Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Post-Referendum Iraq - Is there a positive way forward?

The suspense is over. Voters in Iraq’s 3 Kurdish majority provinces, comprising the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), supported conclusively – 93% - the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq.  Having chosen independence, what’s next for Iraq’s Kurds?  What type of scenarios can we envision, especially in light of the widespread hostility to the independence project?  Is there a positive way forward?

The backlash
Clearly the enthusiasm with which Iraq’s Kurds welcomed the referendum’s results was not shared by the rest of Iraq or neighboring states. In response, the Iraqi government immediately banned trucks with KRG license plates from entering Baghdad.  While domestic flights are not affected, the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority closed KRG airspace to foreign commercial carriers. Only aircraft carrying emergency supplies can now land at those facilities.  Iran had already closed its airspace to KRG flights prior to the referendum.

The Federal Government is threatening to take over operations of the border crossings into the KRG from Turkey and Iran.  Iraq’s Chamber of Deputies (with Kurdish delegates boycotting) has voted to ask Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi to send troops to the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk.  Turkey and Iran have threatened military action, either individually, or in concert with Iraqi forces.

Meanwhile, in a somewhat surreal fashion, the Iraqi Army, KRG Pesh Merga forces, and Shica militias (al-Hashad al-Shacbi) are involved in a full-scale attack on one of the Dacish’s last strongholds in Iraq, the town of al-Hawija and its surrounding area, in contested Kirkuk Province.

Fearing that he would be viewed as a weak leader, Haydar al-Abadi has used tough talk with the KRG.  He has not only closed KRG airspace and threatened to place border crossings in the KRG under Federal Government control, but he has demanded that the KRG annul the referendum results before Baghdad will begin any serious discussion of the crisis.

Tough talk in Baghdad may help Prime Minister al-Abadi retain his popularity, thereby fostering his re-election chances next April.  However, it will not force the Kurds to the bargaining table.  Such behavior will only anger the Kurds and solidify support in the KRG for an independent state.  When former Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, sought to intimidate Pesh Merga forces in 2012 near the town of Khanaqin, his efforts did little but produce a tirade of mutual recriminations and ultimately a military standoff.
Moving forward – the need for immediate steps
In the immediate term, the main threat which the referendum poses is the outbreak of armed conflict. An effort by Iraqi troops to enter Kirkuk, for example, would without doubt precipitate a battle which would be in neither side’s interest.  Thus, time is of the essence in preventing the use of military force.

First and foremost, the United States, considered the most respected interlocutor by both the al-Abadi government and the KRG, should move quickly to place military and civilian observers on the ground near possible fault lines dividing Baghdad and Erbil. Preferably, to offset an exclusive “American imprint,” the US should try and convince UN and/or EU observers to supplement American personnel in its efforts to minimize the outbreak of violence. 

Second, the US, UN, EU and reliable allies, such as Jordan, and possibly Kuwait, need to encourage the KRG to commit to not seeking to translate the results of the referendum into action. On the Arab side, Prime Minister al-Abadi should drop demands that the results be annulled. On the KRG side, it should agree to a 3 year period in which no independent state will be declared. Baghdad should then reciprocate by reopening Kurdish airspace and not seek to assume control of crossings along the KRG borders.

Military incentives
To achieve its desired outcomes, not just for its own national interests but for those of the international community as well, the US needs to exercise the considerable power – military, diplomatic and economic - at its disposal. Notwithstanding the excellent performance of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Forces (CTF) and many Pesh Merga units, US military training and targeted bombing and air support were equally critical in the defeat of the Dacish in Mosul and Tal Afar.

The Iraqi Army continues to be dependent on US training and weaponry, and Prime Minister al-Abadi wants to retain a US military presence to offset Iran's military and political influence exercised through the Shica militias it funds.  The US should offer to create a joint Arab-Kurdish military force which would be trained in he use of state-of-the-art US weapons and be supervised by US military officers.

The KRG has consistently pressured the US to provide the Pesh Merga with advanced weaponry, including tanks.  However, the US should make clear to both Erbil and Baghdad that the price of such weapons is the maintenance of a highly trained and professional force comprised of Iraqi Army and Pesh Merga troops. In the effort to create an esprit de corps, the US should offer training for officers in the new military unit in the US, as well as in Iraq.

If after the proposed 3 year period designed to take immediate independence off the table, the cross-ethnic force was unsuccessful, the advanced weaponry would revert to American ownership.  A cross-ethnic force was created prior to 2011 when US forces occupied Iraq and had some success.  Interviews I conducted with Kurdish officers who served in the Iraqi conscript army before Saddam’s toppling in 2003 indicated that their relations with fellow Arab officers were cordial.

What would be the incentive of both the al-Abadi government and the KRG to agree to the creation of such a force?  Aside from the access to advanced weaponry, and training in the ability to effectively use it, the US – hopefully with Canada and EU partners – would simultaneously offer major economic incentives to both sides to increase the probability that the force had time to congeal and establish itself.

