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Iraq against the Kurds, from genocide to ‘linguicide’

October 15, 2018 at 4:00 pm

A support rally for Kurdish independence ahead of the Kurdish referendum on 21 September 2017 [Rudaw English‏/Twitter]

Language is not just a means to communicate ideas between people, but is also part of the identity of individuals and communities. Nations and ethnic groups are recognised by the language they use. American poet Sabine Ulibarrí described the importance of language by saying: “The language, the word, carries within it the history, the culture, the traditions, the very life of a people, the flesh. Language is the people.”

If we accept that, it could mean that erasing a language will erase “history, culture, traditions” and “the very life of a people” who speak it. For decades, if not centuries, this has been a fixed policy of many suppressive regimes in the Middle East who hoped to assimilate the Kurds, the largest nation without a state of its own. This might raise some eyebrows but, even now, there is still a state working systematically to erase the Kurds, not through genocide or ethnocide, but what we might call “linguicide”.

The Kurds in Iraq suffered multiple massacres at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime. Nearly 182,000 Kurdish men, women and children, for example, were rounded up, slaughtered and thrown into mass graves by the regime during the final years of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). On 16 March 1988, the Kurdish town of Halabja was attacked with chemical weapons. Five thousand civilians were killed, and more than 10,000 were wounded, some so seriously that they have lifelong disabilities. The Saddam regime’s behaviour towards the Kurds was still hostile and brutal almost two decades later when his dictatorship was overthrown by the US-led coalition in 2003.

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After 2003, the Kurds, who were already enjoying partial self-governance under UN Security Council Resolution 688 and a US-enforced no-fly zone, were hoping for prosperity in a federal Iraq free from sectarianism. The dream lasted until successive post-invasion governments started to make systematic moves by stealth to deal with the Kurds from every possible angle, especially their language.

A language needs education to survive, and the current Iraqi government is obviously trying to harm Kurdish if not destroy it altogether. This issue has been the focus of a heated debate since October last year when the Iraqi army, together with pro-Iran paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), overran Kirkuk and ousted the Kurdish Peshmerga forces from the disputed province. Since then, the Kurds have had almost zero influence on the administration responsible for Kurdish-language education.

Sherzad Rashid, the director of Kurdish language education in Kirkuk, told the Erbil-based Bas News Agency that Kurdish schools there are being closed down one by one, and have been since Iraq’s central government took over the province. He explained that the Kurdish people face further restrictions if they do not send their children to Arabic-language schools. The official also revealed that a total of 1,560 teachers in Kurdish schools have escaped from Kirkuk to go to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah since the Baghdad government took control of the region.

Another place in northern Iraq, which is also disputed between Erbil and Baghdad, is the predominantly Yezidi town of Sinjar. The city came under Islamic State attack in August 2014, and it was later liberated by the Peshmerga in November 2015. However, following the political tension and military confrontations 12 months ago, Sinjar has been controlled by the Shia PMF. Apart from multiple reports of human rights violations, the militia groups are also accused of hampering Kurdish education.

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Last month, the head of Sinjar Directorate of Education, Hussein Khidir, said that the Kurdish-language schools in the city are yet to be reopened, and that there is almost is no opportunity for the Yezidis to study in Kurdish. Out of 170 schools and educational institutions in Sinjar, which were closed down after the Islamic State massacre of the Yezidis, only 14 schools are now operating, all of which teach in Arabic. According to Khidir, more than 4,000 students returned to Sinjar after its liberation by the Peshmerga, but almost half were once again forced to flee for security reasons or “lack of Kurdish education” in their hometown.

Furthermore, in mid-August this year, the state-owned North Oil Company, which operates in the Kirkuk oilfields, issued an order to prohibit the use of Kurdish language in the company’s official correspondence. “Kurdish phrases are used in the majority of letters issued from the company, something against Law No. 64 of the year 1968 about the Protection of Arabic Language Safety,” explained Hamdan Ojail Rashid, the General Inspector from the Iraqi Oil Ministry in a letter citing a law from the Saddam era.

I spoke about the issue with former Kirkuk Governor Najmaddin Karim. He said frankly that the linguicide plot in the disputed territories within Iraq is “systematic” because the federal authorities have prevented the delivery of Kurdish-language school books to Kirkuk for the new academic year.

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Well-known Kurdish poet Abdullah Pashew said in an interview many years ago that it is the language that determines the original border of Kurdistan. For him, as long as you travel and hear the local people speaking Kurdish, you are still on the soil of Kurdistan.

To conclude, it might be better to refer to a famous quotation from Musa Anter (1920-1992), a prominent Kurdish writer, journalist and intellectual who was assassinated by the Turkish government: “If my mother tongue is shaking the foundations of your state, it probably means that you built your state on my land.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.