By Özdem Sanberk
The anti-Western jihadist ideology that swept aside all its alternatives throughout the Middle East continues to drag the region into turbulence. In this context, the democratic message that was echoed by the results of Turkey’s June 7 elections shines out as the last glimmer of hope for the Middle East. Yet if this singular ray of light were to be extinguished, the whole region would come to be engulfed in an impenetrable sea of darkness.
The total collapse of the Middle East continues unabated as ISIS, which was born in Iraq and then spread to Syria, grows stronger by expanding control over ever larger expanses of territory, not to forget its securement of a foothold in Western countries as well. No doubt, the emergence of such a disastrous context owes much to various overlapping dynamics that are historically rooted in and essentially endemic to the region. However, insisting that the origins of the grave suffering experienced by the people of the region today are solely of the Arabs’ own creation will result in nothing more than failing to identify the fundamental reasons behind the dire threats that have now come to confront the entire globe.
For over seventy years, nearly 150 million people – out of an estimated total of 400 million – in the Arab world have been struggling to survive while being deprived of even the most basic necessities required to establish a decent life due to successive occupations, exploitation, imposition, servitude, poverty, ignorance, depredation, injustice, and humiliation; hence, they have persistently been driven to the depths of despair. Obviously, militant organizations like ISIS which systematically exploit the overwhelming inequities in the region without remorse are far from delivering Arabs from their incessant misery. Nonetheless, the likes of ISIS will inevitably continue to proliferate as long as the rest of humanity insists on turning a blind eye to the unbearable conditions surrounding those affected.
Can we truly content ourselves with dismissive explanations of such widespread despair – which looms large over the whole Arab world like a nightmare today – that completely deny the role of the destructive policies of Arab regimes, of Israel, of the U.S., of Russia, of the U.K., and of other countries in the Global North over the past decades? When Germany’s first social democratic chancellor, Willy Brandt, seized the initiative and brought forward the eye-opening idea of a new world economic order in the 1970s, his call not only echoed with social democratic leaders all over the world including the Turkish prime minister of the time, Bülent Ecevit, but it also opened new horizons for humanity. But isn’t it also true that since Brandt’s call, all similar initiatives targeting the issues of mass poverty and inequity on a global scale have been fiercely “nipped in the bud”?
Still, the international community insists on seeing such discrepancies in economic welfare and the accompanying lack of social justice as a consequence solely of the failed policies at governance employed by Arabs and Africans, thus delaying the task of getting to the root of these problems. One does not have to be a great statesman or leading political scientists to grasp the simple fact that so long as this apathetic and callous attitude prevails among the international community, masses which are condemned to eternal poverty will continue to flock to despots promising a new way of life, no matter who they really are or how they want to reconfigure the society. What is worse, a significant portion of the people in the region will continue to blindly embrace the most extreme of ideologies that offer salvation through allegorical shock therapy.
Not only national borders but also demographic structures torn to pieces
This process of all-out regional collapse, which has virtually erased the long-standing post-WWI borders of Syria and Iraq, is resulting in another type of widespread calamity with the potential to effectuate long-term geopolitical repercussions, namely, mass migration. Indeed, the Middle East has experienced wave after wave of mass migration since WWII, yet, what ISIS has been doing for a year or so, when coupled with the complex problems in Iraq and Syria, which have respectively been ravaged by sectarian warfare and shattered to pieces by a bloody civil war, generates demographic currents of such colossal scale that they are reminiscent of those flows occurring in the immediate aftermath of WWII.
One of the unforeseen consequences of this massive population shift that was triggered by ISIS has been the recent demographic crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan, which was previously considered to be an island of relative stability in the midst of a vast region marked by insecurity. In this case, as refugees fleeing ISIS-controlled territories continue to flow into Iraqi Kurdistan, the total number of people belonging to various exogenous ethnic and sectarian groups – including Arabs, Turkmens, and Yazidis among others – has reached approximately one-third of the 5.2 million-strong Kurdish population in the region.
The complex problems associated with the ratio of minority populations rapidly rising to reach new heights are not limited to those that have a direct impact on the daily lives of locals. What is actually at stake is the Kurds’ long-held dream of independence. That’s because the once-monolithic population of the region that was composed purely of ethnic Kurds is now being replaced by a mixed population instead. Such a mixed population poses the risk of generating serious political and socio-economic tensions that can tip the scales against the native population’s favor. Moreover, the decline in oil prices renders the resettlement of refugees more expensive. As a result, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil finds itself in a rather disadvantaged position vis-a-vis the central government in Baghdad when it comes to negotiations on how to share the country’s total revenues from oil exports, and it is thus unable to act as independently as it used to.
