Peshmerga fighters. Photo: Courtesy.
The following speech by famed French humanitarian and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy was delivered on March 7, 2017, in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, on the occasion of the advance premiere of his new film, The Battle of Mosul.
By history and by language I am a member of a very old nation, one of the oldest in the world: France.
And in spirit I am a member of a very old people, the Jewish people, one of the oldest on the planet: a people that founded one of the youngest states, Israel—an experience that you Kurds are now preparing to replicate.
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You have lived through countless trials, endured innumerable twists of fate, suffered domination again and again.
But empires have crumbled; tyrants have passed away; and your executioners have fallen into the dustbins of history. All the while, you have held fast. You have resisted the forces that wanted you to disappear. And here you stand on the eve of a momentous event announced just days ago by your president: a referendum in which the Kurdish people will express themselves on the formation of a free state in which all citizens would be able to live freely, their heads held high.
The Kurdish nation was forged over centuries of pain and pride.
It was strengthened in the course of our common war against Islamist terrorism, a war in which for too long you have been our staunchest and sometimes solitary spearhead.
And I know not one Peshmerga fighter who, while waging our common battle, did not have in mind the achievement of that ancestral dream of independence for his or her millennial land: Mosul will be liberated; Daesh will be defeated. And, when the moment comes for the referendum that Massoud Barzani has described as an inalienable right of the Kurds, I know that the people of the KRG will vote as one and that the will of each citizen will be shared by all.
Speaking as the Frenchman that I am and as the descendant of an ancient and resilient people who triumphed over the worst possible persecutions, I want you to know that this prospect, this promise, this announced refounding of the ancient Kurdish nation in the form of a state is very good news.
I often hear it said, even among your closest allies, that recognition of a Kurdish state might upset the regional balance and be a threat to peace.
I believe that the contrary is true.
I believe that, in reality, you will be a pole of stability in a region increasingly susceptible to the demons of fanaticism and terror.
For what, in the end, do we mean by stability?
Respect for borders.
The rule of transparent laws, transparently applied to all.
A basic respect for others that requires that we not, in the manner of the current tyranny in Syria (to choose but one example), make refugees of millions of citizens cast from their homes onto the highways of the world.
All the standards that tyrants from Saddam Hussein to Bashar al-Assad never cease flouting—standards that the Kurds, to their eternal credit, have defended against all odds.
Is your land not one of the very few in this part of the world to set an example of democracy, of the primacy of the values of tolerance and cultural coexistence, of ensuring that law has the last word?
And in what other part of the Muslim Middle East does one find such a strong belief in a geopolitical order in which peace wins out over war, concord and comity over ancient hatreds, curiosity about and respect for the other over the idea of a war of civilizations?
For these reasons I maintain that the birth of a Kurdish nation-state will be a factor for peace and not for disorder.
For these reasons I believe very deeply that, in this stormy region, swept by so many ill winds, threatened by the worst of ideologies and by the violence that accompanies them, your rebirth as an independent nation and state will mark an advance and will help to dispel the awful genies of disintegration, chaos, and bloody convulsion.
What kind of nation will you be?
You will be small in number—a nation of just several million.
But you will not be, whatever your number, fragile or weak.
History holds many examples of what Czech-French writer Milan Kundera has called “small nations” that are solid and strong because their people are united in the face of their powerful neighbors; because they have kept their sword close to the plow so as to be ready to defend the nation; and because they are nations of citizens, great in their history and spirit rather than through ethnicity, assumed superiority, or an arrogant identity closed to others.
You will be one of those nations.
When you attain your nationhood, you will remain a people of volunteers who know why they fight, a people who, from the humblest to the greatest, from the Peshmerga regular to the loftiest of your commanders, does not hesitate to take up arms to discourage or to dismantle despotism.
You will also be united by those values of openness and democracy, values for which, I repeat, I can cite few parallels in this part of the world. And that will be yet another reason, paradoxical but true, for your greatness: because you have been the crucible in which, over the centuries, so many communities have melded, because you have been soldiers of freedom who kept Christians from being purged from the last place in the world where the language of Christ is still spoken, and because you have defended and exemplified the principle of equality of the sexes, even in settings of bitter combat, a principle of equality that is the hallmark of great civilizations—for all these reasons, you will indeed be a strong and solid nation.
Furthermore you will be a haven for those of your people whom the cruelties of history have scattered.
I know, of course, that the Kurdish people are divided.
