Posts Tagged With: Syrian Kurds

The Abused Politics of “Minorities” and “Majorities”: Quantifiable Entities or Shifting Sites of Power? (by Estella Carpi, May 2015)


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Scholars, pundits, opinion-makers, and the general public too often agree that the primary concern to address today in the contemporary Middle East is religious diversity and the need to protect religious minorities. As a result, the so-called religious minorities have gradually come to constitute a fundamental feature of state politics. They are usually depicted and discussed as unchangeable entities presenting coherent political assets in international affairs, as well as analytical categories through which a more immediate understanding of the Middle Eastern scenario is finally possible.

This analysis will argue that the constructed character of religious minorities and majorities has too often been disregarded in international politics. It will employ historical examples as holistic explanatory notions for civic privileges or deprivations, or to stress amity or enmity that have been awarded to religious minorities.

In the effort to trace the emergence of the language surrounding “minorities,” historian Benjamin T. White in 2011 associated the history of minorities with the historical formation of nation-states in the Middle East. He unearthed how a language of minorities only emerged in the 1930s with French bureaucracy, which was still dominating the country at that time: the central state presence in people’s everydayness was intensifying. The use of the term “minority” increased, in particular, in the post-French mandate Syria (1940s). Once state, in the modern Middle East, began to more fully represent the people, all “groupable” societal component collectively began to perceive themselves in terms of frustrated minorities or accomplished majorities. Arguably, this was in order to feel more included and entitled to services and benefits. It is inescapable, in fact, that representativeness implies per se cohesion and sameness.

In what Pierre Bourdieu would name the “informational capital” around the Middle East, confessional labels are attributed to diverse popular wills. This, for instance, deceivingly led us to think that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was actually in need of a Shiite regime, in that the national population is predominantly Shiite. And that Syria, from 2011 onwards, underwent an unprecedented political crisis because the ruling regime is from the Alawite minority, and, as such, it cannot rule undisturbed over a Sunni majority. Or, again, how many times have knowledge producers argued that the mainly Shi‘a-populated Bahrein needs a Shiite regime to stop local discontent and meet the reiterated requests for freedom once for all? Or also that the ruling power in Iran keeps the country stable because there is a Shiite coalition there ruling over a Shiite-majority population?

In the capacity of beings craving historical understanding, we constantly feel like we owe consciousness to our past: the quick association of majority with domination and, likewise, minority with subordination, risks shadowing the shifting sites of power that underly societal relations. The Syrian revolution offers a perfect case in point, in that it has prematurely been portrayed by several media as a “civil war,” as well as a confessionally biased demand for greater freedoms coming from the Syrian Sunni majority. The interpretation according to which the Sunni majority protesting could result in the oppression of the minority groups living within the state boundaries, would obscure the actual distribution of power within Syrian society. Such a biased interpretation of social facts is said to have resulted in poor international solidarity for the protesters in Syria with respect to the Egyptian or the Tunisian revolution.

Indeed, the alternately scant or deep empathy that the international community has developed towards particular political causes or military interventions in the Middle East is often dictated by the alleged need to protect the “primordial” minorities populating the region. In this regard, the gnoseological minority-majority dyad is employed to describe homogenizable religious as well as ethnic groups. For instance, speaking of Kurds as a minority is highly misleading: in the palingenetic effort to repoliticize the minority concept and explore the present life conditions, the Kurds and groups alike should simply be described as “oppressed.” Yet they constitute a heterogeneously oppressed or disempowered population of approximately 30 million people majorly distributed between Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. The nation-state boundary logic has forced them to be described in minority terms. Similarly, it is the invasive presence of the state in the Middle East—generally a Leviathan entity using divide-and-rule strategies – that has triggered a longing for secessionism and identity-defined independence in particular religious or ethnic groups.

