Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A nation without a state? A state without a nation?

Once again, case studies from beyond the AP6. Excerpts from this bit of journalism (which is more careful about labels than most) could help introduce students to important concepts.

Iraq is a state but not a nation; Kurdistan is the opposite
It’s pretty hard to keep one’s mind straight about the artificial concept of “nation-state.” The world is organized according to this construct. The inhabited world is divided into states, each of which has boundaries and a government. If someone tries to change the boundaries from the outside, it’s a war. From the inside, it’s a civil war. When all the boundaries are being respected and everyone within each state accepts the legitimacy of the government, at least until the next election, it’s peace.

These “nation-states” seem to work best when what the world calls a country coincides with the other meaning of the word “nation,” a population bound together by a shared identity of some kind, including elements of history, ethnicity, language, religion and a dose or two of secret sauce. It also helps if the population has coexisted within boundaries that are accepted as legitimate, by the nation and by its neighbors, for a long time. Nation-states that have all of these attributes are actually fairly rare, but they do have significant advantages in avoiding wars and civil wars.

Iraq… is comprised of three major groups that have plenty of grudges against one another and little history of peaceful coexistence except during periods of foreign domination or brutal tyranny. Iraq is a fairly recent construct. A nation-state in the size, shape and borders of what we call “Iraq” had absolutely no history before World War I…

Iraq is a state but not a nation. Kurdistan is the opposite.

Kurds are a distinct ethnic group, with their own language and culture. They are actually probably the fourth biggest ethnicity in the Middle East… The Kurds are the largest Mideast “nation” that has no state they control or in which they are the majority.
Iraqi "Kurdistan"

But… that’s not because the Kurds are too scattered to constitute a state of their own. In fact, most… Kurds… live in a concentrated contiguous territory that is separated by the boundaries of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and a tiny bit of Armenia.

If the world drew a boundary around the territory of “Kurdistan,” it would be an overwhelmingly Kurdish nation with a population in the range of 30 million or so, a mountainous territory roughly the size of Nebraska…

The state of “Kurdistan” might be quite a prosperous nation if it ever existed. The Kurdish region of Turkey is rich in water resources… The Iraqi region has oil…

In the chaos of the ISIS takeover of Mosul and the humiliating, chaotic retreat of Iraqi troops, the well-trained and disciplined Kurdish paramilitary (known as the “Peshmerga,” which translates as “those who face death”) moved quickly into Kirkuk and control it as of this writing.

BBC reporter Jim Muir was in the Kurdish region as this was happening and wrote:

With the rest of Iraq apparently disintegrating along sectarian lines, and the central government in Baghdad in disarray, it will clearly be a long time before an Iraqi authority can challenge the Kurds' absorption of what they have long seen as the rightful jewel in their crown.

There’s no telling where the story will go next…

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