School of International Training (SIT)
August 17, 2004
If we were all birds, you would have healthy wings, mine would be broken. If we were all horses, you would have sturdy legs, mine would be limping. If we were all fish, you would have fins that would take you to all kinds of places in all kinds of waters, mine would be nonexistent. If this lecture hall were Kurdistan, a large blinking neon sign on the door would read, condemned, inside, activists like me would be laying on beds, shackled to them as lunatics, waiting, in vain, for a miracle, like the children of Underground Railroad Movement to come to our rescue as well as cure, but, would be visited by some deranged individuals masquerading as physicians, clueless about that sacred oath, “first, do no harm,” but ready to inject a deadly concoction into our broken and lacerated bodies to consign us to eternal oblivion, while in the rest of the world, athletes of free nations would be busy scoring gold medals at the Olympics, GIs would be busy waging a war in Iraq, and Americans would be busy getting ready for their November elections.
You can be forgiven for not knowing anything about the type of malady that has struck the children of Kurdistan or about the demented doctors that fate has placed over our heads and our lands that work feverishly to extirpate our very name from the map of the Middle East. Our foes have done an extraordinary job of keeping you in the dark while subjecting us to the closest thing to living in hell on this earth. But their days of passing as “democracies” or “theocracies” or you are going to love this, “cultural relativists,” while tinkering with genocides, both physical and cultural, let us hope and pray too, may be numbered. The appalling Kurdish situation is traveling, even if it is through the memories of the Kurds alone, to the four corners of the world. In Europe, in America, in Australia, we are licking our wounds, tending to our broken bones, repairing our souls and working around the clock to appeal to the court of world public opinion to help us bring an end to this nightmare of being molested at will for no other reason than coming into this world as Kurds.
Before I take you on a tour of the dark recesses of the human heart, before I point fingers at the criminals who have desolated Kurdistan and terrorized its children, before I identify their so called friends who pass as “lovers of humanity” and believers of the “Almighty God,” let me take you on a detour, have you see a place called MaDonal Restaurant, yes, you heard me right; it is the corrupted version of the familiar name, McDonald’s Restaurant, in Suleimaniyah, a city of seven hundred thousand Kurds, in Iraqi Kurdistan. The diversion, at first, is bound to bring a smile to your face; if it makes you cringe later, well, let us admit to a fact, we live, arguably, in some of the most dangerous times, say people like Thomas Ridge or Osama bin Laden, choose your pick.
The story is out of Iraq, but like most stories out of that forsaken country, it is difficult to make heads or tails of it. The reporter who stumbled onto it calls it, “an extraordinary story of politics and warfare, of idealism and enterprise.” At the beginning of it, you have a Kurdish patriot. In the middle of it, he has become an enterprising businessman. As these lines are uttered, there is no end to the story, but you have an uneasy feeling that something awful is afoot and that there is nothing that you can do to save the hapless Kurd from the vengeful wrath of the Islamist terrorists.
In the 1970s, this country was saddled with an administration that had the wily Henry Kissinger as the captain of its foreign affairs. For four million Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan at the time never a man so evil was ever born in the whole world. What Hitler represents for the Jews, this Jewish holocaust survivor comes close to doing the same dishonor for us Kurds. Long before anyone knew of Saddam Hussein, with the might of the United States at his fingertips, he encouraged us, a better word would be outmaneuvered us, to fight him in Iraq. He then did a complete U-turn and left us to the tender mercies of his soul mate in Baghdad. In the succeeding sixteen years, the Kurdish blood flowed like water. The bravest and the brightest were gassed as weed. The survivors were taken to the unmarked graves in the Arab desert to be disposed of like industrial waste. When the question of his treachery arose, this hypocrite had the gall to tell an investigative committee of the United States Congress, “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” Suleiman Qassab, the owner of MaDonal Restaurant, was then a fighter in the Kurdish resistance. He was one of the lucky survivors who sought sanctuary abroad and became a refugee in Vienna, Austria.
