U. S. Naval Academy
(An older version of this statement was also delivered at Johns Hopkins University on March 21, 2005)
April 4, 2005
Imagine I were an American and lived some sixty plus years ago and said I am for the Japanese invasion of America, or a Russian who concurred with the German occupation of the Soviet Union, or a Brit who declared his support for the Nazi attack on England. I would have been branded as a traitor and sent to the gallows by acclamation in America, the Soviet Union and Great Britain respectively. I am a Kurd. I am no less patriotic than an American or a Russian or a Brit who lived in the course of the Second World War. Like them, I want independence for my country and freedom for my people. Closer to these shores, if I have to make an analogy with your past, please, for example, do not use my name in the same sentence with Benedict Arnold. Do so with Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, Nathan Hale, and forgive me for my presumption, Thomas Jefferson. That is where I stand relative to you. This is why thousands of Kurds like me work around the clock to free Kurdistan from the yoke of the Turks, the Arabs and the Persians. So my answer to the question of should there be an independent Kurdistan is a clear, direct and resounding one, a categorical yes, and a thousand times on behalf of my friends, now and forever.
But before I share with you the story of the Kurds and Kurdistan, I want to tell you of a friend of mine who last November sent me a copy of Harper’s Magazine with a note that read, “Kani, take a look at page fourteen. See if you and your people could match the creativity of the Americans. Let’s face it; you can’t beat the combined forces of the Turks, the Arabs and the Persians. What you need is a clever tactic to outfox them one by one or all together. I would be curious to know if “Naked Aggression” could do it. If it does, don’t forget to credit the Americans for the idea. If it doesn’t, well, you get my point, continue putting those brain cells to work, if need be overtime, to do liberty’s thankless task for your brothers and sisters. Best wishes, Julie.” She even had a p.s.: “If you think a blond New Englander can help, let me know. But be in the know that I would need something stronger than beer to disrobe myself. Hint, a bottle of Turkish raki all to myself might just do the trick!”
I went to the referenced page and read the following announcement that was quoted from the summer issue of, Travel Naturally, titled, “Naked Aggression”. Because it is short, I want to read you the whole thing. “As you may already know, it is a sin for a Taliban male to see any woman other than his wife naked, and he must commit suicide if he does (which could explain the rash of suicide bombers around the world.) So, in honor of National Nude Recreation Week, on Saturday, July 10,  at 4 P.M. Eastern Time, all American women are asked to walk out of their houses completely naked to help weed out neighborhood terrorists. Circling your block for one hour is recommended for this anti-terrorist effort. All men are to position themselves on lawn chairs in front of their houses to prove that they are not Taliban and to demonstrate that they think it’s okay to see nude women other than their wives, and to show support for all American women. And since the Taliban also do not approve of alcohol, a cold six-pack at your side is further proof of your anti-Taliban sentiment. The American government appreciates your efforts to root out terrorists and applauds your participation in this anti-terrorist activity. God bless America. It is your patriotic duty to spread the word.”
If I say a smile didn’t cross my face, I would be lying to you. The idea was cute; the problem was with the enemy. The Turks, the Arabs, and the Persians who occupy our lands and force us to sing their national anthems and goad us to adopt their cultures are not hiding in the cellars, but marching on our streets in broad daylight and to the tune of trumpets. If our women were to go naked in front of them, some of these soldiers might think heaven has finally come down to earth, and aim for as many as 72 of our sisters per person mistaking them for houris promised to the Muslim faithful in paradise. Since we don’t have that many women to go around for the lechers of the occupying armies, it occurred to me that, if we were actually to undertake the suggestion, they might just fight each other to death, and leave us alone. That would be one big wishful thinking on my part. The reality, however, would be very, very different. The nudity would be construed as an open invitation for mass rape and the Kurdish husbands would shoot the hapless American who suggested the idea even at a prayer. So, while I was grateful to my friend Julie for her ready and biting wit in connecting the Taliban with the Turkish, Arab and Persian soldiers, the result would have been a disaster notwithstanding beer, raki or blond hair.
