A Modern History of the Kurds

By Gunter, Michael M. | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

A Modern History of the Kurds


Gunter, Michael M., The Middle East Journal


A Modern History of the Kurds, by David McDowall. London and New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1996. xvi + 449 pages. Append. to p. 451. Index to p. 472. $35.

David McDowall's new work should prove very valuable for scholars, politicians and students alike. As were his two earlier surveys,' this one also is very readable. Unlike its two pithy predecessors, however, it is a lengthy, in-depth analysis.

Basing his analysis largely on primary sources in London's Public Record Office (PRO) and interviews with a host of knowledgeable Kurds, McDowall divides his work into five sections, or "books," as he terms them. Each one is further partitioned into individual chapters. Following an opening chapter on "Kurdistan before the Nineteenth Century," "The Kurds in the Age of Tribe and Empire" covers the period from 1800 until the end of World War I. "Incorporating the Kurds" then analyzes how the Kurds were included in the modern states of Iran, Iraq and Turkey after 1918. The final three "books" deal with more recent "ethno-nationalism" in Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

Although McDowall lists initially only eight secondary sources used throughout his book, he subsequently ends each chapter with a short, but useful, bibliography appropriate for that particular chapter. The book also contains seven maps and concludes with a good index.

In addition to the wealth of data he supplies, McDowall adds both favorable and negative assessments and insights. For example, he states that "frontiers have not been wholly disadvantageous to the Kurds" (p. 8), as, although borders have divided them, "a permeable frontier has afforded a refuge for those who offend the state" (p. 8). This practice of crossing the border has continued for hundreds of years and has been resorted to frequently by the Barzanis of Iraq. Their most famous scion, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, is described by McDowall as "an innocent abroad" (p. 336), because of his misguided trust in Iran and the United States during the 1970s. Yet, in pursuit of his connection with Iran, Mulla Mustafa had "over 40 [Iranian Kurds] killed or turned over to the Shah's men" (p. 253), Machiavellian "behavior [which] . . . sickened many Kurds" (p. 346).

Although tribalism among the Iraqi Kurds has currently declined to "perhaps 20 per cent" (p. 380), McDowall aptly terms as "neo-tribalism" the emergence of the two main parties-Mas`ud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)both entrenched patronage systems in the 1990s (p. 386). The future of the Iraqi Kurdish experiment in democracy has been challenged by taxation of trade by the political parties and local aghas (officials), widespread asset-stripping for sale in Iran, and smuggling of the cereal harvest to the Iraqi government, which gave a high price, as well as the tragic internecine fighting that broke out between the KDP and PUK in May 1994.

Analyzing the situation to the north, McDowall concludes that "Turkey had unmistakably intended genocide [through assimilation, not murder, McDowall notes] of the Kurdish people. In practice, its intentions were defeated [only] by the sheer size of the task" (p. 210). Kurdish population growth and "a new and burgeoning [Kurdish] professional class . . . suggested that the [Turkish] army might be wasting its time chasing the PKK [Kurdish Workers' Party] through the mountains unless its operations were accompanied by radical efforts to reconcile the Kurdish minority nationally and economically" (p. 441). Indeed, shortly before his death in April 1993, Turkish President Turgut Ozal warned Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel that the Kurdish problem presented Turkey "its gravest threat yet. …

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