On the other hand, despite the inconvenience caused by the heterogeneous distribution of Kurds in northern Syria, the PYD has come a long way in carving out a Kurdish corridor that links Iraqi Kurdistan to the Mediterranean. Successfully repelling the ISIS offensive thanks to U.S. air support, the PYD, which stands for the geographically-dispersed Kurdish population in Syria, managed to seize the cities of Tel Abyad and Kobane in the country’s northeast. As a result of the PYD’s recent advance, a huge number of Arab and Turkmen refugees piled up along our southern borders, with many of them eventually flooding into Turkish territory. This led to the accusation by Turkey and others that the PYD has embarked on an ethnic cleansing campaign in the territories it captured from ISIS with the aim of laying the demographic groundwork for a future Kurdish state.
At this stage, nobody can dispute the key role played by ISIS in reinforcing the already-present centrifugal forces and separatist tendencies in the region as it simultaneously invigorated ethnic-nationalist sentiments and the desire for independence among Syrian Kurds who were previously involved in a stern defensive against ISIS incursions into Kobane and Tel Abyad.
Nationalism and political Islam
Although nationalism, an essentially modernist ideology, lost its vigor to a certain degree in the West, which has already reached the post-modern stage of development, it is still a powerful driving force for ethnic groups in the Middle East which are yet to achieve the necessary conditions for establishing their own nation-states. Ethnic nationalism serves as an emotional cement particularly in the case of Kurds, who are scattered among four distinct countries. However, it also underpins the Kurds’ long-term geopolitical goals which nourish the ideal of independence, and functions as a legitimate basis for the creation of a Kurdish nation-state when circumstances may allow. Therefore, it can be deduced that ethnic-nationalism will surely remain the major motivator behind the Kurdish independence movement in the Middle East.
However, there is also another ‘legitimate basis’ which is popularly acknowledged as a true alternative to ethnic Kurdish nationalism due to its immense power and widespread appeal, namely, political Islam, with its highly assertive tone. The increasing rivalry between these two competing sources of legitimacy, i.e. ethnic nationalism on the one hand and political Islam on the other, will continue to play a crucial role in setting the future course of the Kurdish political movement. However, if this struggle evolves into a violent conflict for power and influence between ethnic nationalism and jihadist ideologies, both are most likely lose their legitimacy. The voting behavior of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens in the June 7 elections confirmed the validity of a similar rivalry within the Turkish context, though at the democratic level.
As a matter of fact, unlike previous elections, in which it was mainly Kurdish nationalist parties vs. conservative ones that sought the votes of all pious Muslims regardless of their ethnic background, the June 7 elections saw a significant portion of the pious Kurdish electorate in Turkey cast their votes with rather identity-related motivations behind. Apart from the overwhelming emotional aura created by the wars in Kobane and Tel Abyad, the pro-Kurdish HDP’s strategy of extending its reach beyond the usual left-wing and secular Kurdish nationalist electorate to incorporate particularly those religious and conservative Kurdish voters alongside leftist circles on a national scale definitely helped consolidate and broaden the social base of Kurdish nationalism.
Independence: Not in the immediate future
No doubt the Kurdish political movement will go through various other phases with the radical transformation process in the Middle East that is marked by violence. The ongoing demographic shifts in the region will surely continue to fuel ethnic nationalist tendencies and encourage Kurdish geopolitical ambitions. However, while the ethnic-nationalist movements in question keep provoking counter-nationalist reactions within the time-old countries of the region that host Kurdish populations, the Kurds will also need to face the greater reality that is essentially shaped by the clashing interests and strategies of both regional and extra-regional actors over the energy reserves of these countries.
Meanwhile, jihadist currents which receive nourishment from the anti-Western and violent doctrine of Salafism, and which have effectively swept away all the conventional ideologies in the Middle East such as Ba’athism, communism, Marxism, social democracy, and liberalism, will unfortunately continue to draw the entire region into a vortex of instability and uncertainty for the foreseeable future, as they remain the only attractive – albeit completely misdirected – ideology in the absence of rivals.
One of the rare developments which can be seen as a precursor to change even amid such a gloomy reality was Turkey’s June 7 election results that paved the way for the representation of a left-wing pro-Kurdish party with 80 seats in the Turkish Great National Assembly (TGNA). This pro-democracy message that was echoed all over the region when the results of the June 7 elections were announced is extremely important in the sense that it testifies to Turkey’s ability to alter its government through the ballot box. The election results in question stand as solid proof that the fate of even a completely devastated region such as ours does not have to be completely drenched with blood and tears. Thus, the results attest to the feasibility of handling rivalries and disputes according to the compass of democratic politics rather than lawless and violent confrontation, while also proving that representative democracy continues to offer a viable option against the backdrop of the extremely adverse conditions witnessed all around the region – yet only to the extent that free and fair elections are given a chance over totalitarian regimes, regardless of the latter’s religious, sectarian, or secular foundations. In the end, we all share the responsibility of keeping this flicker of hope alive.
*The resources used in preparing this piece are as follows: Rami, G. Khouri, “Good Grief: ISIS cannot be Fought with Facebook Likes”; James M. Dorsey, “Reconfiguring the Middle East: IS and Changing Demographics”; Galip Dalay, “Kurdish Nationalism has Never been as Potent a Force as it is Today – but there are Challenges Ahead”.
**This article was first published in Analist Monthly Journal’s August issue in Turkish language