The following is a transcription of “Nation, State, and the Kurds in Iran – An Interview with Sara Kermanian”, published on 22 October 2020.
In this interview, Connor Hayes speaks with Sara Kermanian, a researcher and activist from Iranian Kurdistan, about the history of the Kurds in Iran, the formation and evolution of the Iranian nation-state, and the relation between the Iranian state and the peoples of the region.
Sara is a PhD Researcher in International Relations at the University of Sussex. She was born and raised in Rojhelat, in the city of Kermanshah. She did her undergraduate in Tehran, where she was engaged with left-wing student activism. Sara is also a poet and has published a poetry book in Farsi. Her current research addresses questions concerning the relations between borders and subjectivity, time and scale, and historical transformations in the projects of democratic confederalism and Neo-Ottomanism.
Connor Hayes is an activist, researcher, and a lover of philosophy. He was a member of the 2019 International Peace Delegation to Imrali.
This interview is sponsored by the Peace in Kurdistan Campaign (https://www.peaceinkurdistancampaign).
For more information, please contact:
Peace in Kurdistan Campaign (PIK)
The full interview can be watched here: https://www.peaceinkurdistancampaign.com/video-nation-state-and-the-kurds-in-iran-an-interview-with-sara-kermanian/
Hello, thank you for joining us. Today we’ll be speaking about the Kurds and Iran. Iran is home to the second-largest Kurdish population in the world, after Turkey. As in all regions of Kurdistan, Kurds in Iranian Kurdistan, or Rojhelat, experienced brutal and systematic violence throughout the 20th century under the Iranian state.
Since the early 2000s, the Kurdish Freedom Movement’s has struggled in the region for the aims of an autonomous, self-governing Kurdistan and a democratic, federalist Iran. During this time, the Iranian regime’s repression of the Kurdish population within its borders has remained extreme, with the state taking an approach of forceful assimilation through military means, and the execution of any daring to oppose the regime.
Today, we will be discussing the historical background of the Kurds and Iran, focusing on the issues of the modern Iranian nation-state, the relation between the state and the various nations and ethnicities within the modern Iranian territory (the Kurds in particular), as well as the issue of the Kurds and borders in the modern so-called Middle East in the context of Iran.
For insight on these issues, we will be speaking with Sara Kermanian. Sara is a PhD Researcher in International Relations at the University of Sussex. She was born and raised in Rojhilat, in the city of Kermanshah. She did her undergraduate in Tehran, where she was engaged with left-wing student activism. She was publishing a magazine in the University of Tehran with fellow socialist activists from 2005-2008. Sara is also a poet and has published a poetry book in Farsi. As a researcher, she is interested in the interplay of the relation of borders and subjectivity, time and scale, and historical transformations of these relations in creating uneven subject positions in the international system and the emergence of conflictual international imaginaries therein. Her current research addresses such questions in the projects of democratic confederalism and Neo-Ottomanism and the implications of their contradictory yet co-constitutive relation for criticizing mainstream understandings of modern temporality.
Sara, thank you for joining us, it’s a pleasure to be speaking with you. Maybe you can begin by giving us some general background on the Kurds in Iran.
The Kurds, with a population of around 30-35 million, are the world’s biggest stateless nation. With a population of about 10 million, the Kurdish region of Iran, Rojhilat – meaning ‘East’ in Kurdish – is the second largest part of Kurdistan, as you mentioned. Yet, compared to the Kurds of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, they have been highly under-represented in media and academic scholarship and are by and large marginalized in global negotiations about and campaigns for the future of the Kurdish Question. The Kurdish population of Iran is divided among the provinces of Kermanshah, Kurdistan, Ilam, Western Azarbayjan (Urmiye), and in Northern Lorestan province. There is also a Kurdish population in the province of Hamedan and in the north of the province of Khorasan.
Unlike other parts of Kurdistan whose borders were directly drawn by the mandate powers following the Sykes-Picot agreement, the current borders of Rojhilat were drawn following the defeat of the Safavids by the Ottomans in the battle of Chaldiran in 1514 and a set of subsequent treaties, which eventually culminated in the treaty of Zuhab in 1639. This border has proven to be one of the most resilient borders of Iran and the region, having remained largely intact ever since.