So, the “Julie Model” out of the way, I thought of your country for some lessons on how it had managed to unmoor itself from the clutches of one of the greatest empires in the world. For some reason, John Adams, your second president, came to my mind. In a letter to a friend, he had noted that in the best days of the Revolutionary War, the Patriots had the support of only one third of Americans, another third were Loyalists, and the final third were sitting on the fence waiting to see who was going to win. As someone who has dedicated twelve years of his life to the cause of Kurdish revolution, the letter spoke to me. But his observation, like that of Julie’s, doesn’t apply to the Kurds. The Americans fought one power, Great Britain, while another one, France, aided and abetted them. We are fighting three peoples, the Turks, the Arabs and the Persians; four countries, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran; and unlike your ancestors, no one has bothered to stand up for us, so far, in spite of our ceaseless efforts to respond to freedom’s call. There is more. Turkey, which controls more than half of the historical land of the Kurds and its corresponding population, is courted, aided and abetted, still, by the children of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Wilson. What has happened to your country? Can yesterday’s revolutionaries be today’s reactionaries? I have a Kurdish tale to share with you. You have a reputation and honor to uphold as befitting the children of liberty.
You are probably wondering how did we get ourselves into such a mess. It is a long story, but suffice it to note that our beginnings like the beginnings of other peoples in the world are shrouded in mystery. But our recent past, which is the source of much of our anguish, is relatively new. When your country was getting ready to declare its independence, my country was already carved up between Ottoman and Persian Empires. But just as your states had only nominal ties with the mother country, the Kurdish tribes or principalities had likewise a tenuous relationship with their Turkish and Persian overlords. For example, successive Ottoman sultans took pride in saying that they were the proud rulers of Kurdistan. But many Kurds never saw these rulers and these rulers, unlike their children who are now running Turkey, respected the national habits of the Kurds. The same “live and let live” attitude pretty much prevailed in the Persian Empire. Ehmede Xani, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, wrote his own version of Romeo and Juliet, Mem u Zin, and also put into writing his deepest yearnings for an independent Kurdistan. He was not hunted down as a heretic. Three hundred years later his book goes through redactions to be published in the place of his birth. And the literary critics who analyze his seminal work serve time behind bars on charges of sedition.
I am just a bit curious to know if we have any volunteers in the audience tonight who are willing to forgo their comforts of today and live, let’s say in the America of 1776 or of 1860s? You would not, and no one should fault you for it. If I tell you that I would switch places in a heartbeat to live in eighteen-century Ottoman Kurdistan, how many of you would believe me? You see things have gotten worse for us Kurds. I am glad you have been spared the misfortune’s slings and arrows as they say. In our case, we have been forgotten by God, abused by men, slated by law to wait for our ends not only as individuals but also as a people, as a nation, and as a country. Adolph Hitler, in the waning days of his misrule, wanted all Germans to die because in his words, they were not good enough to fight for him. We have not produced a monster like him, but others have stepped up to his plate and want us to bid a permanent farewell to the world. They are, to name just a few, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Saddam Hussein, Reza Pahlavi, Hafiz Al Assad, Ayatollah Khomeini, Recep Tayip Erdogan, and there is even a woman, a disgrace to her sex, among these miscreants, Tansu Ciller. Who are these criminals that are calling for the extirpation of the Kurds? Why aren’t they singled out as Hitler wannabes for their crimes against humanity? Aren’t the Kurds humans?
I am sorry to ruin your night but your cousins in Europe have the patent for this idea that has done some good in the world, but a lot of, and I mean a lot of, ill as well. Otto von Bismarck called it the “national principle.” Historians are pretty much in agreement that it came into the consciousness of European men with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. On that year, after exhaustive religious wars, the European heads of states heralded the new age of what we today call national liberation struggles. Men like Napoleon and Hitler wanted to subvert the emerging system to suit their personal egos, but were quickly brought to their senses, the first through an exile and the second through a suicide. In their wake equality of European nations became a goal in itself with its attendant blessings of peace, stability, security, and prosperity. Today, Germans rule only Germans. The Russians no longer dominate the Poles. If Scots have accepted to be part of Great Britain, it is not by force, but choice approved by the majority of the highlanders. That is why an institution like the European Union can come into existence, without a glitch, but not the “Thousand Year Reich” that Adolph Hitler thought he could saddle on the continent with himself as its founder and fuehrer for as long as he lived.
