civil war added to the partition of the Kurdish nation. Can Kurds one day win international support for their question and announce the long expected independence state of “Great Kurdistan”?

Muhammad Waladbagi: As I already stated, the road towards Kurdish independence starts from inside Kurdistan. Building strong institutions, well-studied management of Kurdistan’s education, economic and military system as well as creating social, political and cultural unity will eventually pave the way for establishment of an independent Kurdistan. Otherwise, Kurds will go on committing the same historical mistakes without learning any lessons from their predecessors.

Meanwhile, I believe Kurds should be rational rather than emotional when it comes to the idea of great Kurdistan. Though “Great Kurdistan” is the dream of all Kurds, in practice materializing this dream currently is similar to the idea of establishing a unified Arab State or a unified Islamic Ummah.

In my view it may be even more practical to have four independent Kurdish states than the Great Kurdistan thought of by many nationalists. Kurds should come to terms with the realities of the political life and base their decisions on careful study of the situation and available options. A policy of all or none is too risky and idealistic to be implemented.

9. Aras Ahmed: South Kurdistan consists of different people from diverse religious, political, and cultural backgrounds; this has not been an issue to divide people. What is your sense of this and do you have any concern for the future especially when some politicians use religion for their own benefit in the elections? 

Muhammad Waladbagi: Even though I am very optimistic towards the future of peaceful coexistence of different faiths and political groups in Kurdistan, yet there are issues to be tackled in this respect which I refer to later. Meanwhile, I believe it is not correct to say that these differences have not divided our people. Indeed these differences have divided our people and there are some issues that make me get concerned; nevertheless the peaceful coexistence and Kurdistan Regional Government’s policy towards the issue of tolerance and coexistence which has made Kurdistan an exemplary place in Iraq has made me optimistic.

But, as I mentioned, there are points of concern, such as near absence of interfaith marriages or even in some cases problems in intertribal marriage or even in extreme cases marriage among families with opposing political orientation. In addition, there is a noticeable rivalry in the virtual world of social media fostering party, city or religious identity which is undermining the unity, coexistence and tolerance project.

Nevertheless, the most dangerous factor as I see it is the sermons and preaching by religious figures disrespecting the other faiths in an attempt to proving the purity and rightness of theirs as well as speeches by political figures or supporters accusing and insulting the rival parties in an illogical manner.

10. Aras Ahmed: Kurdistan Region does not have Constitution yet (only the Draft of the Constitution). How does that make you feel as a Kurd and how would you comment on the importance of having Constitution politically speaking?

Muhammad Waladbagi: Iraq and many other countries have written constitutions, but their constitutions are just ink on paper. A brief reading of post 2005 Iraq shows how easily Iraqi leaders have violated the constitution. On the other hand, the United Kingdom has no written institution. Thus, the problem or the question is not having or not having a constitution.

What is needed for a working democracy is not a constitution- as constitution is just ink on paper- rather strong institutions and civil society organizations are needed to guarantee the rule of law. I believe, having a well-versed constitution is good, but making sure the constitution is respected and rule of law is maintained is more important.

Muhammad Waladbagi is a PhD candidate at Durham University working on Turkey-Iraqi Kurdistan relations. He has received Master degree in International Relations/Middle East from Durham University in 2008 and worked as a lecturer at Politics Department of Salahaddin University for three years. His research interests are Kurds, Kurdish issue, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Middle East Politics in general.