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End U.S. Imperialist Attacks on Liberated Syrian Kurdistan!
[Photo: Armed Syrian-Kurdish women of the YPG in liberated Syrian Kurdistan attending the funeral of their fallen comrade, Barjam. In her honor and in honor of all of the martyrs of the revolution, they gave a 21 gun salute. A speaker for the YPG honored the role of women in securing the liberation of the city of Sari-Kaniea and the role of women in the revolution as key to protecting women’s rights. Kurdish liberated territory has been under attack by the religious fundamentalists of the U.S. backed “Free Syria Army”. Photo taken February 23, 2013. (AFP Photo / Giulio Petrocco)]
Kurdish Culture, Repression, Women’s Rights, and Resistance
End U.S. Imperialist Attacks on Liberated Syrian Kurdistan!
For a Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan as Part of a Socialist Federation of the Near East!
By Steven Argue
In the war taking place in Syria today, Kurds have risen up and liberated Syrian Kurdistan both from the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and from the imperialist backed Muslim Brotherhood Islamists of the so-called “Free Syria Army”. The Assad regime has abandoned the Kurdish region. The autonomous Kurdish controlled region now stretches from the border with Iraq to the disputed town of Sere Kaniyeh (Ras al-Ain in Arabic). The imperialist and Turkish backed rebels of the “Free Syrian Army” do not support Kurdish national aspirations and have battled Kurds for control of Sere Kaniyeh. A shaky ceasefire is now in effect in the town with the imperialist backed Islamists in control of about 10% of Sere Kaniyeh and Kurds controlling the rest.
In Syria the United States and a number of other countries are waging a proxy war, backing the “Free Syria Army” (FSA), supposedly in a fight for democracy. Yet, the Muslim Brotherhood led FSA has been carrying out massacres of unarmed civilians, including the Alewite minority. Likewise, the FSA are militarily fighting against the Kurdish people in the liberated zone of Syrian Kurdistan. This is because much of Syria’s oil is in the Kurdish region. Neither the U.S. imperialists nor the Syrian capitalist interests represented by the FSA want to give that oil up to the Kurdish people.
The fact that Kurds are actively fighting “rebel” forces is no statement on how good the Assad regime is, on the contrary, it is a shocking testimony to how truly terrible the forces backed by U.S. and French imperialism really are in Syria. Under Assad the Kurdish language was illegal and the Kurdish people faced brutal repression. Yet, under the FSA many Syrian minorities, including the Alewite religious minority have been victims of major atrocities, including massacres of Alewite civilians by the U.S. backed FSA rebels. The FSA have also attacked the Kurdish people (see photo at end of this article of Kurdish woman tied-up and tortured by the so-called Free Syria Army). While Kurds want their long aspired freedom, the imperialist backed Sunni Muslim Islamists “rebels” of the FSA, just like Assad, want to deny it.
Syria’s liberated Kurdistan is controlled by the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG). The YPG were trained by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a pro-woman’s rights Communist group which has been heroically battling for the liberation of Kurdish territory controlled by Turkey for many years. While there are 16 contending Kurdish political parties in Syrian Kurdistan, the dominating political leadership is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish Party aligned with the PKK in Turkey. Derik, a former security center for Bashir al-Assad, has been transformed into the headquarters of the PYD and sits next door to a newly established women’s center and a center for revolutionary youth.
In addition to the imperialist backed attacks on liberated Syrian Kurdistan by the terrorists of the FSA, the murderously anti-Kurdish governments and forces of Turkey, the United States, the European Union, and NATO have listed the PYD as a terrorist organization. To put this in perspective, even the ANC was listed as a terrorist organization by the United States while U.S. imperialism was backing the white racist government of South Africa up until 2008 when the ANC was officially removed from that list. In the 21st century, as in most of the 20th, U.S. imperialism is always on the wrong side.
The Kurdish People
The Kurdish people number at an estimated at 25-30 million people. They live in eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, in Iran northwest of the Zagros Mountains, and in Armenia. They also have a large émigré population in Western Europe. In Iraq, Kurds are the largest non-Arab minority with 4-5 million people and 15-20% of the population. Kurds are also the largest non-Turkish minority in Turkey comprising 20% of the population. The Kurdish speaking people are 9% of the Iranian population. In Syria, the Kurds are the largest minority with about 1.75 million people comprising about 10% of the population. The rise of nationalist xenophobia and war in Armenia after the capitalist counter-revolution in the Soviet Union has pushed most Kurds out of Armenia, but around 30,000 Yezidi Kurds remain comprising about 1% of the population. Azerbajan also has a Kurdish minority which was granted language rights and autonomy (called “Red Kurdistan”) during the period of Lenin and Trotsky, but was dissolved under the conservative bureaucratic leadership of Stalin in 1930.
The language of the Kurds, called Kurdish, is distinct from the Persian of Iran, the Arabic of Iraq and Syria, and the Turkish of Turkey. Thus the common language of the Kurds both separates them from the dominant cultures in the nation-states where they live and unites the Kurdish people as a nationality without a nation-state.