So following on from this, the historical relationship between the Kurds of Iranian Kurdistan and the Fars nation is unique, given that the borders dividing the Kurds in Rojhilat from the rest of Kurdistan are comparatively much older than those dividing the other parts of Kurdistan. Can you speak a bit about this history?
A set of presumptions about the Kurds of Iran and their relationship to the Fars nation has led to a mainstream assumption that the claim that ‘Kurdistan is a colony’ cannot be applied to the Kurdish population in Iran, and further that the solution to the Kurdish Question in Iran could be more easily solved independently and within the framework of the Iranian nation. These presumptions are: (1) The presumably “natural” demarcation of the borders of Rojhilat, (2) the longer history of the co-existence of the Kurds with Farses in common imperial/monarchical territories compared to the history of the co-existence of the Kurds and the Turks, (3) some cultural commonalities that this historical co-existence has led to, (4) the modern dominant taxonomical narratives that categorise the Kurdish language and culture under the broad category of ‘Indo-Iranian’, and finally (5) the fact that unlike in Turkey, Iranian states have come to acknowledge the presence of the Kurds as one of the ethnic components of the puzzle of the bigger Iranian nation, so much so that the only province bearing the name “Kurdistan” is located in Iran.
While the existence of cultural commonalities is not deniable, it is politically and methodologically wrong and misleading to ground the right of people to self-determination upon people’s imperial past and ignore all modes of oppression and exclusion that lies beneath the process of forging a “nation” out of an inherently, socially and politically, multi-cultural “empire.” There is historical evidence that the Kurds had a consciousness of their collective identity as distinct from those of the Turks, Arabs, and Farses even before the modern time. Even the emergence of Yaresanims as a predominantly Kurdish religion in the 14th century, whose principal text, Serencam – meaning The Conclusion – is written in Gorani Kurdish, constitutes further evidence of the Kurds’ consciousness of their distinct identity, albeit not in the modern sense of the term “national consciousness.”
This is an important and complex issue you’re raising here, that there was a collective sense of a distinct Kurdish identity, yet this was still not a ‘national consciousness’ in the modern sense. How did the ‘national consciousness’ of the Kurds in Iran develop?
The main step towards the emergence of national consciousness was paved parallelly and in relation to the process of the construction of the modern Iranian nation as a racially exclusive collectivity. The project of the construction of the modern nation of Iran was a project that was just as much anti-colonial, in relation to the Western de-facto occupiers, as internally colonizing, in relation to other non-Fars identity groups. Even though the Safavids were officially the last Empire in Iran, the social-political fabric of the society that the Qajars inherited was initially a reflection of that of the Safavids. Within this culturally and even to a degree socially-politically plural fabric, there was no singular identity binding the territory, the borders and the centre to a political community. In fact, similar to the Ottoman Empire, before the 19th century, the territory of the Qajar dynasty was delineated by what were called ‘hoduds’ – meaning the limits or boundaries – denoting the current end point of the area of the sovereignty of the state, rather than the end of a distinct political community. Religious identity was in fact a more important binding factor than ethnicity or language, as we can see exemplified, for instance, in the fact that many Sunni Kurdish tribes chose to side with the Ottomans in their battle against the Shia Safavids, though of course this was also due to the political advantages that chiefs could seek in a ‘friendlier’ religious environment.
From the 19th until the early 20th century, the dynasty, which already was a weak player in the international sphere compared to the Safavids in their heyday, was constantly losing its power and territory. The competition of the European powers, specifically Russia, England, and later Germany, over the control of the domestic and foreign affairs of the dynasty, as well as its market and trade relations continued. Russia, given its geographical proximity, had more direct interests in territorial annexations – which they did following two major wars. The UK was more concerned with creating an untouchable buffer zone between Iran and Russia on the one hand, and India on the other to safeguard its colonies. All, indeed, were interested in controlling and intervening in Iran’s economy, market, and trade routes. As a result of these de-facto colonial practices, the territory of the Qajar dynasty shrank rapidly.
