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Comparative Politics

Year II



Whether it presents interest in transposing the theory on decentralization and analyzing

if the principles presented in the book The Starfish and The Spider apply to the reality and functioning
of ethnic conflict still remains to be debated, but what presents interest is to see if this type of approach
is possible, if ethnic conflict perceived as a war between two ethnicities is a phenomenon to be
analyzed as functioning due to its manner of organization. Moreover, it is also of interest to concentrate
upon the specifics of ethnic conflict as an illustration of the influence that human networks have on
participation, and in this respect, this paper aims to concentrate on applying the model of the starfish
and the spider on the functioning of the Kurdish situation, while referring to the manner of
manifestation of this ethnic movement in relation to the human networks.
The specifics of this inquiry, mainly the approach of the Kurdish case is nonetheless
challenging since the Kurdish situation is special. It, in fact, represents one of the best examples of
ethnic conflict to fit the pattern of the starfish, since here we clearly can observe the Kurdish
community functioning as the Starfish, due to the fact that it finds itself scattered across four states,
mainly Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, and still conserves the main traits and goals as of a homogeneous
people- self determination and the strive for a national state. The role of the Spider, without any
denomination, is played generically by the state, of course, with examples in relation to the different
Kurdish communities this paper shall refer to, be it the Turkish one, the Syrian, Iraqi or Iranian one.
Going further, the paper shall concentrate on the transposition of the principles advanced
by the book in relation to the decentralized entity and its functioning, providing thus the framework of
the inquiry, while aiming to analyze if the Kurdish community truly functions as a decentralized entity.
While applying the model of the Starfish to the Kurdish case, this paper aims to confirm
or infirm the possibility of a social movement to be effective while working as a decentralized
organization and if this is proper to the type of movement we are approaching, mainly that of an ethnic
movement to the point of ethnic conflict in the strive for self determination and a state of its own,
keeping in mind however, the final result, meaning the envisaged success or failure of the measures
implemented by such an organization.
In addition, if the Kurdish movement functions as a Starfish or more as a Spider and thus
the consequences this functioning has in relation to the State which is clearly a Spider, shall also
constitute a point of the analysis.

Before entering the argumentation structured on the Starfish Model, some historical
information related to the Kurdish people is necessary in order to gain an overview of the situation.
An ethnic group”, according to the definition, “is a collectivity whose bonds of unity
come from subjectively felt concepts, sentiments, and actions stemming from common traditions in
contradistinction to other groups within a polity.”1
The Kurdish population is spread more or less homogeneously on a territory that is part
of four states: Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria, that is called by them, even if not internationally
recognized, Kurdistan, state that emerged as the result of the Kurdish self-determination and nation-
building process.
In order to identify the Kurds as a nation, it is compulsory, according to the definition of
a nation, to track their common history, geographical continuity and common language of the
population since a nation is not a fixity but rather a “daily plebiscite” (Ernest Renan).
The Kurds can be traced back in history to the Arab conquest in the seventh century, the
name “Kurd” being applied to the Western Iranians and the other Iranicised peoples established astride
the mountain systems of the Zagros and the Taurus.
Until the extinction of the Arab Caliphate of Baghdad in the 1258, the Kurds are traced
by history as having some importance, some dynasties being present, while during the wars between
the Ottoman Empire and the Persian-Safavid ones, they have distinguished themselves in the context of
independent principalities2. Despite the attempts of centralization of the two governments during the
nineteenth century, some principalities managed to remain independent, mainly those of Mukriyan and
Ardalan in Persia, Botan, Hakari, Badinan, Soran and Baban in Turkey.
Relating to language, the Kurdish language belongs to a north-western division of
Iranian tongues as distinct from the ones in the South-West, and nowadays it is divided in two dialects-
northern and southern, rather distinct because of the geographical setting and of the lack of political
unity, but still maintaining common traits.
In what regards the advent of the modern Kurdish nationalist movement, as the other
peoples in Europe, the Kurds, together with the Arabs and the Armenians as minorities in the Ottoman