A further example has been provided by the violence used by Da‘esh (ISIS) against the ethnic and religious groups who inhabit the Arab Jazira—the ancient Upper Mesopotamia extended between Syria and Iraq—which has led people to talk of the importance of protecting religious minorities, and therefore using religion as a mere gnoseological instrument. In fact, the populations attacked by Da‘esh nowadays are Muslim as well. Like Christians, Muslims are killed on a daily basis. The killed ones, hence, are those who are simply refusing, in many forms, to live under the caliphate. Their “numberization” has long served political intentions and fears. And here lies the fallacy of ‘’religion’’ meant as an empty category that we can fill with any meaning, but still massively capable, however it is interpreted, to shape events and raise different collective sentiments.

In the examples provided above, identity politics trumps any other gnoseological understanding of the Middle East’s changing scenario, by departing from the idea that “minority identities” are objectively something, and can be filled up with a fixed political content. In other words, religious and ethnic groups are spoken of as if they owned a pseudo-national imagination and an identity-shaped attachment to their territory. Therefore, neither Christians under Da‘esh nor the Kurds are seen as simply reacting to state-owned power, or to any entity where power is temporarily located.

History has clearly shed a revealing light on how the international community, and not only politicians, have increasingly used the expression—and consequently adopted the strategy of—”protecting minorities.” It is the colonial protection of minorities in the Middle East that turned socially heterogeneous groups of religious believers into separate bodies. By doing so, they further exposed them to the risk of massacres or civic inferiority whenever prevailing political interests and material circumstances do not allow the traditional protectors to defend such “minorities.” Paradoxically, such outsider protectors tend to rush over to allegedly fight on behalf of domestic groups in the historical context in which the latter have actually grown.

Furthermore, the common myth on which the international and domestic understanding of the Middle East relies is that such reified religious categories are permanently at odds with one another. If we look at the historical roots of what is depicted as a chronic regional enmity, the protection of minority communities has always been leverage for western sway in the Middle Eastern region. Like the case of the French protecting the Christians in Syria and the Maronites in Mount Lebanon, especially during the fight against the British-supported Druzes in the 19th century.

The political use of the notions of minorities and majorities in the epistemic construction of the Middle East is therefore ideological work still encrusted with colonial nuances. And this is certainly not peculiar to the Middle Eastern scenario. In fact, some social groups, smaller in terms of numbers with respect to the ethnic or religious majority living within the same nation-state, have not developed their own sense of properly constituting a “minority.” For example, the Asian communities in Chile are mostly represented as migrant groups in the news and in the literature concerning them. By contrast, Bolivian and Peruvian migrants in Chile are spoken of as “minorities”, in that they migrated from countries against which Chile had fought a regional war in the 19th century. This further confirms the political use of the majority-minority Manicheism.

Religious labels have also been used by governors, common people and scholars as a way to point to proximity or distance in terms of political purposes. The Christian Greek Orthodox, who, unlike other Christian groups, used to be more willing to accept a Syrian Arab nationhood over the 1930s, exemplify this phenomenon, as they had tellingly been called the “cousins of Islam,” being the Muslims the vast majority among Syrian nationalists. Thereby, the commonality of a political cause was leading the Muslims to find linguistic expressions of religious proximity to describe their Christian Orthodox fellows.

The political is obviously only one dimension of the polyhedric character of this ancient all-encompassing concept of religion, which is largely adopted in social and political sciences to advance gnoseological analyses. We should rather reclaim “religion” as a constructed human way of naming an immense range of practices, beliefs, theological tenets as well as contradictory human behaviors related to this realm of meanings.

Certainly, the abused description of “Middle Eastern exceptionalism” does not lie in anirremediable and almost innate division of the region into monolithic religious or ethnic minorities, purportedly conveyers of self-evident identity politics. But rather lies in the allogenous and endemic incapacity to cultivate better gnoseological strategies to know the Middle East and speak of it.

Categories: Lebanon, Middle East, Syria | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kurdish to be taught in Syria

The Syrian regime has offered another carrot to the Kurdish minority: the Kurdish language as a university course…

(In the photo: a recently opened center for the learning of Kurmanji in Amuda)

Syrian government introduces Kurdish in universities


The Kurdish regions of Syria are increasingly isolated from the rest of the war-ravaged country. While the regime keeps shelling strongholds of the mostly Arab rebels, it allowed the Kurds to form a transitional autonomous administration in November 2013. After more than 50 years of Baathist discrimination, the Kurds achieved what was completely inconceivable a year ago: the introduction of their language in state-run universities, announced Dec. 18. In November 2012, the Ministry of Education had ordered the temporary closure of all schools where the Kurdish language had been introduced upon an initiative of the Kurdish parties in the northeastern province of Hasakah.