Both sides would receive state-of the art military hardware, ongoing training in its use, and access to foreign aid and loans.  The Federal and KRG governments could use these funds to rebuild cities and areas devastated by the war against the Dacish, develop needed infrastructure projects, e.g., repair aging dams, and begin to diversify their economies.  Both the Arab and Kurdish economies are dependent for well over 90% of their revenues from hydrocarbon sales. Neither side views this dependence as economically healthy, especially with a global economy seeking to reduce its carbon footprint and thus the use of oil.

Who would cover the costs of this initiative?  Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states realize that Iran will seek to exploit the ongoing crisis between Arab Iraq and the KRG.  Recently, Saudi Arabia reestablished diplomatic relations with Iraq and is increasing its commercial and financial ties as well.  This is just one indicator of how the Kingdom seeks to use its wealth to offset the Iranian presence in Iraq.

The US should seek to establish an Iraq Development Fund which would draw upon resources from the US, EU states, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states.  Not only do all parties want to minimize Iran’s ability to exploit the Baghdad-Erbil conflict, but they also want to maintain the military coalition which is needed to defeat the Dacish in Iraq and Syria and prevent it from reestablishing a presence in the two countries.  Certainly the IMF and the World Bank could be asked to contribute to the effort of building the proposed development fund as well.

The disputed territories
The problem of the disputed territories, which according to Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, should have been solved over 10 years ago, continues to be a point of serious contention between Baghdad and Erbil.  In a excellent article in The Atlantic Magazine, Joost Hilterman, Program Director for the MENA Region of the International Crisis Group, offered the suggestion that the United Nations be allowed to complete a study of the disputed territories which was never brought to a conclusion.  Having a neutral party such as the UN conduct such a study could lay the basis for elections in the disputed areas and a peaceful solution to the problem.(http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=30553#.WdOcEFtSzRZ)

Human resource training
The US should work to develop the human resources of the Federal Government and the KRG.  Years ago, Azim Premji, the founder of the Indian high tech giant, Wipro, a Muslim and the richest man in India, hired Arab engineers to work at his corporation’s headquarters in Bangaluru (Bangalore).  As he noted in an interview with Thomas Friedman, these efforts were designed not only to enhance the engineers’ technical skills but to offset the Islamist radicalism which has had an ideological attraction for  many Arab engineers and natural scientists.

Drawing upon the resources of states like India, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea, the US should create teams of Arab and Kurdish engineers, scientists and physicians to receive advanced training in these countries.  To enhance efforts such as those of Prime Minister al-Abadi and KRG Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani to fight corruption, these teams should include accountants, budget specialists and police officers. Talabani has already sought to use bio-metric technology to combat corruption in the KRG, including eliminating so-called “ghost salaries.”

The US should also work with American universities to bring teams of Arabs and Kurds from Iraq to study conflict resolution in law schools and departments of criminal justice and at the many renowned centers in the US specializing in this important topic. The cost of scholarships to fund this initiative could be shouldered by the Department of Education with contributions from American universities and private foundations.

The role of religious clerics and the UNESCO Chair for Islamic Interfaith Diaslgue Studies
One underused resource in both Kurdish and Arab parts of Iraq is the large number of clerics committed to the norms of tolerance and religious dialogue and promoting the peaceful resolution of conflict.  Iraq’s first UNESCO Chair, the UNESCO Chair in Islamic Interfaith Dialogue Studies, co-chaired by Dr. Hassan Nadhem and al-Sayyid Jawad al-Khoei, which is located at the University of Kufa and the al-Khoei Institute in al-Najaf, have held numerous conference and workshops. Members of all faiths and sects who have attended these events have produced important insights into how religion can be used to promote peace and national reconciliation.(http://chair.uokufa.edu.iq/5807/)

Cultural initiatives in Iraq
Iraqi youth, with whom I’ve had the privilege to work, have developed important organizations which include members of all Iraq’s ethnic and religious communities. Prime Minister al-Abadi has already established a fund for promoting efforts by Iraqi youth to develop civil society organizations.

This fund should become a joint effort between the Baghdad and Erbil governments and the appropriate foreign organizations, which already have had an imprint in assisting youth in Iraq, such as the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, USAID and the United Nations Fund for Democracy. A coalition, of entities, Iraqi and foreign which seek to assist Iraqi youth, 70% of the population under the age of 30,  should add funds and program officers to promote the process of engaging Arab and Kurdish youth to become more active in social affairs.  It should not be lost on us that Iraqi youth – Arab and Kurds – constitute the “generation in waiting,” namely the future leaders of Iraq.

A process begun by Saddam Ba'thist regime, for all the wrong reasons, sent Shica youth to the Kurdish majority provinces in the summer and brought Kurdish youth to the Arab south.  Using summer camps, not for political indoctrination, but to promote inter-cultural understanding would be an excellent idea requiring a minimal amount of funds.  These camps should be established in the KRG.  During the intensely hot Iraqi summers, Arab youth would be delighted to spend time in the KRG, with its cooler temperatures.
The author with Min Washington host Abderrahim Foukara
and Dr. Bilal Abdel Wahab
What the Kurds will lose if they declare an independent state
During al-Jazerra Arabic’s Min Washington (From Washington), on Friday, September 29th, I pointed out that the Kurds have much to lose if they declare an independent state.  Iraq is the only Arab state to have a Kurdish president, Fuad Masu (who followed another Kurd as president, Jalal Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan).  It also has 7 ministers in the Federal Government and 72 delegates in the Chamber of Delegates (the national parliament). Iraq is the only Arab country to have had an army chief-of-staff, General Babakir Shawkat Zebari, who occupied the post from 2005 – 2015.

