Zuhayr Salim, Speaker of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria:
»To hell with Syrian [identity]! We do not recognize Syria«
KURDWATCH, December 4, 2011—Zuhayr Salim (b. 1947) is a writer and lives in London. In an interview with KurdWatch, the speaker of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood speaks out about the Kurdish question in Syria.
KurdWatch: On May 17, 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood spoke at length about the Kurdish question in Syria for the first time. This was the first statement by a Syrian political party about the Kurdish question in Syria. You describe the Kurds as »a genuine part of the fabric of the Syrian people«, living on its »historic territory«. You further explain that in a state under the rule of law, the Kurds must participate in power. What remains of this vision today?
Zuhayr Salim: We are seeking a state under the rule of law. Every person who lives in Syria or was born there must enjoy the same rights, regardless of whether he is an Arab, Kurd, Muslim, Christian, Sunni or Alawi. This stance will not change. Everyone must be convinced that he is equal. So, for example, an Alawi cannot think that he has more rights than a Sunni. And an Arab cannot think that he has more rights than a Kurd. And vice versa. That is a patriotic approach. The cultural and ethnic characteristics of each group, for example, customs and rituals, must be respected and accepted.
KurdWatch: Many Kurds compare your concept of civil rights to the assimilation of the Kurds in Syria.
Zuhayr Salim: We view the Kurds not as a minority, but as part of the majority in Syria. Historically, the Kurds were always a primary component of the majority. Many Syrian presidents were Kurds. No one asked why that was the case. The last Grand Mufti in Syria was also a Kurd. Sheikh Ramadan al-Buti himself comes from a Kurdish family. He taught an entire generation of Syrian sons and daughters. If a member of a minority wants to have more rights than the majority, then there is something wrong with this approach. No group can be allowed to think that it needs more rights than general civil rights. Is that wrong or are other approaches false?
KurdWatch: The Kurdish figures that you mention have never advocated for the rights of the Kurds. In Syria, the Kurds were never viewed as an asset, but as a threat. They remain oppressed to the present day, because they want to be Kurds and not Arabs.
Zuhayr Salim: The Muslim Brotherhood has always been in conflict with the Arab nationalists. We reject nationalist demands. If we are against the ideas of Arab nationalists like Michel ʿAflaq, Salahuddin al-Bitar, and the Baʿth party, this shows that we do not judge people by their ethnic heritage. We believe that people come together or separate on the basis of principles. We do not support ethnic projects.
KurdWatch: But the Kurds insist on their ethnic rights and want to determine their own fate within the framework of the Syrian state. Models such as federalism, self-government, or self-administration are mentioned in connection with this.
Zuhayr Salim: If, for example, a Kurd from Kobanî, which has been renamed ʿAyn al-Arab, comes to Aleppo and settles there, and five years later campaigns in the parliamentary elections and is elected: Does he have the right to do this or not? I'm asking this question. I believe that this is his right. He is a son of this society and this state. This is how we view things. The same applies to someone who moves from Aleppo or Homs to Kobanî or ʿAfrin. Does he then have the right to run for parliament? These are the questions that must be asked. But if we say that we are founding states within a state, that doesn't work. Syria itself is not yet a state; Syria is a project for a state. The Sykes-Picot Agreement has not only been rejected by the Kurds, but also by the Arabs and by all Syrians. We are on our way to leaving Sykes-Picot behind us. If you look at our paper on the Kurdish question, it states that the Kurds are living on their historic territory. Even if the Kurds came from Turkey, we do not view them as Turks. We were all born in this country; we will live and die here. The Kurds are a genuine part of the civilization, ideology, history, and demography of this region.
KurdWatch: You say that everyone must be able to vote and be elected everywhere. What does this mean for the registration of parties? Do you want to allow ethnic - Kurdish and Arab - parties?
Zuhayr Salim: We demand that everyone be able to form the party that he wants. The people in turn decide which parties it would like to represent it. Secular, ethnic, or religious parties can be formed.
KurdWatch: The Kurds want their ethnic rights to be anchored in the Syrian constitution.
Zuhayr Salim: If we guarantee civil rights, then everyone will receive their rights. If we speak of the Kurds, then what about the Turkmen? If we speak of the Turkmen, then what about the Circassians? If we speak about the Circassians, then what about the Armenians? This all cannot become part of the constitution. A general law for everyone is enough. It isn't necessary to worry about every detail. That must be made clear. The Syrian National Council has dealt explicitly with the rights of the Kurds. This is not true of the rights of the Turkmen. If the Turkmen protest against us, what shall we tell them? Arab rights also aren't handled separately. Why not? States are built on the foundation of general laws. Here in Great Britain there are also many ethnicities. The Brits are divided into the English, the Scottish, the Irish... There are no special rights for the various ethnicities in the constitution. We respect this act of defiance that clings to special rights for individual groups. We know the suffering and injustice that our Kurdish brothers have experienced. We know that this is why they insist on their own identity. I believe, however, that general civil rights will provide them with the necessary security.
KurdWatch: In the Scandinavian countries, the Sami people have their own parliaments and can decide on their own issues.