While being distinct, the Kurdish language is most closely related to Persian. Yet, the origins of the varied Kurdish culture were partially influenced by the absorption of characteristics of the differing nationalities and cultures that have historically surrounded them.
In terms of religion the Kurdish people are mostly Muslim with both Shia (primarily of the Alevi sect) and Sunni (primarily Shafi’i). There is also a large Sufi influence among many Kurdish Muslims, often cited as a moderating influence on Islamic fundamentalism. A small number of Kurds are also Yezidi Muslims and Christians. The Kurds also have a history, up to present, that includes secular atheist political leaderships.
The differing Kurdish religious identities have, at times, been a political factor both in divisions among the Kurdish people and in divisions which distinguish them from the dominant nationalities. The strong Kurdish national identity is based on mutual language and a history of oppression.
For the Kurdish people, outrageous acts of oppression in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, and Syria have included mass murder, suppression of language rights, exploitation of Kurdish resources with nothing but poverty given in return, deprivations of national citizenships, and the brutal suppression of political representation.
Despite the oppression the Kurdish people have faced, they continue to speak their language and organize politically and, at times, militarily to fight back everywhere they continue to live as a native population.
After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the British and French imperialists laid control over Kurdistan. They drew the new borders of the Middle East in a way that purposely kept the Kurdish people a sizable minority within the new colonial states. The French and British propagated national oppression against Kurds as a means of creating disunity and undermining the anti-imperialist struggle. Likewise, the imperialists promoted and used religious differences, with the British giving privileges to the Sunni minority in Iraq and the French giving privileges to the Alewite minority in Syria. All of these were components of a divide and conquer strategy.
U.S. imperialism has not improved the situation of Kurds, with the United States now backing the genocidal anti-Kurdish government of Turkey, backing the anti-Kurdish Free Syria Army of Syria, establishing a profoundly corrupt, oppressive, and pro-imperialist Kurdish government subservient to the central government in Iraq, supporting the capitalist counter-revolution in the USSR that brought on genocide against the Kurds, and installing and supporting the brutally repressive anti-Kurd Shah of Iran for decades (which was hated and overthrown by a government of Islamic reaction, equally anti-Kurd).
The Kurdish people are, in fact, the largest national minority in the world that has no homeland. Yet, it is largely their mutual language as well as their mutual oppression and a large amount of mutual poverty (despite some class differences) that continues to unite the Kurdish people. They desire borders that would change the map of the Near East. A better understanding of the Kurdish people is a key to understanding the entire region.
Kurdish Language and Literature
Historically, many Kurdish intellectuals have written in both Kurdish in as well as in the languages of the dominating cultures. Despite a long history of oppression that includes the banning of the written and spoken Kurdish word, the Kurdish people have a rich literary history. Ell Herirl (1425-1495) is the first well-known Kurdish poet. He, like the many patriotic Kurdish poets that followed, wrote of his love of Kurdish lands and its women. Poet Abdulla Goran (1904-1962) is said to have revolutionized Kurdish poetry. He also denounced violence against women. The first Kurdish novel was written by Shamilov in Soviet Armenia in 1935.
Due to the fact that Kurdish culture has been horribly repressed in all of their native lands up until very recently, today it is the Kurdish Diaspora living in Europe, the United States, and Australia that create most of the new Kurdish literature. This includes poetry, children’s books, newspapers, and magazines. Sweden, with a more enlightened policy towards immigrant populations than countries like the United States, encourages Kurds and other groups to continue their languages and cultures and allocates money to the relatively small Kurdish population for Kurdish language publications. In addition, works in the Kurdish language are being produced in other countries where funding is harder to come by.
The tenacity of Kurdish culture owes much to its extensive historic roots, pride of its people in their literature and language, and refusal to die in the face of attempts at forced assimilation and brutal repression.
Up until very recently, the Kurdish language was brutally suppressed everywhere in its native range except in the Soviet Republic of Armenia. Armenian Kurds enjoyed special status as an ethnic minority in the Soviet Union including special programs for economic development. In Soviet Armenia, the Kurdish language, far from being banned, enjoyed sponsorship through state-sponsored Kurdish radio, a Kurdish newspaper, and Kurdish cultural events. After the capitalist counter revolution and break-up of the Soviet Union, Armenian Kurds lost language rights and other protections and most Kurds have been forcefully deported or have fled to Germany and other west European countries as well as to Russia.
In Turkey, the Kurdish language was illegal up until 1991 when political and armed struggle forced the Turkish government to recognize some Kurdish language rights. For instance, children can now be taught in the Kurdish language in private schools, but very few Kurdish children can afford to attend. Kurds and international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, however, still complain of an extremely oppressive situation imposed by the Turkish government.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein, as a U.S. backed ally at the time, is famous for committing mass murder against the Kurdish speaking population. Today, Kurdish literature is still repressed with a number of Kurdish journalists jailed by what the Kurdish leftist opposition considers to be a corrupt puppet government of the United States and Iraqi central government.
