On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

Kurdistan and Ethnonational Fragmentation (July 11, 2014)


The acute instability in the Middle East continues to grow, with Kurdish forces’ recent assumption of practical control over two oil fields increasing the likelihood that Iraq will fragment into multiple states. As this BBC summary of recent commentary on Kurdish activity shows, there is great expectation that Massoud Barzani, President of the Iraqi province of Kurdistan, will call for a formal referendum for independence.

            As I have discussed elsewhere in the light of ISIS’s entropic activity in the Middle East, as well as in the context of the equally intense upheavals in the territorial stability of the Ukraine, our world seems to be in a period of intense rewriting of geographic borders. If the now semi-autonomous Kurdish area of Iraq becomes an independent state, there may well be much more geographic chaos. Much as ISIS’s efforts to create a caliphate that takes up swathes (if not all) of Syria and Iraq also, due to the ambiguity of the group’s name, threatens to include portions of Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Turkey, so would the creation of a sovereign Kurdistan threaten to unleash separatist impulses among Kurds living in areas such as Iran, Syria, and Turkey. Intriguingly, Turkey, which has had the most high-profile resistance to Kurdish separatism, may well become an ally, since, as Rebecca Collard and others write,Turkey is so unsettled by ISIS’s expansionist extremism that they would rather deal with the stable, rational quasi-state already functioning in Iraqi Kurdistan—and Turkey’s assistance, Firas Al-Atraqchi asserts, may be pivotal to the success of such a state.

            However laudable is the goal of a rational state, and however much a sovereign Kurdistan seems preferable to the mayhem and religious extremism being fomented by ISIS, I find it hard not to be equally troubled by how starkly Iraq’s fragmentation is falling along allegedly clear ethnic lines. While this BBC article makes the reductive decision to separate the groups as Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, such differentiation is hardly so stark: most Kurds, after all, are Sunni, so a distinction between Kurdish and Arabic ethnicity cuts across this tripartite division. It is hard not to worry if such fragmenting logic were to be followed elsewhere: will all states with multiple ethnicities begin to fissure? We already see this, as I have written about on this blog, in efforts by some Russian speakers to break away into separate sovereign states from Ukranian speakers, as well as in the very real possibility that Scots will break apart from the United Kingdom. The logic of such ethnonationalism, which most famously wracked the Balkans in the nineteenth century, always seems to me especially frightening—and when it adds to the horrors in such ongoing ethnonational conflicts as that going on in Israel and Palestine, it certainly makes today’s world seem an especially volatile place.

            The events of the very unsettling recent past have impressed upon me how there are strong counter-currents to such ethnonational entropy: the ongoing efforts of the European Union to work against national exceptionalism and produce a framework for collaborative action, seems to work very much in the opposite direction of the ethnonationalism we see wracking the Ukraine and the Middle East, and my own country, the United States— however unwelcoming much of its current population can be to immigrants—has always seemed to me to be defined by immigration, with its essence being an integrative, multiethnic one. I wonder if the deeply unsettling activity in the Middle East and in the Ukraine may work its way into such assimilationist projects, spreading what seems to me the ultimately destructive contagion of nationalism.


Author: Randy P. Schiff

I am an Associate Professor of English currently at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I specialize in Middle English literature, with special interests in alliterative verse, medieval romance, Scottish poetry, Old French poetry, Arthurian literature, ethnic identity, imperialism, nationalism, ecocriticism, courtly love, and literary history.

2 thoughts on “Kurdistan and Ethnonational Fragmentation (July 11, 2014)

  1. Pingback: Somalia and Public-Private Anti-Piracy Measures (July 14, 2014) | Terri-Stories

  2. Pingback: From Scotland to Cataluña: Specters of Continuing Ethnonational Unraveling (November 8, 2014) | Terri-Stories

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