In light of the Kurdish referendum, where people living in Northern Iraq overwhelmingly voted for the independence of the region of Kurdistan, I sat at my kitchen table this morning rethinking my position on this issue.
Throughout my life in the USA, I’ve met phenomenal people from the Middle East and North Africa who are from different minority groups, and who I now consider to be my close friends. To list a few: Kurds, Druze, Chechens, Circassians, Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Berbers—all groups from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region with one thing in common: they are not Arabs.
Naturally, being from an Arab Syrian Damascene family, I’ve been raised to be overly proud and, to an extent, unaware of the other groups who also live with Arabs in the region. I’ve noticed that my sense of pride and nationalism has been a source of ignorance about others in the region.
Proud of my roots, and of all 22 nations who claim to be Arab Nations, I’ve noticed that in conversations with my friends, I would use the term ‘Arab World’ interchangeably with ‘the Middle East.’ I would also refer to everyone speaking Arabic around the table as an Arab, and that’s when my friends would cringe or reply with a subtle, weird smile mid-conversation. In the beginning, I didn’t understand their polite way of protest. Then slowly overtime, I noticed that my friends do not refer to themselves as Arabs, but rather they feel strongly about being part of their ethnic groups.
As simple as it might sound, I was oblivious to the fact that not everyone in the MENA region is Arab, even if they spoke the language fluently.
Minorities living in the MENA region have their own traditions, languages, religious beliefs, and even their own food, all of which they take strong pride in. Arabs throughout the region must give the space for minority groups to cherish their traditions and ethnicities.
Arabs are the majority in the region, but they’re not the first to inhabit the land. Many groups and kingdoms existed there first. There are many minority groups who lived alongside the Arabs and equally belonged to the land for hundreds and thousands of years. Arabs do not own the land; it’s shared with many others.
As I stopped referring to everyone who spoke Arabic as Arab and toned down my Arab pride, I started to think of the source of conflicts and tensions that overtake the MENA region. This sense of nationalism is a reason that Kurds overwhelmingly feel the need to have their own country and defect from Iraq.
I understand why Kurds voted for an independent state, but I fear the turmoil and resistance that will arise from both sides. If every minority group wanted their independence in the Middle East, given the number of groups and ethnicities that exist today, then the borders of the MENA region will be completely redrawn.
So now I sit behind my computer screen reading tweets of people in the Middle East fighting each other over whether Kurds and minorities deserve their own states. I am both worried and conflicted about the Kurdish call for a state and the need for Arabs to be more welcoming to minority groups throughout the MENA region.