Iranian policy forbids the Kurdish language and has attempted to assimilate the Kurds into the dominant Persian culture. In 2005, the Iranian government opened fire on Kurdish protesters with attack helicopters killing 20 and wounding 200 according to Amnesty International. Despite the attempts by the Iranian government to stomp out Kurdish culture, Kurdish literature and histories are available in Iran in both Kurdish and Persian.
Syrian Kurdistan has now been liberated by the Kurdish people. Neither the Assad central government nor the imperialist backed “Free Syria Army” has control over Syrian Kurdistan. This is a great victory for Syrian Kurds. Up until a few months ago, the written Kurdish language was banned and had been banned since 1958. The Syrian ruling class, fearing Communist Revolution in Syria at the time, formed a unified government with Egypt. The new unified government was called the United Arab Republic. Within the framework of the United Arab Republic, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser took over Syria and carried out bans on all political parties and the ban on the Kurdish language.
The ban on the Kurdish language continued after the dissolution of United Arab Republic and after the Ba’athists took power in 1963. In 1987, that ban was extended to Kurdish music and Kurdish videos according to Amnesty International. The Kurdish flag was also illegal. At that time hundreds of thousands of native Syrian Kurds were also stripped of citizenship rights and numerous other acts of repression were documented. Children and businesses were not allowed to register with Kurdish names. According to Amnesty International, hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds were essentially considered stateless so were also denied equal rights to health care, education, and employment while also being denied the right to a passport.
Kurdish Modes of Production and Their Development
Kurdish lands are rich and productive, and they sustain the Kurdish people both through pastoral activity as well as through agriculture. The gathering of wild nuts, berries, and truffles are also important sources of food and income for the Kurdish people, especially in forested regions. In addition, some of the Kurdish lands are rich in oil resources, but the Kurds have, for the most part, been denied access to this oil wealth. Yet, despite exclusions, Kurds have also played an important role in the working class that has developed from oil extraction, and have participated in militant worker fight backs in places like Iraqi Kurdistan’s Kirkuk. Kurds are also an essential part of the working class in mining regions of southern Turkey as well as industrial centers like Baghdad and Istanbul.
Kurdish lands grow large amounts of wheat, barley, rice, cotton, tobacco, sugar beets, olives, corn, sunflower seeds, soybeans, fruits, and nuts. Many of these are cash crops sold to other areas of the Near East where there is far less arable land.
Kurdish pastoralism takes place primarily in areas not suitable for agriculture because they are too high in elevation, to steep, or too low in precipitation. Pastoral activities were once nomadic, but now encompass only lands within a few days of permanent dwellings. As a result some lands that were traditionally grazed are no longer used.
A merchant class of Kurds has arisen since the 1950s making a living from capitalist exchanges.
While participating in the broader economy, household families are the most basic economic unit for rural Kurds. These households are patrilocal containing the first son and his wife and their children. Households participate in reciprocal non-capitalist labor exchanges and share what the household earns. Urban Kurds often continue this family communal structure, but it sometimes falls apart in the face of wage earners no longer wishing to share their income.
Many rural Kurds also seasonally participate in construction labor in the cities, bringing additional income back to their families.
Reciprocal exchanges are not just confined to households. They also take place between neighbors and kin in a village, and are expected. These communal exchanges also take place among urban Kurds.
In addition, tribal Kurds are expected to work for landlords and tribal leaders, with durations of labor not clearly defined.
The labor structure in Kurdish villages reflects the labor-intensive, technologically primitive, agriculture forced on them by the neglect of the oil rich nations many Kurds are part of. Meanwhile, due to discrimination, the petroleum and mining operations in Kurdish areas often refuse to hire Kurds. This contributes to Kurdish poverty in regions that are rich in natural resources; fueling resentment and separatist desires.
A number of domestic animals as well as cereal crops used around the world were first domesticated in Kurdish lands. Yet, despite being first, many Kurdish lands are now last in terms of acquiring up-to-date agricultural technology. In many areas of Kurdistan agriculture is still practiced with ox, mule, or donkey drawn wooden ploughs.
Throughout the ancient world, the oppression of women developed with the invention of the plough. Various different relationships between men and women existed in earlier communalist societies, but with the invention of the plough and its use in Egypt and Mesopotamia the role of women changed. The plough required physical strength. With hard labor behind the plough, agricultural surplus created wealth, land ownership, and power. Women, however, were not able to create the same agricultural surplus value as men because they were biologically tied to child birth and child rearing and lacked the same physical strength as men. As a result of biological differences, wealth and power fell into the hands of men while women came to be excluded from the production of surplus value. The man became the master of the house, assigning the woman with duties around the house. Meanwhile, the wealth and power in the hands of men came to be passed on in hereditary lines to the male offspring. Fredrick Engels called this the “world-historic defeat of the female sex”.
Today, due in large part to imperialist economic exploitation, economic advances beyond the plough have not taken place for many of the Kurdish people. In addition, the armed hostility of the imperialists to pro-woman socialist forces has combined with economic backwardness to hold back the liberation of Kurdish women.
Kurdish Sexuality, Birth, Domestic Life, Descent, and Kinship
The Kurdish people are organized in patrilineal clans. As such there is patriarchal control of marriage and property, with women treated in many ways like property. In addition, political status is often the product of patrilineal descent. It is a male dominated culture where female sexuality is repressed and women are oppressed.