The fear of dismemberment, the constant weakening of the international and domestic power of the country, and all of the political and economic problems that emerged following several wars and colonial interventions were among the core reasons behind the elites’ aspiration for a constitutional revolution. As the official narratives say, checking the power of the shah and incorporating the voices of ‘the people’ were among the aims of the constitutionalists. The problem, though, was in the very notion of ‘the people’ envisioned by these primarily Europe-educated elites, and its relation to the issue of national and territorial sovereignty. Constitutionalists demanded the establishment of a powerful sovereign state that would protect the territory against both internal and external potential separating forces. Such desires constitute the core of the constitution. This required a simultaneous process of the centralisation of the state [and the army] and the construction of a unitary political community whose identity is tied to the territorial integrity of the country and ends at the borders.
A racially exclusive vision of the nation developed that would “minoritise” all identity groups under the broad name of the Iranian nation, characterised by Farsi language and culture and Shia religion – while the latter was not emphasised by some early secular elites, it was indeed a legacy of the Safavid Empire that had continued to the present. Farses ascended to the position of ‘nation’-hood, while others turned into ‘ethnicities’. This is a clear process of hierarchical racialization; a process unfolding from the top-down, and imposed on the people by an elite minority. This transition from a culturally and even politically plural social-political formation to a racially exclusive and hence homogenised and unitary nation was a process through which an imperial formation transformed into a colonial nation-state; i.e. a nation-state forged out of the internal colonialism and racialization of many identity groups to the benefit of one. Yet, as I said, these colonizing practices were themselves an anti-colonial resistance against Western powers. The very act of centralisation resulted from the constitutionalists statist understanding of power and resistance implied the colonisation of those lands that had been ruled almost autonomously. This process of resisting colonialism via colonising others, resisting imperialism via imperialising others, which indicates the hierarchical relations among non-Westerns, (a phenomenon which could be called inter-subaltern hierarchy) is characteristic of many modern nations in the region and beyond.
Two points are important to highlight here. First, my aim of making this distinction between pre-modern and modern borders is not to draw a rosy picture of pre-modern pluralist Muslim states/Empires. Not only are such accounts dismissive of pre-modern forms of exclusion and oppression, but also they are methodologically – despite their postcolonial claims – highly Eurocentric in so that they assume all that had happened before the arrival of modernity irrelevant to the formulation of contemporary forms of oppression in non-Western societies.
Second, while the process of assimilation and colonisation of minorities was by and large accompanied by the construction of the Iranian nation, the uneven importance of different borders implied the state’s uneven interest in their consolidation and transformation. This is particularly important in the case of Kurdish cities of Kermanshah and Qasr-e Shirin, whose process of assimilation and colonisation seem to have been started in the early 19th century during the Wahhabi wars. The location of these cities on the way connecting Iran to Baghdad, the holy Shia shrines in Najaf and Karbala, and Mesopotamia in general was making them geopolitically, geoculturally, and geoeconomically significant. The Wahhabis attack on the holy Shrine in Karbala in the early 19th century alerted the Iranian state. In addition to this, the state was constantly worried about the possibility of Ottoman aggression or local rebellions. Consequently, the Qajar prince, Mohammad Ali Mirza Dowlatshah, was assigned as the governor of a vast part of the western frontiers of Iran – mostly Kermanshah southwards – which were called ‘Sarhaddat-I Iraq’, meaning ‘boundaries of Iraq’. This was the first time Kermanshah was assigned a non-Kurdish governor, who turned the city into not only a stronghold against the Ottomans, but also into his royal territory, presumably in rivalry with the crown prince in Tabriz. This early act of settling and its consequences seem to have played an important role in the gradual establishment of Shi’ism in the city as one of the pillars of the Iranian nationalism.
The point you are making here is very important, and not often made; that a colonised state, resisting against the forces of global imperialism, is at the same time, as a result of this resistance, perpetuating colonisation and imperialism on other peoples of the region; a phenomenon you have called ‘inter-subaltern hierarchy.’ This makes me think about the issue of anti-imperialism; on the Left, there is a tendency to only look at one side of this equation, active resistance against global imperialist forces, while ignoring the other side, or how they interact with other peoples and states of the region. This logic has led certain tendencies on the Left to support various oppressive regimes, such as Saddam, Assad, or Khomeini. So this issue is vital for developing a new internationalist anti-imperialism.
