The Iraqi Kurdistan region might have recently achieved a unique status in the history of the Muslim Middle East. As the regional government prepares to hold a referendum on its independence from Iraq in September, a relatively large group led by a Kurdish entrepreneur opened a counter-campaign, advocating an anti-independence agenda. The group’s leader, Shaswar Abdulwahid, announced the inauguration of the campaign, titled “No for Now,” in a press conference in Sulaymaniyah, the second largest city in the Kurdistan Region.
His speech was broadcast by almost every television channel in the region, including his own. The young Kurdish campaigner was recently in the United States holding private talks with American media, lobbyists and even statesmen to mobilize support for Iraq against the Kurds’ referendum. He safely landed back in Kurdistan last week to officially announce his campaign to vote “No.” He is not quite alone though. His fellow campaigners continue to appear on television, allegedly funded by the two ruling parties in the region, proudly vowing their support for Iraq to remain united.
A prominent Christian community leader and a Western-educated politician, Anoo Abdoka, thinks quite the opposite though. The Christian intellectual authored an article in recent days declaring that he, as a Christian, does not want to remain an Iraqi anymore. The article was widely shared in Kurdish social media circles, with unprecedented support from Christians for Kurdistan’s immediate secession from Iraq to become a sovereign state. The controversial article was published only a few days before an elderly Christian woman was assaulted by sectarian thugs in Baghdad. This week, one of Kurdistan’s top diplomats, Hemin Hawrami, tweeted in solidarity with the assaulted lady, inviting her to settle in Kurdistan.
In June, days after the Kurdistan Regional Government decided on its independence referendum, governor of the oilrich and disputed Kirkuk Najmaldin Karim addressed a populous crowd in three languages commonly spoken in the city. In his speech dedicated to promoting Kurdistan’s independence, Karim started with Kurdish, continued in Arabic and finally in Turkmen. The governor promised the people of Kirkuk that a prospective independent Kurdistan will belong to all Kirkukis, where there are four official languages. Kirkuk, where Kurdish Peshmerga repeatedly defeated the Islamic State in its environs since 2014, will be voting in the upcoming referendum to decide if it wants to stay in Iraq or be part of a future independent Kurdistan. Karim, Kirkuk’s neurosurgeon governor, speaks three of the four official languages but promises to learn also Syriac to address the Christian community in their own language.
Iraq’s prosperous Kurdistan Region continues to cling to the demonym “Kurdistanis” since 1991 when the regional government was established under the auspices of the US-imposed no-fly zone extending from the 36th parallel northwards. Despite the common use of “Kurdish” and “Kurds” in English-language publications to define the residents of the region, none of the laws passed by its parliament ever used these words to define the people in Kurdistan. Responding to Kurdish nationalists who are often offended by the lack of references to Kurds in the government’s rhetoric, all drafts of the region’s never ratified constitution defined Kurdistan as the land of all its residents regardless of ethnic and religious backgrounds. Kirkuk governor Karim follows the same path in a city that is predominantly Kurdish-inhabited.
A controversial issue between the region’s tiny Islamic groups and the government has been a verse in the region’s anthem, “Ey Raqib.” The anthem, authored by a 20-yearold poet in an Iraqi prison in 1938, reads, “Kurdistan is our religion, credo,” which is enough for Islamists to reject it. In conventions attended by the region’s president and battle-hardened Peshmerga generals, representatives of Islamic parties refuse to stand up for the national anthem. In Kurdistan’s neighbors Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey, disrespectful behavior to the national anthems of these countries is punishable by imprisonment. That being said, this is only if Iran’s mullahs are kind enough to send you to prison instead of hanging you publicly for treachery, or Iraq’s notorious Shi’ite militias don’t raid your house to teach you a lesson on how to be a good citizen.
Iraqi Kurdistan has been subject to a set of crises since 2013, ever since the former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the Dijla Operations Command in Peshmerga- controlled regions to “unify” Iraq after the US withdrawal. Since 2014, the regional government has not received a single penny from the central Iraqi government despite its constitutional right to 17% of Iraq’s overall annual budget. Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces fought ISIS on a front line some 900-km. long for over two years without receiving salaries because of the region’s Iraqi-imposed financial crisis. The region hosts over a million Iraqi-Arab IDPs (internally displaced persons) in its cities, where the indigenous Arabic population makes up less than 5% of the population but their language is officially recognized.
Today, Iraqi Kurdistan is counting the final days for its independence referendum, set for September 25. The financial crisis is likely to continue after the vote. ISIS may recover under a different name, or re-form to attack the Peshmerga on numerous fronts again. Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias may decide to fulfill their promise to overrun Kurdistan and ignite a bloody war.
Turkey and Iran may close their borders to the region, and Iraq may close its airspace to isolate it. But these risks are not linked to independence, these are constant risks that Kurdistan has lived through since 1991 as it established a government that does not ban opposition, persecute minorities, prohibit languages or employ religious militias to enforce divine rulings with weapons provided by external powers.
Kurdistan’s independence referendum may be controversial and disputed but both sides of the political arena in the region promise a tolerant system with respect for democratic values. The region’s semi-autonomous government advocates for an independent state that will belong to all ethnic and religious groups where being an oppositionist will not lead anyone to prison. The much weaker opposition aligns with Iraq and Iran against independence, but does not promote the persecution of minorities, intellectuals and activists as practiced in these countries. An independent Kurdistan, free from Iraq’s sectarian militias and never-ending political crises, may be seen as a valuable attempt to form the second democracy in the Middle East after Israel, and the very first in the Muslim Middle East.
The author is coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies in Tel Aviv.