Daily Israel Report

Op-Ed: The "Non-Arab Spring"?

As Arab civil strife engulfs the region, Israelis should spare a thought for other indigenous peoples fighting for their own rights.
Published: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 7:00 AM


In northeastern Syria, a quiet revolution has begun.

It does not involve rifles, bombs or any other kind of weapon for that matter - except, perhaps, for the pen.

Kurdish residents - liberated from both the Assad regime they so strongly detested, as well as from the Islamist extremists who have tried to take its place in what they call Rojova, or western Kurdistan - are being slowly reunited with their own language, after decades of being banned from using it in schools or other official places.

"We teach the Kurdish language here, which was banned under the regime," says Maustan Ali Hajji, in an interview broadcast by AFP from northeastern Syria.

"We've lost many things, but these lessons allow us to hold on to our language, our traditions and our culture.

"We think our revolution starts with our language, because our language is our identity. That's why we're still doing this; to show we're still here, and we're still resisting," he explains.

It may not make headlines, but the process of national awakening by non-Arab groups in the Middle East is at least as important as the push by Arabs in the Middle East for freedom from authoritarian rule - and we in Israel should pay close attention to this crucial subtext of the so-called "Arab Spring."

The end of "Arabization"?

The ongoing rebellion against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad both captivates and confuses audiences throughout the world.

The patchwork of competing ethnic and religious identities, claims, grievances and enmity defies the limited western conception of Syria as a homogenous "nation-state," and has pundits, politicians and the general public alike scrambling to find a simple explanation for the conflict.

Increasingly, the bloodshed has been framed as the mutation of the "Arab Spring" into a new and bloody chapter of the Islamic civil war between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. But while that may be true to a great extent, attempting to frame the conflict in such terms is still something of an oversimplification - as is the very portrayal of the current regional upheaval as a purely "Arab" affair.

Indeed, the so-called "Arab Spring" has seen many non-Arab nations play a significant role in the changing face of the Middle East and North Africa - as well as reaping the outcomes, both positive and negative, of popular revolutions throughout the region.

For example; in Libya, the Amazigh (Berbers) are undergoing a national renaissance of sorts, rediscovering their national identity and pride after casting off the yoke of the Gaddafi regime, which sought to forcibly Arabize them, as well. Under Colonel Gaddafi, their language and cultural symbols were banned, and their very identity bizarrely dismissed as some kind of "colonial relic" by the tyrannical leader of the "Libyan Arab Jamahiriya."


There is one nation which has capitalized on the weakening post-colonial state boundaries perhaps more than any other.
And then there is the plight of Egypt's Coptic Christian community - which has received slightly better coverage in the western media, if only as a sad "sideshow" to the wider unrest. Copts are both religiously and ethnically distinct from the Arab majority in that country, and have played a significant part in successive popular uprisings. Their efforts have been "repaid" via a brutal backlash by Islamist groups resentful of such assertiveness by a non-Muslim community.

But there is one nation which has capitalized on the weakening post-colonial state boundaries perhaps more than any other.

The Kurds are the largest indigenous Middle Eastern nation without a state. Their homeland, Kurdistan, is currently occupied by Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, although Kurds in northern Iraq have enjoyed an unprecedented level of autonomy since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

To say that the Kurds received a raw deal when the colonial powers carved up the Middle East would be an understatement. For the past hundred years they have struggled for their rights against four different authoritarian states, experiencing a horrifying range of massacres and campaigns of discrimination and forced assimilation along the way.

But the Syrian civil war has promised to change their situation dramatically.

Kurds in Syria make up around 10% of the population, and are concentrated largely in the north of the country. For decades the "Syrian Arab Republic" - first under the rule of Hafez al-Assad and then under his son Bashar - denied their heritage and sought to erase their identity through a forced campaign of assimilation, or "Arabization." It was a process which other non-Arab groups - from North Africa to Israel to Mesopotamia - are all too familiar with.

But as the "popular revolution" in Syria morphed into a real military threat, the Assad government withdrew its forces from Kurdish regions to focus on defending the major cities and other areas that are closer to the regime's center of gravity.

Seizing the opportunity, Kurdish militias quickly moved in to take control - in particular the People's Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Popular Democratic Union Party (PYD). Whilst some Kurds joined the largely Arab Free Syrian Army, Kurdish separatists such as the YPG promptly declared their opposition to both the regime and the rebel movement, both of whom they say aim to continue a process of discrimination and "Arabization" against the Kurdish people.

Since then, Kurdish groups have managed to fend off a concerted campaign by Arab Islamist groups, expanding their control over Kurdish areas and leading to increased calls for Kurdish autonomy. Those calls have seen states on both sides of the Arab civil war in Syria - most notably Turkey, which backs the FSA; and Iran, which backs Assad - switching schizophrenically between attempting to coax Kurdish groups into their orbit and actively sponsoring Arab groups opposed to Kurdish autonomy, in a desperate attempt to prevent the spread of a "Kurdish Spring" among their own Kurdish populations.

The Kurdish experience - as well as those of the many other non-Arab nations of the Middle East - is one that Israelis can, and indeed should, relate to.

A national awakening after a prelonged period of subjugation and assimilation; the revival of a common language which was preserved but largely abandoned in favor of the language of the oppressor; the battle against pan-Arab and Islamist forces as they attempt to smother that national awakening at birth; the casting off of foreign Arabic place names in favor of their original ones; and the hypocritical and perverse dismissal of their very heritage as somehow embodying "western imperialism."

All of these could easily describe the Jewish struggle for independence in Eretz Yisrael (Israel). But it is equally the story of scores of other subjugated, indigenous Middle Eastern and North Africa peoples - Amazigh, Kurd, Nubian, Copt, Assyrian, Maronite.

Israeli politicians have repeatedly cautioned against Israel's involvement in the internecine Arab conflicts burning around us. Whilst this may be good advice, we of all people would do well to bear in mind that the Arabs are not the only nation whose future is at stake, and support the efforts of those nations to liberate themselves from Arab tyranny.

This is not a call for military intervention. But it is a call for Israelis, and Jews across the globe, to spare a thought for the "Non-Arab Spring" that is more than just a subtext to the saga of Arab uprisings across the Middle East and northern Africa.