But I want to get back to the history of Iranian state-building; I am wondering if you can say a bit about the transition from the Qajars to the emergence and development of the modern Iranian nation-state, and how the national questions we have been speaking about thus far were impacted by that process?
This nation-building project we have been discussing has continued since the late Qajar period until the present, with the element of Shia-ness becoming particularly important after the 1979 revolution. After the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty following the 1921 coup, the process of modernisation of the country and the imposition of the ideology of nationalism was more severely pursued. Reza Shah’s top-down modernisation process, including the forceful sedentarisation of nomads, the imposition of Farsi as the official language of the state and the nation, imposing modern dress codes, etc., further attacked the plurality of the society, as peoples’ relationship to their land and culture was undermined. Being a military officer himself, Reza Shah used military means and policing techniques to impose his decrees.
Quite expectedly, minorities resisted this process wherever they could. Seizing the opportunity provided by the post-WWI power vacuum, various revolts outbroke across the territory. In Kurdistan, the Simko rebellion, which began in 1919, was brutally crushed after Reza Shah took power. This rebellion is widely understood to have been guided by tribal rather than nationalist motivations; however, its very occurrence signifies the uneven influence of modernisation on different identity groups, and the subsequent, though gradual, rise of non-Fars national consciousness amongst them.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought another interpretation of modernity into the country, which was appealing to specifically Kurdish and Azeri-Turkish elites. In 1942, the Komala JK (Komeley Jiyanewey Kurdistan), which later in 1945 was replaced by the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP-I) established the Republic of Mahabad under the leadership of Qazi Muhammad. The KDP-I’s initial motto was “Democracy for Iran, Autonomy for Kurdistan,” though this was later changed to “Autonomy for Kurdistan in a Democratic and Federal Iran.” This initiative did not last long, primarily due to the uneven development of the Kurdish society, which itself was a direct result of the top-down modernisation forces. This had created a gap between the minority party-member elites and the tribal chiefs, who were not necessarily prioritising Kurdish nationalist interests above their own, albeit fragile, sources of authority. Hence after the evacuation of the red army, they refused to maintain their military support of the republic, leading to its fall after 11 months.
And what about the relation between the Kurds and the 1979 revolution?
The revolutionary government had initially promised the support of minorities’ rights. After the revolution, these organizations, particularly KDP-I, forwarded a proposal to the newly-established government, demanding autonomy within the boundaries of the sovereign state of Iran. The proposal stated that the Kurdish-held areas must be run locally; that is, the Kurds must have the right to practice their culture, get an education in their mother tongue, freedom of speech and press, and so on. Additionally, they demanded the right to free movement across the border for the Kurds.
Not surprisingly of course none of these demands were met, and rebellions outbroke in Kurdistan soon after the revolution. Both KDP-I and Komala subsequently boycotted the March 1979 Islamic Republic Referendum, on the grounds that it was not democratic and that the new government’s agenda for a democratic administration, both of the country and more specifically the Kurdistan region, was vague at best. However, few non-Kurdish organisations joined the Kurdish initiative, thus playing a role in one of the most tragic and disastrous moments in the history of Iran.
If I understand you correctly, it was the lack of a unified, organized movement to forward a democratic agenda and resist against the monopolization of the revolution by the Islamists that allowed the present disastrous conditions to develop. That dynamic, a lack of a unified alliance of progressive forces creating the conditions for extreme reactionary forces to take power, is one we’ve seen repeated throughout many contexts in world history. So, from this situation in 1979, following the accession of the Islamists to power, how did military force and state violence come to dominate the relation between the Kurds and the Iranian state?