MUTLU Servet, Ethnic Kurds in Turkey, a Demographic Study, International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 28,
No.4, November 1996
EDMONDS C.J., Kurdish Nationalism, Journal of Contemporary History, vol.6, No.1, Nationalism and Separatism,
Empire, have raised to the discourse of President Wilson that announced that “nationalities should be
assured an absolute, unmolested opportunity of autonomous development”.
In fact, the Treaty of Sevres, never to be ratified, contained the recognition of the Arab
states of Hijaz, Syria and Iraq, but also of Armenia, and of Kurdistan that would have included the
eastern vilayets of Turkey, together with the Mosul vilayet that at the time was under British
However, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk refused to ratify the treaty of Sevres, which was
replaced with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, recognizing the Arab states but which made no mention
of Armenia and Kurdistan.
The Treaties of Lausanne and Ankarra, together with an Anglo-French Convention and
the Franco-Turkish agreement of March 1921 decided the split of the Ottoman Kurdistan between
Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
On short, the paradox of the situation with which Kurdistan was faced was the
turnaround from the Wilson Program of the encouragement of national self-determination, to the split
of a rather homogeneous population between three states, drawing a kin apart.

In this context, firstly, it is of interest to detail on the importance of networks and their
transposition in ethnic conflicts, given that here, the network is clearly what determines action to be
From the perspective of the analysis of social movements, social networks appear as
predictors of individual participation, and play an important role since they may increase the individual
chance to become involved, and also to strengthen activists' attempts to further the appeal of their
This very process of participation functions as it follows- while people often become
involved in specific movements or campaigns through their preexisting links, their very participation
also forges new bonds which affect subsequent developments in their activist careers4.
On the other hand, some authors may perceive the influence of networks on participation
as a duality of the link between individuals- their identity and group membership5 and thus, social
structure affects individual and collective behavior, while its structure is generated and reproduced

DIANI Mario, Networks and Participation in The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, edited by SNOW A.
David, SOULE A. Sarah and KRIESI Hanspeter, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2004
DIANI Mario, Networks and Participation in The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, edited by SNOW A.
David, SOULE A. Sarah and KRIESI Hanspeter, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2004
BREIGER, Ronald L. The Duality of Persons and Groups. Social Forces, 53, 181–90.(1974)
through action6.
This approach of the influence of social networks on participation is moreover important
in our case, since we are dealing in the Kurdish example, as well as in all examples where the ethnic
variable is introduced, with the common identity that draws people together, and, in addition to this, in
the context of rejection or abuse of the ethnic cluster we are talking about, as are the cases in the states
that seek assimilation of the “otherness”, this rejection determines people not only to relate better on
the level of communication, but also to fight back, to take action, thus responding to the stimulae their
community was exposed to.
Going further, thus is the Kurdish case, a situation where the social movement was
approached by passing from the individual in need to relate to those sharing his common features on
the level of belonging to a specific group, but also the social movement has developed as for the
reunited individual wills to converge towards achieving the common goal of the community, no matter
what scattered it may be and what national orders it has to franchise- a state of their own and
In this point, the argumentation on whether the Kurdish movement functions as a
centralized or decentralized organization finds its place, moreover in inquiring on its effectiveness and
the results it achieved and is possible to achieve in the future.

