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Book Review: Narratives of Statelessness and Political Otherness - Kurdish and Palestinian Experiences

08 Jun 2022
Reviewed by Dr Rachel Stevens

Narratives of Statelessness and Political Otherness examines what it means in everyday life for those who are stateless and marginalised from the political centres of power.

An ordinary question we encounter in a variety of settings, from social environments to the workplace and government bureaucracies, is “where are you from?” But for the 40 million Kurds and 13 million Palestinians globally, this seemingly innocuous query is a painful reminder that they are stateless; an ethno-cultural nation without international recognition or legitimacy. To quote one of his interviewees, “when you are stateless, you are lost, you do not have an identity, a personality, and an existence… Statelessness means deficiency in a human being’s life.”

For Eliassi, the origins of Kurdish and Palestinian statelessness stems from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, British and French imperial mismanagement between the wars, and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. These root causes would be familiar to readers. What is interesting in Narratives of Statelessness and Political Otherness is that Eliassi also lays the blame with the ethnocultural, authoritarian states of the contemporary Middle East. This book is a study of the consequences of inter-subaltern colonialism, in other words, Arab, Turkic, and Persian imperialism. When we think of imperialism in the Middle East, one may immediately think of the United States and the competing interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran in more recent times. Yet Eliassi reminds us that we should be just as critical of the human rights abuses against cultural minorities within the national boundaries of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran as we are with the wealthier and familiar Euro-American imperial powers of the twentieth century.

Eliassi urges us not to forget the long Kurdish struggle for nationhood, a liberation movement violently quashed by four separate authoritarian states. Why has the Kurdish struggle for independence been overlooked by western audiences? That answer, it seems, is that we are ambivalent when the perpetrators are Muslim as it counters the traditional narrative as Muslims as oppressed and persecuted. Yet Muslim majority states have a long history of suppression of national liberation movements, for example, in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), East Timor, and Balochistan.

Narratives of Statelessness and Political Otherness underscores how Islamic solidarity is not limitless. Although the ummah may share religious and cultural traditions, across the Middle East communities are divided on ethnic, linguistic, and sectarian lines. Furthermore, authoritarian states foster violent battles for political power and access to economic resources. Most Kurds and Palestinians are Muslim, yet they have been betrayed by lofty notions of pan-Islamism. While Kurds have long faced violent repression at the hands of state authorities, especially in Turkey and Iraq, Palestinians initially enjoyed pan-Arab support in their wars against Israel. In recent times however, Palestinian refugees in the neighbouring states of Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt have overstayed their welcome. One Lebanon-born Palestinian refugee observed, “There is no chance they [state authorities] can accept you as Lebanese. The Lebanese look down on us Palestinians.” Kurds and Palestinians share the experience of being cast as a security threat and perennial potential terrorist, both in their homelands and in the diaspora.

Eliassi’s book interweaves theory and empirical research on political otherness, diaspora, minority rights, nationalism, and citizenship. Eliassi conducted interviews with seventy individuals: 20 Palestinians in Sweden, 26 Kurds in Sweden and 24 Kurds in the UK. The cross-national scope of the research enabled him to present insightful comparisons, including between national groups and between countries of resettlement. Remarkably, Eliassi conducted the interviews in five different languages depending on the preference of the interviewee ranging from English, Arabic, Swedish, Sorani-Kurdish and Kurmanji-Kurdish. This linguistic flexibility helped Eliassi interview refugees from a range of backgrounds that may otherwise be inaccessible to monolingual speakers. The interviewees represented a range of class, educational and political backgrounds; they also experienced differing migratory trajectories, including those who arrived as asylum seekers, irregular migrants, marriage migrants, and refugees admitted through UNHCR channels. Eliassi is a social scientist and seems most comfortable discussing political and sociological theories. It is evident that he is less knowledgeable of related disciplines, including history, migration studies, and international humanitarian law. Scholars and readers from these latter fields may become frustrated with the author’s singular methodological approach to the subject matter. By way of example, Eliassi argued that statelessness is an understudied area. Yet researchers in migration studies and international refugee law would be aware of the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at the University of Melbourne. The fact that Eliassi seems oblivious to this centre raises questions about his knowledge on the subject matter.

The first two chapters provide extensive background and theoretical material, which are crucial to understanding the empirically based discussion in the remainder of the book. These first two chapters seems excessive in length, particularly since relevant contextual material is reintroduced in subsequent chapters. As a result, the book feels repetitive at times, an unfortunate by-product of the publisher’s requirement to offer for purchase individual chapters online. Chapters three to seven inclusive examines narrative accounts of statelessness, including identity formation, emotional landscapes, hierarchies of citizenship, resistance to assimilation and political dissent. In these chapters, it is evident that Kurdish accounts are at the core of the research while Palestinian perspectives are largely marginal, serving solely as a means of comparison. Beyond the specific anecdotes of Kurds and Palestinians, Eliassi raises broader questions about protection of minorities, the excesses of ethnic nationalism and the persistent importance of state-issued rights, even in an increasingly globalised, de-territorialised world.

For Eliassi, statelessness is an avoidable problem. In his view, the nation state model of organising humanity has failed and should be replaced with a political template more suited to the pluralistic societies of the twenty-first century. The nation state model harks back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 that predates mass international travel. As such, the nation state model emerged at a time of relative ethnic homogeneity within territorial borders. It is within this context of homogeneity that the nation state model permits the creation of a “master identity” predicated on domination and subordination of others. In practice, this means that nation states are preconditioned towards violence and racism. With multiculturalism now the norm across most of the world, Eliassi argues for a de-ethnicisation of the nation state and reaffirms the centrality of democratic principles to ensure that minorities cannot be oppressed by ethnic majority groups. This is a bold vision. However in the context of rising political populism and far right chauvinism, one expects that it will be sometime before Eliassi’s ideal becomes a reality.

This is a review of Barzoo Eliassi, Narratives of Statelessness and Political Otherness. Kurdish and Palestinian Experiences (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). ISBN: 9783030766986.

Dr Rachel Stevens  is a research fellow and historian based in the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Catholic University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.