Chomsky On The Prospect of Kurdish Independence

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Namo Abdulla

Rudaw, February 15, 2011

NAMO ABDULLA: In my last interview with you, we focused on the Kurdish question in Iraq, but this time, I want to be broader and talk to you about Iraqi as well as Turkish Kurds. Given all the changes we are seeing in the Middle East, and what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, I am interested in having your thoughts on the Kurdish situation in general, especially in Turkey and Iraq?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, it is not just Turkey and Iraq. It is also Syria, Iran, parts of Russia. Kurds, you know — I don’t have to tell you — are the largest national, cultural group that has never been able to achieve a national territory. There are steps forward. So, for example, in northern Iraq, there is a degree of autonomy that never existed before, and also a security. There is a question of how the Kurds there will be able to exploit this opportunity to create a really decent society for themselves and a model for others.

In Turkey, where actually I just was a few weeks ago, the situation has improved. First time I was there, over 10 years ago, it was pretty awful. It was right at the end of the period of extreme violence, repression and destruction. People were afraid to use Kurdish colors and could not talk their language except in secret, and so on. So that’s improved slowly. So now, there is some recognition by the government, and by a large part of the population, of the legitimacy of Kurdish identity. Kurds no longer have to be identified as “mountain Turks,” just speaking some strange dialect. So now, Kurdish is recognized to an extent. There are options for a Kurdish broadcasting of radio and television. There is a promise about teaching Kurdish in schools — [an issue] that has not been resolved. And there are steps backward. When I was there in October, there were trials coming up of 150 Kurdish leaders, including some well-known ones, like Osman Baydemir, the mayor of Diyarbakir. [They were] non-violent activists and the charges were completely frivolous, but they were there, and I think they have been delayed. The government likely doesn’t want to pursue them. In general, there are steps forward, there’s some degree of progress. But, I think over time that could and should unify somehow with the Iraqi Kurds, and then there is a serious problem [about] what happens elsewhere.

Turkey has improved its government-to-government relations with Syria and with Iran, but, as far as I know, it has not affected the status of the Kurdish minorities in these countries. So there is a long distance to go, but I think there are…steps forward, and the relative autonomy in northern Iraq has given many impetuses to this, and opened up opportunities that can be pursued.

NA: As you said, there are definitely developments happening in Turkey, but, it seems that the Kurds are not happy with those developments, especially the BDP [the Peace and Democracy Party] and the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party].

CHOMSKY: In fact, the current trials are about organization of political party. It still has not been possible for a legitimate Kurdish political force to be recognized within the country [Turkey], and that is a struggle that is going on. But there are possibilities I think. I mean, the conference I was [at] in Istanbul just in October, was a conference of mostly Turkish journalists, artists, intellectuals, activists, and some foreigners were there, like me and others. There is a growing recognition, considerably more than in earlier years, that the suppression of Kurdish identity is illegitimate, and will have to be overcome.

It is true the Kurds have a lot to be dissatisfied with, like the persecution of the political party and these completely frivolous trials that are coming. They may or may not happen, I don’t know; they are being delayed. But still, overtime, there is progress that I think we should be encouraged by and regard it as an opportunity, as a kind of legacy that you can build on to proceed further.

NA: Do you think these developments that you mention in Turkey are a result of the fact that an Islamic party is in power, that is the Justice and Development Party [AKP], under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

CHOMSKY: I mean, it’s complex. You can’t sort of give it a grade. But there have been some positive developments. And in general, I think the policies of the Erdogan administration have been pretty sensible, like the policy of opening toward the East and having no enemies. That is in general a sensible policy, I think, and has improved things. For example, Erdogan is now the most popular figure in the Arab world, in recent polls. If you take a look at the Egyptian uprising in the last few weeks — a spectacular uprising in Egypt — Erdogan is about the only political leader who has given a very strong support from the beginning. Everyone else was isolated, and that has an impact on the region.

NA: But recently, [Abdullah] Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, called on the Kurds to just do what the Egyptians did to get rid of Hosni Mubarak, their president. He said the Kurds could only be free if they pour on to the streets and call for their rights in the Kurdish cities, like Diyarbakir. Is that a reasonable thing?

CHOMSKY: They should call for their rights, but you have to have goals. In the case of Egypt for example, there was a very narrow but explicit goal: get rid of Mubarak. Then there was a broader goal: get rid of the ruling elite. They are just now beginning to formulate broader goals. In fact, just yesterday, or a few days ago, I think for the first time, the coalition of human rights and activist groups [in Egypt] came out with a longer-term program for civil and political rights that they want to see achieved. That is actually the first time that was done since January 25th. That makes sense and they have got to do. It is going to be a struggle to achieve those rights. There’s plenty of established power that is not going to give it up easily. But what they are doing in Egypt is kind of an inspiring model, but you can’t duplicate it elsewhere. So for example, what is happening in Tunisia is not identical to what is happening in Egypt. They have different circumstances and different problems. The same is true with the Kurds. They have to consider carefully what the circumstances are they are facing, and ask, what are the right tactics in these circumstances? I mean that is an old problem. It goes back to the origins of the revolutionary or even reformist movements in the nineteenth century, and think of, say, what Marx wrote about revolutions. Karl Marx was in favor of socialist and communist-socialist revolutions, but he had a pretty nuanced view about it. For example, he said that, in England, where there was more or less a functioning parliamentary system, he believed that it would be possible for the workers to gain their rights, including control over production, industry establishment, the socialist state and society, through parliamentary measures. There are now other places that would take popular revolutions. He may have been right, or he may have been wrong, but his general attitude was correct: you have to adjust tactics to existing circumstances and situations. There is no mechanical rule as to what the right tactics are.

