Beyond Muslim Brotherhood

By Tristan Mabry | Crossing the border from Turkey into Iraq is confusing. The route is very clear—there is only one open crossing between the two countries—but after stepping across the frontier, one finds no visible signs of Iraq. The flag waving over the border features a bright yellow sun instead of the three black stars of the current flag of Iraq. And nobody is speaking Arabic.

This is clearly Kurdistan, or at least a sizable chunk of it, that is now known formally as the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. I had come here to continue my fieldwork investigating the cause and character of Muslim minority nationalism [“Gazetteer,” November/December].

Of course, I felt some anxiety about entering a country now synonymous with “improvised explosive devices” and suicide bombers, but my driver from the Turkish border to the Kurdish capital Erbil put me at ease by asking if I had any music to play during the long drive. He was hoping for anything by one of his two favorite artists: J.Lo. and 50 Cent.

Most of my friends and family were somewhat incredulous about my trip to a war zone, though it must be said that the north is best understood as the other Iraq. Yes, there is a massive military presence (all Kurdish) that bristles with firepower. Yet after growing accustomed to the regular sight of heavy machine guns bolted on the back of pickup trucks, and security details sporting dark glasses and body armor, it becomes clear that all this weaponry is defensive. You get the feeling that if any misguided militant from the south pulled a gun in the north, he would be blown to smithereens within seconds.

In many ways, the Kurds are an archetype of the political species I have come to study—Macedonians, Persians, Arabs, Turks, and the British have all, at one time or another, occupied the Kurdish homeland. For most of the 20th century and until the present, the Kurdish people have lived divided among four states: Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. What is especially interesting here for my work is that in each case the Kurds are a Muslim minority population living in a Muslim majority country. According to a notion popular in American political science as well as at many media outlets—in which there are politics and then there are Muslim politics—this should not present a problem. Since they are all followers of Islam, Muslim majorities and minorities should get along just fine.

The Kurds beg to differ: in Turkey their language was outlawed; in Syria, they were stripped of their citizenship; in Iraq they were displaced by waves of Arab migrants and were attacked with poison gas as part of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal campaign. So much for a “Muslim Brotherhood.”

If understood as an ethnic conflict, however, the point that the Kurds speak a language unrelated to either Turkish or Arabic makes immediate sense: competing languages are a common catalyst for political conflict. Since the end of the Ottoman Empire, the status of Kurdish as an official language of state institutions, including the civil service, media, and public education, returns again and again as a consistent critical demand of Kurds as they struggled with successive regimes in Baghdad. Despite sharing their observance of Islam, it seems a community of the faithful is first a community of cultures.

In the wake of the first Gulf War, the Kurds even fought among themselves. Rival political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, clashed over control of the newly autonomous region protected by the Allies’ no-fly zone.

Most Kurds talk about the civil war reluctantly and with a hint of embarrassment, as if recalling an ugly family incident the first time the in-laws came for dinner. The two parties now peacefully share the administration of the Kurdish Region in separate governorates, though the current government, based in the geographically centered capital of Erbil, is working to merge the parallel civil services and executive agencies.

As luck would have it, my visit to Iraq coincided with the referendum on the new constitution. The big day, October 15, felt like a festival: streets were festooned with bright banners and many families put on the local equivalent of their Sunday best to mark the occasion. The streets, however, were clear of traffic, as vehicles were banned as a security precaution. Moreover, the morning turnout was somewhat muted as the date fell during Ramadan, a time of fasting when few people get up any earlier than absolutely necessary. As a foreign correspondent for The Pennsylvania Gazette, I secured an all-important press pass that allowed me to move freely in and out of polling stations. As the day wore on, it was clear that Kurds were very proud of their hard-won right to vote, though some had misgivings about the draft constitution.

This document unequivocally gives Kurdish status as an official language of the country, but a few citizens were disappointed by a last minute amendment that also made Arabic an official language of government institutions operating inside the Kurdish region. Still, the future of Kurdish in Iraq is now more secure than at any time in the last century. Remarkably, there is an effort to merge the two dialects of Kurdish in Iraq into a bona fide national language. In this case, the strength of sharing a national identity as Kurds trumps any quarrels between Kurmanji and Sorani. They are united also by a strong dislike for Arabic: not the sacred language of their holy book, but the modern form that forcibly displaced their mother tongue for decades. While the first language of all school children is Kurdish, the Ministers of Education in both governorates told me they are developing a more robust curriculum for the second language of public education: English.

Moving from Kurdistan to the next case of comparison in my cross-regional project, I landed in Karachi. This former capitol of Pakistan is still the capital of Sindh, a southern province that straddles the banks of the Indus River. Some regional differences were apparent immediately. In Kurdistan taxi drivers politely refused excessive tips; in Karachi a driver wanted me to first buy a rug and then rent a companion. But from my perspective, the single greatest difference is the attitude toward Americans. It is not enough to say the Kurds like Americans: they love Americans, and with the same joy that the French once showed after the liberation of Paris. In Pakistan, many people ascribe all their country’s political problems to the dominance of ethnic Punjabis and their control of a military that is supported by (some would say owes its existence to) the United States.