Clearly, the Kurds will forfeit all political influence in Baghdad if they establish an independent state.  Many would argue that they can do better in achieving their goals of an economically and culturally vibrant Iraqi Kurdistan by remaining within the Federal Republic

Dangers posed by independence
Over a million Kurds are estimated to live in Baghdad alone.  Kurds live in many other parts of Arab Iraq as well.  Might some of this population be forced to leave for the KRG if it declares an independent state?  Most Kurds in the south know Arabic but not Kurdish.  Would the new state welcome this burden, when it already is confronting a huge refugee population following the struggle against the Dacish?

Former KRG PM Barham Salih
The KRG depends on investment from Arab countries, particularly those of the Arab Gulf.  Former KRG Prime Minister and Iraqi Federal Government Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, has proposed an enterprise zone in the city of Basra, near the Persian Gulf and Iraq’s (and the KRG's) only port.  This enterprise zone would seek to attract foreign industry and Arab Gulf investment. That plan would contribute greatly to the KRG’s economic development.  It will not happen if an independent state is established.

The Salih proposal would make the KRG less dependent on Turkey and Iran which are hostile to their own Kurdish populations and to the KRG.  Do Iraq’s Kurds want to throw their lot in with Turkey and Iran or the Federal Government (with Kurdish members in the national government) in the south?

Could an independent Kurdish state split in two? An idea has been proposed, apparently by Kirkuk Governor, Najmadin Karim, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to divide the new Kurdish state in two.  The PUK would be given the areas in the KRG already under its control and the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.  This maneuver would be designed to reduce the power and access to oil revenues of KRG President Masoud Barzani (who has occupied the presidential office illegally for the past 2 years) and reduce his power and that of the party he and his family control, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP)

Given the armed conflict between the KDP and PUK during the 1990s, which the US was forced to resolve, do Iraq’s Kurds want to enter these potentially dangerous uncharted waters?

Finally, there is no doubt that Turkey and Iran will do everything possible to undermine the ability of the independent Kurdish state to sustain itself.  Could an independent state survive under these conditions given the trade and smuggling which currently characterizes the KRG’s economic relations with these two states?  Add an Arab investment boycott, and the economic viability of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq becomes even more doubtful.

The Parti Quebecois controlled the political loyalties and emotions of the Quebecois for many years.  Today with the economic progress of Quebec, and true cultural respect of French speaking Canadians by the central government in Ottawa, cries for an independent Quebec state have all but disappeared.

In Iraq, cultural autonomy within Iraq, including taking the teaching of Kurdish seriously in all Iraq’s schools – in the north and south – and meaningful economic progress can assure Iraq’s Kurds of a future which can meet all their material and cultural needs.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The KRG Independence Referendum: A Path to Self-Determination or Greater Authoritarian Rule and Regional Instability?

Iraqi Kurds celebrate the coming referendum for an independent Kurdish state
This coming September 25th, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) will hold a referendum asking Iraq’s Kurds whether they want to leave the Republic of Iraq and form an independent nation-state. If successful, and the KRG secedes from Iraq, will the referendum serve Kurdish desires for national self-determination? Will it give Iraq’s Kurds greater control over their political, cultural and economic destiny?

Or would secession from Iraq instead solidify authoritarian rule in the KRG and harm the Kurds' economic and strategic interests? These questions require careful analysis given the referendum’s implications, not only for Iraq’s Kurds, but for the stability of Iraq and the eastern MENA region.
Distribution of Kurdish populations in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
As they rightly argue, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world which lacks its own nation-state.  Beginning with Declaration of Independence by the United States in 1776, and further elaborated as the 19th century progressed, the concept of national self-determination became a cardinal principle of international law, to be later embodied in the 1945 United Nations Charter.

Ballot urging a "Yes" vote on the
the September 25 referendum
Kurds argue that having a nation-state does not reflect an abstract desire, but represents a question of self-preservation. The historical record clearly demonstrates that the Kurds have been treated in a despicable manner in all 4 countries of the MENA region in which they live.  

Saddam Husayn’s notorious ANFAL campaign, including the dropping of chemical weapons on Kurdish residents of the city of Halabja in March 1988, led to the destruction of hundreds of Kurdish towns and villages, the elimination of Kurdish agriculture, and the deaths of thousands of men, between the ages of 15 and 55, not to speak of the inhabitants of Halabja.
Image from the town of Halabja after it was bombed at Saddam Husayn's
orders with chemical weapons in March 1988
The Turkish government has also suppressed Kurdish rights, including prohibiting the use of the Kurdish language, referring to Kurds as “mountain Turks,” and refusing to invest in Kurdish populated areas in eastern Turkey. The refusal to invest state funds in Kurdish areas has deprived Turkey’s Kurdish minority of economic development, schools and employment opportunities.

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad
Syria’s frequent seizure of Kurdish lands in the country’s northeast was often accompanied by the withdrawal of Syrian citizenship, and the arrest and torture of Kurds who protested the policies of the Bacthist regime in Damascus. Syria’s Kurds were deprived of government services and, like Kurds in neighboring Turkey, prevented from engaging in cultural expression. In effect, they were not recognized as Syrian citizens. (See my earlier post: "The Rojava Kurds: A Model for the Contemporary Middle East? https://new-middle-east.blogspot.com/2017/06/the-rojava-kurds-model-for-contemporary.html).

Iran's so-called Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei, with the late Ayatollah Khomeini
Iran’s suppression of Kurdish rights began with the destruction of the only Kurdish nation-state, the short-lived Mahabad Republic (Kurdish: کۆماری مەھاباد‎ Komara MehabadêPersianجمهوری مهاباد‎‎) of May-June 1947.  The leader of the fledgling state, Gazi Muhammad, a respected member of a local clerical family, was arrested, tried and hung.

The continued jailing and killing of Kurdish activists, both under the Shah’s regime and the Islamic Republic, and the refusal to invest state funds in Kurdish areas of the north-west, constitute a record of Iranian state’s authoritarianism, economic and cultural marginalization, and physical elimination towards its Kurdish citizens.  Given this history, why wouldn’t Kurds want their own nation-state? 

However, will the September 25 referendum give Kurds the right to self-determination?  Will it offer them a better life?  The answer is most likely not.  First and foremost, Kurds and the international community should be asking, why is the referendum being held at this point in time?  Did the KRG leadership schedule it to help Iraq’s Kurds or are there other motivations at work?  Unfortunately, if the referendum is successful and the KRG withdraws from Iraq, we can expect political and economic conditions to worsen in the new Kurdish nation-state.

Democracy and political development Would an independent Kurdish state create a more democratic political system for Iraq’s Kurds?  Unfortunately, the answer is no. KRG President Masoud Barzani fits the all too prevalent model of political rule in the MENA region: authoritarianism mixed with rampant corruption and nepotism.

KRG President Masoud Barzani
standing next to Iraq & KRG flags
An independent Kurdish state in Iraq would only strengthen Barzani’s rule in the KRG Parliament and he has already flouted KRG laws by remaining as president, despite his term having expired 2 years ago. The Referendum will do nothing to address the demands of young Kurds, expressed for example in the formation of the Gorran (Change) Party, which demand that the KRG become more transparent in its political and economic decision-making.

Relations between the KDP and PUK As is already clear, the declaration of an independent Kurdish state will not solve the ongoing tension between the two dominant political parties in the KRG, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), controlled by the Barzani family and its extended clan, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) controlled by the Talabani family.  Both parties still have separate militias (Pesh Merga units) and control their own economic and legal institutions.
Because an independent Kurdistan would create new power vacuums, there is a high probability that a successful referendum would foster internal Kurdish divisions, as well as conflict with ethnic groups living under Kurdish rule. As an example, the governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, who is nominally a member of the PUK, is supporting the referendum which will be of greater benefit to Masoud Barzani and the KDP than the PDK.  After having initially promoted reconciliation between Kirkuk’s multiple ethnic groups – Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians, Karim has ruling in an increasingly sectarian, asserting the rights of the city’s Kurdish population over other ethnic groups.

Domestic political and economic impact One of the most important consequences of the KRG referendum if it leads to an independent state has received little attention.  The current president of the Republic of Iraq is a Kurd, Fuad Masum, who was overwhelming elected by the Chamber of Deputies (national parliament) in 2014 to succeed Iraq’s previous president, Jalal Talabani, also a Kurd.
Former Iraqi Foreign Minister
Hoshyar Zebari
Kurds have consistently occupied positions of power in the Federal Government in Baghdad since the overthrow of Saddam Husayn and the Bacth Party regime in 2003.  Other Kurds, such as Hoshayr Zebari, who was Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Barham Salih who served as a Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Planning, have wielded significant influence in the Federal Government in Baghdad.
Former Iraq Deputy Prime Minister &
 KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih
A Kurd, General Babakir Shawkat Zebari, was appointed Chief of Staff of Iraq’s Armed Forces, serving in that position from 2003-2015.  Many Kurdish delegates serve in the Chamber of Deputies (national parliament) and Federal Government Ministries.
Iraq's Chief-of-Staff, Babakir Zebari ,meets General Maritn Dempsey
Declaring independence will rupture these positions of influence in Baghdad and weaken lines of communications between the central government and Arbil.  The new Kurdish state would be unable to benefit from oil revenues generated throughout Iraq, only in the more limited areas under its control.  Because it is highly doubtful that it could forcibly integrate the oil-rich city of Kirkuk into the new state, it would lose those oil revenues as well.  Further, it would face problems transporting oil through pipelines which crossed the territory of Iraq.

With the serious economic problems which continue to face the KRG, most importantly the decline in global oil prices and extensive political corruption, the new Kurdish state would have less access to international; lenders and credit markets than if it remained within the Federal Republic of Iraq.  With no appreciable agrarian sector, a result of Saddam’s genocidal ANFAL campaign, the new Kurdish state will be very much dependent on food imports.

Human resources With Arab Iraq, Turkey and Iran having made clear their strong opposition to the upcoming independence referendum, the new Kurdish state will not only be landlocked, but it’s likely that its neighbors would prevent their citizens from accepting employment there. This would present a special problem in light of the KRG’s need for a wide variety professional expertise, ranging from civil engineers, and computer scientists, to economists and management specialists, to oil industry professionals. 

The KRG’s universities, which all too frequently give preference to applicants with ties to the KDP and PUK rather than students with strong academic records, are not producing the level of professional and technical expertise which is needed to develop the Kurdish economy, infrastructure, government institutions, and generate meaningful economic growth. While Western personnel might fill (at a much higher cost) this deficiency, the new Kurdish state would be cutting itself off from access to critically needed human resources.

Regional opposition The strident rhetoric emanating from Turkey and Iran do not bode well for the Iraqi Kurds declaring an independent state.  Both Turkey and Iran fear the “halo effect” of the Kurds in Iraq declaring an independent state. Kurds in both Turkey and Iran are restive in the face of central governments who have done nothing to offer them a place in Turkish or Iranian political life and society.
Tanks of the Turkish Army on manuevers along Iraq-KRG border this past week
Indeed, this past week, Turkey has been conducting extensive military maneuvers along the Turkish-KRG (Iraq) border.  Meanwhile, clashes between PKK militants along the Turkish KRG border, and those between PJAK forces and the Iranian Army along the KRG-Iran border, could escalate if the declaration of independence moves forward.

International opposition  Certainly, the KRG should be concerned that its main allies, the United States and the European Union, have both come out against the referendum.  Long time US diplomat in Iraq and Trump administration point man on  Iraq, Brett McGurk, called the referendum, “a very risky process,” with, “no prospect for international legitimacy,” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/21/world/middleeast/iraqi-kurds-independence-vote.html?_r=0 . United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, likewise opposes the referendum, saying that it will undermine the joint effort to defeat the so-called Islamic State.

Out-migration of the Kurdish educated classes While supportive of the idea of a Kurdish nation-state, large numbers of educated Kurds argue that the KRG has yet to develop the democratic infrastructure which would allow the referendum to be a meaningful exercise.
This point assumes greater salience if we consider the expectations which the referendum has raised among many Kurds, especially those who are educated. If corruption is not addressed and the economy doesn’t improve (and I know university faculty who haven’t received their salaries for going on 2 years), highly educated and skilled Kurdish youth will leave the new state for other parts of the MENA region, Europe, North America, Australia and East Asia.  As of now, there is no reason to believe that an independent Kurdish state in Iraq would become truly democratic or offer meaningful economic opportunities.

Fighting the Dacish  There is every reason to believe that the referendum will undermine the struggle against terrorism, particularly the Dacish or so-called Islamic State.  The suspicion which already exists between KRG Pesh Merga and the Iraqi Army will be amplified and cooperation in the struggle to defeat the Dacish will be compromised. 
KRG Pesh Merga fighters advance against Dacish forces in northern Iraq
Possible solutions  I have no doubt that there will be a Kurdish state in the future. And it is highly probable that it will stretch across an area larger than the current KRG.  If establishing a Kurdish state in Iraq is not a wise idea at the moment, are there alternative solutions to the current situation, even if temporary?

I would suggest that Kurds might begin by looking at the reconciliation which was achieved between French and English speaking Canadians.  Ever since the defeat of the French in North America during the French and Indian War (1754-63), tensions have existed between the two communities. Concentrated in the east-central province of Quebec, the Quebecois have bristled at what they consider English speaking Canada’s cultural condescension and failure to assist them in benefiting from the country’s economic progress. 

The Parti Québécois has advocated for an independent Quebec for many years and referenda were held in 1980 and 1985.  Each was defeated, although the 1985 referendum only by a narrow margin.  In 2006, the Canadian parliament - 265 to 16 - declared that the Québécois were “a nation within a united Canada.” Today, the province’s official language is French.

"Made in Quybec"
Unlike the Kurdish economy, Quebec’s economy is highly diversified. Economic reasons were one reason the Québécois chose not to secede from Canada as many saw secession as delivering a serious blow to the province’s economy. Quebec’s economy has thrived through remaining part of the Canadian Federation.

At the same time, the Federal Government in Ottawa has taken Quebec’s culture seriously. Considerable funds are spent protecting and preserving its French heritage.  All official signs throughout Canada, and not just in French speaking areas, are in English and French. French speaking university students, who study outside Quebec, can submit examinations and research papers to be evaluated in French.
If the Federal Government in Iraq would demonstrate the same type of respect for Kurdish culture, would that be sufficient to begin a dialogue, one which, after 2003, has yet to begin?  Could a cultural dialogue which would involve a serious effort at national reconciliation? As an example, most Kurds speak Arabic and many can read and write the language.  However, few Arab Iraqis have studied and learned Kurdish, even though both are designated as official languages in the Republic of Iraq.

There are many other examples of efforts by conflicting groups finding solutions to the problems divide them.  Should the Iraqi Kurds “bet the farm” on Masoud Barzani and the corrupt political elite which continues to exploit the KRG’s oil wealth? Does the Barzani clan deserve their support?

Or should they attempt to work with progressive Iraqis in the Federal Government in Baghdad like Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi (a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Manchester in the UK), highly respected Iraqi technocrats, and the members of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s office in al-Najaf to find economic, political and cultural paths to national reconciliation?  I would suggest the latter course which would create more synergy and bring greater benefits to all concerned parties than the forthcoming referendum. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Iraqi Association for Political Psychology

The Iraqi Association for Political Psychology 
An Iraqi non-governmental organization (NGO)
Founded in Baghdad, July 2017

Founding board:
Dr. Faris K. Nadhmi
Dr. Jassim M. Aidi
Dr. Luai K. Ghabr

Dr. Faris K. Nadhmi

Email: iraqiapp@hotmail.com
The association's vision

The Iraqi Association for Political Psychology is a civil society organization concerned with promoting reforms in Iraqi society through enhancing social psychological knowledge. The association believes that scientific psychological knowledge can be employed to transcend political, religious, ethnic, class, and/or geographical cleavages, with the goal of reforming Iraq's psycho-political structure. This organization devotes all the possibilities of thoughts and practice to achieve its adopted vision:
«To create a humanitarian political culture which promotes the dignity of society and the rationality of the state.»

Working methods and procedures
·  The IAPP will conduct surveys and theoretical studies to diagnose psycho-social phenomena which result from the interactive relationship between society and politics, such as the performance of voters and candidates in national asnd provincial elections, the dynamics of socio-political protest, the drivers and motivations fostering social and political violence, the formation of political attitudes, and the means of enhancing social awareness of democracy and the principles of citizenship.

·      The association will hold, and participate in, conferences, seminars, workshops, courses and lectures at the local and international levels.

·    The IAPP will cooperate and coordinate with scientific societies and entities  inside and outside Iraq, in order to promote the theoretical and practical skills of the specialists working in the field of political psychology.

·    The association will implement non-profit projects with state institutions, civil society organizations, scientific centers, and academic departments in relevant universities, conduct workshops and studies, and provide consultations on  phenomena related to the interaction of psychological and political factors.

·     The IAPP will issue documentary periodicals, and participating in the print, audio and visual media, with the goal of strengthening the understanding of the social and psychological dimensions of political behavior.

·     The IAPP will establish academic units (schools, research institutes, faculties, universities) specialized in political psychology and its cognitive approaches.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sectarianism: How long will it continue to poison Middle East politics?

Destruction of Saudi Shi'a town, al-Awamiya, by Saudi military, August 2017
Why does the Middle East continue to suffer from sectarianism?  Is it, as Orientalists have argued, an integral part of Middle East culture and the region’s dominant religion, Islam?  Or are there more complex processes at work?  What are the causes of sectarianism and where is it leading the Middle East?

The short answer to these questions is that sectarianism is a function of the collapse of politics in the Middle East.  It is charitable to refer to the MENA region as being comprised of political “systems.” However, almost no polity offers its citizenry effective political institutions, a civic political culture and the rule of law.  

Without democratic political leadership, functional political institutions, a vibrant civil society and an independent judiciary to provide checks and balances on executive and legislative power, all else vanishes into thin air.  There can be no effective social services, no high quality education, no civic pride and inspiration, no independent associational behavior, or economic development as long as sectarian politics dominate a country’s landscape.  Sectarianism represents the antithesis of a political culture of trust.

Why has politics in the Middle East collapsed?  The long road of the 20th century was filled with countless political potholes.  Crisis after crisis struck the region.  Colonial powers – Britain and France - combined with rapacious elites in the region to thwart progressive social and political change.  Post-WWII military coups, which sought to address problems of rising political unrest based in socioeconomic inequality, only “spread the poverty,” to quote a biting Egyptian comment.   

Wars – including the destructive conflict with Israel, especially in 1967 – undermined the legitimacy of the one party states which came to power after WWII, whether based on  Nasirism in Egypt, Bacthism in Syria and Iraq, the National Liberation Front in Algeria, or Qaddafi’s transformation of Libya into a “People’s Jamahiriya.”  

To be sure, there was impressive cultural production during the 20th century which was inherently anti-sectarian.  Taha Husayn’s literary criticism, Iraq’s “Free Poetry” movement in (al-shicr al-hurr), Umm Kalthum’s incredibly creative music, the novels of Najib Mahfuz and Orhan Pamuk, the films of Muhammad Makalbaf and Salah Yasin, Jawad Salim’s architecture, the political treatises of Muhammad cAbid al-Jabari, Husayn al-Muruwwa’, Sadiq al- cAzm, and cAbdallah al-cUrwa (Laroui), and the critique of Islamic thought by Muhammad Arkoun and Ali Shariati all sought to promote critical thinking and the betterment of society.  However, these intellectual efforts to promote tolerance and inclusivity could do little to overcome the forces which led to the rise of the authoritarian regimes.

Perhaps nothing did more to promote sectarian identities in the MENA region than the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79.  The revolution which subsequently established the Islamic Republic of Iran signaled the death knell of secular nationalist ideologies, especially Pan-Arab nationalism, and led to two of the most destructive wars of the 20th century, the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and the 1991 Gulf War.  Under the slogan, The State of the Supreme Jurisprudent (waliyat al-faqih/vilayet e faqih), the revolution was appropriated by a sectarian version of Shiism which paraded as religion
Iranian sectarian entrepreneur - Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei
Even though it initially attracted the support of many Sunni Muslims, Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious dictatorship, which replaced the secular dictatorship of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, set the stage for the rise of sectarian tensions and ultimately a Saudi-Iranian “Cold War.”  Iran's effort to export its revolution and creates links with Syria and Hizballah in Lebanon elicited a frightened response from regimes with Sunni Muslim majority populations.  This fear was best verbalized by Jordan's King cAbdallah who spoke of Iran's effort to create a "Shica Crescent" which would stretch from Teheran through Iraq, Syria and into southern Lebanon.

The perceived threat which republican regimes posed to monarchical rule, especially the Nasir regime in Egypt, provoked a vigorous Saudi reaction. The Saudi monarchy used its oil wealth to disseminate a poisonous distortion of Islam to the far corners of the world (including the United States) in the form of Wahhabism – a vicious ideology which, in the name of Islam, promoted violence, intolerance, misogyny and the destruction of critical thinking.

Saudi sectarian entrepreneur
Prince Muhammad Salman
Wahhabism was even more pernicious than Khomeini's transformation of Shiism in Iran into a political ideology. Following the defeat of Egypt and Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Saudis began to provide foreign aid to Egypt after the closing of the Suez Canal cost the Nasir regime large sources of revenues and added costs to support Egyptians who had been forced to move to leave cities along the canal for other cities to the West.  The Saudis exploited Egypt's post-1967 economic travails to sponsor radical Islamists in Egypt.

These developments might lead some to ask – isn't Islam in fact at fault?  Before arriving at this conclusion, we need remember why a revolution occurred in Iran in 1978-1979 (and, for the majority of its supporters, a revolution which did not seek to replace a secular tyrant with a “religious” one).  Very rarely do analysts choose to recall that it was the United States which supported the Shah of Iran from the time it reinstated him to the Peacock Throne in 1953 until his overthrow in late 1978.  His extremely repressive rule, which included massive imprisonment and torture, made the Shah one of the most hated rulers in the Middle East .

Had the United States used its influence to force the Shah to enact political and social reforms during these 25 years – certainly not unreasonable policy option given that his military weaponry and the training of his intelligence services were all gifts of American taxpayers - we probably would not have to have faced the enmity of the Islamic Republic, its efforts to destabilize the eastern Middle East, or be confronting a potential nuclear arms race in the region.

Nor did the US use its influence to prevent Saudi oil wealth from being used to support terrorism. The US never went public in denouncing the dissemination of Wahhabism around the world to establish mosques where Wahhabi “preachers” spread their virulent propaganda which inspired countless terrorists to action.  Their Friday “sermons” and media pronouncements castigated “Crusaders,” Shica, Jews, and Christians, while promoting the suppression of women, democratic values, humanist education and freedom of artistic expression.  As long as Saudi oil flowed to the West, the US and its allies said nothing.

In contemporary Iraq, political forces which seek to promote democracy and tolerance are faced with a political elite which is increasingly subservient to Iran.  How did that happen?  There is a very simple answer: the US installed a sectarian elite after its 2003 invasion which included political forces loyal to Iran, namely SCIRI (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq  which later changed its name to the more benign, Supreme Iraq Islamic Council) and the Islamic Call Party (al-Dacwa al-Islamiya).

Iraqi sectarain etrepreneur
Nuri al-Maliki
 As the regime of Islamic Call Party member, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, stepped up its sectarian policies after the US helped the Iraqi leader cement a second term in 2010, the US increasingly withdrew from Iraqi affairs.  The most serious outcome of this shortsighted policy was the fall of Mosul to the nefarious “Islamic State” (Dacish) which caused more Iraqi blood to be shed as well as waste more US taxpayer dollars on top of the trillion dollar plus cost of the Iraq war and US occupation from 2003 to 2011.

In Egypt, we find an ironic situation where the Coptic community supports  the rule of President cAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi because he removed former president Muhammad Mursi, a Muslim Brother.  Nevertheless, restrictions on the building and repairs of Christian churches in Egypt still remain. The failure to allow Coptic and other Christians their religious freedoms, guaranteed under the Egyptian Constitution, sends a message to sectarian Islamists that attacks in the print and visual media on Christians are acceptable.

Perhaps the most infamous act of sectarian politics was Bashar al-Asad's release of radical Islamists from Syrian jails after the beginning of the Arab uprising.   Through this cynical act, Asad sought to transform the political narrative from peaceful demonstrators seeking to bring a multi-ethnic and multi-sect democracy to Syria, to one that portrayed the conflict as "order and stability" against radical terrorists.

As political institutions have degenerated in the MENA region, they have been replaced with patronage systems based on the personalization of individual leadership.  The al-Asad family in Syria, Libya’s Mucammar al-Qaddafi, Yemen’s cAli cAbdallah Salih, Saddam Husayn in Iraq all promoted a cult of personality.  Political institutions, namely parliaments and judiciaries, existed in name only.  These and other authoritarian leaders have promoted vertical identities which have enabled them to eliminate civil society institutions built according to horizontal identities. 

With the effective end of civil society, and its replacement with vertical identities based in patronage systems in the Middle East, corruption and nepotism have flourished.  As ever larger social groups become tied to the dictator du jour, these groups' interest in promoting sectarianism is likewise tied to a strong material incentive, namely access to state wages, to soliciting bribes and finding jobs for members of their extended families. 

Framing the current political crisis facing the MENA region in terms of “Islam” tells us very little about the region or its future.  Without a doubt, sectarianism is often expressed using a religious discourse or idiom.  Often this discourse is embedded in coded language, e.g., referring to the Shica  "rejectionists" (al-rawafid), or al-nasrani (Nazerenes or Christians).  Nevertheless, the terms are almost always used in a political context where the effort is meant to enhance the solidarity of groups organized according to vertical identities by demeaning a hated Other.

If most of the problems of the MENA region can be explained by economic and political decay, why has this discontent not been expressed through other categories, especially social class?  The short answer is that social class is in fact embedded in sectarian discourse. Sectarianism builds on socioeconomic fears and resentments, but frames these feelings in cultural terms based in ethnicity and religion.  Sectarianism fails to address social, political and economic inequality.  Instead, it instills the types of  fears in marginal groups designed to prevent them from thinking in social class terms, namely horizontal identities.

The corporatist world view promoted by both Pan-Arab nationalism (we are all Arabs and any dissent threatens to disrupt Arab unity and hence is treasonous) and radical Islamism (we are all Muslims and any effort to disrupt the unity of the Islamic umma is treasonous) suppresses the idea of the individual and her/his ability to engage in critical thinking.   Lacking educational systems which discuss concepts and categories, such as civic responsibilities, citizenship and democracy, civil society organizations and labor unions, the peoples of the MENA region have been cut off from thinking of society in terms of socioeconomic hierarchies.

Sectarian discourse deploys a number of tools to enhance its oppressive politics.  One of those tools is based in a rigid patriarchy which attacks women’s rights and ability of women to negotiate the public sphere and become active citizens.  Another is the effort to create a sharp binary pitting the “West,” against the authenticity of the "true Islam.” 

While the true Islam is left undefined, the message that you had better obey those who claim to be its guardians or face serious consequences is not.  To challenge any of the outer trappings of sectarian identities could lead to fines, jail or worse. If you are a Saudi woman, don’t attempt to drive an automobile.  If you’re an Iranian woman, don’t pull your hijab too far back from your forehead and don’t hold hands in public with a male who isn’t a member of your immediate family.
Syrian sectarian entrepreneur
President Bashar al-Asad

Despite the power of sectarian identities in the politics of the Middle East, it offers no solutions to the region’s problems.  Indeed, we need to consider the ideology of sectarianism a politically passive “place holder,” which ignores the problems it purports to address, as they continue to intensify.  The outcome for the MENA region is more civil strife and political instability, with the potential for more failed states like Syria and Yemen, and the fragmentation of existing nation-states into a multiplicity of small fiefdoms such as we see happening in Syria and Somalia.

Is there anything that can be done to address the curse of sectarian identities?  The United Nations and supportive states, including the United States and European Union, could convene a highly publicized summit meeting to bring the problem into the open.  At the very least, such a conference would be educational for the peoples of the region – especially youth – if it were disseminated through social media platforms.  It would also put “sectarian entrepreneurs” on the defensive.

Further, external powers, including the US, EU, Japan and even China, could make their foreign assistance, both funding and technical support, contingent on states who receive it reducing the scale of sectarian politics.  Why would powers outside the Middle East want to follow such a policy?  The answer is simple: there is an inverse relationship between sectarian politics, and the instability it causes, thus undermining economic opportunity for foreign investors in the MENA region.

Foreign aid should likewise be correlated with the freedom of citizens to form civil society organizations.  Efforts to criminalize civil society organizations which receive legitimate funding from foreign sources, whether the US government, the UN or private foundations, should be roundly condemned.  More funds should be allocated to train youth leaders in the MENA region in the importance of civil society and to give them the tools to form new, civic associations.  These training efforts should be publicized in the Middle East, especially in social media platforms used by youth.

A global fund to promote “Tolerance in Religion” should be funded by the UN and the Organization for the Islamic States to train more Muslim clerics in how to more effectively combat radicalism among youth.  Fighting extremism not only benefits the West,but even more so the Middle East, where terrorism has killed far more people than anywhere else in the world.  Once again, the publicizing of this effort would send an important message to the large youth demographic in the MENA region (in many countries 70% of the population under 30).

The struggle against sectarianism and its purveyors in the Middle East is not an easy task.  However, the stakes for the Middle East, and for those nation-states, IGOs and NGOs with strong interests in the region, are too high for the continuation of a policy of "benign neglect."