Following the election, the Kurds engaged more actively in armed conflicts against the state. Brutal responses by the state led to numerous instances of widespread violence and massacres. The Iran-Iraq War began amidst these conflicts, which (unsurprisingly given the geographical location of Kurdistan) had negative consequences both for the Kurdish resistance and for the maintenance of their demographic and cultural integrity. The war isolated the Kurds and led to the migration of people to more central areas. In 1984, amidst the Iraqi invasion, Iran launched an offensive against the Kurds and brought a vast part of Rojhilat under the control of the Revolutionary Guards, which of course forced many others to seek refuge elsewhere.
The war thus allowed the state to militarise Rojhilat, and accelerate the process of assimilating Kurdistan. It also allowed the government to further develop a very rigid ‘us versus them’ rhetoric, within which the minorities question was securitised to an unprecedented degree.
Within this rhetoric, there was a sharp line between the revolutionists and anti-revolutionists, with the latter (ironically) comprising all revolutionary parties and individuals who had not been a follower of Khomeini’s line. Certain ideologies were banned entirely. As for minorities, there appeared a division between ‘good minorities’ and ‘bad minorities’; the ‘good minorities’ were those who accepted their situation as an ethnic group within the larger (Fars-Shia) nation of Iran, and did not make any claim against the territorial integrity, cultural homogeneity, centralised sovereignty, or ideological pillars of the Islamic republic. The newly-established government also defined its identity against both poles of the Cold War, automatically associating any opposition with either of these poles and thus as an explicit or tacit ally of “the enemy”; a tactic which the government continues to employ today. Indeed, the very narrow boundaries of this idea of ‘us’ implies the level of brutality required to impose it on the people, and specifically on minorities.
The important point here is that the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), despite its claims of founding a state based on religious unity and tolerance of [at least some] minority religions, did not follow the Islamic idea of ummah, despite using the term, which by nature would imply no racial or ethnic domination of one group over others, if, indeed, religious. As I said above I do not aim to romanticise pre-modern forms of pluralism. My aim here is to highlight the deviation of the IRI of those, even though minimal, forms of inclusion and tolerance they claim have existed in Muslim societies throughout history. In contradiction to those acclaimed values, IRI inherited and resumed the mission of the previous modern states by institutionalising the racially exclusive nation of Iran and channeling even more effort into brutally enforcing the ideology of Iranian nationalism on minorities, utilizing various techniques of colonialisation, securitisation, militarisation, assimilation, forced displacement, and so on. The Islamic Republic’s major contribution to this project, though, was that it emptied the concept of the Iranian nation of the little democratic and secular spirit it had, infusing it further with Shia Islam and intensifying its racialised and militarised elements, both by further securitising ethnic problems and depoliticising their cultural specificities. In other words, the IRI continued and strengthened the project of the internal-colonialism of the nation-state of Iran.
Another important contribution of the IRI is the way in which it has tied this project of internal-colonialism to its imperialist adventures in the region. The IRI justifies many of its foreign policies and its oppression of minorities on the grounds of protecting national borders, national sovereignty, and national security. Two things in particular underlie this rhetoric; one is the way in which the IRI has, since its founding, been an anti-US-imperialist state, at odds with the previous state’s position as the main US ally in the region, hence immediately positioning itself in opposition to other US allies. This, perhaps in a similar way to the time of the constitutional revolution, let the state frame its internal-colonialism as in fact a postcolonial/anti-imperial resistance against US imperialism. The other is the systemic crisis that hit the region at the end of the Cold War, which gave Iran, as well as some other countries, the possibility of expanding their area of influence in the region.
Kurdish resistance is tied to these projects in two ways. On the one hand, any success in other parts of Kurdistan raises the possibility of further insurgency in Iran. But more importantly, Kurdish insurgencies are by and large a threat to Iran’s strategic interests across the region, particularly in Iraq and Syria. This is clearer in the case of Syria, given the notorious support of the Iranian government for the Assad regime. The case of Iraq is trickier, given various instances of tactical alliance between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Iranian state. But it is important to remember that such alliances are always tactical, and are used by the state against its own Kurdish population, rather than genuine support for Kurdish autonomy, which Iran cannot approve of while remaining silent on its own minority issues.
