Hope for the Middle East

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In Syria during the 11th century a blind philosopher called Al-Maʿarri declared Islam and all other religions to be false as they could not be proved through reason and logic. His life, free of persecution as well as the statue to commemorate his memory stood as a testament to the tolerance and high culture of early Islam. Last year his statue was symbolically beheaded by a fundamentalist movement more brutal and barbaric than anything yet seen. Across the Middle East regions are seemingly falling into chaos or returning to inhumane authoritarian dictatorships. So in an area of the world which seems to be sliding perpetually further and further into an abyss you would be forgiven for thinking there was no reason for hope. Yet as the war against ISIS rages it has strengthened the autonomy and independence of the peoples of Kurdistan, as it has done so the prospect of a democratic secular state in the heart of the Middle East has blossomed.

Kurdistan currently does not exist. Instead an autonomous region covers Northern Iraq and parts of North Eastern Syria, due to the disintegration of those states and Saddam Hussein’s attempts at ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s. There are also large Kurdish populations in South Eastern Turkey and North Western Iran in total some 30 million people. Their lack of a state results from a hangover of imperial state building and is a vulgar insult to all notions of self-determination. Caught between these nations, the Kurds have been persecuted and oppressed for much of the 20th century but during this time they have created and begun implementing one of the most progressive political programs in the Middle East. Ideologically traditionally Marxist, a critique of state socialism as well as corporate capitalism has led to the belief that power should be distributed as widely as possible, the result being the unique creation of a form of radical decentralisation. They have created a “democratic system of a people without a State”, communities rather than an abstract state are the focal point for a face to face democracy.  What this means is that areas of Kurdistan practice “a form of local assembly democracy unlike anything else seen in the region, even the world”. Democracy starts at the grassroots level and from these base’s representatives are sent to progressively larger legislative bodies ensuring a democratic system that is far more direct and accountable than anything to be seen in the United Kingdom.

Multiculturalism is the reality on the ground with Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Yazdis and others minorities living and fighting side by side. Tolerance is broadly practiced and preached as local governance allows for a wide range of ethnic and religious differences and unlike many neighbouring countries women have a high social standing. The law enshrining 30% female representatives in parliament as well as minority representatives are active demonstrations to this.  The Kurdish regions of Syria recently passed a decree granting equal rights to women including equal pay and labour rights, maternity leave and idealistically “equality … in all walks of public and private life.” This could not stand in greater contrast to the appalling treatment and status of women under control of ISIS and other neighbouring areas.

“An independent Kurdistan is inevitable” in 2005 a non-binding referendum was held and 98.8% of the population of Iraqi Kurdistan voted in favour of independence. This year a binding independence referendum was initiated before being indefinitely postponed, a bargaining chip in negotiations with Baghdad. An independent Kurdistan is an existential threat to any neighbouring state with Kurdish populations due to the desire this would create to join with their kin, thus there is large political pressure against such a move. The fact that “Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq have all punished Kurds for simply being Kurdish for centuries”, goes some of the way to explaining the Kurdish acceptance and tolerance of other persecuted minorities. Historically assaulted from all sides these progressive Kurdish areas stand under siege and under-equipped against the forces of ISIS, standing for precisely the values ISIS seeks to annihilate, they both deserve and need our support.

By Frazer Kerr