But the abomination called the domination of one race over the other goes on unabated less than one thousand miles from Berlin in the heart of the Middle East. What Adolph Hitler could not do with his undesirables and sub-humans in his six years of wars, the modern Turks together with the Arabs and the Persians have done a phenomenal work with their Kurdish populations in 82 years of “peace” prompting some Kurds to question if there is life before death. What kind of life is it that you can’t teach your own children your language? What kind of life is it that your radio sings not your songs but those of your oppressors? What kind of life is it that your television mocks you not during Comedy Central hour but on primetime live? What kind of life is it that you have to tell your little sons and daughters that they can never be the best, the best is reserved for the children of the masters, that they have to contend themselves with the crumbs and accept it, here is the hard part, as God’s will? And what kind of life is it that your enemies outnumber your friends and an indifferent world supplies them with the state of the art weapons including the chemical ones? That life and more was my lot till I sought refuge on these shores and it remains pretty much the same in much of Kurdistan like a nightmare that refuses to leave you alone.
I already told you that your cousins were the originators of the patent for the national liberation struggles. Let me also tell you that they were the authors of the death certificate of Kurdistan. Lausanne Treaty is the fancy name for it. It was signed on July 24, 1923. Ottoman Kurdistan, which constituted 76 % of Kurdish lands, was partitioned among the emerging states of the Middle East, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Iran claimed the title deed to the rest through the grandfather clause. There were also pockets of Kurds in the newly named Soviet Union. Winston Churchill, the Colonial Secretary for the British government, took it upon himself to play God with the peoples of the Middle East. Families whose immediate pedigrees included shepherds were declared kings and given tracts of lands to be called countries that survive to this day. Kurds were seen fit to be the lackeys of these newly crowned despots whose conduct required a microscope to differentiate it from the European fascism. Never were a subjugated people so carelessly divided or so heinously ruled in the history of the modern world. But as Malcolm X would say, the chickens have come home to roost. Dictatorships have produced monsters that are now attacking you as well. Your self-preservation and our self-determination have now become the two sides of the same coin. The question is will you rise to the challenge? Perhaps someone in the audience could make me privy to the to the prevailing sentiment in your government.
If you thought you could just support despots who practiced fascism and called themselves the Muslim world’s only democracy such as Turkey, or irrational violent nationalisms displayed by the likes of Saddam Hussein who passed as a stabilizing force in the region, or even the predecessors of Taliban, the Mujahaddin in Afghanistan who brought about the end of Cold War with all kinds of state of the art weapons and live happily ever after in your homes, think no longer so for a brand new world has descended upon us forcing you to make a choice similar to what your grandfathers grappled with over the issue of slavery. Then, mercifully, freedom won. Today it is maybe flourishing in some parts of the world, but there are many, many regions that suffer from man-made darkness of medieval proportions. These abominable systems used to be a world away from everything you knew and cared about, but 9/11 debunked that illusion once and for good. That is why your leaders are now awake at night at the White House. That is why the cultural genocide of the Kurds is no longer an isolated thing, but part and parcel of the ideology of hatred that hunts you as it continues to consume us.
Nothing was supposed to disturb this unholy consumption, but as Bismark once noted, events have a way of overtaking the plans sometimes. Last month, the Financial Times ran an article with the following provocative title, “Young Turks Discover Sudden Interest in Mein Kampf”. A German official was quoted as saying, “The availability and rising popularity of this book … are matters of serious concern to us.” I couldn’t help but mutter to myself did the German official expect the Turks to read the sermons of St. Francis of Assisi? As someone who follows the Turks closely and speaks their language fluently, why wasn’t I surprised about the news? Are we the residents of the same planet? What counts for the discrepancy in our feelings? Wait, if you think what I shared with you was shocking, let me tell you the amusing as well, there is another runaway bestseller in Turkey, this one called “The Storm of the Steel”, which depicts the toppling of the Turkish regime by your Marines. Hope is the driving force behind the sales in the Kurdish parts of the country, says a Kurdish comedian, and fear is what is driving the sales among the Turks, he adds with an undisguised glee.