So overall, not only in the IRI’s political imagination are minorities inside and enemies outside both threats to national integrity that can only be securitised via internal-colonialising and external-imperialising practices and manoeuvres, but additionally the Kurdish Question is directly tied to Iran’s foreign relations. In the end, the internal-colonialism and imperialist attitudes of the IRI in the region are complimentary, and form part of the reproduction of the state’s sovereignty and national/territorial integrity.
That’s very interesting; if I understand you, you’re relating the internal dynamic between the state and minorities within the territory of Iran, and the external dynamic of the Iranian state’s imperialist practices in the region, which you have tied these dynamics together through what you have described as the Iranian state’s internal-colonial project to consolidate state power within its borders as sovereignty, and its external-imperialist tendencies in the region as part of its project increase the power and influence of the state. Given that the internal and external practices of the Iranian state have such a shared basis, which we can perhaps call ‘the tendency for power accumulation,’ what does that mean for the project of democratizing the Iranian state and the so-called Middle East region as a whole?
The connectivity of internal-colonialism and imperialising behaviours in Iran implies that the question of the democratization of Iran is inseparable from the question of peace and democracy in the region. The roots of this connectivity, which is not limited to Iran, must be explored in the material and ideological foundations of the capitalist-modern international system, which you have alluded to, though the reasons are too long to discuss, of course. One important thing though, simply put, is that while we have a long history of military states in the region, and the roots of the relationship between political authority and militarisation must be explored over a long durée, or ‘long-term’ view of history, within modern states there is a close tie between homogenising and unitary national ideologies and militarisation. Consider it like this: minorities have a demand for the right to self-determination. Promising citizenship rights to the individual, which some people understand as the ‘political’ answer to the otherwise securitised question of minorities, is too paradoxical to solve any issue. At stake here is not just the rights of individuals but communities and societies; a right to collective and communal existence, not just culturally but politically. Anything less than that will lead to the monopolisation of power by a few and will imply a top-down imposition of norms. This imposition is impossible without the use of violence and hence militarism. Consequently, militarisation will not suddenly disappear with the fall of the IRI or other states, and neither will democracy be automatically installed. When the IRI took over the state, they founded another military corpus parallel and perhaps even beyond the national army; the notorious Revolutionary Guards. Despite purging the army of suspicious forces, the new revolution’s extremely tight borders of “us” would make the majority of people and societies security threats and hence untrustworthy. Everyone knows the Revolutionary Guards for their intervention in Syria and elsewhere; perhaps less so in Rojhilat. It is not going to be different for Iran, or any other state, as long as they are founded on a racially exclusive nationalist ideology, which additionally implies externally aggressive politics to balance domestic turmoil and seal security discourses.
Yet, this understanding of the deep connection of democracy, militarism, and minority issues, as well as the relationship between internal-colonialism and imperialist foreign policies, is not widely accepted or even understood. Part of it is indeed due to the hegemonic domination of a liberal understanding of democracy. Other parts are connected with ideologies of nationalism and resistance. Broadly put, there are four main ideological and subjective impediment to the formation of a frontline of solidarity among oppressed nations in Iran.
First, while it is true that the IRI’s Islamic ideological rhetoric does not have much appeal to a large part of the society, the same cannot be said about its nationalist ideology. The colonial and racial foundations of Iranian nationalism are taken for granted by a main body of the civil society. Many see Iranian nationalism as at odds with the IRI’s mingling of nationalist ideology with Shia Islam, and latch onto alternative stories built around mythical narratives of the Persian Empire, the Aryan race, and so on. Others still cherish the memory of the constitutional revolution as a glorious moment in the history of Iran, which is before and beyond the later corruptions. The territorial integrity of Iran and the homogenising notion of the Iranian nation are not challenged. Social movements in the centre look at the margins suspiciously, rarely, if ever, following their initiatives. It is commonly agreed that Iran is a collectivity of which all other groups are but particles. Any engagement with political and even civil activities in Rojhilat – as well as in many other marginal areas – are subject to the most brutal sentences, and yet they don’t receive as much support from the civil society on social media and elsewhere. In order to build solidarity, one needs to first appreciate diversity. Without that, any claim to solidarity and unification bears different forms of exclusion through inclusion. It would be homogenisation not solidarity. Without decolonising the nation-state of Iran and appreciating Fars-Shia supremacy as its binding force, one can talk neither about democracy nor solidarity. And as I said, without that, it is almost impossible to imagine peace and democracy in Iran and the region.
