Precis:: in its struggle for an identity, Kurdistan has become a fateful experiment, exposing the fault lines of a world gone mad. The nation state is failing, has failed: we are left with burning coals and ashes of the legacy of colonial borders. I give you Saladin the Kurd, the Flower of Islam, the last true unifier of the Muslim world.
This morning, the Washington Post claims the USA is providing information to the Turkish military in its mission to destroy the PKK inside Iraq. By all accounts, Barzani and the Iraqi Kurds are furious. How much of this outrage is real and how much feigned, I cannot say. But Condi Rice has chosen this moment to arrive in Kirkuk. Many noses are out of joint in Iraq: for purposes unknown, the USA has placed part of its bet on Turkey, against the PKK.
The PKK has done itself no favors. In its efforts to establish a Kurdish state in Turkey, it has no scruples about killing other Kurds it believes are cooperating with Turkey. The Kurds of Turkey vary in their acceptance of their Turkish identity, from outright loyalty to Turkey to quiet disgust with the Ankara regime, to fighting with the PKK.
The Turks have done themselves no favors, either. Turkey sees Kurdish identity as unpatriotic grumbling. Until quite recently, writing in Kurdish was outright treason. To its credit, Turkey has lifted a few of the more onerous sanctions on the Kurdish languages, but many sanctions still remain. For the cosmopolitan Kurds of the cities, there are few barriers to progress. Beyond the cities, the situation is more confused and dangerous.
To confuse things further, there is no one "Kurdish culture". The Kurdish languages are not homogeneous. The largest linguistic group, Kurmanji / Bahdini , roughly centers in Turkey and northern Iraq. The Sorani linguistic group centers in Iran, though Sorani is found in pockets throughout all the Kurdish-speaking areas of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
I have said the Turks have oppressed their Kurds and oppress them still, with some important caveats. However bad things are for the Kurds of Turkey, the government in Ankara is not a bunch of callow savages. Turkey is not presently led by fools and Islamic demagogues: Turkey has fought its own war against Islamic terror since Ataturk overthrew the Caliphate. Though it is no solace for the Kurds of Turkey, Iran and Syria treat their Kurds incomparably worse.
Many Kurds are fleeing into Iraq, especially from Iran. Oddly, fewer are fleeing from Turkey. The Kurdish refugees within Turkey are fleeing to the larger Turkish cities. In accordance with BlaiseP's Law of Refugees, (my father invented the law), you may always tell who the Good Guy from the Bad Guy in any given conflict by watching the footprints of the refugees. They flee from the Bad Guy toward the Good Guy.
How could things have gotten so bad? Why are Kurds so hated? The simple answer: Islam never really stuck with the Kurds the way it did with others. Yet this is far too simple an answer, Saladin, the greatest warrior of Islam, was a Kurd. Born in Tikrit, he would study Islam in Damascus for a decade and enter the warrior class under his uncle. Saladin's life has all the components of what we now see in the region, little has changed. Saladin, though a Kurd, fought for Nur ad-Din, a Sunni Turk, whose principal enemies were the Christian kingdoms.
Nur ad-Din was only one of many conflicting powers in the area, who had variously treated or opposed the Crusaders. With the advent of the Second Crusade, Nur ad-Din establishes alliances among the enemies of the Crusaders. The Fatimids of Egypt were then in a wretched state, vassals of the Crusaders. Ex-vizier Shawar of the Fatimids came to Nur ad-Din for help against the Crusader Kingdoms. Though Shawar had no power himself, he convinced Nur ad-Din's Kurdish general Shirkuh to send an army to Egypt to see what could be done.
Even in those days, Kurds were highly organized warriors, with expert generalship, allying themselves to the powers of the day. Shirkuh the Kurd restores Shawar the Fatimid to power. The ungrateful Shawar returns the favor by allying with the Christians and expelling Shirkuh.
All the while Nur ad-Din was at war in Syria, and the Christians were wasting time in Egypt, fighting the besieged Shirkuh. Shawar's new Christian buddies run back north to preserve their holdings. Nur ad-Din sends Shirkuh the Kurd to Egypt again, to execute the treacherous Shawar.
