the difficulty of staying neutral

the more i am faced with writing my phd, the more i notice a seemingly insurmountable challenge: remaining neutral in my writing. it is no secret that words carry meaning – sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, sometimes the meaning has changed over the years, sometimes it depends on the context; either way, words carry meaning. and i am no person to complain about this – some of my favourite jokes come exactly from this odd place where one word has two different meanings and depending on the interpretation, the world suddenly looks very different. yet, what is a joy in jokes becomes agony in academia.

beyond this arguably ‘normal’ challenge of choosing appropriate language (and especially in academic writing), i find myself particularly challenged by writing about the kurdish region of iraq or the kurdistan region of iraq or the kurdish north of iraq or bashur or southern kurdistan – as you can see, this is where the problem starts!

just as their seems to be no (politically) neutral ground in and around the area that is considered ‘the federal autonomous kurdish region of iraq’, so is there no neutral language to discuss the region, its institutions or its actors. every term chosen implies a choice of one side over the other: of the ‘western’, international institutional perspective over the baghdad perspective over the kurdish perspective over one particular party’s perspective and so forth. and no matter how far you turn it, somehow it seems one can never simply end up with one’s own voice.

consider this example (beyond the one i already provided in the second paragraph):

the peshmerga – a military force of the kurds which has received increased international media coverage throughout the war with isis – have been put into the following conceptual boxes: they have been described as a ‘military force’, a ‘militia’, an ‘armed force’, a ‘paramilitary force’, and ‘regional guards’, etc.

calling peshmerga a ‘military force’ is so far the most neutral form, i have found to describe what the peshmerga are. it implies that they are a ‘military’ type of organisation and that they are able to apply some type of (at least half-way legitimate form of) ‘force’. however, already here, there are some who would argue on the ‘military’ dimension of the peshmerga organisation as well as on the implied ‘legitimacy’ of this ‘force’. to be safe, many have instead referred to the peshmerga as a ‘militia’ instead. and, granted, given the fact that there are still many peshmerga who are under the exclusive partisan control of two big and several smaller political parties, the ‘militia’ concept – one, which is defined by most dictionaries as a rather ad-hoc form of force formation on the basis of a call-to-arms to a largely civilian population; be that in the form of reservists like in switzerland, along feudal or tribal structures of local patron’s calling on their client’s loyalty like in the kurdish region, or similar to the levee en masse as it was the case in revolutionary france – has some grounds to claim applicability. calling the peshmerga a ‘militia’, however, demonstrates more than just attempted academic caution – it also implies (voluntarily or not) a certain degree of discrediting the peshmerga as a legitimate, formally-organised military organisation. (i myself have on occasion applied the term ‘militia’. for me it was a way to express the dimension of partisanship within the peshmerga rather than aiming at any discrediting to neither their efforts nor their transformation towards ever more ‘military’ forms of organisation.) an even safer road would be to simply call the peshmerga an ‘armed’ force. however, at this point one is quick to deviate into a concept so broad that the actual meaning of the term is left to the mercy of the reader’s interpretation: after all, the general terming of ‘a group which is armed’ does not make any reference to their legitimacy, therefore leaving it up to the reader to decide whether to see them as a legitimate or illegitimate force (a matter of grave importance in war, politics and questions of state building). the same vagueness on both their ‘military’ organisation and their legitimacy is true for the ‘paramilitary’ terminology. the ‘regional guards’ concept, on the other hand, would provide great relief to this dilemma, as it is both broad enough to encompass many different parts of the peshmerga as well as it does not put into question their source of legitimacy (since this is the wording used in the iraqi constitution). however, since the concept, as well as many aspects related to it, are a matter of political dispute and different legal interpretations between the kurdistan regional government and the government in baghdad, also this term falls through as a useful determinant for the peshmerga.

as you can see, finding a right wording when talking about the kurdish peshmerga is difficult. and this is before one considers the adverbial embellishment of the international press picturing them either as loyal and reliable allies to the western powers, as a potential threat to the unity of iraq, as a potential spoiler in iraqi and kurdish politics, or as the true heart and soul of kurdish pride.

in addition, these terms only refer to the most recent concepts applied to the peshmerga. over the years they have also been categorised as ‘guerrilla’, ‘partisan’ and ‘tribal’. and while their roles, structures and abilities have changed without a doubt – hence, warranting and adaptation of language – until today, the choice of terminology to describe the peshmerga says more about the author’s position than it does about the peshmerga. and since my personal ambition is to stay far away from taking any political stance in my writing and analysis – neither for the western, international institutions, nor for the kurdish or kurdistan region, nor for any political party or for baghdad – it seems that one of my most challenging battles will be to find the right terminology. this challenge is increased by the fact that the ‘peshmerga’ are just one term among many within my phd that i will have to fight this battle of biased definitions with. as far as i am concerned at this moment, there is no way of avoiding this terminological battle other than by creating entirely new words and definitions. as if that were easy…

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