Should the Kurds prepare for another betrayal in Iran's revolution?
First published at The Kurdish Centre for Studies.
The death of a Kurdish woman, Jina Mehsa Amini, on 16th of September has produced one of the most powerful uprisings in Iran to date. Jina’s murder has sparked an internal dialogue in relation to Iranian identity politics, which has also spread to an international level. As protests spread to the streets of Iran across dozens of cities and towns the name of ‘Mehsa Amini’ became a cry for liberation, freedom for women, students and other segments of society.
Yet this debate has resulted in uncomfortable discussions around what ‘Iranian freedom’ entails. Some have argued for the liberation of all oppressed and marginalized communities, while others have called for a sense of national unity under the slogan of ‘one nation, one flag’.
As the protests gathered steam, the Kurdish community in Iran, the largest ethnic minority group and a long oppressed and marginalized segment of society, showed discontent that the Kurdish identity of Jina has been glossed over, while long established Kurdish slogans such as ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi’ (Women, Life, Freedom) was openly used by the protestors. The tension over the use of Jina or Mehsa as the young murdered woman’s name may appear superficial and, as argued by some Iranian protesters, derails the main objective of the popular uprising.
However, considering not only the long history of oppression of the Kurds in Iran, but also the wider Kurdish nation’s efforts at cultural autonomy, highlights the importance of promoting the Kurdish aspect of the current protests.
The history of oppression of Kurdish uprisings
Since the imposition of the Sykes-picot agreement in the early 20th century the Kurds have been divided between the states of Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria and the Soviet Union. Their division came as a tragic colonial policy that has since resulted in decades of intense suppression, violent assimilation tactics, ethnic cleansings and even multiple genocides. The Kurds in Iran, with the Kurdish dominated region called Rojhelat, fared no better than their counterparts across the other regions of greater Kurdistan. In the early 20th century nationalism gained popular support and following Woodrow Wilson’s infamous fourteen-point speech in which former colonies were to gain independence, Kurdish nationalism likewise also witnessed a strong movement towards self-determination. The Pahlevi regime, like its neighboring states, had engaged in repressive Persianization policies of its various ethno-religious minorities in a bid to centralize power and government. Racist and exclusionary policies such as the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911, designed to promote Persian language and identity above other ethno-religious groups served to further alienate the Kurds from the central government.
Nevertheless, the Kurds of Rojhelat continued to advocate for their distinct ethno-cultural rights within the borders of Iran. Kurdish rebellions across the borders of Turkey and Iraq, as in the uprising of Sheikh Ubeydullah in 1879-81 against first the Ottoman Empire, and then the Qajar Iran and the efforts of the Barzani rebellions, resulted in corresponding uprisings in Rojhelat. The case of Simko Shikak rebellion of 1918 or that of the Republic of Mahabad in 1946 were the outcomes of the greater efforts by the Kurds towards autonomy or independence. In any case, Kurdish separatist efforts have been extensive and ongoing at least since 1918 to date as the central governments have increased suppression and violence towards the Kurds. The Republic of Mahabad was eventually brutally repressed with its leader President Qazi Muhammad and many of his close counterparts hanged publicly in the square. The budding Republic had existed for a mere 11 months, yet had managed to form governing institutions, removed Iranian police with its own Kurdish forces as well as established Kurdish as the official language. Mahabad left a strong and lasting impression on the collective psyche of the Kurds, least of all for its brutal end.
A prominent example that has significance for the current uprising in Iran for the Kurds is their participation in the 1979 Revolution. The 1979 Revolution was a popular, mass uprising that resulted in the removal of the Pahlavi Dynasty under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The outcome was the creation of the Islamic Republic under clerical rule of Ayatollah Khomeini. The religious clerics appropriated the revolution at the last moment, despite the fact that the uprising contained multiple leftist, secular and religious groups. The new clerical rule had ousted a secular, albeit repressive and authoritarian, pro-Western monarchy and replaced it with an anti-Western theocracy that was founded on the notion of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists. Essentially, however, the new regime was just as repressive and authoritarian as the previous monarchy. Just as importantly, this new Guardianship entailed not only a revival of the long repressed Shi’ite sect within the Middle East but also entailed a strong leadership in which Iran portrayed itself as a protector of Islamic, albeit Shi’ite, identity.
