Who Deserves A State: Kurds, Berbers, Tibetans


Editor’s note: This is the second part of a four-part series. Part 1 is here.

The claim for “self-determination” is easy to make. It is harder to endorse when the people making the claim already have ample political expression of their peoplehood in an existing state or states, especially when such a claim denies some other people their only possibility for  self-determination, by rendering them more easily subject to aggression and possible annihilation. Let’s keep in mind that the Arabs are the most richly endowed with states — some 22 in all — of any people on earth. The first question to consider is whether the claim of a “people” to self-determination is adequately satisfied by one or more of the existing nation-states. This requires a judgement as to whether the claimants are sufficiently distinct from, or instead actually form part of, a people that already possesses a nation-state (or more than one). The claims of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo for a state of their own, for example, were less compelling than they might otherwise have been, because an independent Albania already existed.

The creation of an independent Kurdish state has a large claim on our sympathies, because some 40 million Kurds are spread over Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, which makes Kurds the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own. And still more in their historic favor, they were promised such a state by the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, but in 1923 that promise was rendered null and void by the Treaty of Lausanne, whereby the new government of Turkey took back the promise of Kurdish independence that had been exacted by the Allies from the defeated Ottoman Empire. Since then, the Kurds have been treated badly in Turkey (where a low-level rebellion has simmered on and off for years) and still worse in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein’s Arab army killed 182,000 of them in Operation Anfal, a true genocide, that included a chemical attack that killed thousands in Halabja. In Iran and in Syria, the Kurds have long suffered routine discrimination and harassment. Such treatment should make the already strong case for an independent Kurdistan stronger still. But in weighing the claims of the Kurds to a state of their own in northern Iraq, on territory that now has millions of Arabs also living in it, many of those Arabs having been moved there by the government of Saddam Hussein in order to deliberately “arabize” Iraqi Kurdistan, what should be done with the Arabs who now live there? Perhaps nothing. For just as so many non-Arab groups live as minorities in Arab-dominated lands, why shouldn’t the Arabs, in a few places (including, of course, Israel), live as a minority in a state dominated by non-Arabs? If the Arabs who remain  are treated decently in a Kurdish state — in other words, much better than the Kurds have been treated in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran — that should be the end of the matter. For the Kurds are certainly a distinct people, distinguishable from the Arabs, Turks, and Iranians, both by language and by ethnicity. Their claim of “peoplehood” has been traced back, in the historical record, to the seventh century. This claim, in every sense, survives — to use a phrase borrowed from American constitutional adjudication — strict scrutiny. Though many of the Arab states would oppose such a state, as would Turkey and possibly Iran, the moral claim of the Kurds to a state of their own, carved out of Northern Iraq, in what historically was part of ancient Kurdistan, is overwhelming. Perhaps it is time to do right by the Kurds, and in recognition of their loyal, trustworthy, and above all effective support of the Americans in both Iraq and Syria, for the American government to officially give support to the project of an independent Kurdistan. What, one may ask, have the “Palestinians” done to deserve American, or other Western, support for their statehood?

Not every people demands a state. For example, the Berbers in Algeria have been treated with contumely by the Arab majority who for a while prevented  the Berber language, Tamazight, from being taught in schools, and indeed the government even tried to forbid the use of Tamazight at home. Berbers staged protests in Tizi Ouzou and other Berber population centers in the Kabyle. This led to them eventually being granted the right to again use Berber and have it taught in schools. Berber is still the first language of 25% of the population in Algeria; since many of those using Arabic are in fact Berbers, the Berber population of Algeria may be closer to one-third or even one-half of the total. Should the Berbers in Algeria ever want to claim their own state, perhaps joining with the Berbers in Morocco next-door, where 45% of the population speaks Tamazight (Berber), how should we weigh the merits of that claim? By language, by ethnicity, by culture, the Berbers are clearly distinguishable from the Arabs who have treated them badly, as a folkloric remnant, suitable for National Geographic articles, instead of as the original inhabitants of North Africa, deserving to be full partners with the Arabs. There are 25-30 million speakers of Berber in North Africa, but the number of ethnic Berbers, counting those who speak Arabic, has been estimated as close to 50 million. The large size of the Berber population, the recent spread of the consciousness of Berberness (Amazighité), the resentment at the harassment and discrimination the  Berbers have endured from the Arabs, has not yet translated into a demand for a separate state, but that may be coming, and might even be encouraged now that another non-Arab Muslim people, the Kurds, are preparing their own referendum on statehood.

