The following interview was conducted by The Kurdish Project team with speaker and bestselling author Stephen Mansfield in June of 2016. It has been edited for length and clarity.
The Kurdish Project: When did you first learn about the Kurds, and what compelled you to take action on the Kurdish cause as you have?
Stephen Mansfield: I first heard about the Kurds when they began flooding into Nashville after the first Gulf War. I live both in Nashville and Washington, D.C., and Nashville has more Kurds than any other city in the U.S.
That’s when I first met Kurds, and when I was first asked by some organizations in Nashville to help. I wasn’t any big deal, but the purpose was for me to help move conversations forward. And over time I began to meet a number of Kurds and work with some organizations in Nashville that began to work in Iraqi Kurdistan. And in time they asked me to work with them. I have an academic specialty in American politics and American history and American constitutional law, so I would speak in the law schools there, a couple of them, and do other kinds of things.
I first lost my heart to the Kurdish cause when they began to come to Nashville, and now I suppose I’ve made 10-15 trips to Kurdistan and that’s how I came to understand a lot about their situation, their history, their culture. And then of course living in Washington, D.C. and having some experience with the Kurds, I get asked a lot by congressmen, senators, other people, military, state department, about my firsthand experiences there, so that’s how I stepped into all of this.
It must have been interesting to meet Kurds and learn about their culture.
It was very moving to me. It’s been a pleasure to teach a little bit, talk and lecture, and you know help people understand a little bit more of what’s going on. And now, of course, the Kurds have moved front and center in the battle against ISIS, and they’re heroes to Americans. But I think Americans are still just learning who they are.
What advice do you have for ordinary Americans who have recently learned about the Kurdish situation and are interested in getting more involved to support Kurds? Do you have any advice for what types of actions they can take?
First, I think involvement with the Kurdish community at the local level, building relationships, attending picnics, making friendships is always primary.
Second, Americans should pressure their political representatives and help to educate them and encourage them to support the Kurds. It’s helpful to understand that the U.S. Congress is the main body when it comes to shifting foreign policy. I would tell ordinary Americans, find out who’s on the Foreign Relations Committee. Find out where your congressmen and women are, find out who they are and where they are on the issues, and make your wishes known. And then just support great things like The Kurdish Project that, you know, will bring a knowledge of Kurds to the country as a whole.
Finally, I think it’s important to urge a shift, or a broadening, in our school curriculums.
One of the things I have found effective, too, which is one of the reasons I wrote the book is to do as much as I can to encourage a knowledge of the Kurds, a teaching of the Kurdish history, and culture and politics in schools. The Kurds are often overlooked, rarely mentioned, and especially in American history, we rush so quickly to the victories of World War 1, almost like we won it all by ourselves. And we just brush right past the fact that the agreement that ended WW1 did not serve the Kurds well and that’s why we’re in the situation that we’re in. Sykes-Picot and other such agreements.
There’s no reason that that information can’t be included in curriculum in high schools and colleges. I’ve probably done more good by encouraging that connection and that inclusion than by anything else I’ve done because I find that educators are very open to being urged to broaden their scope a little bit, especially in light of the headlines.
We recently watched your excellent TEDx Talk on the Kurds. Can you tell us if you’ve gotten any surprising responses to the talk?
I’ve had a lot of response. Most of it, as you can imagine, which is especially moving to me, is, because I chose to tell a bit of the story of the Kurds through the lives of three women. So I was able to emphasize that unlike lots of folks in the Middle East, except perhaps Israel, that Kurds are very open to females, female leadership. So people were just stunned by that. And probably the most moving moment for me is when I went to a school, and a junior high school girl said that when she grows up she wants to be like Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman.
So now, you have middle school girls saying “I want to be Margaret Thatcher,” or Golda Meir, or even Hillary Clinton, but this one was saying she wanted to be Madam Bayan. I thought that was sweet. And that was a direct result of my talk and I’m sure that when she went online she was able to learn more about Madam Bayan. So, it’s sweet to me to have that sort of response. It was great to hear that so many people were learning things they did not know before. But it’s also a little bittersweet because folks are coming to this so late in the game. And a point I’d like to encourage is that if we do the job and educate Americans, they’ll lose their hearts to the Kurds, and we’ll have the kind of partnership we want to see here.
You recently visited Kurdistan on an invite from the KRG. What was the purpose of your visit? What’s your impression of the KRG?