For the Kurds who had widely participated within leftist, Marxist and secular groups in the revolts, the two outcomes of the 1979 Revolution were disastrous. Not only were the Kurds primarily secular but also they were largely Sunni or other religions such as part of the Yarsani, Baha’I or Jewish communities. Although initially there were calls for greater Kurdish rights and even outright autonomy, dialogue between the Kurdish parties and the central government soon collapsed. A prominent speech given by Ayatollah Khomeini in which he rejected the notion of minorities existing in Iran as un-Islamic resulted in a fatwa, a religious edict, against the Kurds. The fatwa was issued in August of 1979 sanctioning the massacre of the Kurds as non-believers and separatists. The outcome was a brutal, ongoing war against the Kurds in which tanks, cannons and armed forces marched into the Kurdish regions and began massacres of the civilians.
Khomeini also dispatched his loyal follower, Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali, who had been promoted to the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Court and already known as “The Hanging Judge” to execute as many Kurdish political prisoners as possible. Thousands, including women and children who had barely stood before the judge were summarily executed or hanged. As the war of suppression continued, more Kurds were arrested, tortured, hanged or disappeared over the years.
The war against the Kurds wasn’t just a military one. It also entailed economic policies designed to deliberately keep the Kurdish dominated regions poverty stricken, lacking in widespread access to education and healthcare. The region, relative to the rest of Iran, has remained consistently underdeveloped and deprived to date. This policy was much of the previous monarchies trend of failing to modernize the Kurdish regions where no factories or roads were built. Likewise, the clerics refused Kurdish rights in the form of clothes, spoken language, writing or publishing or education in schools. Kurdishness was outright outlawed. Persianization became synonymous with the cultural genocide of the Kurds.
Similarly, in other parts of Kurdistan including in Turkey, Syria and Iraq the various regimes implemented the same policies. In Turkey, many Kurds followed the Turkish general Mustafa Kemal’s promise of a joint Kurdish and Turkish nation. Previously, Kurdish nationalist movements of Prince Muhammad of Rewanduz in 1839 and that of Bedir Khan Pasha of Botan of 1847 had been brutally quashed with the aid of German and British militaries.
The Kurds, nevertheless, joined the Turkish counterparts, but when the new Turkish state was created in July 1923 following the Laussanne Treaty, the Kurds suffered a major shock. Mustafa Kamal broke his agreement with the Kurds and immediately outlawed Kurdish identity, language, clothes, music and education. Subsequent popular uprisings by the Kurds continued, including that of Sheikh Sa’id of 1925, the Mount Ararat Uprisings of 1927-30 and that of Dersim Uprisings in 1936-1939. All of these uprisings were heavily and brutally destroyed. Decades of Kurdish resistance, uprising and revolts have continued even as Kurdish human rights activists and campaigners have suffered in Turkish prisons.
A similar trend followed the Kurds in Iraq, where Kurdish autonomy and freedom was exchanged by the colonial powers of the British, American and French governments for lucrative oil revenues. The Iraqi state was formed following the Sykes-Picot Agreement following the end of WWI. While promises of autonomy were given to the Kurds, by 1920 with the Treaty of Sevres and then finally with the Lausanne Treaty all hopes of autonomy or independence for the Kurds of Iraq was also quashed. What followed in Iraq was also decades of cycles of war, violence, displacement and ethnic cleansings, culminating in the infamous Al-Anfal Campaign launched by Saddam Hussain from 1987-1989. Arabization policies, razing of thousands of Kurdish villages, forced removals, the collection of men between the ages of 16-60 for mass executions and graves, as well as the use of chemical weapons on the Kurds colored this period. In 1991 the Kurds and the Shi’ites of Iraq rose up collectively against the Saddam regime’s barbaric treatment of the two communities following a call by the first Bush administration in the US. The uprisings lasted from March to April, but were eventually brutally repressed by Saddam’s Republican Guards. The result was over two million Kurds displaced, tens of thousands dead, executed, imprisoned and tortured.