Kurdish instruction in Syria is still an imperfect practice, limited to universities and using the Arabic alphabet, while Syrian Kurds use Latin letters. It is also widely perceived as a tactical move to win the support of the Kurds and the international community ahead of the Geneva II conference. Nonetheless, this academic reform is a positive indication of the capability of the Kurds to reverse the hostility of the regime toward their cultural and political demands. Kurdish nationalist aspirations have been omnipresent throughout the uprising, and the Kurdish public has largely come to accept an entente with the government for the sake of Kurdish interests.

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Yazidis benefit from Kurdish autonomy in Northeast Syria

How Syria’s Yazidi community sees an opportunity to revive its identity on the tails of rising Kurdish power in the country’s northeast. 

Yazidis Benefit From Kurdish Gains in Northeast Syria

View of Yezidi temple in Lalish some 50 km north from Iraqi city of Mosul May 11, 2003. The Yezidi religion, seen by its followers as the original Kurdish faith, is believed to date back several thousand years and blends ideas from sources as diverse as Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov REUTERS SZH/AS - RTRNBQ2

View of Yezidi temple in Lalish some 50 km north from Iraqi city of
Mosul May 11, 2003. The Yezidi religion, seen by its followers as the
original Kurdish faith, is believed to date back several thousand years
and blends ideas from sources as diverse as Zoroastrianism, Islam and
Christianity. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov REUTERS

AMUDA, Syria — “Some years ago I tried to open a bus company and call it Roj, which in Kurdish means sun,” said Adnan Ammo, a 50-year-old farmer from Merkeb. “I was summoned by political security for a suspected connection with Roj TV [one of the satellite channels affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)]. Even after I explained to them that I am Yazidi and we venerate the sun, they forced me to change the name. I proposed Judi, the name of my son, but that was rejected too, as it’s a Kurdish name. In the end we had to shut down the activity.”

The followers of the Yazidi religion have been historically discriminated against on both ethnic and religious grounds, being part of a Kurdish pre-Islamic sect. The Yazidi faith is currently exposed to the risk of extinction, as expatriates tend to neglect its traditions and a growing number of Yazidis are leaving Syria to escape radical Islamists. On the other hand, most Kurdish parties seem to bank on the revitalization of the Yazidi identity in order to back historical land claims and belittle the Islamization of Kurds, as part of an opposition to Islamist brigades.

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27 June 2013: Syrian Kurdish YPG stifles dissent in Amuda by killing protesters

A piece I wrote from Amuda for Al-Monitor after the massacre occurred on June 27 in this city.

Syrian Kurdish Group Linked to PKK  Kills Protesters

amuda tenzif

AMUDA, Syria — “There are 35 million Kurds and only 30,000 of them live in Amuda. Now, if you have 35 kilograms of meat for a meal, you are not going to eat them because of a bunch of flies?” a Kurdish fighter with the Popular Protection Units (YPG) asked cynically while relaxing outside the military barracks. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) — the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the political affiliate of the YPG — has carefully consolidated its project to manage the Syrian Kurdish areas. It will not accept anyone interfering with its hegemony — especially if this happens ahead of the Geneva II conference, where the party has been promised a seat by Russia.

In Amuda, the PYD’s hegemony has become increasingly under threat from the pro-Free Syrian Army youth committees and other Kurdish parties, prompting its first military crackdown last week. Between June 27 and 28, seven civilians were gunned down by YPG forces following protests. According to witnesses, only one of them was armed. The United States issued a statement on Monday saying it was “appalled” by the PYD crackdown, calling on the PYD to “respect the human rights and dignity of all Syrians.”

