06 September 2007

06 September 2007 - MECA conference, day 1

Today was the first day of the University of Utah Middle East & Central Asia (MECA) conference, where I presented a paper co-written with Sapir Handelman. The talk went well, and our paper was included on a panel that featured papers on Cyprus and Northern Ireland. A common theme emerged: the idea of designing negotiating processes to “build better failures” rather than aiming at success.

Unfortunately, attendance was low (about 12) at our session, perhaps because there was a very popular lecture on Iran that overlapped with the start of our presentation. But the discussions were good. I (inadvertently) dominated Q&A, partly because our four negotiation models are easy to understand, and partly because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict always stirs up trouble.

The hardest thing to do at a conference like this is defend Israel’s legitimacy in even the mildest way. I was grilled by a woman who was outraged that I would describe the Gaza disengagement as anything other than a land grab in the West Bank. Less hostile were the questions from a Palestinian academic who criticized Israeli responses to terror; we managed to find some common ground after a little effort.

Another panel I attended focused on the phenomenon of anti-Americanism, historically and today. Every panelist blamed U.S. foreign policy and U.S. support for Israel, which apparently means opposing Palestinian statehood. The other academics in the audience chastised the presenters for not being anti-American enough. I pointed out that they had ignored the Soviet Union, and got blank stares.

The highlight of the day was the opening event, a lecture by Robert Olson of the University of Kentucky, entitled “Whither Kurdish Nationalism?”. Turkey is a dominant theme at the conference, perhaps because it is one of the University of Utah’s areas of expertise but also because Turkey has been in the news constantly for the past several weeks—Abdullah Gül, the Armenian genocide, et cetera.

Olson began by describing how Kurdish nationalism measures itself against the progress of Jewish nationalism from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. The Kurds got a later start, after the First World War, and actually had a state in northern Iran for a year from 1945-6. After that, Kurdish ambitions were shelved until the emergence of autonomy in northern Iraq got things going again.

The Kurds, Olson said, have a tougher job than the Zionists did, because while Israel grew up in a colonial territory surrounded by other, relatively weak colonies, the Kurds are divided among four states, each with established governments and armies of varying capacity. These states, particularly Turkey, have a strong interest in halting Kurdish nationalism and blocking the emergence of a Kurdish state.

The Kurds have had to consider these factors in charting a course forward, weighing the benefits of independence and sovereignty against the risks of a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq. In the interwar period, it was Britain that governed Mesopotamia (Iraq) and attempted to sort out the competing national interests; today the United States, shoring up the democratic government in Iraq, finds itself in a similar role.

The resolution of the Turkish parliament on March 1, 2003 not to join the American invasion of Iraq, Olson said, is seen by Kurdish nationalists as a kind of “Balfour Declaration,” an potential milestone on the way to independence. However, in the new Iraq, Kurds are in prominent leadership positions, which raises questions as to whether Kurdish aspirations will move in the direction of a separate nationalism.

Olson then considered various theories that attempt to explain and predict the development of nationalism, among Kurds and in general. He gave particular weight to theories linking capitalism and nationalism, highlighting the role of economic elites in the formation and leadership of national movements. The role of intervention by an external power such as the U.S., he said, had been neglected.

He argued that the role of external powers has been far more important in Kurdish nationalism than other regional nationalisms because of Kurdish nationalism’s late start, owing to the slow development of a bourgeois class that could guide Kurdish aspirations. This, in turn, resulted from the projection of the American “crisis of capitalism” abroad. Whatever the cause, this is the Kurds’ best opportunity.

Questions at the lecture focused on the role of Islam, which some in the audience said was more important to Kurds in Turkey than nationalism. Others contended that capitalism was actually a brake on nationalism, since wealthy Kurds in Turkey invest in Istanbul, not Mosul. Olson acknowledged Islam’s role and said Turkey used capitalism to co-opt Kurdish nationalism, but the latter was still potent.

On the way out of the lecture, I stuck up a conversation with someone about Kurdish nationalist strategies and their relation to Zionist strategies. He mentioned something about Zionists having a plan to “cleanse” Palestine of Arabs, and cited Ilan Pappé (or tried to, since he couldn’t remember his name) as an authority. I cited Morris (whom he hadn’t read) and brought the conversation back to Kurds.

This evening, on the way to dinner, I was accosted by the woman who challenged my description of the Gaza disengagement. We talked for a while but her extremism soon became tiresome and I ducked outside as soon as I had a plate of delicious Middle Eastern food. I found a table of Turks and we had a fantastic time laughing and debating and eating too much baklava. I have to visit Turkey sometime.

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