University students march to support pro-democracy demonstrations in Sulaimani, March 2011. (Nicole F. Watts)

This post is part of the “Rethinking Nation and Nationalism” symposium.

In early February, Kurdish lawmakers gathered in a special parliamentary session to put the final touches on plans to designate Halabja the fourth official province in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. News reports quoted Youssef Muhammad, speaker of the Kurdish parliament, as saying that making Halabja and its environs a province would “heal some of the wounds that Halabja has been carrying as they will run their province by themselves and for themselves.” Halabja, a town of around 100,000 people about eight miles from the Iraqi-Iranian border, was bombed by Iraqi warplanes on March 16, 1988, killing an estimated 5,000 people in one of the worst single chemical gas attacks of civilians of the 20th century.

The decision to make Halabja a province is striking for many reasons. First, it is a symbol of survival and reconstruction in the face of brutal repression. Additionally, it expands the administrative scope of Kurdish rule relative to the rest of Iraq. Further, dis-attaching this symbolically crucial geography from the Sulaimani province of which it has been part can be seen as further evidence of the changing balance of power between the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the once influential Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) that until recently controlled the northeastern part of autonomous Kurdistan.

But Halabja-as-province is also significant as a story of ordinary Kurds’ pushback against the tight hold of both these parties over political and economic life in the Kurdistan region. Designating Halabja a province was among demonstrators’ key demands in the 2006 protest that destroyed the Halabja Monument of Martyrs, and politicians visiting the city had found themselves remonstrated again and again by local people demanding not just better services and infrastructure but a decentralization of power that would grant Halabja more say over its own affairs and how its symbolic legacy of suffering would be used.

More fundamentally, what is happening in Halabja demonstrates that even amid a new “Kurdification” of the Middle East political map, there are many Kurds demanding governance that goes beyond a simple ethnic rationale for rule. Kurds in northern Iraq struggled for decades to gain autonomy from Baghdad; in recent years thousands have taken to the streets in Halabja, Sulaimani, Ranya, and other towns and cities to challenge their own Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its two leading parties. This politics of dissent does not reject Kurdish nationalist principles but, rather, seeks to redefine them in ways that offer ordinary people more influence over the resources of Kurdish state- and nation-building. As Halabja’s province campaign demonstrates, such redefinitions insist on the relevance of localized identities and experiences and on the necessity of the rule of law and good governance. At root, activists’ efforts involve broadening and deepening understandings of the Kurdish national interest so that it involves how Kurds govern themselves as much as it does protecting them from Baghdad, the Islamic State group, and other real or potential regional threats.

Children in Halabja play on abandoned Iraqi army tanks left on display outside the Halabja Monument of Martyrs, March 2014. (Nicole F. Watts) Children in Halabja play on abandoned Iraqi army tanks left on display outside the Halabja Monument of Martyrs, March 2014. (Nicole F. Watts)

Many analysts have commented on the challenge to post-World War I order and existing state boundaries. Such challenges come not only from Islamic State forces but also from Kurdish groups constructing distinctly Kurdish zones of governance across the Middle East, producing a new congruence between political and cultural boundaries. The KRG in northern Iraq has been legally sanctioned as an autonomous governing entity since 2005. Kurdish-majority areas of northern and northeastern Syria have been governed since 2012 as three de facto autonomous cantons collectively referred to by Kurds as Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan. Even in Turkey, where the central government fiercely resists decentralization and many Kurds still support the Turkish state, local and national elections show the Kurdish-majority provinces of the country at clear odds with political sympathies in the rest of the country.

This Kurdistan-ization of the political map has occurred not only because of wars and weak states but also because of shifts in internal political dynamics among Kurds themselves. Nationalist rhetoric to the contrary, Kurds have never uniformly supported Kurdish independence and throughout the 20th century participated in a variety of political projects (socialist, Islamist, democratic, etc.) that involved multi-cultural governance of one sort or another. But the often-repressive policies of the region’s states have encouraged many Kurds to conclude that only ethnic Kurds are fit – or can be trusted – to rule, and those who offer alternative ideas about how to imagine community and citizenship have found themselves marginalized. Increasingly, Kurds around the region see the only viable framework for governance as one based on principles of Kurdish ethno-nationalism.

Support for Kurdish nationalism is particularly apparent in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where Baghdad’s policies of forced re-settlement, chemical gas attacks and mass killings long ago lost it any claim to credibly represent its Kurdish citizens. Kurdish nationalism in this context can be summed up as a belief that there is a Kurdish nation and in the sanctity of a Kurdish national culture; in the idea that Kurds have the dominant if not exclusive claim to the territory governed by the KRG; and in the widespread agreement that the KRG, whatever its faults, is the appropriate governing manifestation of the Kurdish community in northern Iraq. Such support has been evidenced in many ways including high voter turnout in regional elections for the Kurdish government (generally 70 percent or higher) and, for instance, an unofficial 2005 referendum in which, given a choice between remaining part of Iraq or becoming independent, 98 percent of those questioned supported Kurdish independence. The prioritization of specifically Kurdish interests – and deep fears that the violence and instability of the rest of Iraq would infect Kurdistan – also manifested itself in the 2014 anti-Arab protests and outbreaks of violence in Erbil city. Though quickly and firmly quashed by Kurdish political authorities, who have also made significant longer-term efforts to offer protection and services to Arab refugees, they highlighted the Kurdish ethno-national underpinnings of popular perceptions of who is entitled to live in the area, and who belongs.