Second, the dominant understanding of resistance, which still appeals to most, if not all of the Iranian left is pretty much stuck in the Cold War. This view still understands ‘resistance’ as resistance against US-imperialism, and at times has come to support Iran’s imperial maneuvers in the region on the grounds that they support Palestine and oppose the US. This is connected to the issue of an outdated or flawed mode of understanding anti-imperialist practice within the Left that you raised earlier. Needless to say, this line of thought is not pro-minorities’ rights, as the territorial integrity of Iran, with or without the IRI, is understood as essential for the construction of a strong state which can resist imperialism and fight against it. One can find supporters of this viewpoint not just in Iran, but elsewhere in the Middle East, many of whom have opposed Rojava’s cause on the grounds that it is being backed by the US, which we know is not correct! And even worse, on the grounds that Rojava is weakening those states which are among the main supporters of the Palestinian cause such as Syria. Again, in order tobuild solidarity, we need to first be more reflective of the colonial and imperial tendencies within the region, in its historical context. We need to appreciate that Palestine is not the only colony in the region, and that making such contrasts replicates the same logic of responding to one colonialism/imperialism by creating another one; constructing an endless chain of inter-subaltern hierarchies will help neither with the development of peace nor the resistance against imperialism.
Third, despite some radical voices opposing nation-statist solutions to minorities issues and demanding con/federalisation of Iran, it is still hard to see how the masses would follow these radical agendas. On the one hand, the problem of minorities in Iran – as in many other countries –far from being domestic, is an international phenomenon. Not only has the securitisation of minorities been, from its onset, constitutive of the state’ foreign policies, but also, quite paradoxically, it has provided a fertile environment for the involvement of various regional [and at times global] actors. On the other hand, decades of domination of the Fars-Shia nation and the brutal political environment that had deprived people of all the possibilities of collective political actions have at times caused or strengthened conflict of different nations’ interests. Putting both factors next to each other, it is not surprising to see why in their very recent protest in support of Azerbaijan in the ongoing war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish people in Iran were chaunting “ya Allah bismillah Allahu Akbar”, which is the slogan of AKP(Justice and Development Party of Turkey) supporters.
Finally, a more minor issue concerns the composition of the Kurdish population of Rojhilat itself. The dominant image of the Iranian Kurds depicts them as Sunni, mostly speaking the Sorani dialect. While there is no doubt that Sunni Kurds are doubly oppressed due to their religion and comprise about half of the Kurdish population of Iran, we need not self-orientalise ourselves and diminish a diverse image into a homogenised one. In the southern parts of Rojhilat, Kermanshah and Ilam, the majority of people are Shia and Yaresan, or Yaresans who have come to officially declare themselves as Shia due to the state’s intolerance of followers of religions that are not categorised as “people of the book” – in fact, as was observed by European travelers, the majority of people in Kermanshah and nearby cities, such as Qasr-I Shirin, were Yaresan even in the late 19th century. As I explained above, it is true that southern parts of Rojhilat have been more influenced by assimilation policies than the rest. But this does not mean that people have not resisted, and neither should it be a reason for further eliminating these people from representations, which is usually the case.
You raised many important points here. One which stood out was the issue of the divisions between different groups, nations, and movements, even within the Kurdish population itself, both historically and in the present time, and how this has created a situation of social and political impasse within Iran and the region more generally, which is exacerbated the classical imperialist divide-and-rule strategy of the Iranian state. Additionally, you made the very interesting point that, for numerous reasons, the dispersal of the Fars nation in the centre of the territory and the minorities in the border areas creates a particular centre-periphery dynamic within the Iranian nation-state territory. Unfortunately, I don’t think we have enough time to explore that further, but that is fascinating. However, returning to the point about division and impasse, this ties back to what we discussed regarding the 1979 revolution; that such division, the lack of unified organization, means effective democratic resistance cannot be developed, and, when this is coupled with surging reactionary forces, the conditions for a catastrophe are created.
