The Kurds: Our Unstable Definition of Nationality and Citizenship

President Erdogan of Turkey visited the White House last week. At the meeting, Erdogan handed back a letter to Trump in which the American president told him not to be a “tough guy” and a “fool” by launching an assault on the Kurds.

Last month, Trump announced that he was withdrawing US troops from Syria, despite the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) previously establishing control over much of IS with the help of a US-led coalition. At the beginning of this month, it was speculated that Turkey had a call intercept of Jared Kushner, son-in-law and adviser to Trump, green lighting the arrest of Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who was subsequently murdered in a Saudi consulate in Turkey.

On October 9, Turkey invaded northern Syria. Erdogan began ethnically cleansing the Kurds immediately after. As Turkish and Syrian militia advanced into Kurdish-held areas, videos surfaced of civilians being dragged from their cars and shot by the side of the road. Journalists visiting hospitals reported children dying from the flesh-eating effects of white phosphorous, delivered by bombs and shells fired and dropped by advancing Turkish militia. Under international law, these weapons are illegal.

US diplomat, William V. Roebuck, wrote in an internal memo leaked last month that Turkey plans to expel the 1.8 million Kurds living in their semi-independent state of Rojava.

Titled: “Present at the Catastrophe: Standing By as Turks Cleanse Kurds in Northern Syria and De-Stabilise our D-Isis [sic] Platform in the Northeast”, he continued:

“Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria, spearheaded by armed Islamist groups on its payroll, represents an … effort at ethnic cleansing, relying on widespread military conflict targeting part of the Kurdish heartland along the border and benefiting from several widely publicised, fear-inducing atrocities these forces committed.”

For many, the old twentieth-century ideals of national sameness to mean true nationality is still God’s truth. The idea of what it means to be American, for example, was cleverly reconstructed by the mass of immigrants who arrived on its shores in the twentieth century.

We may not be descendants of the founders, they claimed, but we arrived with the same values of wealth, economic equality, success, and hard work. Together, these immigrants found national sameness under one title: American.

“American” was a construction of sameness and difference. Not just anyone could be American. They had to be similar. So the “white American” ethnicity was created. In Europe, where many of the immigrants originated, whiteness was not recognised to be an ethnic similarity. To fit in, to survive, to thrive in the US, whiteness became a uniform race, encompassing nationalities that, before, had not been considered ethnically or racially similar enough to be considered truly white. This included the Slavs, the Italians, the Irish, the Scots and the Jews.

“American” could neither be applied to the children of black slaves who have been part of the US history for long nor could it be applied to the Indigenous owners of the land: the Indians. For America’s new “whites”, citizenship might encompass national and racial difference, but ethnic nationality was a strict club that only similar people could join.

This sameness would protect America’s white nationalities from threats of violence and institutional oppression. Despite the abolition of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws, the police, the American legal system, and the presidencies of Reagan and Nixon would rob African Americans of their political autonomy and their basic human rights.

In Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia, the indigenous Kurds have neither political autonomy nor basic human rights. The ethnocentric attitudes of the nations in which they inhabit force a distinction between those ethnicities who belong to the nation-state, and those who are stateless.

Citizenship and nationality are both evanescent. Unlike race or ethnicity, they are unstable. They can be denied, revoked or ignored. Individuals and groups have historically been cheated of their citizenship and nationality by governments hiding their oppression under bureaucracy. Unsettlingly, they are only granted under laws crafted by the oppressive majority.

“I used to be someone who would not even tread on an ant. But this is a war for honour and self-defence. A 100 per cent elimination policy (by Ankara of the Kurds) has forced me to defence and it has become a glorious defence of a people,” the founder of the fight against Turkish oppression of Kurds, Abdullah Ocalan, said.

Nations are “mental constructs”, claim professors from the University of Vienna. West Asian nations have constructed the Kurds as threats to their national consciousness. Comprising between 7% and 20% of the population of these nations, the fear of the difference of the minority threatens the mental constructs of Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi nationalistic sameness.

Without the protection of a nation of their own, the Kurds are inherently vulnerable to oppression and violence from legitimised nation-states seeking easy scapegoats for their nations’ narcissism. Without the backing of the global community, the Kurds cannot win their nationalistic fight against ethnic-cleansing.