[ by Charles Cameron — Ambassador Husain Haqqani and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross at Chautauqua ]
From the outset, when cheers went up for Daveed’s birthplace, Ashland, Oregon, and Ambassador Haqqani’s, Karachi — and for the brilliant meeting of the minds that is Chautauqua — it was clear that we were in the presence of two gracious, witty and informed intelligences, and the seriousness of the conversation between them that followed did nothing to reduce our pleasure in the event. Daveed called it “easily the best experience I have ever had as a speaker.”
I’ll highlight some quotes from each speaker, with the occasional comment:
None of the countries except Egypt, Turkey and Iran, none of the countries of the Middle East are in borders that are historic, or that have evolved through a historic process. And that’s why you see the borders a straight lines. Straight lines are always drawn by cartographers or politicians, the real maps in history are always convoluted because of some historic factor or the other, or some river or some mountains.
And now that whole structure, the contrived structure, is coming apart.
Then most important part of it is, that this crisis of identity – who are we? are we Muslims trying to recreate the past under the principles of the caliphate .. or are we Arabs, trying to unify everybody based on one language, or are we these states that are contrived, or are we our ethnic group, or are we our tribe, or are we our sect? And this is not only in the region, it’s also overlapping into the Muslim communities in the diaspora..
If Amb. Haqqani emphasized the multiple identities in play in the Arabic, Islamic, Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and tribal worlds in his opening, Daveed’s emphasis was on the failure of the post-Westphalian concept of the nation state.
In the economic sphere there’s this thing that is often called “legacy industries” – industries that fit for another time, but are kind of out of place today. Think of Blockbuster Video, once a massive, massive corporation.. that’s a legacy industry. So when Ambassador Haqqani talks about how it’s not just in the Middle East that we have this crisis of identity, I think the broader trend is that the Westphalian state that he spoke about, the kind of state that was encoded after the Peace of Westphalia, looks to a lot of people who are in this generation of the internet where ideas flow freely, it looks like a legacy industry.
Why do you need this as a form of political organizing? And what ISIS has shown is that a violent non-state actor, even a jihadist group that is genocidal and implements as brutal a form of Islamic law as you could possibly see, it can hold territory the size of Great Britain, and it can withstand the advance of a coalition that includes the world’s most powerful countries including the United States. And what that suggests is that alternative forms of political organization can now compete with the nation state.
The Ambassador then turned to the lessons we should take from 1919’s US King–Crane Commission, reporting on the break-up of the Ottoman Empire — they concluded that it gave us
a great opportunity — not likely to return — to build .. a Near East State on the modern basis of full religious liberty, deliberately including various religious faiths, and especially guarding the rights of minorities
— down to our own times.
What we can be sure of is that the current situation is something that will not be dealt with without understanding the texture of these societies. So for example, when the United States went into Iraq without full understanding of its sectarian and tribal composition, and assumed that, all we are doing is deposing a dictator, Saddam Hussein, and then we will hold elections and now a nice new guy will get elected, and things will be all right -– that that is certainly not the recipe. So what we can say with certainty in 2015 is .. over the last century what we have learnt is: outsiders, based on their interests, determining borders is not a good idea, and should certainly not be repeated. Assuming that others are anxious to embrace your culture in totality is also an unrealistic idea.
The sentence that follows was a stunner from the Ambassador, gently delivered — a single sentence that could just as easily have been the title for this post as the remark by Daveed with which I have in fact titled it:
Let me just say that, look, he ideological battle, in the Muslim world, will have to be fought by the likes of me.
Spot on — and we are fortunate the Ambassador and his like are among us.
Daveed then turned to another topic I have freqently emphasized myself.
The power of ideas – we as Americans tend not to recognize this when it falls outside of ideas that are familiar to us. So one thing that the US has been slow to acknowledge is the role of the ideology that our friend and ally Saudi Arabia has been promulgating globally, in fomenting jihadist organizations.
And one of the reasons we have been slow to recognize that. I mean one reason is obvious, which is oil. .. But another reason has been – we tend to think of ideas that are rooted in religion – as a very post-Christian country – we tend to think of them as not being real – as ideas which express an ideology which is alien to us –as basically being a pretext, with some underlying motivation which is more familiar to us. That it must be economics, or it must be political anger. I’m not saying those are irrelevant, they’re not – but when Al-Qaida or ISIS explains themselves, taking their explanation seriously and understanding where they’re coming from – not as representatives of Islam as a whole, but as representatives of the particular ideology that they claim to stand for – we need to take that seriously. Because they certainly do.
The world is not a problem for Americans to solve, it’s a situation for them to understand.
Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.
Toward the end of the discussion, Daveed touched on some ideas of recurrent interest to Zenpundit readers..
Looking at the US Government, questions that I ask a lot are: Why are we so bad at strategy? Why are we so bad at analysis? Why do we take such a short term view and negate the long term?
He then freturned to the issue of legacy industries and nation-states:
Blockbuster is a legacy industry. And the reason why legacy industries have so much trouble competing against start-up firms, is because start-ups are smaller, it’s more easy for them to change course, to implement innovative policies, to make resolute decisions – they can out-manoeuver larger companies. And so larger companies that do well adapt themselves to this new environment where they have start-up competitors. Nation-state governments are legacy industries. Violent non-state actors are start-up compoetitors.
— and had the final, pointed word:
We’re a legacy industry ina world of start-up competitors.