Thus do we find Saladin the Kurd, governing then-Shiite Egypt for Nur ad-Din, a Turkish Sunni. Some say Saladin began to rebel at that point: on the advice of his father, Saladin never fought for Nur ad-Din again. With Nur ad-Din's death, Saladin nominally subjugates himself to Nur ad-Din's son, but far from Damascus, Saladin consolidates power under himself. Saladin sets about rebuilding Egypt, restoring its economy, reorganizing its army, in short, all we now see in Iraqi Kurdistan today: establishing de-facto power, especially economic power and good governance, without establishing their own nation. Saladin marches to Damascus, is greeted as a hero, and promptly marries Nur ad-Din's widow.
Saladin has enemies, and two attempts are made by the Ismaili, an Islamic extremist sect of the day, to assassinate him. The word "assassin" itself arises from these incidents. The word in Arabic is al-hashishin, the hashish user. Another word you may have heard is used of these extremists: Fedayeen, literally one who is ready to sacrifice his life. There is nothing new in the world: the terrorist was already part of the landscape in the time of Saladin.
An elaborate chess game is played out over the next decade. Saladin continues the work of Nur ad-Din, building alliances against the Crusaders. A few rounds of heavy slugging later, in which Saladin was nearly defeated several times, Saladin catches the Crusaders at the Horns of Hattin, and slaughters them to a man. Saladin, flushed with victory, thinks of a counter-Crusade.
There are many accounts of Saladin's capture of Jerusalem. One variant says Balian, the Christian King of Jerusalem parleyed with Saladin, saying the Christians would prefer to kill every Muslim within the walls and destroy the Dome of the Rock, and then each other, rather than face Saladin's capture of the city by force. Saladin relents from his modus operandi of killing every Frankish soldier, and allows the defenders to be ransomed.
Now comes the Third Crusade, and Richard the Lionhearted. Though their relationship started out horribly, with massacres on both sides, a bizarre respect emerges on both sides. Saladin sends fruit, chilled with snow, to Richard. Richard's horse is killed, Saladin sends him two. Richard offers his sister in marriage to Saladin's brother, and Jerusalem could be their wedding gift. Saladin offers his personal physician to cure Richard of a fever. The Crusaders understand Saladin and call him the Flower of Islam, for Saladin was a courteous man, known for his justice. There is a tale of Saladin approached by a Frankish woman whose child had been stolen and sold into slavery. Saladin purchases the child with his own money, and returns it to the weeping woman.
The Kurds I have known are defined by their honor. In all the pantheon of Kurdish heroes, Saladin stands highest. Saladin, perhaps unique in the history of warfare, was loved and respected by all his enemies, Christian and Islamic.
Saladin, though he was a Sunni by all accounts, came to command a mostly Shiite army. He governed in the name of others, very largely, until his power base was secure. He made alliances where none have made them since. He was a statesman, a brutally efficient warrior and the best bureaucrat the Islamic world has ever seen.
Where Saladin once ruled, the borders are as irrelevant as in his day. The Kurds, to their credit, are reaching out to their enemies, and are quietly consolidating power with their former Sunni overlords. The PKK is a problem for both the Kurds and the Turks. But the Kurds do take losses, as Saladin took losses. The presence of 300 Turkish troops on Iraqi soil is a sore trial, and even Barzani, who has always hated the PKK is howling about it. But those borders never made any sense. They are the creation of the Europeans, not the Kurds, or Turks, or Arabs. I am convinced much of this howling is for demonstration purposes only: the Kurds, Americans and Turks have all agreed to do the needful. Hence Condi Rice's appearance in Kirkuk.
What will come of this meeting, I cannot say. One thing seems certain, by removing the PKK from the equation, the powers-that-be are creating a new Realpolitik, to which we are mere bystanders. Saladin's empire only lasted 57 years, but this Kurd serves as a symbol of Arabic unity to this day.