But in other ways, Kurds and Sindhis are much alike. Their languages are related members of the Indo-European family. Both their lands have been inhabited for millennia, crossed by Alexander the Great, conquered by the British and then, much more recently, colonized by economic and political migrants.

I was introduced to the Sindhi people by Dr. Munawar Halepota. A gerontologist now working in England, he started life in a small village in the far southwest of Pakistan. He is also the chairman of the pro-independence Sindhi National Conference. The last time he traveled home he was arrested and saved from summary execution only by a British passport. He was allowed to return this year to bury his mother and brother who died separately and suddenly within days of each other.

As clan patriarch, his visit was a major event and I was honored as his guest. I arrived the night before the end of Ramadan, an occasion something like Christmas Eve, so I was charmed to join his cousin, the local police chief, for more than a few rounds of whisky before hitting the sack. In the morning, however, it was time for church—that is, prayers at the village mosque. It was clear my shirt and trousers were not proper attire, and I was graciously presented with a brilliant white salwar kameez, the ubiquitous baggy cotton suit that hides the figure and beats the heat, as well as an embroidered skullcap. The men of the village welcomed me warmly (the women prayed elsewhere) as I joined in the holy observance, standing, bowing, and kneeling in unison. My Irish Catholic grandmother may not have approved, but I found the entire experience very soothing. At the end of prayers, all present stood and embraced each other with the words “Eid mubarak” (again, think “Merry Christmas”). Everyone must hug everyone, so it is safe to say I had the breath squeezed out of me by an entire village.

Another advantage to being the guest of a Sindhi nationalist leader was the opportunity to sample some fantastic dishes prepared for special occasions. Bhat, for example, is a spicy mix of rice, heady masala spices, and meat—in this case tender young water buffalo. At the end of the meal, we ate a dessert made from the first milk given by a cow immediately after giving birth to a calf. The rich cream congeals into a sweet and firm solid with the texture of a very dense custard. (The name of this treat is piss.)

The Sindhi people pride themselves on their excellent hospitality. This was the case in 1947 when the creation of Pakistan brought waves of Urdu-speaking Muslims from the north of India to settle primarily in the commercial center of the new Islamic republic, Karachi. The trouble, of course, was that Karachi was already inhabited. Since Urdu had gained status as the language used by Muslims working in the colonial civil service, Pakistan made Urdu its official language. As a lingua franca Urdu is mutually intelligible with Hindi (despite using different scripts), but mutually incomprehensible with Sindhi. Sindhi, a language with centuries of rich literary heritage, was suddenly displaced from public life in its titular homeland. From the 1960s, Sindhi nationalists gained strength in a movement to both restore the status of their language—which was also used by the British in their administration of Sindh—and to access the higher ranks of both the private and public sectors that had come to be dominated by migrants (called Mohajirs) and Punjabis, respectively.

In 1971, Pakistan cracked and Bangladesh was born, the progeny of a movement that started in earnest in the 1950s during the attempted imposition of Urdu over Bengali in higher education. Fearing a copycat secession of Sindh, the military supported the creation of a political party defined by the language and ethnicity of the migrants who had come to dominate Karachi. The Mohajir Qaumi Movement or MQM quickly earned a reputation as a ruthless political machine supported heavily by working class Urdu speakers. MQM tactics, however, disturb the middle and upper classes of Karachi, who are especially fearful of reprisals by a party that is now associated with extortion, graft and a predilection for violence. As the owner of a large factory told me, the MQM are “nothing but a bunch of terrorists.” The idea that both Mohajirs and Sindhis should share their common identity as Pakistanis, where all Muslims are equal, doesn’t sit well with Sindhis who see Mohajirs as far more equal than others. Nonetheless, many Sindhis express a willingness to share their homeland with the Mohajirs, but not with the MQM.

Unlike many other nationalist movements, Sindhi nationalists routinely disavow violence, citing a culture infused with the ethics of Sufi tolerance. Rasul Bux Palijo, a veteran leader of the Sindhi nationalists, told me his people can succeed only with a broad-based social movement modeled on the non-violence of Gandhi’s “Quit India” campaign to oust the British.

Tragically, the situation in Sindh may deteriorate before this kind of social movement gains momentum. The Indus River, the lifeblood of rural Sindh, is constricted by a series of dams upstream, most in Punjab, that now squeeze the flow like a tourniquet. In lower levels of the province the river runs dry. Sindhi farmers compensate by pumping well water to their fields, but this comes at a very high cost: the well water contains traces of salt that are slowly poisoning the topsoil. Most Sindhis work in the fields. If agriculture fails in Sindh, the nationalist movement will be swelled by millions of desperate peasants. In this case, it will take a great deal of Sufi tolerance to continue to follow a peaceful course—though violence would inevitably invite the full fury of the most powerful institution in Pakistan: the army.

Tristan Mabry is currently a Ph.D. candidate in political science. This is the second in a series of reports for the Gazette on his travels to meet with the leaders of Muslim independence groups as part of his dissertation research.


©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/06




Jan|Feb 06 Contents
Gazette Home
Previous issue’s column