Rural Kurdish women are allowed to mingle with males, but they are not allowed to make their own decisions regarding sexuality or husbands. Marriage for Kurdish women is a form of bondage traditionally decided upon by the male members of her family. These decisions have often been made in the girl’s childhood, and sometimes even before she is born. In Kurdish Iraq such practices of arranged marriage have been on the wane for a number of years, but family permission and payments for brides are still the rule.
Rural Kurdish marriages are patrilocal. The family receiving the bride pays the family she came from. This price is seen as payment for the labor that will be lost when she moves to live with the groom’s family. To hold onto the wealth of the village, marriages within the village are preferred and marriages between first cousins are often arranged. Families also sometimes exchange sons and daughters with the same family to save on expenses.
The male families of urban Kurds do not pay a bride price at the time of marriage. Yet, if the male decides to divorce the woman his family is contractually obliged to pay her family. Urban Kurdish women are also not permitted to ask for a man’s hand in marriage, nor decide to divorce. Divorced women do not have the right to custody of their children.
Polygamy also sometimes occurs amongst Kurds. In such cases, the wives are ranked in status by their age. While polygamy is not the norm, up to four wives are allowed.
Like marriage, men hold women’s sexuality under a strict ideal of shame and constraint, including virginity before marriage. This “ideal” is upheld under the threat, and use of, male violence against women. Such violence includes beatings, pouring acid on faces, shaving heads, and even “honor” killings where women are murdered to by family members to bring back the family’s “good name”.
Kurdish women are often murdered for being accused of having sex with a man other than her husband. These are so-called “honor killings”. Meanwhile, no similar abuse is dished out to Kurdish men for the same act.
The birth of a Kurdish child is celebrated with a feast. Kurds tend to see having large families as the ideal. This grows out of the material need for more laboring hands in the rural areas where most Kurds live, as well as from religious beliefs that consider birth control immoral by Islamic law. Yet there are growing numbers of young couples that ask aid workers for birth control.
While the Kurdish people are oppressed and denied many fundamental rights, Kurdish women are doubly oppressed. While some Kurds have claimed better treatment of women than most of the Islamic world, treatment of Kurdish women does appear to have many similarities to those of the dominating cultures. One difference with Iranian treatment is that Kurdish women are not forced to wear the veil and are generally allowed freer movement than in many traditionally Muslim societies, especially Iran.
In Iraq, life for Kurdish women has become worse in many ways since the U.S. invasion. Honor killings and suicides have increased dramatically since the U.S. invasion. Under Saddam Hussein’s secular government, Iraqi women had many rights found nowhere else in the historically Islamic world except in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Over 50% of Iraqi doctors were women. Iraqi women were allowed to walk unescorted in the streets, to drive, to freely criticize men, and had the right to work and control their own funds. The imperialist occupation of Iraq ignited an all sided blood orgy of national and religious hatreds that has included U.S. backing Islamic fundamentalist and traditional tribal forces that have driven women’s rights backwards.
Within Iraqi Kurdistan, the U.S. has placed two pro-capitalist nationalist parties in power, Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The KDP and PUK gave military assistance to the imperialist invasion and occupation of Iraq. In addition, the KDP / PUK government have attacked Turkmen and Christian Assyrian minorities, confiscating their property and driving them out of Iraqi Kurdistan by the thousands. Under the U.S. imposed KDP / PUK government, demonstrations are banned and journalists have been routinely arrested and beaten. The imperialist puppets of the KDP / PUK government give lip service to Kurdish liberation and women’s rights, while maintaining capitalist oppression and exploitation at the service of U.S. imperialism, promoting religious and national hatreds, and doing nothing to liberate women.
In their history, the imperialist backed KDP and PUK were even given aid by Turkey to hunt down and kill militants of the pro-woman Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the 1990s. In addition, the KDP received aid from the CIA, the Israeli Mossad, and the Shah of Iran. In return, the KDP stood in the way of Kurdish resistance against the Shah of Iran. When Iranian KDP members refused to continue the suicidal policies of their leaders in 1967, the KDP leadership hunted KDP militants down, killing one and turning other prisoners over to the Shah’s forces for torture and murder. The KDP also hailed the Islamic revolution in Iran and later took aid from Iran during the Iran Iraq war while the recent split from the KDP, the PUK, made its peace with Saddam Hussein. Now, the U.S. government has helped place these petty bourgeois nationalists of the KDP and PUK in the position of state power because their history is one of treacherous opportunism, extremely suitable to the needs of U.S. imperialism today.
In addition to increased honor killings and female suicides, laws against female genital mutilation of little girls are not enforced by the U.S. imposed KDP / PUK government and an estimated 41% of girls suffer this torture and mutilation.
In Turkey, it is well documented that the U.S. backed Turkish government has routinely used rape as a weapon in their counter-insurgency measures against Kurdish separatists.