Some Berbers in both France and in Algeria have been converting to Christianity, apparently enough to attract notice, and are less devout than the Arabs, for they sense, correctly, that Islam has always been a vehicle for Arab supremacism. As non-Arabs, they will always be lower on the Islamic totem pole than the Arabs. For despite the universal claims made for Islam, within that faith the Arabs are clearly superior to all the non-Arabs. Muslims must prostrate themselves five times a day in prayer, always recited in Arabic, while facing toward the Hijaz, in Arabia. They should ideally should read and recite and, to become a hafiz, memorize the entire Qur’an, in Arabic. Muslims must emulate the mores, and customs, including the dress,, of seventh-century Arabs, that is, of Muhammad and his Companions. Because of this superiority of the Arabs within Islam, some non-Arab Muslims have even created for themselves a false Arab lineage, claiming descent from the Prophet’s tribe. Pakistan is full of such Sayyids. No wonder that the late Anwar Shaikh, a celebrated scholar and apostate who could write what he believed because he lived in Wales, titled his book Islam: The Arab National Religion. Certainly the tens of  millions Berbers spread across North Africa should have a right to hold onto their distinct language and culture, and if the only way to do this is through establishing their own state, many would say that such statehood ought to be supported. A Berber state, running, say, from the Rif mountains in northern Morocco, to the Kabyle in Algeria, both areas with heavily Berber populations, properly  gerrymandered, would not endanger the existence of any of the twenty-two already existing Arab states, but would give the original Berber inhabitants of North Africa the ability, at long last, to rule themselves. Some of the many “arabized Berbers” who no longer speak Tamazight might find an opportunity, in such a Berber state, to revert to their ancestral tongue. And a Berber state holds out the promise of being less fervently Islamic than its Arab neighbors, especially if the theme of “Islam as a vehicle for Arab imperialism” is taken up by a Berber government eager to limit the power of political Islam. Already the Berbers in France refer to “le colonialisme arabo-islamique,” showing their recognition that islamization and arabization are intimately connected. For Arab Muslims, their “arabness,” or ‘uruba, reinforces the hold of Islam. For many non-Arab Muslims, on the other hand, their ethnic identity fuels resentment not just of the Arabs whose superiority within Islam is assumed, but of Islam itself, for always giving pride of place to the Arabs and to the Arabic language.

Eighty percent of the world’s Muslims are non-Arabs. Were there a way to make them more aware of “Islam as a vehicle of Arab supremacism,” so that their resentment of the Arabs might translate into weakening the hold of Islam among non-Arabs, that for Infidels would be a consummation devoutly to be wished. Of course, there would be strong Arab opposition to a Berber state, but any Arab attempt to squelch a Berber state by force would be seen by non-Arabs as morally indefensible. It would also highlight the issue of the discrimination against, and persecution of, many non-Arab Muslims by Arabs. Even some European powers might  offer the Berbers military aid to defend themselves, perhaps realizing that the existence of a North African state where Christianity was being allowed to revive could only help weaken the Camp of Islam. That too is highly desirable. It might even be possible for Israel to supply the Berbers, as they may someday the Kurds, with covert military aid.

How should the claim of being a separate people be judged? Among the characteristic distinguishing features of a “people” are one or more of the following: a distinctive language, religion, ethnicity, popular culture (from food to fairy tales), a shared historical memory, and a sense of identity, of belonging to a particular people. An identity can of course be strengthened by the experience of persecution, or of mass murder, as in the case of the East Timorese and the South Sudanese.

The Jews possess all of those features: a distinctive religion, ethnicity, language, mores, popular culture, a shared historical memory, a sense of identity strengthened by persecution. Yet the Jews had to wait 2000 years for the restoration, in their ancient homeland, of a Jewish commonwealth that they built by themselves, against tremendous odds, and in the face of sustained enmity from both the Arabs in Mandatory Palestine and, once statehood was announced, a violent response from all of their Arab neighbors, five of whom tried to snuff out the young life of the Jewish state. But now the Jews have their own state, one that they have repeatedly had to defend, and that they both intend, and deserve, to keep.

Among the current peoples without a state, along with the Kurds, and the Berbers, it is the Tibetans, with their distinctive language, culture, ethnicity, and religion (Tibetan Buddhism being unique), and persecution by the Chinese Communists, who destroyed many of the lamaseries, and drove many Tibetans to seek refuge in India, who have the strongest claim to self-determination. The legitimacy of such a claim is unconnected, of course, to the likelihood of its being fulfilled. The Tibetans are unlikely to ever again see an independent, or even autonomous Tibet, for their former country is in the unrelenting grip of a powerful and ruthless Communist China.  But it is not the deserving Kurds, or the Tibetans, or the Berbers, whose cause is proclaimed at every U.N. meeting, or chanted by bullyboy boycotters on American campuses, or by the political and media “progressives”  of half the world. It is, rather, the “Palestinian people,” who happen to be fifty years old, just like the Six-Day War that prompted the birth of their nation, who are the recipients of such support. And it is to that “people” and how they grew, that we shall turn in the next article.

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