However, while Iraqi Kurdish citizens endorse the Kurdification of the map, they are not necessarily pleased with how that process is happening. This dissatisfaction has manifested in extra-institutional and conventional opposition politics that, unlike in the past, do not target the central regime in Baghdad but the KRG. Throughout the last decade activists have taken to the street to demonstrate against corruption; for better services and infrastructure; in support of press freedoms; to challenge a more restrictive demonstration law; on behalf of the handicapped; against oil exploration; in support of fiscal transparency; and to call for democratization. In particular, activists and critics have demanded the disentanglement of party and state, and a more merit-based system of allocating jobs, contracts and other resources. In early 2011 the region saw its own version of the Arab Spring protests when demonstrators in Sulaimani occupied the city’s central square for two months. Activists called on the government to resign and for substantial reforms to the system.

Several points about these protests stand out. The first is the geo-political basis of protest: Dissent against the KRG has been much more common in Sulaimani province (including Halabja) than elsewhere in the region. This is due to a number of factors including the erosion of PUK authority across Sulaimani, its traditional stronghold, which opened up the political arena there; to differences in the political culture and state-society relations of Sulaimani, on the one hand, versus Erbil and Duhok, on the other; and because the latter two provinces are dominated by the powerful Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of KRG President Masoud Barzani, which also exercises tight control over security in these provinces. A second point is that – within these geographic parameters – such protests have been broadly inclusive, involving both Islamist and secular opposition, as well as people from different socio-economic classes. They have also been largely nonviolent. Third, street protests have been sustained and augmented in the last decade by institutional developments that have provided a new capacity for mobilization. These include the growth of a vocal opposition and independent media and of social media sites, especially Facebook; the emergence of non-governmental organizations operating more independent of the political parties; and, in particular, the creation and electoral success of a new opposition party, Gorran (Movement for Change), founded in 2009 through a schism within the PUK. Running on a reformist platform, Gorran won nearly a quarter of the seats in the 2009 elections for the Kurdistan National Assembly, and in the September 2013 elections it won the second-highest number of seats, surpassing the PUK, and in 2014 becoming a governing partner. Gorran played a prominent role in both instigating and supporting the 2011 protests, although the Sulaimani city demonstrations went well beyond Gorran to involve many different clusters of students, religious leaders, civic groups, intellectuals and other activists, along with other opposition parties such as the Kurdistan Islamic Union.

The vast majority of these activists and reformists are not seeking to challenge the Kurdish national underpinnings of governance or dismantle the KRG. This is clear from party platforms, election results, public opinion polls, and in the rhetoric and framing of dissent. Even among seasoned activists and critics of the regime, Kurdish leaders such as Barzani still command significant affection and loyalty for their role in the nationalist struggle, capable leadership, and commitment to the Kurdish cause. Rather, criticism of the KRG has revolved around three main issues: the distribution of material and economic resources, with demands for better services, less corruption and nepotism, and more equitable access to the resources of the state and public institutions; rule-making and rights, as demonstrated in campaigns and protests concerning human rights violations,laws, and the KRG’s much delayed draft constitution; and national memory, and how the Kurdish cause is represented and commemorated. To address these concerns, activists and opposition figures have sought to shift the foundations of the Kurdish national project from the charismatic basis of leadership in the nationalist struggle to a system based on rights and rules, institutionalization, accountability and decentralization.

Recent protests and campaigns highlight two dimensions along which activists seek to reshape the state- and nation-building project in Iraqi Kurdistan. The first dimension is a national one. The 2011 Sulaimani protests constituted a watershed in Kurdish political life because they were the first serious mass protests calling for national (Kurdish), systemic reform, focusing in particular on the need for an end to corruption, for more fiscal and political accountability and transparency, and for an end to the party-state. Activists framed reforming the KRG as a patriotic duty, and the 10 people who died in the course of the protests were depicted as a new kind of national martyr. This effort to reconfigure the framework of Kurdish governance was strengthened by Gorran’s electoral victories and forcefully promoted in the opposition and independent media. Though broken up forcefully by Kurdish security forces in mid-April, the demonstrations significantly re-shaped the national conversation about power and the nature of political authority.