There are many historical examples of Kurdish nationalists and communists speaking out for women’s rights, but they have been the victims of murderous repression carried out by US backed forces. Additionally, Kurdish parties in Iraq that advocate women’s rights, such as the Worker’s Communist Party of Iraq, were even excluded early on by the U.S. occupation from participation in elections. Outside of Iraq, the use by the United States of rightwing misogynist Islamic forces against socialists and nationalists with progressive stands on women is well established. The U.S. bankrolling of the mujahideen holy war against women’s rights in Afghanistan in the 1980s, with $8 billion in military aid, is one well known example.
Kurdish women, with the exception of those who lived in Soviet Armenia, have not had the benefit of the feminist movements of the west nor the social revolutions of the Soviet Union and China that greatly advanced women’s rights in those societies. While not achieving socialist workers democracy, the Chinese and Soviet revolutions outlawed forced marriages and made other giant strides towards women’s equality including in the areas of women’s education, employment, and reproductive rights.
While outsiders may find it easy to judge Kurdish treatment of women, it is worth noting that up until now the Kurdish nation has been denied the right to make any fundamental decisions regarding any policies in their land without outside control. Given the record of the dominating countries, including the United States, it appears that it is only within the context of Kurdish self-determination that the problems of women’s oppression can be solved by the Kurdish people themselves. Even today, Kurdish Communist influenced forces fighting for a Kurdish homeland raise women’s liberation as a high priority.
Kurdish Political Organization
The Kurdish people have organized themselves into many political organizations that advocate language rights, freedom from the social chauvinism and violence of the dominant cultures, Kurdish independence, and in some cases socialism. These Kurdish political organizations often exist in direct contradiction to widespread feudal village structures and the oppression of women.
The Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), one of the main Kurdish resistance groups in Turkey, sees the continuation of feudal political structures on the village level as being the result of oppression and exploitation from the Turkish State. The following emic from the program of the PKK spells out this point of view:
"National oppression exercised by the Turkish state through massacres, compulsory resettlement and forced immigration goes on brutally. This oppression manifests itself economically in the fact that Kurdistan is a domestic market for Turkey, plundered and destroyed; politically in the fact that the Kurds are under the oppression of a foreign state, and denied of national sovereignty; and socially and culturally in the national humiliation and cultural backwardness created by continuing tribalism, widespread ignorance and forced assimilation." -The Kurdish Worker’s Party Program
The PKK is one of nineteen different Kurdish political parties in Turkey. Of these, almost all have been declared illegal by the central government, including the PKK. Among these banned parties was the Democratic People’s Party, which tried to transform Turkey through participation in Turkish elections before they were banned in 2003. In December 2009, the last Kurdish party to hold political office in Turkey, the Democratic Society Party was disbanded with the party’s two elected representatives removed from parliament and 36 representatives of the party barred from political activity.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, while elections may appear to show widespread support among Iraqi Kurds for the KDP – PUK –USA government, other reports contradict this. Mass protests have erupted in Kurdish areas against the occupation-imposed lack of electricity and water. In response the KDP – PUK –USA government has used violence against protesters opening fire on them and killing a 17 year-old demonstrator. They have also arrested and beaten a number of journalists. Involved in these protests was the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq, a political party with members across Iraq of all ethnicities that supports Kurdish rights. In Kurdistan the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq has protested U.S. policy on Kurdistan where they point out that although the Kurdish people in Iraq had gained a high level of economic independence in the last two decades, U.S. policy has in effect annexed Iraqi Kurdistan back into the central government.
Unlike the KDP and PUK, the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They did this while also opposing the government of Saddam Hussein. In addition, the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq, at great risk to their lives, carried out a campaign in Kurdistan against the proposed imposition of Sharia (Islamic Law) through the constitution of the puppet KDP and PUK government. They saw this as horribly anti-woman and also argue that it will further increase sectarian violence. Sharia Law in fact has not been passed, and the puppet government of Iraqi Kurdistan has yet to pass a constitution.
In opposition to the anti-democratic measures KDP and PUK, central government, and U.S. troops, all of which have gunned down and murdered peaceful protesters, the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq is demanding the right to protest:
“The Worker- Communist Party of Iraq declares an international world-wide campaign to implement the highest degree of pressure on the Iraqi Government to desist from violence and terrorism against the demonstrators, who have protested side by side with the masses of the region since mid February 2011 demanding better living conditions and political freedom. As it is clear the government has not tolerated the peaceful protests and demonstrations. Since the first day of the demonstrations, they have used various methods of intimidation and terrifying against the masses to avert them expressing their will and demands.” –Worker Communist Party of Iraq 2011 statement
U.S. imperialism has never been in the business of promoting democracy. Instead, the U.S. imperialist government is on the side of maximum exploitation of labor and resources, which almost always means U.S. support and imposition of the most anti-democratic forces.
In Syria the United States and a number of other countries are waging a proxy war, backing the “Free Syria Army” (FSA), supposedly in a fight for democracy. Yet, the Muslim Brotherhood led FSA has been carrying out massacres of unarmed civilians, including the Alewite minority. Likewise, the FSA are militarily fighting against the Kurdish people in the liberated zone of Syrian Kurdistan. This is because much of Syria’s oil is in the Kurdish region. Neither the U.S. imperialists nor the Syrian capitalist interests represented by the FSA want to give that oil up to the Kurdish people represented by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) government.