NA: But as far as I know, sir, you are an anarchist and a great supporter of civil disobedience. Don’t you think it’s time for the Kurds in Turkey — whose political parties are still banned, and they still can’t study in Kurdish in schools — to just do what the Egyptians did to have a more democratic state? CHOMSKY: Take civil disobedience: I have often participated in it and been in jail or faced long jail sentences, but it is a tactic; it’s not a principle. You do it when you think it is going to be effective. Civil disobedience’s main goal typically is to try to arouse and inspire others to join and do something. Well, sometimes that is a good tactic, sometimes not. As for the Kurds, the Kurds cannot demonstrate on the streets of Diyarbakir and say get rid of the president. That is not a sensible tactic. But it was a sensible tactic in Egypt, in Cairo. But it is not a sensible tactic in Diyarbakir, because the circumstances are different. And, remember that the Egyptian protest — while quite spectacular and [it showed] courage and dedication — right up until the present has had a pretty narrow goal: Mubarak must leave. That was the goal and there is no comparable goal for the Kurds in Turkey, northern Iraq, or Syria — or anywhere else. I mean the goals are broader. Again, a much broader range of civil rights, and you have to ask yourself what tactic would be useful for that: would civil disobedience be helpful or are there better ways? That is a delicate problem. I would not even try to give any advice from the outside. It needs careful evaluation of the circumstances and the likely consequences.

NA: Talking about Iraqi Kurds here: as you said, there has been a lot of economic prosperity, and massive oil reserves have been discovered here in Iraqi Kurdistan, and it is much safer than the rest of Iraq. You know, many Iraqi Kurds, especially in the Kurdistan region itself, are now saying that is time for them to secede from Iraq, a country that is still war-torn and volatile. They say it is the best time — after what happened in the broader Middle East — for them to breakaway from Iraq. What do you make of that?

CHOMSKY: I think there are a lot of questions to think about seriously. For one thing, Arab Iraq will of course be strongly opposed. Turkey would probably be opposed. Iran will certainly be opposed. The end result could be that a move for an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, even if it could be implemented, which is very questionable, could lead to a country with no access to the outside world. That would be devastating. So if any moves in that direction are going to be taken, you have to think carefully about the relations with the neighboring regions and neighboring states. You can’t move towards that without bringing those questions into consideration. Now maybe, on balance, when these things are thought through, it will appear to be a good thing to do, but you can’t just say let’s do it, it’s the right thing. It could lead, for example, to a major military conflict, which could be devastating. Look how hard it is just to try to settle the issue of Kirkuk.

NA: As you said, there is the issue of Kirkuk and the other areas that are disputed between the Arabs in the south and center of Iraq and the Kurds in the north. But, many people believe that remaining part of Iraq will be more dangerous for the Kurds, if the Iraqi central government, dominated by the Arabs, becomes stronger. They believe the sooner they “get rid of” the rest of Iraq, the better it will be for them, and they think the possible closing of borders by neighboring countries will not be something long-term.

CHOMSKY: Well, I wouldn’t be so sure that, even in the long-term, Turkey would be pleased to have an independent Kurdistan next door, just because of its impact on southeastern Turkey. So it could be a serious long-term problem. However that’s the kind of thing you have to think through. Look, I just returned form Taiwan and China a couple of months ago. In Taiwan, there is a very extensive and serious discussion about how they should deal with relations with China. China, of course, regards Taiwan as part of China. They don’t consider it a separate area. If the Taiwanese were free to make an independent choice, most of them would probably choose independence. On the other hand, there are consequences to your actions. You have to ask yourself, well, what are the best means to achieving your basic goals. And, I think a rather general feeling is –probably sensibly — that the best method there is to just not do anything at all dramatic, let events take their course, [and] overtime there will be more cultural contacts, commercial contacts, and people flowing up and back. There will be some kind of integration…maybe some kind of a federal structure. Well, ok, they have to wait to see how things work out. And, it is different in other places, I mean, it is different in the Palestinian occupied territories, for example. In fact, anywhere you look, you find problems like this. Kashmir has its own problems, very serious ones. Kashmir, as the most militarized part of the world, has a very serious problem. But they can’t just say, well, what they did in Egypt, we will do the same thing. You can’t mechanically carry over the lessons of one partial success into another dilemma. You have to think through the consequences of any actions that you undertake, in the circumstances which you live, and they differ in different places.

