April 20, 2011

How to solve the Kirkuk problem?

Harun Akyol *

The staffroom fell silent as my colleagues all looked at each other, not sure if I was joking. The normal end of term conversation as to where people were going for their summer holidays had fallen flat when I mentioned my forthcoming trip to Iraq.

Even worse, I was heading off to Kirkuk, the oil-rich center of deathly ethnic conflict. Jokes were made about life insurance and blessings for a safe return given. I, despite numerous warnings from friends and colleagues, remained excited and keen to carry out my fieldwork.

My primary aim was to assess the impact of Kurdish, Turkmen and Arab political discourse on the politics of Kirkuk. My secondary aim was to make some social and political observation about the people of Kirkuk. Initial interviews with representatives from each of these main ethnic groups established some common points in the construction of their discourses. Each group has its own narrative relating to their presence in Kirkuk, the number of their ethnic group present and their roots in the city.

Each group backs up their claims with historical, official and anecdotal evidence. For Kurds, Kirkuk is historically and geographically the center of Kurdistan; as a result, they are not prepared to negotiate under any circumstances. They believe that a political solution around Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which imposes normalization, census and referendum in Kirkuk, is how to decide its political fate. For the Turkmen and the Arabs, Kirkuk was not, is not and should not be part of Kurdistan; they view it as an ethnically mixed city. To these groups, Article 140 is dead and not applicable. Both groups are happy to acknowledge that the Kurds are victims of Saddam’s iron fist policy. The difference is that these other groups claim that the Kurds used and abused this victimization by returning to Kirkuk many more Kurds than Saddam expelled from Kirkuk. One older Arab said, “Yesterday they were the victims [mazlum], but today they are the oppressors [zalim] of Kirkuk.” Both groups fear that if the Kurds manage to annex Kirkuk into Kurdistan, they will then declare their independence.

Irreconcilable discourses

Kirkuk appears to have no future beyond the stalemate of these irreconcilable discourses. Clearly, the first step towards a political solution must be the building of confidence and trust between the main stakeholders. These solutions, I must emphasize, need to ensure sustainable long-term peace rather than a peace deal linked to short-term political gain. There is no need to be a political analyst to predict, if left unresolved, these political tensions will lead to further civil conflict. The challenge is how best to convince each group to trust each other and to give them hope for peaceful coexistence.

While internally displaced Kurds intensively live around the newly emerged suburbs of Kirkuk city such as Rahemawa, Shorju, Iskaan and Imam Qasim, there is no social interaction between the newcomers and the old residents. They are not only physically but also socially and culturally segregated. It seems to be two very different towns rather than one. Without the full integration and civil interaction between these groups there can be no long-term sustainable peace in Kirkuk.

I believe that such a long-term sustainable solution should be through the provision of a place where all diverse groups can meet and interact with each other by valuing their differences. During my fieldwork I found that the private Kirkuk Çağ College has such a potential. These Fethullah Gülen-inspired schools are championing dialogue and coexistence, which give rise to hope for a promising future -- not a false hope, but a very real and positive move towards integration and understanding. The children of prominent political leaders of Kirkuk go to Çağ colleges to carry on their education. Ironically, while their fathers fiercely argue and politically fight with each other, their children play and enjoy each other’s company educated by Turkish, Kurdish and Arab teachers.

Although the private Çağ colleges only opened in 2007, due to modern resources, a forward thinking curriculum and the quality of teaching, the popularity of these colleges is growing rapidly. All languages (Arabic, English, Kurdish and Turkish) are included in the curriculum. In order to prepare their students for the world stage, Çağ colleges are the only colleges in Kirkuk that administer Ministry of Education exams in English. Academic merit is the only condition for admission, unlike some other colleges, which admit students based on ethnic background.

The Çağ colleges are inclusive, a place where all ethnic groups can learn to understand each other. The potential these schools have to play in the shaping of the next generation of Kirkuki leaders has yet to be fully recognized. I believe that not just the education of these diverse groups but the truly integrated learning experience provides a unique opportunity for creating a sustainable peace.

*Harun Akyol is a lecturer in the department of sociology at West Suffolk College, Bury St. Edmunds.

Published on Today's Zaman, 20 April 2011, Wednesday

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