Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of the founders of the “Nouveaux Philosophes” (New Philosophers) movement. His books include Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism, American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, and most recently, The Genius of Judaism.
ERBIL – By history and by language I am a member of a very old nation, one of the oldest in the world: France.
And in spirit I am a member of a very old people, the Jewish people – like the Kurds, one of the oldest on the planet, a people that founded one of the youngest states, Israel. That is an experience that the Kurds are now preparing to replicate.
As a people, the Kurds have existed for a very long time. They have lived through countless trials, endured innumerable twists of fate, suffered domination again and again.
But empires have crumbled; tyrants have passed away; and their executioners have fallen into the dustbins of history. All the while, the Kurds have held fast, resisting the forces that wanted them to disappear.
And today, they are approaching a milestone: a declaration of self-determination in the form of a free state in which all citizens will be able to live in liberty, their heads held high.
The Kurdish nation was forged over centuries of pain and pride. It was strengthened in the course of the war against Islamist terrorism, in which the Kurds have been the civilized world’s staunchest – and sometimes solitary – spearhead.
I know not one Peshmerga fighter who, while waging our common battle, did not have in mind the achievement of that ancestral dream of Kurdish independence. Mosul will be liberated; the Islamic State (ISIS) will be defeated; and, when the moment comes for the referendum that Massoud Barzani, President of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, has described as the inalienable right of the Kurds, the will of each citizen will be shared by all.
Even the Kurds’ closest allies worry that recognition of a Kurdish state might upset the regional balance and pose a threat to peace. I believe that the contrary is true: the Kurds will be a pole of stability in a region increasingly susceptible to fanaticism and terror.
To their eternal credit, the Kurds have defended against all odds the standards – respect for borders, for the rule of law, and for the fundamental human rights of all – that underpin stability, and that tyrants from Saddam Hussein to Bashar al-Assad have flouted. In a region where others create refugees, the Kurds provide a safe haven.
Indeed, the Kurds have forged one of the region’s few examples of a vibrant democracy that upholds tolerance, cultural coexistence, and the rule of law. In what other part of the Muslim Middle East does one find such a strong belief in a geopolitical order that tends toward peace, not war; favors reconciliation over ancient hatreds; and prefers respect for the other to a war of civilizations?
For these reasons, I believe very deeply that, in this stormy region, swept by so many ill winds, threatened by the worst of ideologies and by the violence that accompanies them, the rebirth of an independent Kurdish nation and state will mark an advance. It will be an advance that helps to dispel from the region the terrible genies of disintegration, chaos, and bloody convulsion.
What kind of nation-state will the ancient Kurdish people make? It will be small – a nation of only several million – but that will not make it fragile or weak. History offers many examples of what the writer Milan Kundera has called “small nations” that are solid and strong, because their people are united in the face of their powerful neighbors. When it came time to defend the nation, the sword has always been close to the plow. They are nations of citizens united by their history and spirit, rather than ethnicity, a sense of superiority, or an arrogant identity.
The Kurds are such a nation: a people of volunteers who know why they fight, a people who, from the humblest to the greatest, from the Peshmerga regular to the loftiest of Kurdish commanders, does not hesitate to take up arms to discourage or to dismantle despotism – and not only on their behalf. They have been soldiers of freedom who kept Christians from being purged from the last place in the world where the language of Christ is still spoken, while defending the principle of equality of the sexes, even in combat – a principle that is the hallmark of great civilizations.
For all these reasons, I believe that a Kurdish nation-state will be a force for peace, not disorder, in the Middle East, a stormy region that is threatened by the worst of ideologies and by the violence that they beget. I believe that the Kurds will build a strong and solid state that helps to return the awful genies of violent extremism, tyranny, and disintegration to their bottles.
Furthermore, this new Kurdish nation-state will be a safe haven and a shared home for a people that has been scattered by the cruelties of history. It will help to unite a people long divided not just by scheming enemies, but also by deep disagreement over what it means to be a Kurd.
Like one of the world’s greatest nations – though one currently debased by those who purport to lead it – the Kurdish nation-state will be a “shining city on a hill,” a luminous lodestar for the lost sons and daughters of Kurdistan, and a source of hope for all of the world’s dispossessed and displaced. As such, the Kurds should never be afraid to proclaim their vocation – a vocation which is both universal and, if the words have any meaning at all, truly internationalist.
The very voices of the Kurds embody this. One thing that has struck me in the course of my frequent visits to Kurdistan is that the Kurds are a multilingual people. In addition to Kurdish – their mother tongue, rich with ancient culture – they speak the languages acquired in exile. Like the French nation, which was enriched over the centuries by immigrants and oppressed peoples, the Kurds are diverse in origin and cosmopolitan in outlook. Their provision of refuge for persecuted Yezidi and Christian communities is further proof of this.
Today’s populist wreckers across the West deny it, but “internationalism” is a beautiful idea. For two centuries, it has been the animating spirit of so many battles for freedom, and has inspired so much courage, resistance, sacrifice, and nobility, and so many beautiful writings. Despite the traps into which it has sometimes fallen and become entangled, internationalism has nourished the best of what “the West” has represented.
One of Kurdistan’s merits is to have kept alive the flame of internationalism in a benighted region. Reflect for a moment on the Kurds’ battle against ISIS, which they have waged not only for themselves and their safety, but also on behalf of the rest of the world. The Kurds haveacted as internationalists, while also being internationalists in heart and soul.
So the Kurds will soon – very soon, I hope – be free, with their own independent nation-state. But, after that, they will be surrounded by powerful neighbors that will, one expects, be hostile toward them – not least because of the precedent Kurdish independence sets. Free Kurdistan will be a living reproach to the many false nations, anti-nations, and prison nations across the Middle East, in which Kurds, among others, remain confined.
Confronted with the new tests and challenges that are bound to stem from that reproach – challenges that independence alone will not suffice to surmount – the Kurdish people must recognize that they are likely to find themselves as alone as they have ever been in their long history. Charles de Gaulle once said that a people has no friends, and, alas, the Kurds will find out soon enough that today’s friends will not always be their friends. It may happen that they prefer their supposed world order to friendship, justice, and the cause of true stability and peace.
The Kurds are preparing for this. And, fortunately, there are also millions of men and women abroad, in France and throughout the world, who believed in Kurdistan when governments wanted nothing to do with it. That sort of friendship – the support offered by so many of the world’s citizens – is much more constant. Friends like that will never fail.