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A blog on terrorism, democracy and international politics

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Jalal Talabani: First Kurdish President of an Arab State? 

The recent nomination of Jalal Talabani, a longtime Kurdish leader, to the position of President of Iraq has generated many newpaper headlines and TV soundbites to the effect that Talabani is "The First Kurdish Head of an Arab State" or "The First non-Arab President of Arab Iraq". This claim is doubly flawed, and has irritated many Iraqi Kurds. (See, for example, Kurdo's blog and An Iraqi's Thoughts).

An Arab State?

First, it is unfair and perhaps tasteless to report that a Kurd is President and in the same breath reiterate that Iraq is an "Arab State". Iraq is a multiethnic and multidenominational country. Although Arabs constitute a majority, the Kurds still comprise 15-20% of the population,a and therefore deserve a stake in its government. Moreover, the Kurds are not simply a minority distributed randomly across Iraq. Since its foundation, the modern state of Iraq has contained provinces that are overwhelmingly populated by Kurds. The Kurds have lived in those areas since time immemorial. In other words, parts of the Republic of Iraq are not at all 'Arab', but are part of the Kurdish homeland. Although it is tempting to use the term "Arab State" as shorthand for "Arab majority State", in the context of Talabani's presidency, the phrase is offensive to many Kurds.

The First Kurd to Lead Arabs?

Second, Kurds have ruled Arab majority states before. As Simko points out, Husni al-Zaim, the first Za'em (President) of Syria and Nuri As-Said (the last elected Iraqi premier before Qassim's coup) were Kurds, as was the legendary Muslim leader Salahuddin (Saladin). Simko lists many other Kurds who have been leaders in the Arab world. The Kurds are not a perpetually victimised people, so Talabani is not a fleeting anomoly. The Kurds have the same capacity to lead in the Middle East as anyone else - perhaps more so given Iraqi Kurdistan's recent record of successful, democratic self-administration.

The nomination of a Kurd as President of Arab-majority Iraq is of course of immeasurable importance, precisely because for so long certain people have asserted that Iraq belongs to the Arabs. The term "Arab State" was part of a policy mindset that denied the legitimacy of the Kurdish people. This was the same mindset that saw the Kurds slaughtered and gassed under Saddam Hussein. This mindset also extended to religious issues; the Sunni Arab minority was presented as the rightful ruling group, justiying the subjugation of the Shi'ite majority.

Thus, to shatter the myth of "the Arab State of Iraq" is to shatter the quasi-tribal mythologies that prop up dictatorships across the Middle East - presenting challenges to the ruling classes of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran among others.

A vestige of an unpleasant past

Colin Powell was the first black Secretary of State of the USA. If, hypothetically, he became the next US President, that would also be a first. But would the newspapers call him "The First Black President of White America"?

The domination of Iraq by particular ethnic groupings is (hopefully) a thing of the past - the mainstream political leaders of Iraq's ethnic and religious communities are increasingly working towards the common goal of an Iraqi state that is neither exclusively Arab nor Kurd, neither Sunni nor Shiite.

Supporting Statistics:

Ethnic GroupingReligion/Denomination
AsianAfricanOtherSunniShi'iteOther MuslimChristianOther
Kuwait80%4%9%Deleted 29/5/05 due to errors (see comments)f
Saudi Arabia90%10%85%15%
YemenNo data52%48%
Source: SBS World Guide, PWHCE. Note that each country was compiled separately, and in some cases irregularities may arise because of differences of definition. In some cases, statistics may only be available from state sources and figures may be distorted.

a Source: SBS World Guide, 9th edition, 2001, p364.
b Azerbaijani 24%, Giliki and Mazadarani 8%, Lur, Baloch and Turkmen 2% each. Other 1%
c Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Baha'i
d Mostly Turks
e 30 000 Yazidis, 25 000 Sabeans, 2500 Jews
f See comments
g Other consists of Armenian, Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkish and Greek. The religious breakdown presented here is also greatly simplified and numbers are approximate.
i Alawite, Druze, other sects.
h 9.7% 'other' includes significant Kurdish minority in addition to Armenians, Turks, Circassians and Assyrians
j Represents non-Asian expatriates.
Sorry, but I think there's some kind of an error in the stats:

(The Religion in Kuwait) the number isn't reversed it's 'false' & I'm not making you wrong because you didn't made up the stats but I think the approx% shall be: 65-70% - 29-34%
You're right idip, there is an error in the stats. Firstly, I'm sure I copied them down incorrectly. But looking at the source, I find it does not add up either:
"85% of the population are Muslims (of which 35% Shi'ite, 45% Sunni; 10% other [adds up to 95 not 85]); 15% are Christains, Hindus, Parsis and other. Of the 15% Christian minority, about 54,700 are Roman Catholic." [Is it 15% Christian or 15 other??]
Thanks for the tip, I think I'll delete the religion data for Kuwait.
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