Dr. Michael Merhdad R.S.C. Izady was born to a Kurdish father and Belgian mother. Dr. Izady traveled the world while his parents worked in the diplomatic corps to locations including Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. He graduated with a Masters Degree in remote-sensing cartography and International Relations from Syracuse University, and received his PhD in Middle Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Columbia University in 1992.
He has written numerous books on the Kurdish people, including “The Kurds: A Concise Handbook” which is widely accepted to be the best historical account of the Kurds. In 1996, Dr. Izady wrote and published the Kurdish Manifesto, which was later used as the foundation for the Constitution of the KRG’s Kurdistan Regional Constitution. Dr. Izady designed the Flag of Kurdistan, which was adopted by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Today, he is a professor at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.
Six Questions for Michael Izady, Author of the Kurdish Manifesto and the Kurdish Constitution
The Kurdish Project: You were the author of the provisional constitution for Kurdistan and the Kurdish Manifesto in 1996. Both of these documents were circulated widely throughout all regions of Kurdistan, and inspired hope in many Kurds. Can you tell us about your experience writing those two historic Kurdish documents?
Dr. Michael Izady: 1996 was the 50th anniversary of the rise and fall of the Kurdish Republic (in Iranian Kurdistan). At the time, Kurds were in a dire situation throughout the region. In Iraq, Kurds were still chained — not yet liberated from Saddam and the Ba’athist party.
I believed, at the time, that equality and happiness could only be possible if self-determination led to independence. So I used the American Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution as the foundation for a manifesto for the creation of a free and independent Kurdish people.
My Provisional Constitution was specific to Kurdish society, but provided for amendments, just like the American constitution. Similar to its American counterpart, the Kurdish Provisional Constitution retained specific fundamental rights that later could not be amended.
Years later, the Manifesto would become a model for the KRG’s constitution. It was also printed and passed around throughout Kurdish communities in Turkey, Syria and Iran. A copy of the manifesto can be seen here.
TKP: You have also written numerous books on the Kurdish people and the history of Kurdistan. Can you talk about the role that democratic values have played in Kurdistan’s history?
MI: Kurds, historically, have been mountaineers. The saying goes, remove the mountains, and the Kurds will be gone overnight. Traditionally, Kurdish society has always been egalitarian and democratic-leaning.
The project of bringing democracy to Kurdistan was not nearly as difficult as it is bringing democracy to “lowlanders,” or non-Kurds. Those societies who live in the plains have a tribal mentality, which is much harder to impress upon the idea of individual freedoms.
Individual rights have always been important for the Kurds — each individual Kurd is king of his or her own hill — and individualism and freedom have always gone hand in hand.
TKP: Nearly twenty years after you wrote the Kurdish Manifesto, some parts of the Kurdish region are getting closer to independence — but the reality of a unified Kurdistan seems distant. What are the obstacles to a unified Kurdistan?
MI: Unification is not so easy for Kurdistan. There are Kurds in Iran, Kurds in Arab lands, and Kurds in Turkey — each have evolved into a different people in the course of their recent history. Moreover, there is not one Kurdish language, but four different languages! It is similar to how French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian can all be traced back to Latin.
These cultural and linguistic barriers to Kurdish unification and independence are compounded by geopolitical obstacles in the region. Ultimately, none of the countries like Iran or Turkey cede territories without much bloodshed to an independent Kurdistan.
What is important is that the Kurds are given the ability to foster their own culture, identity and prosperity — within whatever current state they might find themselves. Absolute and complete independence is not necessary if the Kurds are granted true cultural freedoms and political representation.
In fact, we are seeing this happen in Syria’s three Kurdish cantons (Rojava), in Iraqi Kurdistan, and in Turkey, where the pro-Kurdish HDP just won 13% of the general vote, securing 80 seats in the Turkish parliament for the first time in Kurdish history. Prior to this in Turkey, for example, Kurds could become members of parliament in Ankara but not if they professed or mentioned to be Kurds.
TKP: The Kurdistan Regional Government requires 30% of its parliament to be female — a larger percentage than the percentage of women in the United States Congress or in the UK Parliament. What does this statistic say about the role of women in Kurdish society?
MI: Have you ever been to Topeka, Kansas? There is a statue there of a pioneer woman holding a newborn baby. At her side is a young boy reading from a book, and at her feed is a dog asleep. Frontier communities have always given leadership roles to women — domestically and politically if need be. It is no different in the mountains of Kurdistan.
Kurdish women have always been more free than other women in the surrounding communities. The individualistic mentality that governs Kurdish mind and culture extend to all areas of life including females. It is estimated that about one-fifth of PKK Kurdish fighters (in Turkey) are women, and of course the YPJ is an all-female fighting unit in the Syrian region of Kurdistan.
Kurdish women in politics in Iraq are as confident and authoritative as the men — a stark contrast to the Shia female politicians in the lowland Iraq.
TKP: Kurdish women enjoy certain freedoms despite the presence of Islamic “Sharia” law. Can you speak about the role of religion in Kurdish government?
MI: If a Kurdish area has an Islamic majority, the government will naturally have Islamic leanings. Sharia, also known as Islamic law or Sharia law, means “the way,” and although basically an Islamic law system, it is specific to local practices. In fact, the concept is similar to the idea of local law in western countries. The laws can either be liberal and open, or oppressive and closed-minded.
Kurdistan incorporates part of the local Sharia law because, as a Muslim society, they must, particularly for civil laws such marriage or inheritance, But Sharia law in Kurdistan is, by no means a radical Sharia law that threatens the United States. The Kurds’ take on Islamic law is very different style than the Turks’ or the Arabs’ or the Iranians’.
TKP: We’ve covered democracy in Kurdistan, women’s rights in Kurdistan, and religion in Kurdistan. What else do you think Americans should know about Kurdistan and the Kurdish people?
MI: In the early 1990’s, the Kurdish situation was dire. Saddam was killing Kurds, and Kurdish culture was viciously suppressed in Turkey and Iran. The hope and dream of an independent Kurdish state seemed like the only hope for the Kurds.
Now, in 2015, things are much different. The Kurds in Syria are laying the foundations for a democratic future. The pro-Kurdish HDP has just achieved a historic 13% of the general election in Turkey. And Iraqi Kurdistan is nearly an independent, relatively democratic state.
We Americans should be reminded that the world cannot be fixed instantly. While America can and should help the Kurds defeat the self-declared Islamic State, any process of normalization, or democratization, or independence will take years, if not decades. They should grow into it and learn from their own mistakes not to be rushed into it or receive it as a gift. It’s like writing homework for your children – if you do so, they will not learn anything!
It’s important to remember that the Kurds are much closer to a democratic society than any of the other Middle Eastern societies. While the idea of creating a Kurdish state by breaking up local independent states might be attractive to some, it is nevertheless illegal, and not feasible or even desirable from the point of US. America should not commit to such unattainable goals. Instead, we should celebrate and wisely assist or support the democratic achievements in Syria, Iraq and Turkey, and applaud Kurdistan’s equality for women and religious tolerance — freedoms that are seldom enjoyed in other Middle Eastern countries.
Let us not plan and dictate some grand plan for the Kurds from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Let Kurdish democracy evolve naturally, in a modern sense — for the Kurds have made great progress since 1991 when US began protecting the Kurds in Iraq against their tormentors!
You can view Dr. Izady’s extensive mapping of ethnic groups in Iraq and Kurdistan here, and purchase his book on Amazon.