This visit was because my book was released. I’m very impressed by many of the leaders in the KRG. Smart, articulate, Western-savvy, hopeful. I found people concerned about ISIS, or daesh, but as you can imagine, they have extensive plans to defeat ISIS. For the most part, I found people to be hopeful, positive, and planning. They touched me with their gratitude. I enjoyed it very much.
I enjoy every one of my trips to Iraqi Kurdistan. I was welcomed with hospitality and great kindness. It was really wonderful.
The Kurds have been hailed as the most effective fighting force against ISIS in the Middle East. In your opinion, what will it take for the Kurdish peshmerga to finally defeat ISIS?
I think the Kurds can defeat ISIS, and I think a few things need to happen in order to make it so.
First of all, the western countries need to make up for the loss of income through Baghdad. The west should make up for that with aid, either temporarily, or permanently in order to support a more independent Kurdistan. It would be money well spent.
I think we need to get out of the way of the Kurds. Many times our government restricts the Kurds, by not providing air support, by not listening when Kurds point to the more strategic places, etc.
We need to let the Kurds take the lead a bit more, listen to them when it comes to military engagement and finally, arm them. We all know that the Iraqi army has abandoned vehicles and weapons in the field. This has given ISIS a tremendous advantage because they are then able to collect these western weapons.
We’ve got to arm the Kurds so that they are equal to ISIS and so that the western weapons aren’t inadvertently giving an advantage to ISIS.
So, it’s pretty simple. I think that the U.S. needs to make up for the aid, get out of the way in terms of military strategy, partner with the Kurds better and not try to tell them what to do all the time, and provide the weapons that they need to be at least equal, if not superior, to ISIS. Kurdish peshmerga have already proven that they can win this thing, they just need a little bit of help.
If there is one thing you’d like Westerners to know about the Kurdish people, what would it be?
There are two things I find Americans to be really surprised and delighted by.
One is the Mede connection. The Kurds are the descendants of the ancient Medes and Americans love that because the United States is still a predominantly Judeo-Christian nation.
Second, how pro, or open, the Kurds are to the United States. Many Americans assume that all foreign Muslims hate America.
But in reality, these people are fighting our fight, these people are looking for help, and they are very positive towards America. I see many American flags flying when I’m in Iraqi Kurdistan, for example.
If there’s one thing I’d like the world as a whole to know about the Kurds, it would be how gracious they are. How their sufferings and history have made them so culturally hospitable. I’d want the world to know how open they are to partnerships, friendships, relationships. Many people outside of the Muslim world see it as closed and cold and arrogant, but the Kurds are the opposite of all of that. Kurds defy the cartoon characterization, or the stereotyped caricature, of what the typical Middle Eastern person is.
In your experience, what are Kurds’ impressions and opinions of Americans?
In my experience, Kurds feel positively about the United States. They still look to the United States to help them, and are still hoping for positive things to happen. I’ve seen that Kurds are pleased when Americans have positive things to say about them. I think it means a lot to them to know that they have American friends.
I think that Kurds tend to be realist. They’re not forgetting the betrayals, they’re not forgetting that the U.S. has been somewhat clumsy in their support. But Kurds, I find, are very forgiving. They’re very eager to make new history, so to speak.
Finally, how can American initiatives like The Kurdish Project be more of a force for good to support the Kurdish cause in the Middle East?
Well, thank you for asking that question, it’s one I really care about a lot.
The first thing that needs to happen is that we need to help distinguish the Kurds from the rest of the Muslim world, and from the other peoples of the Middle East. This is the path I decided to take. I wanted to distinguish the Kurds, which is why I wrote the book, The Miracle of the Kurds, and did the TED Talk.
Kurds are a 97% Muslim people. You know the kinds of biases towards Muslims in mainstream America. But in my experience the Kurds feel differently about Islam. They certainly feel differently about women, and the west. Some Kurds feel differently about Israel.
Second, I believe that history is better perceived by people when it’s autobiographical. That’s why I talk about Madame Bayan, Masoud Barzani, and others.
The people that we know, the heroes of Kurdistan, are not very accessible to Americans. They don’t know these stories.
Believe it or not, our task is pretty basic. That is to introduce the Kurds to the Americans in a way that explains their crisis, explains their sacrifices, and explains their current moment. The possibilities of their moment.
I find that the more I do that and the more that your organization does that, the more that there is a cry for an independent Kurdistan.