Kurdistan unbound

For the first time in centuries, Kurds have a nation they can call their own -- on the Internet.

Topics: Iraq, Middle East, Syria,

Kurdistan unbound

Three weeks ago in northern Syria, clashes erupted between Arab police and the ethnic Kurds who call that area their home despite being granted a bare minimum of rights by the Syrian government. Kurds account for about 2 million of the 17 million people in Syria, but they are not recognized officially as a minority community, and many of them haven’t been granted citizenship.

The rioting was sparked by a fight at a soccer match, but quickly tapped into deep Kurdish resentment over their status in Syria. Political protest of this nature is almost unheard of in a country known for dealing quickly and brutally with insurgents, and the protesters paid a steep price. About 30 people died, most of them Kurds, and hundreds were imprisoned.

But thanks in part to the Internet, even as Kurds in Syria were experiencing the familiar helplessness of an oppressed minority, their kin throughout the rest of the world were able to fight back — mere hours after the unrest began. Through an increasingly sophisticated network of Kurdish Web sites, news of the clashes spread throughout the Kurdish diaspora to Kurdish population centers in Great Britain, Sweden, Switzerland and Canada.

“Kurds everywhere were on the Internet following the situation,” says Nijyar Shemdin, the U.S. representative for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the political party currently governing much of northern Iraq. “Kurdish organizations everywhere began attacking embassies, organizing demonstrations. Before, this would have taken a long time.” [Editor's note: After the original publication of this story, Mr. Shemdin contacted Salon to note that he did not recall using the word "attacking" and to state that "While we believe in civil demonstrations to express our concerns and positions regarding certain political issues, we do not approve of violence nor terrorism."]

The American military presence in nearby Iraq undoubtedly had a deterrent effect on the zealous Syrian military, but did the public attention generated by the Internet also play a role? It’s impossible to say for sure. An active, unified diaspora and the watchful eye of foreign governments could strengthen the position of the millions of Kurds living in Turkey, Syria and Iran — aside from Iraq, the nations with the largest Kurdish populations. But outsiders generally have little direct influence on the day-to-day actions of authoritarian regimes.

This much, however, is certain: In countries like Syria where the media is state controlled and strictly regulated, outsider Web sites like that of the KRG help Kurds there see that life can be better, that they can have more rights and more self-determination, just like the Kurds in Iraq. “They see a live example of democracy working that all of Iraq and the region can follow,” says Shemdin.

And that, in turn, means that the governments of Turkey, Syria and Iran are worried more than ever about the “Kurdish question.”

Cyber-gurus have long speculated that the Internet would lead to the creation of politically and culturally viable communities that defied traditional categories. Instead of being defined by a shared physical space, these communities would be defined by shared interests or common goals, with only Internet connections and computers linking the individuals. Historically disenfranchised groups like the Kurds — a people who have not ruled themselves in hundreds of years, instead living as minorities under other regimes — provide an intriguing test of the virtual-reality theory, a test that has real implications for a people whose tenuous political status demands a real solution.

The Internet has allowed Kurdish communities across the globe to connect in ways never before possible. So much so that new research suggests that these networks of ethnic nationalist Web sites have become “cyber-states” — nations created in cyberspace because of the lack of a nation in real space.

“This form of mass communication allows for the creation of a community without the need for a space, for a territory,” says Kari Neely, a doctoral student in Near Eastern studies at the University of Michigan, who is researching the impact of the Internet on ethnic minorities in the Middle East. “Cyberspace allows people to coalesce in a new kind of territory to maintain cultural traditions that might otherwise be threatened with extinction through assimilation, warfare and population displacement.”

Neely is quick to point out that this “new kind of territory” will never be able to replace the obvious benefits of possessing a shared physical territory. And other scholars caution that, even when used as a tool to affect situations on the ground, “virtual” nations have very real limitations. “Reality is in real space, not cyberspace,” says Amir Hassanpour, a professor at the University of Toronto who has written extensively about the effects of modern media on Kurdish nationalism. “In the case of Iraq, for example, the Internet may give Kurds some ability to promote ideas, but the reality is that the United States is an occupying force, the majority of people are Shiites, and Kurds are a minority.”