NA: Talking about the issue of Kirkuk and other disputed regions, some people here believe that as soon as the American forces are withdrawn from Iraq, there could be an Arab-Kurd war over those issues. How possible is that?

CHOMSKY: You know better than I do. I don’t think anyone really knows. For another thing, I don’t really think that it’s very likely that the American forces will be completely withdrawn. It doesn’t look like it, but it is a hard problem. I have not seen a sensible proposal about Kirkuk. I am not in a position to make any sensible prediction about it.

NA: In our previous interview, by email, you made a great comment: that the Americans “did not invade Iraq in order to withdraw.” Do you now think they are going to completely withdraw from Iraq and leave the country like this?

CHOMSKY: Well, we don’t know. There is a commitment to withdraw, but there is a long distance between commitments and actions. So for example, take the status of the military bases that the US has been building throughout Iraq. Well, there is very little information about them, but, as far as anyone can determine, they are still being built. What is called the “embassy” in Baghdad is a city, basically, within a city. There is no embassy like it in the world, and it has not been built in order to be abandoned. It’s actually increasing in size under Obama. So I think the Americans are just feeling their way to see how much control they can maintain — how much of a position they can maintain within Iraq. It is worth remembering that the Iraqi invasion was a serious defeat for the United States. The United States had pretty definite war aims. They weren’t stated clearly in the beginning — because, you know, it’s not nice to state them — but, as the US had to back down step by step and abandon its aims, they were finally stated quite clearly. So by 2007 and 2008, the Bush administration came out with official pronouncements about what it intended and what its minimum objectives were. They included, stated in January 2008, an agreement which would allow the US to have a major military base in Iraq to be able to carry out combative operations in Iraq, and to have arrangements with the Iraqi government that would privilege US corporations in oil exploration. That was January 2008. Within a few months, Washington had to abandon those aims in the face of Iraqi nationalist resistance. In fact, if anyone was the victor of the Iraq war, it was probably Iran.

NA: Some people believe that it will be very strategic for the Americans to build a military base here in the north of Iraq, given the fact that there is Iran on one side and Syria on the other. Would that be strategic?

CHOMSKY: I don’t doubt that the United States would like to do that. Whether Iraqi Kurds should accommodate that, or they should permit it, is another question. In my view, they shouldn’t. I don’t think it’s a good idea for Iraqi Kurdistan to turn into the major US military base in the region. That is a recipe for oppression, violence, constant wars and so on. I mean the US has had major military bases in eastern Turkey, and it doesn’t have the same access to those as it had in the past. And they are used. I mean military bases are there for a reason; they are there for oppression, violence and repression. The best thing for the region would be to extricate itself from the grip of the imperial powers. That is pretty much what is happening in much else of the world. Take, say, South America: I mean, South America has been the US backyard for a long time. But, by now, the South American countries have excluded the US from all military bases in South America. And I think that is quite a healthy development. It’s good for them and it’s good for the world. NA: But certainly, the Kurds’ neighbors have not been historically friendly with them, and the Iraqi Kurds view only the US and the West as their staunch allies. They don’t trust Iranians; they don’t trust Turks or Syria, because of historical wars.

CHOMSKY: But it is good to have a little bit of memory. Remember in the 1970s, when Kurds trusted the US to defend them against the Shah of Iran, and they sold them out. And there was a massacre. In fact, you know better than I do, the famous Kurdish statement that “Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” Well that is basically true; you cannot trust outside forces. They are looking out for themselves, not for you. There may be a temporary alliance, which will be helpful, but you cannot place your trust in outside forces. Kurds know this better than anyone else.

NA: My final question: will there ever be a state for the largest stateless nation of the world, that is the Kurds?

CHOMSKY: I think we can look forward to such a development, but it is going to have to come step by step. I think the prospects are better now than they were ten years ago, but there is a long way to go. Just think for a moment about the Ottoman Empire: I mean, nobody wants to restore the Ottoman Empire. It was brutal, harsh, corrupt, and obliviously you don’t want it. But, nevertheless there were some things about the Ottoman Empire that are worth recovering. For example, during the Ottoman period, you could travel from Cairo to Baghdad to Istanbul without crossing any borders. You did not have to have a visa; it was all one region. Partly because of its corruption, the Ottoman Empire left local regions more or less to themselves. The Armenian community could run its own affairs; the Greek community could run its own affairs. They had many close interconnections — commercial, cultural and so on — but they had a degree of autonomy. That long-term structure is not a bad one to move towards, I think. In fact, Europe is moving towards it to an extent with recognizing regional autonomies like, say, Catalonia within a broader federal structure. I think, overall, those are pretty healthy developments. They have plenty of problems, lots of unpleasant conflicts can arise, but it makes sense to think of it as a kind of long-term vision.

NA: Finally, thank you so much for your great comments. I really appreciate them.

CHOMSKY: Good to talk to you.