There is a long-running argument in Africa that the lumping together of different tribes into nation states is responsible for the intra-national conflicts in most African countries. Bringing different tribes under one national flag has fuelled tribal politics, or so the argument goes; tribes should have been left to self-govern after the end of colonialism, and national borders should have taken tribal lands into account.
This makes sense, even though it tries to absolve poor post-colonial African leadership of any blame for the mess across the continent. The main challenge in Africa is the unfair distribution of resources and favouritism. Tribal politics is another obstacle towards socio-political and economic prosperity.
In many ways, the development of nation states such as Iraq and Spain are very similar to Africa. Although much older than many of today’s African nations, they were also created by a winner takes all mentality.
The Kurds are spread across Syria, Turkey and Iran, as well as Iraq, and are regarded as the largest population group in the world without their own state; hence, the referendum in the autonomous Kurdish enclave over independence from Baghdad. The history of Catalonia is awash with territorial defeats, humiliation and political impositions which make Spain one of Europe’s most politically-irreconcilable nations. Given such realities, are the Catalan and Kurdish secessionist movements justified?
There has been a stunning emergence of such secessionist groups around the world, each seeking exclusivity built around their cultural identity. The politics of exclusive existence is growing, flanked by the rise of right-wing political parties and anti-migration organisations, particularly in Europe. In terms of objectives, there is little difference between the secessionists and the far-right; only the methods employed to achieve their aims differ, although this could be said to be a rather naïve and one-sided view.
Behind the cultural aspects of secessionism lies the inability of countries to share services and resources equally among their minority communities. This is very clear in oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan.
The current political fiascos in Spain and Iraq are interesting. The central government in Madrid is refusing to allow the Catalans to hold a legal referendum on independence, even though a majority of the people apparently want one. In Iraq, similar anti-referendum sentiments have been voiced, albeit after it had taken place on 25 September, when Kurdistan voted overwhelmingly to secede from Iraq. The subsequent condemnation by the Baghdad government and neighbouring states was a bit late in the day.
The secession movements will exist as long as there is a lack of real national leadership; racial and cultural discrimination is rampant; and the unfair distribution of national resources continues. The world’s political leaders should address such issues without delay. They must be concerned that what is happening in Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan could trigger similar movements not only in Europe and the Middle East but also everywhere else. In South Africa, for example, there is a sizeable and very militant right-wing of white Afrikaners intent on having an independent state called Orania.
It is hard not to conclude, therefore, that secessionist movements have the potential to polarise the world. Every new state comes with its own political, social and cultural baggage. It also has a need for weapons — purely for self-defence, of course — which fuels an arms race benefiting the military-industrial complex in a number of key states, the US and Israel among them.
Nationalism can be exploited in many ways, and instead of encouraging secession movements every time that nation states face internal challenges, political leaders should be focusing on coexistence between faith and ethnic groups, tribes and cultures. They should lead the fight against corruption, the unfair distribution of resources and all forms of socio-political and economic exploitation.
Sadly, the opposition to the referendums in Kurdistan and Spain is not driven by racial harmony and coexistence; it is based on politics, ego, territorial threats and economic interests. Preventing the Catalans and Kurds from pursuing their political ambitions is most likely to lead to violence. In order to prevent this, Madrid and Baghdad should establish counter-narratives which encourage coexistence. Furthermore, they should listen to the secessionists’ reasonable demands beyond the racist and exclusivist rhetoric, and then address them, which could weaken and eventually overcome the drive for independence.
Finally, the United States of America’s political shortcomings notwithstanding, its racial and cultural mix could be an ideal model to demonstrate what can be achieved by people of diverse backgrounds working together with a common aim. It is that which defines the fabled American dream and suggests why secessionist movements in Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan must not be allowed to succeed.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.