When the Iraqi Kurdish politicians in the country began their struggle for independence and equal rights in the 1950s, they did so in Baghdad. And because they were operating in Baghdad they tended to use Arabic as the language in which they made their appeals and sent their messages to the broader public.
Today the main political parties in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan don’t seem to be using a lot of Arabic. Although many may think it’s no longer so, Iraqi Kurdistan is still part of Iraq and the primary language in Iraq is still Arabic. Is this another move toward independence by the Iraqi Kurdish? A political statement? Or is there some other reason?
The biggest Iraqi Kurdish political parties – Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – have not changed their logos in any major way for some time. However the two parties now write their names in Kurdish and English – they ignore Arabic altogether. And that is even though the parties both participate in the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad, where the common language is Arabic.
Meanwhile the two Islamic-based parties in Iraqi Kurdistan continue to use Arabic – they’ve actually been criticised, seen as Iraqi nationalists, for doing so.
Some say Arabic is used less in Iraqi Kurdistan because of the region’s increasing prosperity compared to the rest of the country. Economics have seen the Kurdish become more separate from the rest of the country. Additionally the Kurds don’t feel threatened by Iraq any longer. And Iraqi Kurdistan has developed its own external relationships with countries that do not necessarily use the Arabic language.
“This issue is linked to the rise of new technologies,” Derbaz Mohammed, a professor from the Humanities Faculty at the University of Sulimaniyah, told NIQASH. “In the past, the radio was the only means the Kurds had to make their voices heard. And they used the Arabic language so that Arabs would be aware of their case too.”
In fact, Mohammed says that, while the Iraqi Kurdish were revolting against Saddam Hussein’s regime they often hid in the mountains of the region. “And there were no TVs or newspapers for the revolutionaries to distribute there,” Mohammed explains. “Radio was the only means of communication and only one language was used to give the message to all. But things have changed. Now we have televisions, newspapers and the Internet and it is so much easier to find an option to spread any message, or hear one.”
Another reason why the political parties might be using mainly Kurdish now, Mohammed suggested, was because they had very few Arab supporters anyway.
But it is not only the Iraqi Kurdish politicians who have stopped using so much Arabic. Many generations of Iraqi Kurds were taught Arabic at school and it was compulsory during the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. This changed after the Iraqi Kurdish uprising in the early 1990s – at that stage, Arabic became even more the language of those who had oppressed and killed the Kurdish people.
Now it’s no longer compulsory, many educational institutes in Iraqi Kurdistan are also side lining Arabic. There are very few students studying Arabic in Iraqi Kurdistan. The languages becoming most popular for study here are actually English, Turkish and French.
It’s also about the locals’ attitude toward Arabic. Sayamand Sadiq owns a shop selling pictures of famous politicians and different national flags, on Malawi Street, one of the busiest shopping streets in Sulaymaniyah. But he told NIQASH he rarely sells Iraqi flags or pictures of Iraqi politicians to locals. His explanation? “There are very few people in this city who consider themselves Iraqi – or even part of Iraq,” he says.
However if you ask the local political parties why they are not using Arabic as much anymore, they’re reluctant to go into too much detail – or they provide unconvincing explanations.
MP Baliseh Jabar Farman, a leading member of PUK, would only tell NIQASH that, "during the party’s general conference in October last year we wanted to use Arabic too. But then we decided not to and we just went with English and Kurdish.”
Of course, not everyone thinks it’s no big deal. Politician Mohammed Hakim, who belongs to the Kurdistan Islamic Union, says that all this is due to the bad relationship and lack of communication between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan. “There’s also a strong nationalist campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan which places importance on abandoning the Arabic language,” he added. “That’s what motivates educators to ignore Arabic too.”