Zuhayr Salim: I'm not familiar with this; I can't compare it with the reality in Syria. It seems to me to concern local administrative structures. Such a system already exists. In the Kurdish regions there will be local administrations that take care of Kurdish issues. The Kurds will receive the right to take care of the development of their regions, the administration of their schools and hospitals. This will all occur within the framework of local administration.
KurdWatch: That also means that the Kurds will be allowed to fly the Kurdish national flag alongside the Syrian flag?
Zuhayr Salim: For me the flag is nothing but a symbol, and it doesn't particularly interest me. But I believe that a state should only have one flag. How many flags do we need? If everyone flies his own flag next to the state flag, we'll have seventy flags, like the United Nations. The Kurds will have three flags, and that's only if we disregard the parties. We need to think as a community, not as individuals. This individual mindset is leading us astray.
KurdWatch: In Syria, a Kurdish citizen's identity card states that he is a Syrian-Arab citizen, even though he is a Kurd and not an Arab. Will this also be the case in the new Syrian state?
Zuhayr Salim: A counter question: What is the status of a Turkmen living in Iraqi-Kurdistan?
KurdWatch: He is an Iraqi-Turkmen. He is not designated as a Kurd.
Zuhayr Salim: In Syria, a Kurd is also a Syrian.
KurdWatch: Yes, but not an Arab as it is written on the identity card.
Zuhayr Salim: Do only Kurds live in Iraqi-Kurdistan? Or do Arabs, Turkmen, Armenians, and Assyrians also live there? The general identity is that of the majority. With one condition: The identity of a group that defines itself as a minority must not be negated. We are not talking about minorities. Nevertheless, there are people who say that they do not belong to the majority. The identity of the majority is the identity of the state. The minorities have the right to enjoy their own rights. I don't see a contradiction here. If an Arab lives in Zakho or Erbil in Iraqi-Kurdistan, then he is called an Iraqi-Kurdistani. That just isn't a problem. Why shouldn't we grant to others that which we want for ourselves?
KurdWatch: Kurdistani isn't an ethnic term, but rather refers to the Kurdistan region. In contrast, Arab is an ethnic term and applies to members of the Arab nation. And the Kurds are definitely not Arabs.
Zuhayr Salim: To be Arab is not an expression of citizenship, but rather an expression of identity.
KurdWatch: Why don't we forgo the label »Arab« and speak only of Syrian identity?
Zuhayr Salim: No, no. To hell with Syrian [identity]! We do not recognize Syria. Who created Syria? Sykes-Picot. Is that true or not?
KurdWatch: Yes, that's true.
Zuhayr Salim: You and I do not recognize Sykes-Picot. You [Kurds] feel that you have been treated unjustly by Sykes-Picot. We also feel that we have been treated unjustly by Sykes-Picot. Syria is a temporary phenomenon, a state that exists only temporarily. Our goal is the creation of a state for the entire umma. A Kurd will be ruler in this state, for he will be supported by a people that numbers anywhere from thirty-five to forty million.
KurdWatch: Are you talking now about an independent Kurdish state?
Zuhayr Salim: No, about an Islamic state for everyone. Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Circassians, and all others will live there.
KurdWatch: Do you believe that you can find a majority in Syria that will support this?
Zuhayr Salim: We aren't forcing anyone. If the majority doesn't accept this idea, then it doesn't accept it. Your question about the Syrian identity of tomorrow will also be decided in a referendum. We are not forcing anyone into something that he doesn't want.
KurdWatch: That also means that in the predominantly Kurdish regions, the Kurds could decide that Kurdish would be the official language alongside Arabic?
Zuhayr Salim: That is their right. I often hear Turkish and Kurdish songs on television. Do you know that Kurdish songs are really good? We have the same culture. Why don't you like us [the Muslim Brotherhood]?
KurdWatch: Who doesn't like you?
Zuhayr Salim: Many people. You are like us and we are like you. There are no differences. God is generous. We want to overcome Sykes-Picot and live together again as we did for one thousand five hundred years. May God help us, and may we all leave this crisis behind us.
KurdWatch: The PYD/PKK accuses the Muslim Brotherhood of having signed a secret agreement with Turkey.
Zuhayr Salim: Cooperation with Turkey is not a sin. We are working with all sides. We hope that the PKK is not working with the Syrian regime. We hope that the Kurdish brothers can correctly assess their situation.
KurdWatch: But within the framework of the Syrian National Council, you are accused of having promised Turkey that you will deny the existence of the Kurds should you come to power.
Zuhayr Salim: The declarations of the National Council are accessible to everyone. We hope that the PKK and the Kurds will soon be able to obtain their rights by peaceful means. The opportunity provided by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) will not recur. But of course the PKK can better assess its own interests.
KurdWatch: The PKK has repeatedly said that it finds itself in a battle with the AKP in Syria. How will the Muslim Brotherhood react if Turkey is attacked from inside Syria?
Zuhayr Salim: Naturally we would be against this attack. We will not allow other states to be threatened from within Syria.
November 12, 2011