There, in a foreign city, with a foreign language, the best that this Kurdish expatriate could do was to get a job as a short-order cook at a McDonald’s. In 1991, the Kurds were in the news again. Again they were encouraged to fight Saddam Hussein and again they were abandoned, this time, by senior Bush. But then a miracle happened. Two members of the gentler sex, the first ladies of France and England, goaded their reluctant husbands to goad their equally reluctant friend, George Bush Sr., to stop Saddam Hussein from going after the Kurds. The kindhearted scored an impressive victory over the lowminded in the darkening annals of human history. The United States undertook a humanitarian mission to establish the no-fly zone. Peace revisited our lands. Prosperity followed in its wake.
The Kurdish expatriate, now a seasoned short-order cook, smelled an opportunity in the safe haven. He wanted to have a McDonald’s Restaurant of his own. He applied for the necessary permits. He was told there were problems. Iraq was a pariah state. Kurdistan was not recognized. And the McDonald’s Corporation could not deal with him as an individual. Impatient to put his plan to work, Mr. Qassab did what enterprising people in such situations would do all over the world, he tinkered with the idea a bit, changed its name a tad, and opened his house of burgers as a new place, calling it, MaDonal Restaurant with its Big Macs, fries, and coke. A novelty, the business boomed. And when the US troops moved into town, he offered them food for free, and told them they did not have to pay at all for the next three months.
But then something awful happened. A dark cloud made its appearance over his restaurant last February. On the first day of that month, two suicide bombers blew themselves up, inside the headquarters of two Kurdish parties in Hawler, a neighboring city, turning the place into a slaughterhouse with the body parts of over 100 Kurds. A few days later, someone called Mr. Qassab and told him that his restaurant was next. When a reporter asked him what he thought of the threat, he said, “I don’t know what is in the heads of those Islamists. They are treating us as an American Embassy — but food is international, isn’t it? Everybody eats.”
Time will tell whether Mr. Qassab will survive his Islamist tormentors, but time also commands me, in these fleeting moments that we have, to be a good guest, to acknowledge my debt, and to recognize the person who has invited me here to share with you a bit of my Kurdish story this morning. It is his hope as well as mine that this Kurdish lecture will, at least, give you some food for thought as you go about your noble task of becoming better guardians of the young minds that come under your care. My host is both a staff and faculty here. One thing I liked about him, right away, is that he has married a daughter of the Middle East. In Kurdish we have a joke that a man has no roots until he finds his partner, and then he is no longer from his own hometown, but that of his bride’s. So this kind teacher is now one of us. Just like many in the Middle East as well as here, he is deeply troubled with what is going on in Iraq. If he had it his way not missiles but students would be exchanged between countries. If he could do it all over again not smart bombs but smart students would have been the way to go after Saddam. My new friend, your old colleague, is Christian Sinclair. Please join me in giving him a hearty round of applause for being a role model to us all.
What is the story of the Kurds? What have we done to earn such enmity and indifference in the world? Can we survive the unbridled culture of intolerance and violence running amok in the Middle East? President Bush is a born again Christian and fond of saying, “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is the Almighty God’s gift to humanity.” If so, can we count on his support, at least, in Iraq? If not, what do we have to do to remind him that we too are the children of God? A free Kurdistan, if tyrannies are the declared enemies of America, as President Bush says they are, will deal a deathblow to four of them at once. Do you think we could count on his support? He is, after all, your president.
Taking one last jab at our MaDonal story, what will happen if the so-called American Embassy in Iraqi Kurdistan is reduced to a pile of dust? What will happen if your own students are taken captive in Jordan and Syria and should I profane this room with the unthinkable that is on our minds? Is it possible that then some nativist elements in this country would also take the law into their own hands and, let us say, lynch people who look like me, or blow up your local falafel place? Could these be the early tremors of an impending earthquake across the fault lines? I said fault lines, right; there is a booming industry serving the purveyors of bigotry, both in the East as well as the West, to draw the world apart. Their predictions fill me with trepidation, as I am sure they do you. But I have been struck with another affliction, that of making sense of another aberration, that of understanding the degeneration of Islamic civilization from within, especially as it relates to the Kurds. Or as Osama bin Laden would have put it: its subservience to the West beginning in 1920s.