Iran has five different Kurdish political parties. These have been involved in a number of uprisings against the central government that have faced brutal repression. One organization leading these uprisings is the Kamala (Revolutionary Organisation of Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan), a socialist grouping that has been organizing armed struggle against the central Islamic regime. As strong advocates of women’s rights the Kamala was the first Kurdish organization to integrate women into their armed forces.
Prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution, the Kamala was also one of many leftist and pro-woman organizations struggling against the brutal U.S. imposed monarchy of the Shah of Iran, but in a great tragedy for women and for Kurds, it was chauvinistic Islamists that got the upper hand in that revolution with some nominally Marxist organizations stupidly backing the Islamic Revolution, which then turned around and murdered their members in the early 1980s. In Kamala’s assessment of the Islamic regime they state, “The Iranian regime has imposed a series of discriminative policies in Kurdistan, which has ultimately resulted in the military occupation of Kurdistan, widespread poverty amongst this massive population, the suppression of Kurdish culture, drug addiction (especially amongst youth), religious suppression, forced migration, imprisonment, terror, torture, and the Killing of whoever opposes these tyrannical policies."
On May 23, 1923, the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky established a red autonomous Kurdish Republic which guaranteed language rights for Kurds and gave Kurds within the republic self-administration. Red Kurdistan included the regions of Kelbejar, Lachin, Kubatli, and part of Jebrail. In Red Kurdistan, newspapers and magazines were published in Kurdish, the Kurdish language was taught to children. Special schools called ‘technikums’ training the teachers to teach in Kurdish at the schools. Under the Tsarist Russian Empire, the many diverse languages of the USSR were illegal. Lenin’s policy of the right of nations to self-determination was a great liberating force of the Russian Revolution.
After Lenin’s death, however, Stalin’s corrupt and conservative bureaucratic layer took power, turning back some, but not all of the gains of the Russian Revolution. In 1930, Stalin abolished Red Kurdistan, making it part of Azerbajan. The language rights of Kurds were no longer guaranteed due to Stalin’s chauvinistic policies. In 1988, the YEKBUN was organized demanding the return of a Red Kurdistan to the Kurdish people. The work of YAKUM had some influence, causing Gorbachev's chief assistant secretary to write:
“The Kurds were exiled to Kirghizstan during the Stalin period. They had earlier lived in Azerbaijan. Now, in Central Asia, they are from time to time the targets of chauvinistic attacks. It would be more appropriate for them to live within the context of a Kurdish autonomous zone where they had previously resided. And in general, this is the desire of the Kurds themselves.”
While the Soviet government seriously considered the granting of a Red Kurdistan in 1991, divisions among Kurdish leaders postponed the process until it was brought to a halt by the social chauvinism of Yeltsin’s capitalist counter-revolution.
While Stalin destroyed Red Kurdistan in 1930, Kurdish culture did develop and prosper again in Soviet Armenia from the 1930s to the 1990s. Kurds were given special language rights in Soviet Armenia, but after the capitalist counter-revolution, Kurds in capitalist Armenia faced mass violence and forced deportations. I have found no evidence Kurdish political organization in Armenia today.
The fate of Armenia’s largely ethnically cleansed Kurds is what has been attempted by all other countries that dominate the Kurds, elimination of the Kurdish question through violence and forced assimilation. Yet there is stubborn resistance in the will of the Kurdish people that refuses to give up. Instead, many Kurds become resistance fighters that are bold enough to see a redrawn map where Kurdistan gains its independence from Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. In addition, many Kurds are also bold enough to see that future as one that ends feudal backwardness, promotes education, builds socialism, and brings equality for women.
The Socialization of Kurdish Children in Language and Culture
The defining trait of Kurdish culture is their language. The education of Kurdish youth in their native tongue is an essential component, not only in the preservation of Kurdish culture, but also simply in giving the best education to young Kurds. The reason for this is that young people often have many difficulties learning when they are taught in a foreign tongue.
In the early part of the 20th century British colonial authorities in charge of education in Iraq referred to the Kurdish language as “vernacular”. Their educational model was one of teaching in the Kurdish language only at the primary school level, with all higher education in Arabic.
In 1926 the famous Kurdish nationalist Huzni Mukriyani suggested in a fictional conversation between a Kurdish father and son that ignorance was better than being taught in a foreign tongue. The father states, “My dear son, I like education and I am not an enemy of knowledge and enlightenment, but it is better for you to remain ignorant than to be unaware of your identity, not to study in your language and to serve the strangers...” (The Education of Kurdish Language, 1995-2003).
This view of Huzni Mukriyani’s of the over riding importance of children learning in Kurdish wasn’t just based on a nationalistic or romantic desire for cultural preservation, but also grew out of the practical desire of having Kurdish children be able to understand the language they were being taught in. This point was driven home in another line of the fictional conversation where the father states to his son:
“You had better become a shepherd, [Or] do ploughing for me. These are better than taking lessons and not understanding them.” -The Education of Kurdish Language, 1995-2003
In the 1950’s, in Iraqi Kurdistan, demands by the Kurdish community for more education in Kurdish began to bear some fruit, but many instructors had difficulty teaching in Kurdish because they had been instructed in Arabic.