The historic minority status of the Kurds is part of what makes the idea of a Kurdish cyber-state so provocative. Although a Kurd, Saladin, is credited with having liberated much of the Arab world from Crusader rule in the Middle Ages, Kurds have long been a persecuted minority in the Middle East. The traditional (but internationally unrecognized) Kurdish homeland, Kurdistan, is on land divided by four nations, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Although Turkey has been carrying out a prominent military campaign against Kurdish nationalists for decades, Americans are probably most familiar with Iraqi crimes against the Kurds. Remember all those times you heard the Bush administration talk about Saddam gassing his own people? Those people were the Kurds.

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That kind of persecution aided the creation of a large Kurdish diaspora throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas. It also meant that the Bush administration and the American occupation authority have had to handle an emerging Kurdish republic in northern Iraq with kid gloves. Although the Kurds have largely — and democratically — been managing their own affairs in Iraq since soon after the first Gulf War, America had to deny the Kurds’ request that they be allowed to establish their own independent nation following Saddam’s ouster. Turkey, Iran and Syria were terrified that this new Kurdistan would inspire their own Kurdish minorities to revolt, and the last thing the United States needs is more instability in the Middle East. Meaning that Kurds dreaming of a nation of their own can keep dreaming.

According to Neely, this gap between dreams and reality is exactly what Kurdish Web sites are trying to fill. “There’s an abundance of Web sites that have been established for and by these communities that include not only chat rooms and political forums, but minority literature — poems, short stories, novels, calls for original writings by community members — and even dating centers,” she says. “While the quality of the literary work being produced on the sites is certainly open to question, the point is that people use these sites to feel a connection to a larger community, a cyber-nation.”

What’s striking about the wide range of Kurdish Web sites is that so many of them attempt to provide a kind of one-stop shopping for Kurdish culture and nationalism. A Web site that happens to be operated by an American will not necessarily have content devoted to American literature, history and music. But many Kurdish sites link to all of the above — a history of the Kurds, samples of their literature and music, chat rooms, along with Kurdish news from all parts of the diaspora and “Kurdistan.” KurdTeens.com focuses on a younger audience, for example, but still connects people to all things Kurdish, for all ages.

“Other people say it is very nice to have your own country, so we try to create that feeling online,” says Bryar Fattah, a 20-year-old student who founded KurdTeens when he moved to Great Britain from Iraq in 2000. “We sometimes feel like each Web site is like a city from the Kurdish cities. Our virtual Kurdistan is not on the ground. It is in our minds.”

Some sites, including Kurdland.com, Kurdistan Net and KurdistanWeb practically sound like countries in their own right, while others such as Kurdish Media and the Kurdish Information Network have slightly less conspicuous names but perform the same kind of role.

“The site helps bring about a common bond in terms of language and cultural events,” says Dilan Roshani, an Iranian Kurdish engineer living in Great Britain who has operated KurdistanWeb since 1995. “The bond makes it easier for them to overcome a long history of Kurdish oppression and makes them feel a connection that no international border could give them.”

Neely says the “cyber-state” model can also apply to a host of other dispossessed peoples, particularly those with large diasporas — for example, the Druse, a religious minority; the Armenians, who have experienced an extensive diaspora and only recently received a territory of their own; and the Palestinians, who are part of the dominant Arab majority but who lack a state. A Web site such as the Electronic Intifada tries to represent, by definition, an electronic uprising, carrying the Palestinian struggle for a nation — nonviolently, through information, education and communication — to Palestinians beyond the West Bank and Gaza, helping to create a unified Palestinian community that extends from Europe, to America, to the Middle East.

The prototype for the Electronic Intifada was established on the Internet in September 1996, when Nigel Parry, who was in the West Bank, posted photos of a clash between Palestinians and Israelis. The photos reached Ali Abunimah, an ocean away. Parry, Abunimah and two others founded the Electronic Intifada soon afterward — even though the four never met in person until April of last year. “The first Palestinians I came into contact with who actually lived in Palestine were through listservs in the late 1990s,” says Abunimah, a writer who grew up in Great Britain and currently lives in Chicago. “It gave me an incredible, crucial sense of connection and community.”