Osama bin Laden may be right about his date, but he is off about his diagnosis that the West is the address for all the woes of Islam. In an open letter to America, he elaborately belabors on the wrongs endured by the Muslims along the fault lines, Arabs in Israel, Chechens in Russia, Kashmiris in India and Muslims in Southern Philippines, but not a word is wasted, on behalf of the Kurds, also Muslims, subjected to even greater evils in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, all Islamic countries. It may be news to him as well as to you that thousands of Kurds, including this one, would die ten times over to be an Arab in Israeli occupied Palestine than a Kurd in the Turkish desolated Kurdistan. The Israelis for all their follies of not wanting to accommodate the Palestinians have never banned the Arabic language; the Turks have decreed ours nonexistent. The Russians, for all their faults, have never used chemical and biological weapons against the Chechens, save that single assault on that theatre house in Moscow; Saddam Hussein has used them on our loved ones, hundreds of times, while also shamelessly posing as a defender of the Palestinians. The paradigm of the clash of civilizations, Samuel Huntington and Osama bin Laden notwithstanding, does not work in Kurdistan. Finding out what does is the challenge of not just the Kurds, but also the lovers of humanity all over the world.
What would you do if you were a Kurd, treated like a retard by the West, and viewed as nothing more than a beast of prey to be tamed or extirpated by the East? In such a hostile world, would you fault us, if we started wandering on high seas, like the surviving Trojans, looking for a quiet corner of the world to create another Kurdistan beyond the reach of the tyrannies of the Middle East and the indifference of the West? If you know of such a place, please see me afterwards, we have the name of the Kurds, we could restart the whole thing all over again. But as we both know, there are no unclaimed corners on this earth. Robbed of our language, of our dignity, of our claim to the land of our fathers, can anyone fault us for wanting to fight our foes or wishing havoc on them? Cato the Elder used to end his statements in the Roman Senate with his proverbial declaration, “Carthage must be destroyed.” He uttered those words against a state that was not in possession of the Roman lands. Would it be wrong for us to wish the same for Iraq today, now that it is going through some hard times, since it never accepted our existence when it was on its feet? The same, of course, would apply to Turkey, Syria and Iran as well.
I would be asking you too much if I urged you to help me destroy four states that are habitual abusers of the Kurds. But I should probably leave you with some thoughts that you might consider in the course of this conference as well as afterward. You cannot be both a friend of Turkey and a supporter of the Kurds. You cannot oppose the American occupation of Iraq and hold no opinions about Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds. You cannot say that we should be accepting of Syria and Iran when both are committed to the eradication of the very name of the Kurds and Kurdistan. If you do, I have no choice but to quote you Dante, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those, who in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” Should I tell Dante the bad news, when I visit him in the next world that the American government was not neutral at all, and that it was actually aiding and abetting the mortal foes of the Kurds and Kurdistan? You be the judge, and tell me what to do, as the good name of this country is squandered all over the world.
Should I go on? Two years ago, at an Oval Office meeting, President Bush told the Prime Minister of Turkey, Erdogan, “You believe in Almighty, and I believe in Almighty. That is why we will be great partners.” I have to assume the president is clueless about the ongoing cultural genocide of the Kurds in Turkey. The facts are out there but no one is bothering to look or absorb. Twenty thousand Kurds in Stockholm, Sweden, a country that views cultural diversity as an asset rather than a liability have produced more Kurdish cultural works in twenty years than 20 million Kurds of Turkey in 81 years. The discrepancy comes not because we send our brightest to Sweden, but because the country in Europe is a paragon of liberty and probity while that of the Middle East goes ballistic if it hears the words, Kurds and rights, in the same sentence. Last June, Turkey announced to the world that it was going to begin broadcasting in “languages other than Turkish.” If it had said, come August, our athletes will win all the gold medals at the Olympics in Athens; I would have been less surprised. Why such skepticism you might ask? It is because I know Turkey and you, unfortunately, do not.