In Turkey, Iran, and Syria education in the Kurdish language has been even more wanting. The Kurdish language was illegal in Turkey up until 1991 and education in the Kurdish language is still lacking. Kurdish language instruction is allowed in private schools, but these are very rare in Turkish Kurdistan.
Yet, as an oppressed people without many educational opportunities, Kurdish children continue to learn their language from their families and communities even when formal education is lacking. Thus, the Kurdish language continues to be passed on to the children, partly out of necessity, partly out of a nationalistic pride and refuses to die or be forcefully assimilated.
Religion in Kurdistan, Belief and Disbelief
Kurds practice a variety of monotheist religions including a number of varieties of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. In addition, some Kurdish nationalist movements led by socialists have a strong history of atheism and secularism.
The wide variety of Kurdish religions is due, in part, to the absorption of differing religions from surrounding nationalities. These religions have moved through the region over differing historical times. The predominance of Islam began in the seventh century when most Kurds were converted.
Most religious Kurds are Muslim of the Sunni denomination. Kurdish Sunnis predominantly belong to the Shafi’I sect. Another Islamic denomination found among the beliefs of the Kurdish people is the Shia, primarily of the Alevi sect. A small number of Kurds are also Yezidi Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
There is also a large Sufi influence among many Kurdish Muslims, often cited as a moderating influence on Islamic fundamentalism in many areas, including the oppression of women. Others see that religious moderation; to the point it does exist among the Kurds, is the result of heavy influences from atheistic socialist forces leading many of the struggles against Kurdish national oppression.
While information on the rarest and most obscure religions is often very easy to come by, demographic assessments of atheism are difficult to nearly impossible to obtain for much of the world. This lack of important anthropological data is due, in part, to the fact that atheists are oppressed in much of the world and afraid to identify themselves when attempts are made at collecting such data. But, in addition, there is a glaring shortage of writings that attempt to look at the role of atheism on individual cultures. Perhaps this is due, in part, to the universality of atheism and its lack of quaint provincial deities, sects, or rituals as are found in the thousands of religions of the world.
A look at the political programs of the socialists that are playing a leading role in the nationalist liberation movements of Kurdistan does, however, reveal a strong influence of atheism and secularism in their advocacy of women’s rights and opposition to Islamic Law.
It is a tendency found in many mainstream writings to play up the role of various religions in different societies while ignoring the influences of atheism. Yet it has been atheistic leadership that has led major advances in women’s rights for much of the world’s population. Well known examples are the Chinese and Russian revolutions that outlawed forced marriages, bride prices, and other manifestations of female slavery still suffered by most Kurdistani women.
Likewise, it is popular in groups with atheistic programs, such as the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey, to advocate full emancipation for women. As the PKK states in their program:
“All laws reflecting male domination should be annulled. Violence against women, all forms of control on women’s bodies and lives resulting from outdated custom and traditional habits, and bride’s price should be forbidden.”-PKK Program, 2003
This program of the PKK is in stark contrast to the harsh anti-woman policies of the Islamic capitalist governments of Iran, Turkey, and Iraq as well as the Islamic fundamentalists of the “Free Syria Army”. It is also in stark contrast to Islamic opposition parties within the Kurdish movement, like the Muslim Brotherhood associated Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) of Iraqi Kurdistan which supports the murder of women for adultery, stipulating how pro-woman they are on the basis that they insist that there must be eye-witnesses to the adultery according to Islamic law. While small, the KIU is growing in popularity due to the despicable repression and corruption carried out by the puppet PUK and KDP government. Yet, the anti-Palestinian policies of the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, which includes repression of the working class and assisting Israel in sealing the border with Gaza, shows that the Muslim brotherhood offers no real solutions to the need for anti-imperialist revolution. Likewise, the Free Syria Army, in the employ of Turkish, U.S., and other foreign powers, with its attacks on Alewites and Kurds, shows that the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood not only lacks any meaningful stand against imperialism, they often play the role of pathetic pro-imperialist errand boys, mercenaries, and death squads.
While there is good reason to consider the role of religions in various societies, our studies are often incomplete if they ignore the role atheism. Kurdish society is no exception where religious belief is mixed with a strong and positive peppering of the influence of disbelief.
U.S. Imperialism and the Kurdish Question
While the regime of Saddam Hussein was no friend to the Iraqi Kurdish people, this of course has nothing to do with why the United States government hated Saddam Hussein. This hatred by the U.S. capitalist government was never based on humanitarian concerns. They hated Saddam Hussein for the good things he did, such as the nationalization of Iraqi oil that benefited the people of Iraq by keeping oil wealth in the country for social programs while benefiting the Iraqi economy.
