Leftist intellectuals & the Kurds: The cases of Edward Said, Hamid Dabashi & Tariq Ali

Dr. Barzoo Eliassi is a research fellow at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University.

Said not only marginalized the Kurdish national rights inhabiting two Arab-dominated states Iraq and Syria, but also took an apologist approach when Saddam’s regime gassed the Kurds in Iraq during 1980s. The only time, Said relied on a report written by the CIA, was when it cast suspicions on the accuracy of news about Saddam’s usage of chemical weapon against the Kurds and blamed the Iranian army for that atrocity.

Said pointed out in the London Review of Books that the “claim that Iraq gassed its own citizens has often been repeated. At best, this is uncertain.”

Amazingly, Said’s conclusion converged with American interests in regard to muting international opinion vis-à-vis the atrocities committed against the Kurds and Shiites in Iraq. The universality of Said’s position turned to be particularistic as he unwittingly, or intentionally, sided with Saddam Hussein’s autocratic regime that championed a virulent Arab identity. Since postcolonial scholarship has been heavily influenced by Said, it has in turn influenced many postcolonial thinkers to follow Said’s footsteps to take side against Zionism and write about the Palestinian movement as the symbol of leftist agenda and anti-imperialism.

In the same vein, Dabashi in his book “Iran: A people interrupted” there is a story that describes Iran during the past two centuries as permeated by academic wishful thinking and the hopes of a cosmopolitan Iran, while claiming at the same time to be critical of Persian racism without being consistent.

In Dabashi’s book, the terms Persian and Iranian are used interchangeably and don’t question the universal position of Persian language as a result of imposed cultural assimilation and symbolic violence.

Concerning the situation of the Kurds in Iran’s history, Dabashi mentions the Kurds and how they inexplicably entered the political scene of Iranian history eight times since the end of the 1970s, the time in which the Islamic Republic of Iran was formed.

Dabashi’s representation of the Kurds is also problematic, since they’re never given the right or the space to voice their political grievances. Instead, they are referred to impassively as “fighting for autonomy” (page 165) or as “the separatist movement of the Kurds” (166), and a “subnational” (258) group that can reduce an allegedly cosmopolitan Iranian nation into a tribal formation that will have divisive and defeating consequences for the Iranians.

When Dabashi attempts to imagine a cosmopolitan Iranian culture, he comes up with statements about the Kurds and Iran that are totally inexplicable and can blow away any critical reader: “If Kurds were to collect themselves from Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria and form a purely Kurdish country, the nightmare of an ethnically cleansed nation-state would only exacerbate the model of clerical tribalism now ruling over Iran,” and “As a nation-state, Iran remains the site of that cosmopolitan political culture even a quarter of a century after the successful Islamization of its political institutions.”

 Dabashi rhetorically penalizes Kurdish claims for creating a nation-state since it will allegedly lead to a “nightmare” or “ethnic cleansing”.  Unbelievably, the Kurdish struggle for political sovereignty is also blamed in Dabashi’s account, for sustaining the power of the clergy in Iran. So what Dabashi implicitly asks the Kurds is to quell their dissent and avoid contestation of the Persian rule that discriminates non-Persian groups in Iran.

Dabashi talks about Iran as a site of cosmopolitan political culture and this flawed conclusion shows how detached he is from the reality of the Iranian society, where Persian cultural imperialism has instilled cultural shame in non-Persian groups and prohibits Kurds from adopting Kurdish names for their children or having education in their mother tongue.

 If these inequalities are outcomes of the alleged cosmopolitan political culture of Iran, then cosmopolitanism is nothing than a means to conceal Persian dominance. Obviously for Dabashi, it seems natural for the majority of the world to enjoy national rights, and in the meantime throw deconstructive rhetoric about nationalism in the face of stateless Kurds.

This heinous double standard becomes visible when the nationalisms of the subaltern groups are thoroughly problematized and deconstructed when they flag their nations and aspire to achieve what the dominant nations have achieved and monopolized. The nationalism of the subaltern groups are assumed to create separatism, while the nationalisms of dominant groups are championed for creating social cohesion, brotherhood and unity across differences, while in reality creating large political distances in terms of political, cultural and economic inequalities.

Recently, Tariq Ali released a video in support of “Turks” who had the courage to fight the authoritarian government of the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and assumedly ignited hope in the whole European continent.

He compares these protests in a belittling manner with what has happened in Spain, Portugal, and Greece, where recognized Europeans become normative point of comparison. Yet, we need to seriously rethink Ali’s position.

The authoritarian regime that Ali talks about in Turkey has been resisted in the last decade by thousands of Kurdish youth through civil society movements and demonstrations. During those demonstrations they’ve been brutally repressed by police violence and imprisonment.

Why didn’t Ali ever mention them as courageous?

Did their resistance and protests ever find a tiny place among the lines of Ali’s articles, texts, books that engaged with the left, Palestine and imperialism?

When Kurds protest, they are viewed as extremists, terrorists and separatists, since their protests allegedly reflect only the interest of the Kurds.  And when they don’t fully protest or partly engage in the protests, they are viewed as complying with the incumbent regime.

The intellectual positions of Ali, Dabashi, and Said show they are not disinterested or non-identitarian but their positions reflect a particular way of seeing the world that is ethnically, culturally, ideologically and politically situated.

Their positions cannot claim a universal universalism, but a particularized universalism that serves certain interests.

Said’s so-called critical consciousness not only failed to voice the atrocities committed against the Kurds, but also distorted the facts and complied with an oppressive power. Paradoxically, Said has defined the role of an intellectual to “speak truth to power”. This distortion by Said cannot be exonerated through reference to lack of adequate information or knowledge about the political situation of the Kurds in the Middle East. Ignorance is not innocent but sanctioned when it complies with power structures that sustain inequalities in the world.

Maybe for the Kurds, if they want to be enchanted and celebrated by Ali and Dabashi as representative of universal truths and values, they might need to cry “death to the US and Israel,” and/or capitalism/neoliberalism, then they might be welcomed in the club of the leftist discourse about courage and true resistance.

Dr. Barzoo Eliassi is a research fellow at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University. He is the author of Contesting Kurdish identities in Sweden: Quest for belonging among Middle Eastern Youth (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).