On June 9, 2004, the long anticipated faceless Kurdish program made its debut on the state owned TRT3 television station. I realized once more, as if I needed reminders, that nothing in the world makes the Turks happier than subjecting the Kurds to cruelest forms of humiliation. If you thought the words, “lifting of the ban,” meant the unfettered use of the Kurdish language or its equality with the other language of the country, Turkish, think again, apparently, the words “lifting of the ban” in Turkish mean something else. But perhaps before I share with you what happened, I should tell you what should have happened had the announcement been made in good faith. If it were, a contrite Prime Minister of Turkey would have scheduled a primetime address with perhaps some of the following sentiments.
“I begin in the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, and offer you my sincerest apologies for not only banning your language, but also calling it nonexistent. Truth has finally caught up with us, even in this late hour, to say that what we did was wrong and abominable. As every one of you knows from personal experience, not only did we declare your language an enemy, but also marshaled the awesome power of the state to ridicule it. We hated you. And you hated us in return. That is what happens if you put the laws of state above those of God. Hopeless as may look the situation now, I am hopeful. I find it comforting that far greater honor is bestowed on those who forgive than those who ask for forgiveness. I trust, unlike us, you will set a good example. Good night and May God forgive us as well.”
No such sentiments were felt nor expressed. Instead, the Turkish officials who have trouble differentiating reforms from shows, the way a blind man would have trouble differentiating the black from the white, told a skeptical population that not only Kurds, but also Bosnians, Arabs and Circassians lived in their midst. The Kurds, they went on to note, were so varied in their languages that they actually qualified as two peoples: Zazaki and Kurmanji speakers. If you are thinking of what I am thinking, divide and rule, don’t; it was more like, divide and mock, and do so, in the two dialects of the Kurdish language. If you want to wince here, go ahead, get ready: most Kurds missed the program anyway. Many don’t own satellite dishes to access the channel that aired the show. There is more to the farce, it was only thirty minutes per week, well, I take it back, 20 million Kurds were luckier than a few hundred thousand Circassians, for we got thirty minutes, twice, in the two Kurdish dialects. And the program, in case you are curious, was not on primetime, but at 10:00 am in the morning. And the content, this is my favorite part, was on civilization. It was like Adolph Hitler preaching to the Jews on the virtues of tolerance. It was surreal. It still is.
I have finally come to the end of my lecture. Given the preoccupation of this country with new terrorist attacks, I thought I would share with you a quote from the findings of the 9/11 Commission and couple it with some of my own parting words. First the quote, “America stood out as an object for admiration, envy, and blame. This created a kind of cultural asymmetry. To us, Afghanistan seemed very far away. To members of al Qaeda, America seemed very close. In a sense, they were more globalized than we were.” With the exception of a few color codes, America’s preoccupation with its deep sleep continues. In the year 2002, only six students matriculated with a degree in Arabic language from this nation’s colleges and universities. In 2003, the number went up to 22.
And now the parting words: self-complacency is not an asset but a liability in our interdependent world. Knowledge of others by itself is not a panacea, but only helpful to a certain degree. What is needed is coupling it with tolerance, respect, love, and liberty for the Kurds as well, that could bring us a semblance of justice, peace, and happiness. Some two thousand years ago, when Rome was convulsed with the violence of Mark Anthony, Cicero warned him, “The protection you need is not weapons, but the affection and goodwill of your fellow citizens.” The great counsel was not taken. But the timeless admonition has lessons both for Americans as well as the Kurds. America suffers from an abundance of arrogance within; Kurdistan suffers from a shortage of compassion without. This road has been traveled before. Valor produces fear; justice generates love. We cannot afford to err; you cannot afford not to lead.