Displaced sentiments: Consuming national identity abroad in Kurdistan’s vote for independence
Picture by the author.
Two years since the Kurdistan Region (KR) held an ambitious independence vote to secede from Iraq in 2017, I travelled through the contested Nineveh Plain. There was fatigue everywhere – among border guards, in the architecture. Still, the subtly smiling face of Masoud Barzani, the referendum’s helmsman, was pictured alongside the Alaya Rengîn in every office, roadside and billboard.
This imagery had captivated Western audiences in the leadup to the vote. Media captured and elevated the national fervour; The New York Times praised Kurdistan for taking in ‘nearly two million refugees… An independent Kurdish state would be a victory for democratic values.’ The Telegraph and the Guardian shared similar sentiments.
And Barzani anticipated this reaction.
Migrants are usually either the scapegoat or the saviour in the polls. Among the flag-waving and international coverage, they are peddled as a metaphor for a nation’s identity by ambitious politicians and the media. Narratives surrounding multiculturalism evoke civic ideas of community based on citizenship and inclusivity. Yet other poisonous rhetoric can also label asylum seekers as a threat to a society’s ethnic, cultural or political fabric.
In the leadup to the vote, Barzani tapped into a bias deep within Western ideas of nation to seek international support: the virtues of civic inclusivity and the imperative of ethnic identity. Barzani’s public portrayal of internally displaced persons (IDPs), many comprised of ethnoreligious minorities – including Yezidis, Shabaks, Chaldo-Assyrian Christians and Turkmen – exposes this disturbing dynamic.
Many of these minorities have lived on the periphery of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s territorial claims in Iraq, specifically in the Nineveh and Kirkuk governorates. During Iraq’s turbulent modern history, many were physically caught between belligerents, forced to emigrate or displaced internally to the KRI.
Referring to these displaced minorities, Barzani nobly proclaimed that ‘if they want to be in the Kurdistan Region, if they want to have relations with Baghdad, if they want to choose some other way, so be it’. To an audience at the Atlantic Council, Barzani continued: ‘We believe that we have a humanitarian as well as a national responsibility in order to assist those who needed our help and those who fled violence’.
In Barzani’s own words, ‘This would be a nation state, not built on one ethnic group. It would be based on citizenship.’
However, the referendum would lack meaning without a Kurdish national identity attached to it. The articles that proclaimed democracy in northern Iraq also shared their grief with Iraqi Kurdish history, effectively deciding that ‘the time is now’ for emancipation.
Thus, Barzani drew from the ethnonationalist playbook, evoking the Anfal genocide in his appeals for Kurdish independence, a tragedy imbued with a perceived Kurdish identity. To international media outlets, he explained that ‘in 1991, we went to Iraq and negotiated with those criminals that were responsible with the chemical bombardment’. He told Al-Monitor: ‘What other way do we have? … 2,500 of our villages were destroyed; 182,000 people perished; 12,000 Kurds remain unaccounted for; 8,000 members of my own family, the Barzanis, were killed; 5,000 people were gassed to death in Halabja.’
This is not to undercut the abhorrent conditions that Kurdish populations endured during Saddam Hussein’s incumbency. But Barzani’s rhetoric illustrates a strategic evocation of Kurdish identity for international support, and forces the question: can we have both civic values and ethnonationalist sentiment in a national community? Looking at how the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has treated IDPs, rose-tinted glasses might need to be swapped for shades.
After the restructuring (to use the popular euphemism) of the Iraqi state by the United States, and, with it, the KRG’s consolidation of autonomy in 2005, IDPs faced considerable obstacles in the face of a burgeoning Kurdish nationalist project.
Minority Rights Group International reported that displaced Chaldo-Assyrians found 58 of their villages ‘partially or fully occupied by Kurds’, some even engulfed by new settlements supported by the KRG. Likewise, in KRG-controlled Kirkuk the return of Turkmen populations found much of their resettlement blocked.
Shortly after IS captured Mosul in 2014, Barzani announced his referendum to the BBC. His PR campaign took off while restrictions on IDPs intensified.
Most notably, movement from refugee camps was blocked. Chaldo-Assyrians faced political marginalisation, unable to protest against the referendum in the major towns of Duhok and Erbil, citing threats from the KRG’s secret police. This was possible as Iraqi-issued identification cards specifically list an individual’s ethnoreligious affiliation.
The KRG soon drove IS out of Sinjar, and Yezidis also found themselves indefinitely immobile. Those who now lived in surrounding camps, close to their homeland, were unable to return. Those who planned on protesting KRG restrictions were told by Barzani that the Peshmerga would ‘create another security vacuum, if the Yezidi community did not side with the [KRG]’.
Displaced Shabaks were encouraged to identify as Kurdish in exchange for security. The KRG bankrolled Shabaki community leaders, who organised support within camps in the KRI, distributing Kurdish flags and banners to orchestrate a semblance of political support for the Kurdish independence project. One Shabaki activist described the precarious situation: ‘People in the camp are like people in prison: any order that comes they have to follow. Otherwise, they fear they might be thrown out or not get help with food or non-food items. These people have nowhere to go.’
Thus, when a political community claims their treatment of IDPs (author’s note: their fellow nationals!) is in line with a civic national identity, this must not be taken at face value. Surely, holding a political community accountable to the same standards they themselves proclaim should not be farfetched.
Perhaps the issue lies in the concept of self-determination. While sociologist Amitai Etzioni’s notably scathing critique of this idea might seem cold and distant (‘it is time to withdraw moral approval from most movements and see them for what they mainly are – destructive’), he makes us question the empirical fabric of such claims. Are ethnic groups entitled to decide their own future? Certainly. But surely not at the expense of their neighbours.
Western media facilitates this problem. Indeed, we tend to forget that votes and self-determination claims are also consumed abroad. Barzani feeds into a section of the West which desires to see a Kurdish nation. For those migrants who are victims of the political and national language game, their material experience is all too often lost in rhetoric and displaced sentiments.
Joseph is a recent graduate of International Relations at the University of Queensland, specialising in national identity and state formation in the Middle East. He currently works as a legal aid for urban refugees living in North Africa, and is pursuing ethnographic research into the state’s evolving responsibility over displaced persons. He can be reached at: .