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2. Blogging and reporting on five months of revolution from Syria: Interview with Hervin Ose (Kurdish Future Movement)


tammo funeral
And here is a piece I wrote out of an interview with a Kurdish activist…
I have been trying getting in touch with Shanar* since I arrived in Syria at the beginning of April. She is an experienced Kurdish activist I met in Damascus last year, who has been jailed several times, the last time after one of the first protests which broke out in Damascus by mid-March. Shanar recalls that episode, when they dragged her by the hair across the street of Damascus and almost broke her hand, by beating her savagely in prison. She got used to the behavior of the security forces, like most of the Kurds in Al-Jazira, the Kurdish stronghold in North-Eastern Syria. The region already witnessed riots in 2004 in Qamishli, when a football match between an Arab and a Kurdish team degenerated into clashes with security forces and the subsequent decision to send the army to ‘restore security’. The death toll at the end of the unrest was of at least 36 Kurdish citizens.
The condition of Kurds in Syria has been constantly affected by discrimination.
 Following a census carried on in 1962 in the Al-Hasaka province, some 120.000 Kurds were stripped off their citizenship rights and registered as ‘foreigners’ (Ajanib). According to UNHCR, the Kurds without Syrian citizenship today are around 300.000. On 8 April 2011, in an attempt to contain Kurdish participation to the uprising, President Al-Assad issued a decree granting citizenship to those ‘foreigners’ of Al-Hasaka, but most of the Kurds have rejected this late concession. Another discriminatory measure was taken in 2008, when Decree 49 was issued to restrict the freedom of certain border areas to sell and purchase lands without prior government approval. The Kurds saw this as a further attempt to exacerbate their living conditions and force them to leave their lands.
When asked about Bashar’s latest concession, Shanar shows no hesitation replying: “Was it a compensation? We are not asking for citizenship now, we’re calling for freedom. We demand fundamental constitution amendments, like the abrogation of article 8 and not gifts from the President.” Article 8 of the Syrian Constitution states that “the leading party in state and society is the Socialist Arab Ba’th Party.” Another important aspect in the agenda of Shanar’s Future Movement (Tayyar al-Mustaqbal), one of the main Kurdish youth group, is that they demand “the recognition of Kurds not as a minority or the second largest ethnic group in Syria, but as first class citizens without any sort of distinction.”
Shanar made no mention of the historical aspiration to be part of an independent Kurdistan. However, at least among some Arab activists, a form of mistrust seems still to affect the relations with Kurdish parties: Ahmed, a university activist of the University of Damascus, is still convinced that the Arabs should beware of Kurdish support, because the Kurds will have a different agenda after the revolution. In fact, the cooperation between Arab and Kurdish opposition groups has not been smooth so far. Shanar told me her group had a meeting with the signatories of the Damascus Declaration on March 5. The Damascus Declaration is a document subscribed by several Arab and Kurdish opposition groups in 2005, which partially anticipated the current demands for political freedom. The outcome of that meeting was particularly frustrating for Shanar. First of all, the Arab parties did not seem to have a clear vision on whether there should have been reforms or the only acceptable solution was the collapse of the regime; secondly, unlike the Future Movement, they did not enjoy a base of support among activists in the streets; thirdly, there was no agreement between Kurds and Arabs on the days to be chosen for mobilization, with the latter not willing to take the streets on March 12, the anniversary of the Qamishli riots.
If disaccord affects the relations with the Arab opposition, the Syrian Kurdish political scene is already fragmented by itself.
There are 12 Kurdish parties for around 1.5 million Kurds in Syria, many of them tied to the Kurdish parties based in Iraqi Kurdistan or in Turkey. Shanar prefers to be member of a fully local Kurdish party, strongly connected with the network of young activists. “As Future Movement, we insisted on ‘stopping the violence’ (waqf al-‘unf) as a conditio sine qua non for national dialogue,” recalls Shanar about one of their meeting with the National Movement of Kurdish Parties [ndr the major coalition of Kurdish political forces in Syria], “other parties preferred a more diplomatic approach, talking about ‘avoiding the violence’ (tajannub al-‘unf), as if brutal repression was not already taking place!.” On March 16, following major disagreements, the Future Movement, the Yakiti Party and the Azadi Party quit the greater Kurdish coalition. Shanar’s conclusions on the Kurdish political scene are quite eloquent: “I call the Kurdish coalition a ‘Group of Division and Nothing Else’ (Majmu’a taqsim wa la shi’).”