Joke aside, why are these books so popular in Turkey? The criminals do not trust the present says a Roman maxim. Are the Turks afraid of the Kurdish gains in Iraq? There is no question in my mind that some of the highest ranking Turkish officials have trouble sleeping at night over what is happening to their south. President Bush has caught them with their pants down, if you will. Iraqi Kurds are marching forward with their gains for statehood within Iraq if possible, but without if necessary. If in a “backward”, according to the Turks, and despotic Arab country, the Kurds can get on their feet, what will the world say of “democratic” Turkey, according to the world, that to date gets tongue-tied to acknowledge twenty million Kurds in its midst? But as honest Turks would be quick to tell you, the fraud that is Turkey is entering a phase with no prospects of a U-turn. The winds of change are favoring the cause of subject peoples. It happened in another prison of nations called the Soviet Union. Why should Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran be immune to it?
I began my lecture with a letter from my friend Julie and would like to end it with one from your president to the peoples of Kurdistan. I do this on the assumption that wisdom has become the guiding principle at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, President George W. Bush has been fully apprised of the Kurdish Question, and has decided to pursue a new policy matching his rhetoric as “a servant of freedom”. Here is what it would say without further ado.
“To the Peoples of Kurdistan,
“I don’t want to come across Clintonesque and say I am sorry, ‘I feel your pain’, and supply Turkey with all kinds of weaponry to exterminate your race. I am as my critics are quick to note, a late bloomer of sort, not only in terms of my academics but also in terms of my responsibilities. As many of you may know, I was a heavy drinker for part of my adult life. At Yale, Cs were my favorite grades, but I always aced it with the members of the opposite sex. After college, I wondered a bit, traveled a lot, but never lost my interest in what I really liked in New Haven. At one time, I had seven different apartments “from sea to shining sea”. Then, I met Laura. I also discovered my faith. I am a different person now. I say these things because I believe, as my religion does, in the power of redemption. I am an example of it. You could, in your own ways, do it as well.
“I have thought long and hard about your plight. The closest thing that I can compare it to is my encounter with a passage in Moby Dick, America’s favorite novel by Herman Melville. In the lengthy tome, there is a boy named Pip, an African American helper, on the ship. In the course of a chase for a whale, Pip is pulled into the ocean and left, for an hour, to fight for his life to keep himself abreast of the waves. For it happens to be his second fall, and in the course of the first he is saved at the cost of a wounded whale making a run for its life. Stubb, his immediate supervisor, wastes no time to nag him, “Stick to the boat, Pip, or by the Lord, I won’t pick you up if you jump; mind that. We can’t afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama. Bear that in mind, and don’t jump any more.” He goes on to intimate, “that though man loved his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.”
“But when Pip is left in the middle of the ocean to fend for himself, Melville writes, “The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the innumerable, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved to colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.”
“I could not help but pause here and say look who is who calling who “mad”? I finally figured out that my country and the world has given you, the peoples of Kurdistan, the Pip treatment for the last 82 years. Such a blanket condemnation of an entire people is an ungodly crime, and as a born again Christian, I can never forgive myself nor be forgiven by God if I can stop it and choose not to do so.
“Accordingly, beginning today, I am doing what France did for America in 1776 or America did for France in 1917 and again in 1944 and that is to engage in a rescue operation by ordering our armed forces in Iraq to let you declare your independence in 18 % of Kurdistan. In so doing, I am also expressing my agreement with our 29th President Woodrow Wilson who noted some 88 years ago that if you want to make the world safe for democracy you have to support the right of subject peoples to self-determination. As to the rest of Kurdistan, you can count on me to support you not only because of our new friendship, but also because it is in my country’s national interest to extirpate despotism whenever and wherever it raises its ugly head.
May God bless the peoples of America and Kurdistan!
George W. Bush.”
As an avid reader of everything related to the Kurds, I can report to you with absolute certainty that this letter was neither contemplated nor penned for the peoples of Kurdistan. The day it is written, the world will see the rebirth of an old nation in the region, and the eventual truncation of three other states to their proper sizes to pave the way for the greater Kurdistan to emerge and assume its proper place among the community of nations. Only then can one speak of a European model of peace, stability, security and prosperity in the northern Middle East. Nothing else will do it. Every other effort will be a waste of effort not even worth comparing it to the herculean efforts of Sisyphus and his ceaseless efforts to push the famous boulder to the top of the mountain.