The Kurdish Nationalist Movement

Resident Scholar Michael Rubin
Resident Scholar Michael Rubin
Michael Rubin reviews David Romano's The Kurdish Nationalist Movement.

Romano, a young Canadian researcher, spent a year teaching and researching in Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey and his book, the product of his doctoral research, explores the resurgence of Kurdish nationalism.

While sympathetic to the Kurdish case, Romano seeks to be objective and generally succeeds. He begins his study with an overview of early Kurdish uprisings in Turkey and the later development of a more organized Kurdish movement. Further chapters explore the rise and strategy of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which conducted a 15-year terrorist campaign against Turkey, and Kurdish nationalist challenges to both Iraq and Iran.

Romano relies on English-language publications for historical background. Unfortunately, these can overemphasize the nationalist component of early Kurdish rebellions and underestimate the religious factor; most Kurds were conservative and objected to Atatürk's secularizing reforms. Romano is on firmer ground in later years, as he describes how Turkish leftist and Kurdish movements intersected briefly before splitting again in the 1970s.

He traces resurgent Kurdish nationalism to the aftermath of the 1980 military coup in Turkey and argues that Kurdish nationalism grew in proportion to military repression, aided by shelter and assistance provided by neighbors such as Syria. While many scholars of Kurdish nationalism are prone to demonize the Turks, Romano shows a good grasp of Turkish politics. He credits Turgut Özal (prime minister, 1983-89; president, 1989-93) for his efforts to end sectarian strife and laments that, after his sudden death, his successors had neither the stature nor leadership to cement reforms and promote reintegration. A wide range of interviews conducted in Iraq and Turkey add detail and precision to discussions.

Undercutting Romano's study is the argument that the character of Kurdish nationalism has been shaped by the countries in which it emerged. Closed or repressive systems sparked Kurdish nationalist rebellions. At the same time, relying too much on the leadership of traditional Kurdish elites--tribal elders, for example--has cursed Kurdish nationalism with tribal schism. While Kurdish nationalism will not dissipate, he argues that when given the opportunity, Kurds will work peacefully within a political system. He suggests that with real autonomy, they may cast aside dreams of a separate state.

Unfortunately, Romano submerges his knowledge and research in academic theory and jargon making his study inaccessible to all but a handful of political scientists. The Kurdish National Movement reads like a dissertation. Had Romano written to project knowledge rather than obfuscate it, his book could have contributed far more.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.

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