More recently, with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) the Kurds launched a resistance movement that resulted in the infamous siege of Kobane city in Northern Syria, also called Rojava in Kurdish (Western Kurdistan). Following the commencement of the Syrian civil war in 2012, the Kurds immediately commenced autonomous self-governance and the formation of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). In the years that followed the Kurds formed a secular, inclusive, radical democratic model founded on the three pillars of gender liberation, ecology and democratic pluralism. The region has produced one of the most democratic, inclusive regions in the world which has been under ongoing repression from the Turkish regime across the border. The Erdogan regime has spared no expenses in launching dozens of violent annexation and brutal campaigns both against the Kurds in Rojava but also in Basur (Northern Iraq, South Kurdistan). Turkey has annexed the canton of Afrin as well as other crucial regions, while also empowering and arming violent terrorist groups in Syria to fight against the Kurds. By late 2019, the Kurds had lost over 12,000 YPG-YPJ forces in the fight against ISIS. Since 2014 the Kurds had worked closely with the American military in the fight against ISIS, in return for protection against Turkish incursions and invasions. Yet, by October 2019 Trump had announced that the US would withdraw its troops from the region in a bid to allow Turkey to invade the region. Following large-scale global outrage, the region was largely cleared of the American soldiers which acted as a buffer against Turkish invasion and Turkey launched a brutal invasion and military campaign in which chemical weapons were also used against civilians. Joe Biden, the current President, at the time strongly condemned Trump’s decision to betray the Kurds, but has since followed the same campaign of allowing the Kurds to be brutalized by ongoing Turkish invasions and airstrikes.
The Kurds long and unwavering commitment to freedom is only matched by the number of times they have been betrayed historically. Will the current Iranian uprising, which continues to appear leaderless repeat the same cycle of betrayals in the past is yet to be seen. Will their revolutionary labor ultimately help to create a similar authoritarian and Persian neo-nationalist government? History, at least, tells us that the Kurds should be extremely careful. This is especially important in light of increasing erasure of Jina Mehsa Amini’s Kurdishness, with her being reduced merely to an Iranian woman- as if her Kurdishness had no role to play in even her name, let alone her torture in prison and eventual death at the hands of the morality police. A perfect example is a recent article by Nahid Siamdoust, an Assistant Professor in Middle East and Media Studies at the University of Texas whose article “Women, Life, Freedom: A Slogan One Hundred Years in the Making”. The article goes on to discuss and highlight Iranian- read- Persian women’s activism in the last 100 years. Interestingly, the article does not once mention Kurds, Kurdistan or that Amini was Kurdish nor the intersecting ways in which ethno-religious minorities have suffered disproportionately more from oppressive state policies in Iran; nor that the majority murdered during the protests come from the Baluch and Kurdish communities. The Iranian movement must strongly disavow repeating the colonial practices of erasure and cultural appropriation so as not to lose the trust of the Kurdish segment.
No friends but the mountains?
The brief summary of modern Kurdish history indicates that the Kurds are often utilized for popular democratic movements and uprisings, only to find themselves further repressed and even more marginalized than previously. In light of this brutal and bloody history, it is essential that the Kurds of Iran carve out a distinct position in which their post-revolution rights are protected. History cannot repeat itself. Indeed, it cannot be allowed to repeat itself. For this reason, the Kurds of Iran need to formulate a plan in relation to the kind of autonomy or cultural rights they require. Perhaps this vision will entail a con-federal system such as the one being practiced by the Kurds in Rojava, or perhaps it will entail a form of autonomy as the Kurds in Iraq currently live within. Either way, a multitude of models and examples exist in which the Kurds can experience cultural freedom as well as peace.
The deciding factor, of course, involves the Persian and other factions of the current popular uprisings. As history has proven, most popular uprisings end up becoming replicas of the previous regime’s brutal and authoritarian systems. Indeed, elements of this troubling trend are present within the uprisings as Kurdish protestors have been denied the right to speak, declare their Kurdishness, raise Kurdish flags or have even been silenced in protests with the slogan of ‘one nation, one flag’.
If the current Iranian uprising is to be eventually successful and democratic, it must take into consideration the Kurdish element, their sacrifices and participation in the protests. Likewise, other marginalized communities such as the Baluch and Lors, amongst others must also be taken into consideration and all steps must be taken to ensure the protection of their rights and cultural integrity.
One thing is clear: the 2022 uprisings of Iran cannot be a repeat of the 1979 revolution. Human rights, cultural rights, women’s rights, children and environmental rights, and a range of other rights cannot be sacrificed to the will and whim of an elite, powerful group.
Dr. Hawzhin Azeez holds a PhD in political science and International Relations, from University of Newcastle, Australia. She is currently the editor of The Kurdish Center for Studies as well as the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist. Previously she has taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) as well as being a visiting scholar at CGDS (Center for Gender and Development, AUIS). She has worked closely with refugees and IDPs in Rojava as well being a member of the Kobane Reconstruction Board after its liberation from ISIS. Her areas of expertise includes gender and post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, democratic confederalism and Kurdish studies.