Cults of Kurdistan


Originally published on Medya Magazine

kurdistan personality cult massoud barzani abdullah apo ocalan mam jalal talabani

From left: Massoud Barzani, Abdullah Ocalan, Jalal Talabani [Photo: Medya Magazine]

Following Jalal Talabani’s recent return to the Kurdistan region, there have been widespread celebrations among the Kurdish people albeit the majority being supporters of the PUK. People are happy to see an old patriot return, yet for some, it was an opportunity to be captious and critical about the supporting of figureheads in Kurdistan and how it props up precedence for nepotism and corruption.

I will not be exploring the latter mentioned, I am far more interested in the ‘cult of personality’ phenomenon rife in Kurdistan for decades now, ebbing from north to south. The term describes a state or regime where a leader, through rampant propaganda, is elevated to extraordinary heights of reverence. It is used mainly increase the people’s admiration and trust in an individual with the intention of controlling the region.

It is typically an element of leftist regimes, such as in the Stalinist era, however the Kurdish cult of personality sees a much more fitting parallelism with leaders such as Ho-Chi-Minh and Yasser Arafat. These are icons for their people, as they fought the good fight first and then followed through into legitimate positions of power.

The Kurdish people have been locked in resistance since the 1920’s, there have been many revolutions in that time but three current leaders who have garnered mass support and are still alive today are; in the North of Kurdistan – Abdullah ‘Apo’ Ocalan (PKK), and in the South – ‘Mam’ Jalal Talabani (PUK) and Massoud ‘Serok’ Barzani (KDP).
Their faces are plastered on: flags, keychains, badges, posters, t-shirts, crockery, jewellery-you will find their framed photos in tea shops to security checkpoints – their names in speeches and in chants.

It is a cult of personality, far removed from the fantasy pseudo-diety of Kim Jong-il, this one is itself desired and supported by the people – a willing voluntary cult of personality where the parties need not act not in showering praise and glory on them- it is its own perpetual machine fuelled by the love of the supporters.

How did this happen?

Although they all have their individual grounds for such idolization- there is also an all-encompassing reason which I will mention towards the end.

The PKK and the PUK are quite similar in their foundations as both were inspired by Mao’s Marxist-Leninism approach. Short of passing the blame to Mao we can see the structure of the cult of personality implemented in Turkey and Iraq. Ataturk’s presence has been instilled far and wide over Turkey, and whilst Saddam attempted to implement something similar, he only managed in his own time; but 9 decades later and Ataturk still remains impressively in charge. The awe for ‘Apo’ comes not only from all he managed to create; it is also in reaction to being bred in an ultra-nationalist society which praises the action of one man, above all, who saved the nation. The Kurds, consciously or unconsciously, created their own symbol – their own saviour- to mimic the worship and adulation that the Turkish population bestowed on Ataturk. One that could stand against him – mano-a-mano.

The PUK founder Jalal Talabani has a notable charisma and is hailed as a great negotiator in politics and a hero in wartime. I am yet to find a distinctive reason for the PUK’s symbol although it may be the case as it was for ‘Apo’- years of being force-fed Saddam’s greatness could have resulted in the regurgitation of the same process. Or perhaps the 1990 fratricide inflamed PUK’s supporters to pick their own outstanding symbol to counter that of the Barzani legacy.

The circumstance of Massoud Barzani differs to that of the PUK and PKK, since the KDP’s formation followed a more conservative tribal structure with the lingering presence of tribalism and traditionalism still arguably existent. This is not to be taken in a negative sense; on the contrary, a lot of supporters desire and require an image such as Massoud Barzani. Nearly always pictured in Kurdish clothes he holds an admirable esteem and respect amongst his supporters. He is the head of a tribe as well as the head of the Kurdistan region, so regardless of the latter he would be obeyed and respected by many in a stern requirement of traditional Kurdish culture. Remember, this is only a minor element in the establishing of culthood, as being a tribal leader certainly doesn’t entail glorification and idolization.

The main component can be boiled down to the transition of the Kurdish situation, in such a short time, that the thought paradigms and psychology of the people is yet to follow. The Kurdish people have made the metamorphosis from armed and outlawed guerrilla groups to lawful and authorized political organisations in the past 2 decades. In guerrilla organisations the fighting and constant battle to keep momentum and morale means it is useful to build these cults around people; people that they can aspire to be or to have the opportunity to meet. These three men are praised as figures of inspiration, motivation and their lives are examples of sacrifice for the freedom of the Kurdish people. Now the freedom is all but a formality in South Kurdistan and there is a Kurdish candidate for the Presidency of Turkey who openly embraces his Kurdish identity; it is safe to say we have come a long way. To expect the people to abandon their heroes that were paraded as insignia’s of hope is to ignore the bond that they have drawn between these individuals and their importance to the freedom of Kurdistan.

This will not remain in future generations- as Kurdistan advances and progresses further we will see Western
democracy seep further into the society which means fewer rugs decorated with the faces of leaders on them in the market. This is the direction the Gorran Movement has attempted to operate, yet even they required a hero in the form of Nawshirwan Mustafa; his legacy alone and the people’s admiration for him has played a defining role in the success that Gorran has enjoyed.

The environment of revolution and resistance has fostered the need for idols for decades; the community does not yet fully understand the need for critical and fair discussions about the characters and parties that they were told to entrust with their lives. They instead lavish praise relentlessly – It is a misreading of the climate to think that you can abolish this in a short time, this will require a gradual change through generations. The parties may have instilled these three in the hearts of the people during times of guerrilla warfare, but now it is the people who continue the cult. This will fade and one day they will be resigned to the history books, whilst Kurdistan carries on democratically electing its leadership.

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