I am well aware that your divisions are not caused solely by enemy nations scheming to dismember you but that those divisions also reflect serious disagreements, real and deep differences, and contending visions of what it means to be a Kurd.
Let me convey in passing my view that people never benefit from imposing silence on ideas, values, and visions of the world which, even when they are antagonistic (especially then!), are part of free debate, so that brothers may hold sharply divergent views while remaining brothers.
Be that as it may.
You will be, despite differences engendered by history and, for the time being, unescapable, a refuge, a shelter, and a shared home for dispossessed and exiled Kurds living in other parts of the world.
You will be, not merely a recourse, but an example, a point of reference, perhaps a model, and, in any case, a source of hope for the dispersed Kurdish people.
And you will be, if I may be permitted to make a comparison with one of the greatest nations in the world, one currently debased, as you know, by those who purport to lead it, a “shining city on a hill,” a luminous lodestar for the lost sons and daughters of Kurdistan.
You will be this singular nation.
You will play this role in the centuries-long history of your people.
For the reason I have just cited, you will be that nation set apart, and you should never be afraid to proclaim its vocation—a vocation both universal and, if the words have any meaning at all, truly internationalist.
But you will be a singular nation for yet another reason.
One thing that has particularly struck me in the course of my frequent visits to Kurdistan is that you are a multi-lingual people.
You speak your language, the mother tongue rich with ancient culture that is the language of the Kurdish people. But you speak others as well: all those languages acquired in exile that are no less yours.
You are, in a word, a rainbow nation, diverse in origin, cosmopolitan—like the French nation, which over the centuries was enriched by immigrants and oppressed peoples who came together to form today’s France in all its diversity.
Not to mention the fact that here, right here and now, you are a haven for persecuted Yezidi and Christian communities who sought asylum in your land and whom you so generously welcomed.
For this reason, added to all the others, you are and will remain this very special nation that I dare to call “internationalist.”
Internationalism is a beautiful word.
It has been, for two centuries, the animating spirit of so many battles for freedom!
It has inspired so much courage, resistance, sacrifice, noble sayings, and beautiful writings!
It has nourished, despite the traps into which it has sometimes fallen and become entangled, the best of what Europe and, within Europe, France have been able to represent!
And the same applies to you.
One of the merits of Kurdistan is to have been, right up to the present day, one of the spots in the world where the flame of internationalism has burned most brightly.
Reflect for a moment on the struggle against Daesh.
You have waged that battle for yourselves but also on behalf of the rest of the world.
Through it, and hand in hand with your allies, you have plead for Kurdistan and for civilization writ large.
In so doing you have acted as patriots, while also being internationalists in heart and soul.
All of that is illustrated in the film that I present to you today on the battle for Mosul.
In it you will recognize yourselves (in some cases literally), but the rest of humanity is there as well. And that, in my eyes as in the eyes of François, Gilles, Camille, Olivier, and Ala, my colleagues in making the film, is another sign of your greatness.
A final word.
You will soon be free.
Soon—very soon, I hope—the referendum of self-determination announced by your president will take place and you will gain your independence.
But you will still be surrounded by powerful neighbors that will not view your independence or the reign of freedom in your land as good examples or precedents.
There are, in this region, so many false nations, so many anti-nations and so many prison nations in which your Kurdish brothers and cousins, among others, remain confined, that a free Kurdistan will be a living reproach to those embarrassed regimes.
And I would add that, confronted with the new tests that are bound to stem from that embarrassment, confronted with the challenges that await you (challenges that independence alone will not suffice to surmount), you are likely to find yourselves as alone as you have ever been in the worst moments of your history. General de Gaulle said that a people has no friends, and, alas, you will see that your friends of today will not always be your friends—it may happen that they prefer their supposed world order to justice, to friendship, and, I’ll say it once again, to the cause of true stability and peace.
I know that you know that and are preparing yourselves for it.
But allow me, please, to say one very last thing.
The people who made the film that you are about to see are also your friends.
They stand for millions of men and women abroad, in France, and throughout the world, who believed in Kurdistan when the powers wanted nothing to do with it.
That sort of friendship, the support offered by so many of the world’s citizens of whom we are but a tiny sample, is much more constant—and friends of this sort will never fail you. We bear witness today to that principle.
Yes to independent Kurdistan!
Long live the Kurdish people and their dream!
This war is nearing its end, and together we will compose new works full of hope.