On short, the Starfish and the Spider theory aims to inquiry upon the efficiency of an
organization that does not function according to a conventional framework, having a clear hierarchy
from top to bottom in what concerns decision making. It is this entity that is represented by the Spider
in this theory, adding to it a solution that in some cases proved more than efficient, is that of the
decentralized organization, without a clear structure of decision making and responsibility, without
rigid rules to be respected and the volatility in its structure that allows it to mutate, to develop and by
this increase in efficiency. This entity is represented by the Starfish.
The theory on decentralization as exposed in the book abides a number of nine
principles, principles that appear to regulate the interaction between the two entities and thus make
clear, up to a point, the advantages and disadvantages that are to be drawn from this relationship.
It is important to stress on the fact that what is envisaged is exactly this- a relationship
between two entities, a spider and a starfish, their interaction proving efficient for one or the other. It is,
however, difficult to assess on the advantages and disadvantages of an interaction between two entities
DIANI Mario, Networks and Participation in The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, edited by SNOW A.
David, SOULE A. Sarah and KRIESI Hanspeter, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2004
of the same nature since then the situation would be either a classic, common one, as in the interaction
of two “spider” entities, or a rather anarchical and close to impossible one in the case of two “starfish”
entities, since, in the majority of time, one starfish entity does not resemble another.
This aspects being clarified, the theory is to be further analyzed in relation to the
functioning of the Kurdish social movement.

The Kurdish community and national movement: a Starfish or a Spider?

The Kurds, with a population estimated around 30-35 million, represent the fourth
largest group in the Middle East, after the Arabs, Turks and Persians, and, as it was stated before, are
divided, since 1923, between four sovereign states, states that manifest, in relation to them, attitudes
ranging from ignorance, assimilation to aggression.
Before the First World War, the Kurdish life was nomadic, revolving around goat and
sheep herding throughout the Mesopotamian plains and highlands of Turkey and Iran. After 1923, when
Kurdistan was not recognized as a state, the Kurdish population passed through attempts of the states to
“Arabize”, “ Persianize”, “Turkify” them.
Facing this situation, the Kurds have, even before the contemporary period, reacted to
the abuses against them through means of rebellion, the insurrections conserving a traditional pattern:
they were struggles against a state authority which was encroaching upon their rights7, the traditional
chiefstains defending their prerogatives against a central authority.
The reaction of the states towards the rebellions of the Kurds were always the same,
force was fought with force, and with some marginal examples, the Kurds have been always reduced to
silence in their claims for autonomy and a national state.
On analyzing the community we are talking about, the profile would be the same, no
matter the state where the ethnic community of the Kurds we are referring to: mainly a mountain
people, a backward, traditional community, illiterate and poor in elites, with a tribal mentality and
corruption of the military elites which played an important role in the functioning of the community8.
Moreover, the Kurdish movement proved to be a national movement that “failed to
radicalize itself in order to develop an organic link between the masses and a people's army fired by a

CHALIAND Gerard, Introduction in A People Without a Country. The Kurds and Kurdistan edited by CHALIAND
Gerard, Olive Branch Press, New York, 1993
CHALIAND Gerard, Introduction in A People Without a Country. The Kurds and Kurdistan edited by CHALIAND
Gerard, Olive Branch Press, New York, 1993
revolutionary political ideology”9, reason for which the reaction and results of the measures
implemented by the states towards their claims are evident- rebellions crushed followed by the
executions of the leaders of the different rebellious Kurdish factions threw each time the movements in
crisis, making them unable to continue the struggle for independence.
In addition to this, the corruption at the level of the military chiefs and leader made it
possible for the national movement to be left aside for periods of time, serving in the meantime other
purposes, such as in the example of Mustafa Barzani, who agreed to freeze the situation of the Kurdish
movement in Iraq in order to receive aid for the movement in Iran, in the meantime handing over to the
Shah some of the leaders of the Kurdish movement in Iran who favored the insurrection. In his actions
he was not driven by his interest in relationship to his belonging to the Kurdish ethnic group and he did
not search for a better context that would lead to a better legal status of the Kurdish minority, but he
was driven by some other interests that outranked those of the individual belonging to a community.
As such, one could be tempted to assess to the fact that there is no homogeneous
Kurdish identity and thus the social movement triggered due to the functioning of the human network
does not therefore extend to the whole Kurdish population, having thus more Kurdish identities
scattered between the states that have divided the territory making up Kurdistan, and thus the inquiry
on the functioning of the whole Kurdish movement lacking an object.
On the other hand, authors tend to see in the diversity of the Kurdish movement a sign
not of fragmentation of the national identity, but rather one trait of this ethnicity, mainly the fact that it
has a transnational character10. However, the fact that the Kurdish movement presents also the dialectic
of denial and resistance which may, in some contexts, surpass the cultural and political fragmentation
of the Kurdish identity, even though it still represents a possibility and not a fact.
Going further, it has also been considered the fact that the failure of Kurdish nationalism
to transcend the structural limits of the political and cultural fragmentation and the fact that the main
stream of the movement has not crystallized, but rather has manifested through regional autonomist
movements is also due to the fact that the civil society in Kurdistan is not very strong, reason for which
there is no “ethnic collectivism” that would trigger massive action, no matter through what means,
diplomatic or violent ones.
The necessity of the link between civil society and nationalism is indispensable, should a
massive movement such as a nationalist movement work, and in lack of this, the entity manifests itself

CHALIAND Gerard, Introduction in A People Without a Country. The Kurds and Kurdistan edited by CHALIAND
Gerard, Olive Branch Press, New York, 1993
VALI Abbas, The Kurds and Their Others': Fragmented Identity and Fragmented Politics in The Kurds: Nationalism
and Politics, edited by JABAR Faleh A. and DAWOD Hosham, SAQI, 2006
as the components of a cell that lack the framework, being thus scattered and not able to meet the
functions they are designed to meet, and moreover not being able to divide further and make up the
body that shelters them and that they feed into existence.
As such, the Kurdish nationalist movement is different from others, since it is
contemporary with the ones that shaped many modern states after the First World War, but yet remains
a contemporary movement, since its purpose has not been achieved and is not in sight of being thus.
Moreover, the movement, as it was stated, presents a particularity in the fact that it is not
thoroughly backed up by the civil society, even though a tribal organization should present a more
cohesive trait, and thus it is not capable of functioning properly. Moreover, it is susceptible of
development since the social network that should back it up is an artificial one and functions as a
design of the self-appointed elites, rather than the result of the will emanating from the people that
make it up.
In addition, concerning the elites, they are not always the mirror of the people, pursuing
the greater good of the community it represents, but they are corruptible and may put their own
interests before those of the community in their list of priorities.

In what concerns the principles of the decentralized entity, as they were presented by the
book, by applying them to the Kurdish context, the following remarks may be delivered as to assess the
nature of the Kurdish nationalist movement:
Principle number 1. When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even
more open and decentralized: in our situation, history speaks clearly to the fact that the various
rebellions triggered by the Kurds were crushed by the states, the movements being also affected by the
fact that the leaders of the different factions were executed or sent into exile, which determined a crisis
in the interior of the organization. Moreover, because the Kurdish minority in the different countries
was subjected to different assimilationist practices and was deprived of many basic rights, without
massive opposition, but rather has manifested a sort of resigned acceptance, speaks also to the fact that
we are not in the presence of a strong movement, capable of fighting back effectively and with the
intention to subdue the central power. Also, to this plays the fact that the Kurdish movement is not a
terrorist one, but rather a classical, traditional nationalist movement.
Principle number 2. It’s easy to mistake starfish for spiders: from this respect, the
Kurdish minority is an enduring one. This principle applies to the extent to which survival and
perpetuation across time and against all odds and adverse practices, of the traditions, language and
culture of the Kurds, along with some means of resistance points to the fact that the Kurds may prove
stronger than they seem at first. However, improvements are yet to come, for major changes to happen
at the global level of the movement, and these changes have to come through means of cohesion at the
level of the social network, having a more cooperative civil society. Thus, there is a certain ease in
mistaken the Kurdish movement with a “spider” since it is the model towards it tends, given that the
ultimate purpose is a free, independent Kurdistan, a “spider” by nature. We, however, find ourselves in
the situation of having a mixt entity at this point, a cross-breed between a spider and a starfish, given
that the movement is scattered across more states, but yet has more leaders and is organized rather
Principle number 3. An open system doesn’t have central intelligence; the intelligence
is spread throughout the system: the problem here is, that even if the nature of the movement may point
exactly in this direction, the issue is not with the centralized intelligence, but rather with its almost
lacking even at decentralized level, since the Kurdish elites are scarce, and those which exist are
incapable of attracting the attention of the social network that finds itself at the basis of the nationalist
movement. As such, the Kurdish movement almost fails to satisfy this principle of decentralization.
Principle number 4. Open systems can easily mutate: it is true that the Kurdish
movement is an open one, and this is mostly due not to the option of a leader, but rather to the
transnational character of the movement. As such, the possibility of the mutation exists, since there is
not a general framework and a general hierarchy to be respected in the process of decision making.
However, the fact that the Kurdish nationalist movements lack extensive civil support puts a halt on
this mutation, since there is no extensive involvement of the members of the community in the struggle,
but rather we are speaking of the army and of an elite that triggers the measures to be taken. Due to
this, the openness of the Kurdish movement is not really valid, but rather we are speaking of more
“spiders” with the same argumentation for struggle in the person of the Kurdish nationalist movements
on the territory of the different states.
Principle number 5. The decentralized organization sneaks up on you: It is not the case
here, since “there is nothing new under the Sun”, the states “hosting” the Kurdish nationalist
movements being aware of their existence and of the danger they may represent, and in the same time
being capable of keeping them under control, as the history of the struggles between the central statal
authorities and the Kurdish nationalist movements points out. Rare were the cases when, for short
periods of time, advantages have been obtained, and those advantages were due more to international
intervention rather that the result of the struggle of the Kurdish nationalist movement.
Principle number 6. As industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease: this
principle is not directly correlated to the subject of our analysis, but by extensive interpretation, it may
be detached from it the fact that, should the nature of the states we are talking about, change, meaning
the idea that they would become more democratic and should implement the principle of
decentralization of the administration, the Kurdish communities might have a change at a loosen grip
on their status and might thus aspire to increased rights in the regions where the Kurds represent a high
number in the population. Thus, the principle is to be considered applicable to our situation, however,
through extensive interpretation.
Principle number 7. Put people into an open system and they’ll automatically want to
contribute: in the context of nationalist movement and thus of ethnic conflict, the loyalties may be
divided, mainly, self preservation may intervene in the case of some people making up the Kurdish
community, and thus determining them to keep away and not be involved, while on the other hand,
should the movement be more open, it may be more appealing to some members of the civil society
which might be interested in becoming more involved. However, in our situation, the idea of a more
open system is not conclusive for triggering an increased contribution, since ethnic struggle involves
sacrifices in terms of life and death and thus, the principle is not exclusively applicable.
Principle number 8. When attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even
more centralized: This principle may be applied in both directions in our case, since we are talking, in
the Kurdish case of a quasi-spider with starfish tendencies, and thus, the extent to which a
centralization exists within the movement, might trigger a reaction different than that one announced
by the principle. As such, when attacked, our quasi-spider with starfish tendencies will not become
more centralized and will not mutate or divide, but will remain blocked, will remain frozen in place or
fall into a crisis, since an attack might mean attacking the structure of the movement and thus affecting
the leaders, which, even if they are not nominally important, count according to their function, that of
leading the movement, and until they are replaced from the thin elite that exists, that is supported by the
general population and that is willing to get involved, the movement rests frozen in place, without any
measures to implement.
On the other hand, the “pure-blood” spider that is the state that might face the measures
implemented in their strive for nationhood by the Kurdish movement, will in fact act as a spider, and
according to its nature become more centralized and fight back according to this pattern, without
transcending it, confirming thus the principle also from this point of approach.

As thus, after analyzing the principles in relation to the Kurdish nationalist movement,
there are some assessments that may be made and that may be assimilated to conclusions, and these
consist more on the nature and on the manifestation of the movement and possibly on some predictions
for the future improvements and their effectiveness, should they be implemented.
Firstly, it is essential to keep in mind that the Kurdish movement, at its core, is not a
terrorist movement, but a pledge for self-determination and a national state, reason for which, when
applied to it, the theory of the Starfish and the Spider cannot absolutely superpose, leading either to
positive or negative conclusions. In our situation, the solution may only be a mixt one.
In addition to this, the form with which the Kurdish nationalist movement may be
assimilated to, in our opinion, may be, as it was stated before, “a quasi-spider with starfish tendencies”,
and this is due to the fact that any nationalist movement tends to the achievement of a perfect form, that
of a state, which is, to whatever an extent, a centralized entity, and thus a spider. As thus, it is necessary
and natural for the movement to function in accordance to its aspirations, moreover that this type of
structure would allow it to become more visible and thus, with the right charismatic leader in place,
more appealing, and thus able to attract more participation from the part of the civil society.
However, the fact that we have the transnational character of the movement, and that
there is one common goal to more factions scattered along more states, points to the “starfish
tendencies”, moreover that there is no centralization in decision making in where to head next in the
strive for self determination. This is also effective, from the point of view of the economy of the
movement, given that each faction present in each country where we have the Kurdish nationalist
movement, deals with the approach of this very country towards the Kurdish minority, approach that is
not common for all the four states that have an important historical Kurdish minority- some are more
harsh in their measures implemented against the Kurds, (Iran, Syria) some totally reject their existence
as a different group from the general population (Turkey), while some accept, due to their important
number, both their identity and right to some sort or autonomy, even if with restrictions (Iraq)
To conclude, it may be affirmed that the main reason for which the Kurdish nationalist
movement is not a decentralized and thus more effective movement is the fact that there is not a real
and mobilized civil support of the movement, its existence being perpetuated from immemorial times,
but having lost the mobilization prerogative, given yet again the immemorial opposition faced by the
Kurdish community as to the proclamation of their own nation state and thus own national existence.
Also, an important fact to be mentioned is that there is not an express need for the
movement to function as decentralized in order for it to be effective. All that is necessary is for the
popular support to exist, and for the movement to evolve according to modernity, fact that is, however,
difficult to achieve, given that the movement itself and the goals it has set seems to be depicted from a
history book, given that nowadays the status quo does not change as easy as it used to, during the
period of the World War, and given that the Kurds are one of the oldest nations to issue this claims on
proper grounds and yet remain not only refused, but also unheard.
It is therefore, an interesting inquiry to determine whether the Kurdish national
movement is a starfish or a spider, but in fact, the situation in between, that usually occurs in practice,
where there are no absolute models, is also a good answer since the purpose of the paper is the analysis
as for conclusions, and not a clear result and diagnostic.
However, just for a future assumption of the Kurdish situation, out of the inquiry
delivered in the present paper, it may be affirmed that the movement may evolve in either of the
following directions- either in a distant and rather uncertain, but yet not impossible future, it may
actually manage to obtain what it strives for, and thus renounce to the starfish tendencies and contend
itself with the spider existence of a state, or, in a different and possible, yet not to be desired nor
envisaged possibility, it might shift from the quasi spider and embrace the starfish tendencies and thus
become more decentralized, abide more to the enounced principles, and thus come closer to an unseen,
terrorist movement, unable to be fought off, but, on the other hand, also unable to turn the goal of the
movement into reality, but only be resigned with the idea of punishing the perpetrators that subdued it,
by becoming itself a perpetrator.

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edited by CHALIAND Gerard, Olive Branch Press, New York, 1993
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The Kurds: Nationalism and Politics, edited by JABAR Faleh A. and DAWOD Hosham,
SAQI, 2006
• BREIGER, Ronald L. The Duality of Persons and Groups. Social Forces, 53, 181–90.(1974)
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Middle East Studies, vol. 28, No.4, November 1996
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Nationalism and Separatism, 1971