Even at this moment, a nationalist conflict is certain to be under way somewhere in the world. Oftentimes, these conflicts take the form of a civil war, with two or more groups fighting for control of a state. Or sometimes, it’s a separatist movement, in which a minority ethnic group rebels against the majority, fighting for rights or recognition or independence.
The basis of a conflict might be race or religion or language. But whatever it is, it’ll likely look like it’s going on for centuries—a new outburst of an ancient hatred where only the weaponry is up-to-date.
Rohingya in Myanmar, Uighurs and Tibetans in China, Jews and Palestinians, Protestants and Catholics, Hindus and Muslims, Sunnis and Shias, even regional independence movements like the ones in Scotland, Catalonia, and Quebec—the length of the list demonstrates the proliferation of nationalism and ethnic conflict in the modern world.
Today, wars are more likely to break out within countries than between them.
Nationalism is the idea that an ethnic, racial, or religious group should be free to rule itself. And it’s clearly a force to be reckoned with. Therefore, it’s essential that we understand what it is, where it comes from, and why it’s come to dominate the headlines in the way that it has.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Let’s discuss one particular nationalist conflict: that of the Kurdish people in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Their struggle for a homeland illustrates how thorny and intractable these conflicts can be, both for the ethnic group in question and for the countries in which they live.
Numbering 30 to 40 million people, the Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group on earth. They live in a vast mountainous region that straddles four countries—four countries that already have tense and tenuous relations with one another.
The Kurdish language is distinct from Turkish, Arabic, and Farsi. And though most Kurds are Muslim, they’re Sunni Muslim, which sometimes puts them at odds with the majority Shia populations of Iran and Iraq.
These religious, linguistic, and cultural differences distinguish the Kurds from the ruling ethnic groups in the countries where they live.
So, if the Kurds who inhabit this region want their own state, why don’t they just create one?
Issues with Independent Kurdistan
Well, the majority ethnic groups typically don’t want to give up parts of their own territory, even if it is predominantly inhabited by Kurds. The area might have natural resources—Iraqi Kurdistan has a lot of oil, for example—and if Kurdistan became an independent country, that oil revenue would belong to it, and not to Iraq.
Besides, while the Kurdish regions are predominantly Kurdish, they’re not entirely so. There are plenty of ethnic Turks, Arabs, and Persians living among their Kurdish neighbors.
And so, if Kurdistan became an independent state, the Arabs living in, say, northern Iraq would suddenly find themselves in the minority. And the new majority, the Kurds, might see this as an opportunity to settle old scores, as payback for years of oppression at the hands of the Iraqi government.
The very same would likely happen with Turks and Kurds, if southeastern Turkey became an independent Kurdish state.
Thus, there are plenty of reasons why the governments of Iraq and Turkey get nervous at the prospect of an independent Kurdistan.
Turkey has also fought a bitter and protracted civil war against Kurdish rebels—a group called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Not surprisingly, Turkey views the PKK as a terrorist organization. But to Kurds in the region, whose language was outlawed and who have suffered for generations under Turkish rule, the PKK aren’t terrorists; they’re freedom fighters!
The difference is usually just a matter of perspective.
Ethnic Groups in Multinational States
So, the Kurds are a stateless nation; they’re an ethnic group bound together by a common language and a common sense of identity. And that’s really the key: The Kurds in southeastern Turkey and the Kurds in northern Iraq probably feel a stronger connection to one another than to the majority ethnic groups in the countries where they live.
And this is where things can get ugly.
In a multinational state—that is, in a state with more than one ethnic group living in it—the various ethnic groups are sometimes locked in bitter and protracted struggles for control over the state. In situations like this, one side’s victory is often just the opening stage for a new round of persecution.
Why share valuable territory and resources with your rivals when you can kick them out (or kill them) and keep it for yourself? Unfortunately, that’s often the logic of nationalism and ethnic conflict.
Common Questions about Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict
Nationalism is the idea that an ethnic, racial, or religious group should be free to rule itself.
Numbering 30 to 40 million people, the Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group on earth. They live in a vast mountainous region that straddles four countries: Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The religious, linguistic, and cultural differences distinguish the Kurds from the ruling ethnic groups in the countries where they live.
Turkey has fought a bitter and protracted civil war against Kurdish rebels—a group called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. While Turkey views the PKK as a terrorist organization, to Kurds in the region, whose language was outlawed and who have suffered for generations under Turkish rule, the PKK aren’t terrorists; they’re freedom fighters.