America’s so-called concern for human rights can be seen in the past US interventions in Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party first came to power in 1963. Immediately after taking power, based on lists provided by the CIA, they rounded up 5,000 leftists and trade-union leaders and murdered them. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait we were shown pictures of Iraqi Kurds killed by poison gas in the U.S. media. What we were not told is why the US was silent when this was happening and the fact that the US supplied the gas to kill the Kurds and to kill Iranians in the first place. While we are now told of the Iraqi repression of the Kurdish people we are not told of how the Turkish government is carrying out the same policies of genocide against the Turkish Kurds, and doing it with U.S. weaponry just as Saddam Hussein did.
In addition to these proxy genocides by the U.S. government on the Kurdish people, the U.S. government has participated directly in the war on Kurds. This occurred on February 15, 1999 when U.S. forces kidnapped Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan and turned him over to the genocidal Turkish government. Subsequently, Abdullah Ocalan was sentenced to death for his role in defending Kurdish territory in Turkey from the murderous Turkish military. Due to political pressure, that death sentence was not carried out, but Ocalan remains in prison. This U.S. kidnapping was admitted on CNN TV by former Turkish President and ethnic cleanser Suleyman Demiral.
Today, in Iraq, the basic question of the Kurdish people getting a piece of the oil wealth is not on the imperialist agenda. Sure, corrupt leaders of the KDP and PUK, namely the Talabani and Barzani families, are profiting, but not the Kurdish people. And the big winners are BP, Shell, and Exxon which are profiting greatly from the massive oilfields of southern Iraq while Chevron, the French oil company Total, and Exxon are profiting greatly from Kurdish oil fields. Mission Accomplished! It took massive repression and violence (with over a million Iraqis dead), replacing U.S. troops with mercenaries, and the imposition of ugly, repressive, and corrupt capitalist governments friendly to U.S. oil interests, but congratulations U.S. imperialism: Mission Accomplished! The Iraqi and Kurdish people are being thoroughly robbed of their oil wealth. Mission Accomplished! As is stated in the program of the Revolutionary Tendency, the only way to end the constant warfare of U.S. imperialism against the people of the world is through socialist revolution in the United States.
French and British imperialism divided Kurdistan, a country with its own unique language and culture, into a minority inside the artificially drawn nations of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. Today the Kurds are the largest nation without a homeland in the world. Imperialism, with its motto of divide and conquer, never has, and never will solve the Kurdish question. A free and united Kurdistan will only be born through a sweeping socialist revolution that overthrows the capitalist regimes of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Armenia while defeating the military interventions of the US government.
Facing constant violence and attempts at forced assimilation, there is stubborn resistance in the will of the Kurdish people that refuses to give up. Instead, many Kurds become resistance fighters that are bold enough to see a redrawn map where Kurdistan gains its independence from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Armenia. In addition, many Kurds are also bold enough to see that future as one that ends feudalistic backwardness, promotes education, builds socialism, and brings equality for women.
The mutual language and oppression shared by the Kurdish people has solidified the Kurdish identity, even though they have differing religions, and even though they are spread out into five different countries of origin where they are an ethnic minority in each.
Many of the Kurdish people know that their national interests will never be served by the “liberating” forces of Turkey and Iran or British and American imperialism. A free Kurdistan will only be established by the Kurds themselves in alliance with the proletariat of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Armenia who carry out the revolutionary overthrow the brutally repressive capitalist governments of all five countries.
The PKK has fought heroically for many decades for the liberation of Turkish Kurdistan. Yet, even the most advanced Kurdish groups, like the PKK, have illusions in European imperialism. The PKK even supported Turkey’s bid to join the European Union (EU) and created false illusions that the EU and US would be willing to bring about a peaceful transformation in Turkey. Yet, the fact is that Germany outlaws the PKK and many Kurdish cultural organizations. Repression carried out in Germany while the Turkish capitalist class murdered 37,000 Kurds in their war of annihilation between 1984 and 1999 with U.S. military hardware. Who is the terrorist? According to the German government, it is the Kurds. And the Turkish government continues to harshly oppress and murder Kurds with the backing of the European and American imperialists.
In contrast to the reformist illusions promoted by the PKK, Trotskyists stand in favor of a Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan as part of a socialist federation of the Near East. To get there will take building an internationalist workers party that acts as a tribune of the people, defending the rights of all oppressed and exploited people including women, oppressed nationalities, and religious minorities. In addition, the revolutionary workers party must oppose all imperialist intervention, including defending liberated Syrian Kurdistan from the imperialist attacks of the FSA. Yet, while defending that liberated zone, we must understand that the goal must go far beyond small and precarious liberated territories within existing national boundaries and proclaim ourselves:
For Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan as Part of a Socialist Federation of the Near East Built on the program of Lenin Trotsky!
For the Immediate Defense Liberated Syrian Kurdistan!
For the Defeat of the Imperialist Backed “Free Syria Army”!
For the Defeat U.S. Imperialism through Socialist Revolution in the United States!
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Steven Argue is a Member of the Revolutionary Tendency, Join our Discussions on Facebook
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Another atrocity by the U.S. backed "Free Syria Army" (FSA). According to the Homs News Network (HNN), this is a Kurdish woman who was tied -up and tortured by the FSA in the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo.