The following is a recent New York Times articles from University of Central Florida professor Hakan Özoðlu. He is the author of “Kurdish Notables and the Ottoman State.” Click here to view the original article on the New York Times website. The article is part of a series titled “How to Redraw the World Map.”
When the collapse of the Ottoman Empire looked imminent during World War I, Western powers began to consider how to restructure the Middle East. As a product of this, and partly in response to President Woodrow Wilson’s principles of self-determination, Kurdish political activists proposed that the new map recognize a new nation: Kurdistan. This idea hinged on many variables, not least of which was the approval of the Western powers.
But even if the U.S. and European leaders had entertained the idea of creating Kurdistan, there was no consensus among Kurdish nationalists as to the exact borders. The first major proposal was presented to the Paris Peace Conference on March 22, 1919, by Şerif Pasha, a self-appointed Kurdish representative. It excluded the Lake Van region from Kurdistan, presumably in favor of Armenia.
Many Kurds, including the Kurdish nationalist Emin Ali Bedirhan, rejected this map, saying that it compromised Kurdistan’s northern border. Emin Ali proposed an alternative, above, to include the Van region and extend the boundaries of Kurdistan to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
Though they may have disagreed about the borders, Kurdish nationalists were united in favor of an autonomous Kurdistan. They remain so today, living in modern-day Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq – and scattered in a highly engaged global diaspora. These nationalists continue to advocate for the creation of a Kurdish state in case outside political powers once again restructure the Middle East political map.
In the decades since World War I, the idea of an independent Kurdistan (of any shape) has been a volatile issue. In Turkey alone, over 40,000 people lost their lives in the 20th century fighting for or against Kurdish independence. Discussing a Kurdish state, even in a hypothetical or historical context, may inspire many conspiracy theorists – understandably, as U.S. involvement in nation building in the Middle East has become more pronounced since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But should the sensitivity of the issue deter intellectually curious people from discussing the subject? I believe that much can be learned from the experience of Kurds in the Middle East. A consideration of their history, and their future, could illuminate why some proposals become nations and others remain a dream.
This discussion is especially relevant considering the recent developments in Iraq. Iraqi Kurds are closest to realizing their dream of an independent Kurdish state as the entire country moves to the brink of a civil war.
In appearance, the Iraqi Kurds have declared their loyalty to the unity of the federal state. Yet, it is a well-known secret that they pray for a chance of an independent state of their own, the boundaries of which are yet to be determined and surely promise to cause much controversy. If the Kurdish dream comes true, we might see how the original map of Kurdistan and the Iraqi version of it overlap.