But for all the feelings of community engendered by Kurdish, Palestinian or Armenian Web sites, can a cyber-Palestine ever rival a real Palestine, or a cyber-Kurdistan a real Kurdistan? The short answer is no, absolutely not.

Even the most popular Kurdish Web sites, which record several thousand unique visitors a day, don’t come close to connecting to the entire Kurdish population, numbering about 25 million, spread across the world. And while it is often a good tool for diaspora communities in Europe or America with easy access to computers, the Internet simply is not available for many of the Kurds living in small towns in ancestral Kurdistan.

And for those who do have Internet connections, a cyber-state may help people connect with each other, but it won’t keep them warm at night. After all, this is reality, not a scene from “The Matrix.” “You cannot take a plane and go to the Internet and live there,” says Shemdin, the Iraqi KRG’s American representative. “You can’t go home and visit relatives there or build a house there.”

But while a cyber-Kurdistan will not alleviate the need for a real Kurdistan, it may help realize one in the future. The disadvantages of a cyber-state — being ungrounded first and foremost — can be distinctly advantageous for ethnic minority communities and their nationalist movements.

“Cyberspace can provide a type of protected space for dangerous political views, minority viewpoints that aren’t legal in other settings,” Neely says. “I think this might be a reason for the numerous sites published in the Kurdish language. When a state bans something — like Turkey has done with the publication of Kurdish — then it can find a place outside the establishment.”

While simply maintaining the Kurdish language itself serves a nationalist goal — it’s difficult to establish a state politically if there’s no distinct culture to define it — many of the Web sites have explicit political content promoting a nationalist agenda. In countries such as Turkey, where Kurdish newspapers are banned, Kurds can learn about the progress of the nascent Kurdish republic in Iraq through the KRG Web site, which features not just news in depth but also descriptions of how the regional government works and biographies of all the elected officials — in other words, the basic building blocks of the democratic process.

“In the past, you couldn’t send a Kurdish paper to Iran or Turkey because of security checks,” says Hassanpour, the University of Toronto professor. “Subscribing to a Kurdish paper published in Holland meant I would go to jail as a secessionist. There can still be state surveillance of the Internet, of course, but in spite of this, Kurdish political parties have their own sites and people are free to propagate their politics.”

Shemdin says the KRG’s Web site has also helped curb the tide of Iraqi Kurds emigrating to Europe and America because they feared the domestic situation was too unstable. The site demonstrated to people that there was a consistent government presence, in addition to spreading news about increasing employment rates and improving health statistics, he says. “It helped create national unity by holding together society and preventing any more people from leaving.”

While access to these sites may be limited by Internet availability, Neely makes the point that even in real space, cultural and political institutions are almost never utilized by the entire population. Political elections in many countries, for example, fail to attract even a majority of the citizens, much less all of them. User statistics, particularly in places with limited access to computers, are vague at best.

“When I was in Syria I would see one person paying for an Internet connection while five of his friends would be standing behind him looking over his shoulder,” Neely says. “How can we get an accurate count of how many people are affected?”

Almost 15 years ago, satellite television first began the modern revolution in the Kurdish national consciousness. The Kurdish Satellite Channel, a station licensed by Britain, started broadcasting in Europe and the Middle East, causing fervent protests from the Turkish and Iranian governments. In Turkey, the army smashed satellite dishes to prevent people from seeing images of the Kurdish flag and map and from hearing the Kurdish national anthem. “I knew a family in Turkey,” Hassanpour says. “They never believed they’d be able to see Kurdish on television, but when they saw the shows, they changed their mind. They believed the Kurdish nation could exist.”

The growing cyber-state is creating a similar effect — with one crucial difference. Now Kurds all over the world aren’t just passively watching content, they’re creating their own, and they’re connecting directly with thousands of others like themselves. The impact of this burgeoning nation in cyberspace on the formation of an actual Kurdistan may one day be very real.

“News on a daily basis, blogs, and especially chat rooms are very popular, and most of the content is nationalistic, of course,” Hassanpour said. “Kurds from Iraq and Iran are communicating with each other in chat rooms — even people from small towns in Iran. I myself am very surprised.”

Christopher Farah is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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