A famous Persian satirical writer and poet of a thousand years ago, Obeid Zakani, has a joke about religion amongst the Kurds. They asked a Kurd, he writes, whether he was a Sunni or a Shiite. Neither, he replied. I am a Kurd. I am not certain what he wanted to say about my people at that time, On the face of it, he is saying that the Kurds, on their mountains, were too remote to have heard of the great theological divide that had just come into being in the world of Islam. I suspect that there was a hidden, more potent side of the joke. Zakani, who was a rude critic of the mullahs of his time, was probably trying to cast doubt on the claims of the theologians by showing that it was perfectly possible to get along without religious extremism of the one kind or another. At that time, the Kurds enjoyed a life that was more prosperous and more secure than the majority of Persians who lived on the barren plains.
If this interpretation is correct, we have certainly remained true to our ancestors’ way of remaining aloof from religious hot heads. But this time it is by choice. No longer is it possible to be oblivious of the ayatollahs. If you do not listen to their broadcast propaganda, or their helicopter gun-ships bombarding your remotest village, they will soon let you know that they do not love you.
Last year, another Persian made a memorable remark about religion amongst us. He was sent by the Prime Minister to the government-occupied Kurdish city of Mahabad to enquire into the local situation. Whilst he was taking part in a military ceremony for dead Revolutionary Guards, Kurdish partisans whisked him out of town and took him to the hills for a few days of familiarisation with their views. When released, he said that he had been surprised to find that Kurds regarded themselves as Kurds first, Iranians second, and Moslems only a poor third. Other Iranians thought of themselves as Moslems first, Moslems second, and Moslems third also. He had thus discovered, he said, that the Kurds were culturally different from the other Iranians; their feelings ought to be respected.
Most people in Kurdistan are probably genuine believers in Islam. At first, it seems curious that their leaders dare to place nationality above the creator of the Universe. But God is nowadays a highly political figure in the Middle East, with an ideology that mixes communism with capitalism and is permeated by a deep hatred of Western civilisation, The Kurdish statement is therefore a political declaration. If Islam is going to be a veil for the destruction of Kurdish culture and nationality, the Kurds would rather have nothing to do with it. For this is exactly the role that is now assigned to Islam in Iran.
The ruling Islamic clergy are no Persian chauvinists, as were the last two shahs, trying to assimilate the minorities by stifling their languages and belittling their separate heritage. The mullahs’ nationalism is of a religious kind and equally aimed against Persia’s national identity. They dream of creating a Moslem nation spreading from Morocco to Indonesia.
They have set about weakening all the symbols of Persian identity surviving from pre-Islamic times. The ancient emblem of Iran, a red lion against the background of a rising sun, has been replaced by the Islamic red crescent. It is generally estimated that the non Persian-speaking minorities make up about half the thirty-five million population of the country. The most numerous of these are Azerbaijani Turks, followed by the Kurds and the Baluchis. Smaller minorities include the Arabs of the South, the Turkomans of the North East, and the Turkish-speaking Ghashghais of the centre.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Azerbaijanis, the northern half of whose land lies in the Soviet Union, formed a left-wing republic under Soviet protection. The republic collapsed, however, when the Russians withdrew their forces from northern Iran in 1947. Ever since, they have shown no desire to break free, perhaps because they belong to the dominant Shi’ite sect of Iran and can identify more easily with the political and military hierarchy. A movement seeking autonomy came into being last year but was instantly crushed. And Azerbaijan’s spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Shariat Madari, who was the most senior Shi’ite leader in Iran before Khomeini overshadowed him, is under house-arrest in the Persian city of Qom.
In contrast, the Kurds have shown a militancy that cannot easily be explained. They, too, formed a republic under Soviet protection. But their leaders did not follow the Red Army into the Soviet Union, and were executed by the Shah. Most of them belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, but they contain sizeable communities adhering to Shi’ism or native Kurdish religion, Zoroastrianism. Perhaps the main reason for their readiness to take up arms against the forces of the alien state, lies in their remoteness from the centres of power in the Middle East. Foreign rule over them has remained nominal. Memories of Kurdish princes or presidents still live amongst them, and their literature abounds with the epic story of local heroes who fell resisting foreign invaders. Add to this their grievance stemming from the division of their land among five hostile states and you will understand why foreigners sometimes attribute a war-like nature to them. As for the other minorities’ struggle for autonomy, the Turkomans have been subdued after some ghastly atrocities committed by, Revolutionary Guards, and the Arabs have lost a considerable number of their guerrillas executed over the past year. The Baluchis and the Ghashghais, too, have been involved in minor clashes with Government forces, clashes that could easily erupt into major rebellions.
In the middle of this turmoil, and whilst the new regime Tehran seems bent upon digging its grave by becoming, daily, more extreme, the political leaders of the minorities must be anticipating the possible course of events in Iran. It seems that the comparatively moderate wing of the Islamic regime under President Bani-Sadr has no future, and that the country’s government is fast falling into the lap of the clerical hard-liners under Ayatollah Beheshti. In that case, the minorities can not entertain hopes of reaching any agreement with Tehran. Nor can they hope for any such agreement if an extreme Persian nationalist, such as General Oveissi who is equipping his supporters in Iraq, takes over. Minority leaders must, therefore, hope that moderate social-democratic politicians might seize power in Tehran. That possibility seems remote.
A more complete history of the Kurdish people throughout the Middle East can be found in People Without A Country' edited by Gerard Chaliand and published by Zed Press, 57 Caledonian Road, London NJ 9ND