The second dimension of alternative state- and nation-building is one that seeks to incorporate localized interests into the homogenizing narrative prevalent in Kurdish national discourse. To some degree this was evident even in the Sulaimani protests, which can be seen as a general effort to reform the system but also as a particularly Sulaimani-based challenge. But it is in sites such as Halabja that the effort to reconstitute Kurdish national identity as simultaneously national (or even supra-national) and locally distinctive is most striking. This is both because of the high level of activism there and also because of the central role that Iraq’s 1988 attack on Halabja plays in the construction of the Kurdish national mythos. On the one hand, “Halabja” has become discursive shorthand for the suffering of all Kurds and a kind of cornerstone legitimating the need for Kurdish self-rule. On the other hand, Halabja has often exhibited quite distinctive political interests and a high level of independent mindedness. Though it has a history of support for Islamist politics, electoral results for Halabja show it beyond the control of any one group: Its voters tend to split their votes fairly evenly between a number of different parties. Halabjans have also frequently taken to the streets. Certainly one of the earliest and most striking examples was the 2006 demonstration at the Halabja Monument of Martyrs, when activists argued party officials had lost their right to organize the annual commemoration at the monument, accusing them of exploiting the city’s suffering and of neglecting the development and reconstruction of the city. In 2014 the commemoration ceremony was organized for the first time by local civic groups rather than by the parties, and tens of thousands of local people took to the streets to both remember their dead and celebrate Halabja’s designation as a province.

A banner hung at the graveyard in Halabja at the 2014 annual ceremony commemorating the victims of the 1988 chemical gassing of the city. (Nicole F. Watts) A banner is hung at the graveyard in Halabja at the 2014 annual ceremony commemorating the victims of the 1988 chemical gassing of the city. (Nicole F. Watts)

Both the ceremony and the province campaign can be read as successful local efforts to wrest control of Halabja’s symbolic and material resources away from the parties, and to redefine Halabja as both part of but also distinct from the Kurdish national project. In their support for the province campaign, activists and politicians invoked several frames that highlight this juxtaposition. These included a national frame: “since Saddam Hussein tried to wipe Halabja off the face of the map, the KRG and the community ought to upgrade Halabja’s status by making it a province;” a localist-legal frame that justified Halabja’s designation as a province by alluding to earlier proposals to make it a province and by reference to what is depicted as Halabja’s distinctive and illustrious past; and a good governance rationale that suggested Halabja would benefit economically and politically if it were locally governed, with budgets controlled at the ground level and not through Sulaimani. Such narratives highlight the ways Halabjans have tried to situate the city as both within and distinct from the national project – as both central to its mythos and yet distinctive in its needs and experiences. Although some neighboring towns designated for inclusion in the new province grumbled (and themselves took to the streets in protest), and despite internal consternation from the Sulaimani-based PUK and Gorran at the administrative loss of control, the symbolic leverage commanded by Halabja made it very difficult for any politician to refuse this localized form of self-determination.

The politics of dissent under the KRG demonstrates how Kurds are re-thinking nationalism and the meaning of national governance. Such reconsiderations are in fact taking place across geographic Kurdistan as people in Turkey, Syria and elsewhere re-visit classic conceptions of top-down, national state-building and experiment with notions of “democratic autonomy” and micro-level governance structures. However, such considerations of ground-up governance interact uneasily with existing party structures, which tend to be hierarchical and intolerant of internal dissent, as well as with the unifying imperative of national state-building. That this tension has been manifested quite publicly in the Kurdistan region of Iraq is due in part to the existence of a legally sanctioned governing entity – the KRG – and the traditional parties’ neo-liberal, patrimonial ways of doing business, which have given the opposition movement a clear target. The public contestations over the nature of Kurdish state- and nation-building have also been possible because Kurdish authorities have succeeded in providing a sufficiently stable “form” of Kurdish governance to allow for the emergence of concern over the substance of this rule.

That ordinary people living under the KRG are seeking to redefine ideas about what is in the Kurdish national interest is important for several reasons. First, most basically, it complicates overly simplistic accounts of the region that map political preferences neatly over the top of religious and ethnic groups (“Kurds versus Arabs” or “Kurds versus Turks”). Second, the political geography of dissent and the varying articulations of Kurdish political interests highlight the relevance of multi-level political dynamics in the Kurdish north. How Kurds do politics – and the nature of those politics – is not just a factor of Erbil’s relations with Baghdad or other external players but is also contingent on the give and take between these internal forces. Third, activists’ efforts to make Kurdish authorities more accountable and efforts by the Kurdish leadership to respond, even partially, to some of these concerns demonstrates how the balance of power between rulers and ruled can shift, even in conditions of political insecurity. Somewhat counter intuitively, this case suggests that a broad consensus on the nationalist undergirding of state-making can in some ways facilitate democratization, because the fact that nearly all Kurds in the Kurdistan region agree on “the basic rules of the game” means the struggle over the nature of governance and the distribution of resources is not seen by the various players as a zero-sum game. Broad support for Kurdish self-determination may thus allow for a shift toward a more multi-faceted and ground-up conceptualization of the Kurdish national community.

Nicole F. Watts is a professor in the department of political science at San Francisco State University.