Having offered you these tastes, at this point I can only encourage you to watch the whole hour and a quarter, filled to the brim with incisive and articulately-stated insights:
The world seems filled with these simultaneities of the gruesome and the glorious.
And what of man?
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no..
Volunteers who join the Kurdish insurgency against Turkey must abandon Islamic religious practice and must forego “emotional ties” to anyone outside the group, as well as swear words and sex, or face trial and prison, according to a Syrian-born Kurd who defected from the group to Turkey over the summer.
People who “defect” not uncommonly offer prejudiced accounts of the organizations they’ve left, so I read on to see how trustworthy this source might be:
The 21-year-old defector, who surrendered in June, brought with him not only a tale of life inside the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish initials as the PKK, but also detailed information about a planned attack inside Turkey that helped Turkish authorities beat back the PKK offensive.
McClatchy obtained a copy of a 19-page Turkish-language account of his debriefing, which was dated July 4 and was not marked classified. The debriefing contained his name, but McClatchy is identifying him only by his initials, R.S., to protect family members who might still be in territory held by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate.
It seems his military intelligence was quite accurate — so far so good. Next, my own curiosity naturally led me to wonder what the PKK’s religious stance, apart from being opposed to Islam, might be. After all, it’s called the the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and was founded on Marxist principles…
Okay, I skipped a few paragraphs, and found this:
R.S. portrayed the PKK as anti-Islamic. Performing daily prayers, fasting and reading the Quran are among the offenses that could land a recruit in prison, he told Turkish authorities. Instead, fighters were told that the religion of Kurds is Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s most ancient religions, and they should worship fire. There are said to be fewer than 200,000 Zoroastrians today, mostly in Iran and India.
Now that’s a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain.
For an alternate viewpoint, here’s the University of Utrecht grad student in Conflict Studies and Human Rights, Wladimir van Wilgenburg, writing for Rudaw in English and sounding knowledgeable, though his own or Rudaw’s potential biases are unknown to me:
The idea that Kurds are actually Zoroastrians is not something new. Kurdish nationalists such as the Bedirkhan brothers tried to revive Zoroastrianism and Yezidism as the original religion of the Kurds in the 1920s and 1930s. By this the Bedirkhans aimed to separate the Kurds from their Muslim neighbors and give them a glorious pre-Islamic history that had once boasted many empires.
They did not emphasize much on the Kurdish Islamic warrior Salahadin al-Ayyubi that rallied the Muslims against the crusaders in the twelfth century. Similarly, Turkish nationalists tried to promote Shamanism as the original religion of the Turks. But despite these efforts, Islam remained an important element among Kurdish nationalist movements.
It is unlikely that Yezidis are originally Zoroastrians. The Zoroastrian religion is a dualist religion (with good and evil constantly fighting each other), while the Yezidi faith revolves more around a single deity as the Satan.
Therefore it is possible that the Zoroastrians would regard the Yezidis as devil-worshippers, just as some Muslims do.
There are still many Kurds (especially in Europe) who think Kurds are originally Zoroastrians and wear Zoroastrian symbols, even though they are non-religious and do not have much knowledge about Zoroastrianism and its rituals.
The PKK was particularly influenced by the ideas of early Kurdish nationalists. Its media promoted the idea that Kurds are originally Zoroastrians. Other Kurdish political groups also came under the same influence.
But in 1991 the PKK took a positive approach about Islam and thus managed to win some sympathy. Some say the PKK tried to merge Kurdish nationalism and Islam for its own cause.
In recent years the PKK has also used Imams, Friday prayers and Islamic language as a means to compete with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In return, the Turkish government is said to have plans to recruit 1000 Kurdish Imams in its battle to win the hearts and minds of the Kurdish people.
That (Iraqi) Kurdistan National Flag at the top of this post has a golden sun with 21 rays as it’s central feature — but it’s from Iraq. The PKK has used a variety of flags, some of them reflecting the group’s Marxist origins, but one in particular appears to borrow from the Iraqi flag:
This seems to be a variant of the original PKK flag, since it has the star and the red background of the PKK original flag but also the sun disc of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq.
That, in brief, is why the symbolism of the Iraqi Kurdish flag may be significant in understanding symbolism associated with the PKK.
The Kurdistanica page on the Iraqi Kurdish flag is a little coy on the topic of the sun, noting:
The primary Kurdish characteristic of the flag is the golden sun emblem at the center. The sun emblem has a religious and cultural history among the Kurds, stretching into antiquity. The sun disk of the emblem has 21 rays, equal in size and shape. The number 21 holds a primary importance in the native Yazdani religious tradition of the Kurds.
I had occasion today to give myself a quick refresher course on honor killings, one form of which is already present in the Torah as of Leviticus 21.9:
And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.
and found myself once again noting that there is a substantial swathe of regions of the world where honor killings are found, and that where it is found (including in immigrant communities from those parts of the world) the practice is not confined to any one religious group.
Hence this DoubleQuote:
I think it is appropriate to consider honor killing a form of religious violence when the claim is made by those who do the killing that they are acting in the name of their religion — but that it is also important to distinguish such acts committed in a cultural context in which they are practiced across religions from acts that are the exclusive province of one religious tradition.
There are examples of honor killings which are performed in the name of Islam, and/or advocated by Islamic scholars — and the same could no doubt be said of other religious traditions — but honor killing as a genre is fundamentally more cultural than religious.
From my point of view as an analyst, it is important to note and compare both religious and cultural drivers — neither avoiding mention of the one out of “correctness” — nor overlooking the other for lack of comparative data.
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