An American Professor Rants Against Kurdistan: Response to Jerry Weinberger

Kurdishaspect.com - By Dr. Sabah Salih

Kurdish political culture, though relatively a newcomer to democracy, has reached a point where it can generate better criticism of its shortcomings than do its detractors. The proof is in the biting satire of its everyday life, the vibrancy of its print and electronic media, and the many competing factions and personalities vying daily for attention.    

But this is not the picture one gets from reading Jerry Weinberger’s recent Op-Ed piece in the ultraconservative American daily The Weekly Standard.  An American professor of Political Science, Weinberger has returned from a few months’ working in Kurdistan convinced that the experience was all he needed to qualify him as an expert on the country, a much-coveted title in an America awash with so-called experts but always asking for more.

What this means in this case, as in most other cases, is the domination of subject by the expert. Professor Weinberger treats Kurdish history and culture as things to be dismissed rather than studied. With breathtaking simplicity, he transofroms the complexity of the nation’s politics into something like a piece of ancient machinery.  In his eagerness to dominate his subject, Weinberger foregoes the necessary tools of the trade: reflection, a little doubt, dialectical thinking.

He treats the people of Kurdistan as a people whose national aspirations have to be denied, and, where necessary, their constitutional rights to be brushed aside, so that Iraq can be made whole again.  Since such an outcome is what Baghdad and Washington have been pushing for, whether they like it or not, the people of Kurdistan should accept it too and stop making noises. Yes, you guest it right: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could very well have been the author of Professor Weinberger’s words.

Like a child’s story in which the world is arrestingly simple, in Weinberger’s world there are only good Kurds and bad Kurds, and deciding which one is which couldn’t be easier. Astonishingly, he thinks Kurdistan’s political problems would all disappear with the winning of the Gorran list and the disappearance of PUK and KDP, because these two are presumably the sole inventors and practitioners of corruption in Kurdistan while Gorran is not, and because, while Gorran is committed to the Obama administration’s goal of protecting “the integrity of Iraq,” the other two are committed to destroying it. (What a silly notion to be speaking of Iraq’s integrity since the peoples that make up the country do not even share a national memory.)

What needs to be emphasized here is that it is in this last point where Professor Weinberger’s master text is located: everything he says is informed by it.   If the Kurds want to “head off disaster,” they should heed his free advice: in the short term, insure that the Gorran list wins; in the long term get behind the U.S. and the central government in Baghdad, where, unlike Kurdistan, there is a surplus of democracy and no corruption!

When I read a portion of this piece over the phone to my aging mother, who by the way cannot read or write, it took her no more than a second to react: “My God, and this guy is really a professor?”

If Professor Weinberger had bothered to check the basic facts, he would have quickly learned that when it comes to matters of national interest, there is really not much of a difference among these three parties.  Second, an even elementary study of Kurdish history would have showed that both the PUK and KDP have been major players in the nation’s long and continued struggle against subjugation, and that, despite their many problems which cannot be underestimated by any stretch, they are as central to Kurdistan’s reality today as they were fifty years ago.  As an independent observer who have never given allegiance to any political party, I see no reason to believe they will not be twenty years from now.  In this respect, PUK and KDP are not all that different from the twin powerhouses (the Democrats and Republicans) that have dominated American politics for more than two hundred years.  Despite Professor Weinberger’s nonchalant assertions to the contrary, political life in Kurdistan is alive and well.  The very emergence of the Gorran list as a force to be reckoned with testifies to that.

If Professor Weinberger had also bothered to browse through a handful of Iraqi dailies, and only for a half hour, or just read a little paragraph from assessments made recently by international groups, he would have learned that Iraq as a whole, not just Kurdistan, nears the top of the list of the world’s most corrupt countries.

But since corruption is not like a sudden outbreak of some disease that can quickly be contained and eliminated in a short time, the least a scholar can do, no less a Professor of Political Science, is to study it, and study it with some depth.  It is no accident that wherever one goes in the Middle East (and many other countries for that matter) one encounters corruption.  Why is this so?  What role does the culture play in this?  Has it always been like that? More important, Kurdistan has never experienced such a massive infusion of capital into its economy as it has in the last several years.  How big a factor has this been in magnifying the problem? In the United States, this situation would be the equivalent of salaries skyrocketing virtually overnight.  Even for such an advanced and well-organized country, the shock would be monumental, the impact nightmarish. Now you see what small and emerging Kurdistan is up against.  But then one must also ask, despite all the laws on the books and all the available means for fighting corruption, is the U.S. really a whole lot freer than Kurdistan from this problem?  In some obvious ways of course it is, but in some other ways it is not.  Hardly a year passes, or I should say a month, without scores of people, and not just ordinary people—mayors, assembly men, priests, CEO’s, even senators—landing in jail for acts of corruption that the people of Kurdistan cannot even imagine; and this is just the tip of the iceberg when you consider how many more cases remain undetected. 

So, without sounding like I am a defender of corruption, to say that corruption is rampant in Kurdistan is merely to state the obvious; to say that it’s in the power of this party or that party to eliminate it is grandly delusional.  Like religion, corruption is ineradicable.  Yes, political and legal action is necessary for tackling the problem, and yes both KDP and PUK and others have yet to make the problem a priority.  But one must also remember this: Political and legal action alone is not enough.  Why?  Because corruption in Kurdistan (as elsewhere in the region) is not just a political problem; it is also a cultural problem.  The culture has always been the incubator and accepter of corruption.  Indeed, at times the culture seems to see little difference between what most people define as corruption and common acts of generosity towards one’s friends and relatives. On an issue like this, it can take the culture easily a generation, if not more, to change its ways noticeably.

As for Iraq’s so-called unity, which is so dear to Professor Weinberger and all those for whom the country’s history begins with Saddam Hussein’s thirty plus years occupation of Iraq, one can only say, With all due respect Professor, you have some serious catching up to do. 



Dr. Sabah Salih is Professor of English at Bloomsburg University, USA.








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