Following on from this, what in your view are the prospects for the democratic confederalism project of the Kurdish freedom movement for building links that can overcome these divisions, and develop new modes of anti-imperial resistance, both in Iran specifically and the region more generally? That is, what are the strengths and potential stumbling blocks of democratic confederalism as a proposed solution to the impasse of the region?
There is really no short answer to these questions. There are various material and subjective, local and international elements affecting the prospect of democratic confederalism in the region that is impossible to address them without simplifying the project into the level of description. I’ll just briefly mention a few points that are directly relevant to our discussion.
Analytically, democratic confederalism is the only living example of resistance in the region that is built upon a systematic analysis of the relationship between global and local forms of injustice, between empires outside and empires within, colonialism outside and colonialism within, sexism outside and sexism within, and so on. The theory is centred around the Kurdish Question and aims to give a different image of, and answer to, the Kurdish Question. But clearly, as is widely argued, through reframing the Kurdish Question, democratic confederalism reflects on systemic problems of capitalist modernity, the modern international system, and the [nation-]state. This is a very large topic, but to put it very, very briefly, instead of seeking a state for the Kurds, democratic confederalism targets the very foundations of a system that produces situations of statelessness, exile, exclusion. For example, why and how does a system produces zones of exclusion, and how this is tied to other forms of systematic violence, including (but not limited to) colonisation, militarisation, racialization, and so on. Far from being utopian, democratic confederalism is very realistic in its understanding of the root causes of oppressions; without their removal, the region cannot find its way out of the deadlock of wars and oppressive regimes.
The co-constitutive relation of the three projects of democratic nation, democratic confederalism, and democratic civilisation that are developed in tandem to resist nation-state and capitalist modernity in different political scales imply that this theory simultaneously resists those ideologies and forces through which the bloody marriage of internal-colonialism and external-imperialism of some regional states are formed, while making it clear that resisting these two fronts requires resisting the very system that has produced them – i.e. capitalist modernity and its colonial-imperial connotations. This includes deconstructing the relationship between territory, sovereignty and political community. Dismantling their ties in a way that they would not imply one another in a unilinear way [and in line with the timeline of capitalist modernity] and allowing their relation to be altered in an open-ended praxis of bottom-up direct democracy in which people take part not as abstract citizens but as members of various democratic communities. While the relationship between territory and identity is not negated, self-determination is detached from monopolisation of territory. There are also mechanisms for the inclusion of communities who, due to over a century of forced displacements, are living in detached territories. Grassroot democracy that is indeed instrumental to redefining the relation of people to their territory and living space is another important factor in delinking the unilinear relation of territory, sovereignty and the political community by means of decentralisation. This deconstruction, I think, is part of what democratic nation seeks to achieve.
As many people argue, democratic confederalism and Rojava’s ability to maintain its radically democratic values is threatened by the paradoxical relation of the need to survive and the need to resist the homogenising forces of the rules of survival in the international system, for example, the power of the party required for survival, and the maintenance of the movement’s democratic values, which requires the supremacy of grass-root organisations, and so on. These points are all valid correct and need to be addressed in both theory and in practice.
Another problem, perhaps more immediate in the case of Iran, is precisely that of solidarity with other nations. This is partly due to the impasses I mentioned above. These ideological problems and impasses cannot be removed via any top-down process, which, as I said, implies more violence and militarisation. The veil of nationalist ideology and the Cold War resistance mentality has led to an unrealistic and even ahistorical analysis of the roots of totalitarianism and despotism in the region. They could only be deconstructed, through a bottom-up process of democratisation, out of which a radical understanding of resistance and a consciousness of the causes of regional issues can emerge. Such a bottom-up praxis is embedded in democratic confederalism. So regardless of the final success of democratic confederalism in resisting all material and subjective hegemonic and homogenising forces of the world system, it is probably the only realistic solution in terms of addressing and resisting the roots of the impasse.
I hear you. There is much that remains to be done. Thank you so much for speaking with us Sara, it has been both fascinating and enlightening.