On the other hand, Kurdish groups seem to have developed substantial organizational skills and a greater freedom of mobilization than their Arab ‘allies’.
The youth taking to the streets of Qamishli during the day, usually sleep in the surrounding villages to avoid security raids in the night. They also thought about new ways to expand the uprising, bringing people from other neighborhoods to ignite those areas still relatively quiet. This is a strategy said to be adopted even in Midan (Damascus) and in the university campus of Aleppo, populated by Hourani and Kurdish students.
In the Future Movement, not everyone is active by joining the demonstrations: there is a press room, formed by a group of online activists coordinating people on the ground and spreading news outside Syria. Nonetheless, Shanar agrees that, because the epicenter of the riots is located in rural and peripheral areas with no regular internet access, the Syrian uprising will never be a ‘facebook revolution’.
The lesson learned in 2004 helped developing new modes of action. In these days, Shanar’s movement goes knocking on people’s doors to have them joining the protests, while ensuring the participation of whole families to maintain the demonstrations completely peaceful. This is clearly a freedom of movement, which dissidents in ‘security-armored’ Damascus cannot enjoy. According to Shanar, the Syrian authorities have avoided to intervene militarily in Qamishli for two reasons, firstly, because no campaign of civil disobedience has paralyzed the city yet; secondly, because military intervention would have meant opening two diametrically opposed fronts (Dara’a and Qamishli), thus weakening the state capability to control unrest in the rest of the country. In case of military intervention in Qamishli, the Syrian regime would still have to consider the reaction of the big Kurdish community living in Damascus and already active in the protests of Rukn el-Din. However, in the last weeks, military intervention has become the norm in several flashpoints –Jisr al-Shughur, Tal Kalkh- so that the opening of a new front cannot be categorically ruled out.
Remarkable mobilization skills cannot bring about alone the collapse of the regime. After three months of unabated bloodshed this is a matter of fact, even for Kurds.
Those dissidents who gathered in Antalya, between May 31 and June 1, are confident of affecting internal change by agreeing upon a platform of demands from abroad.  The Kurds, like their ‘brothers’ did before in Turkey and Iraq, do not oppose the idea of coordinating the opposition from abroad, but the Antalya conference was not welcomed by all the Kurdish factions. According to a blog on Kurdish affairs (Kurdistan Commentary), only 5 of the 12 Syrian Kurdish parties were invited to the conference and, even among these ones, some refused to participate because of the choice of Turkey, which is not exactly the most sympathetic country to the Kurdish cause. Shanar has no objection to the choice of Turkey, but she admits that a meeting in Europe would have been a better option.
Shanar is expecting more from the international community and particularly from Europe, for example an arrest warrant for Bashar al-Assad issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, it is unlikely that such a resolution would stop the violence, considered the limited powers the ICC showed to have when willing to extradite political leaders. Syria, like Sudan, has never ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC. Since no one is eager to see neither an embargo imposed on Syria, which would cause grievances mainly among the population, nor military intervention from the West, the international community does not seem to have many options left.
The fate of the Syrian revolution is more dependent on two other factors: economic asphyxiation and military defection. It is more about which one of these factors, if not the combination of the two, will turn the balance of power in favor of the opposition. “Even one million people working in the Mukhabarat are not enough to stifle the protests,” says proudly Shanar, “this is why they deploy the army, but relying on the armed forces is dangerous on the long run.” It is dangerous, firstly because defections could increase with the continuation of the bloodshed and, secondly, because it requires extraordinary military expenses.
* Shanar is Hervin Ose, one of the prominent figures of Mishaal Tammo’s Future Movement. Tammo was killed on October 7 (2011), while she left Syria in 2012.
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