Perhaps the Muslim world is too distracted by the refugee crisis in West of Syrians and in the east of the Rohingya to much note two major developments, the permission given to women to drive in Saudi Arabia and the referendum on statehood in Kurdish Iraq. However, while such distraction might be understandable, it cannot be gainsaid that these two events mark, admittedly in different ways, new beginnings. Both also represent a kind of adaption to Western civilisation that reflect Western concerns. However, both also obviously contain in themselves the seeds of question that might undermine earlier adaptions, and thus neither can be ignored.

The permission to drive in Saudi Arabia owes much to a feminist critique of the Kingdom and of the Wahhabi brand of Islam it follows. However, the overturning of the ban, while meant to burnish the image of the new Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, raises questions of the mechanism through which it was imposed and removed. The removal of the ban by a royal decree confirmed to the compact on which the Saudi state is based, between the executive and religious authorities. If the ban was imposed on correct religious grounds, those grounds continue to exist, and thus the commandment from the Almighty stands. If the grounds were incorrect, there is no recompense for the long period in which an incorrect prohibition was enforced. Of course, if the monarch becomes convinced that the Almighty’s commandment was, in fact, other than that which was enforced, he would have to change it, but there is no provision for that process to be made transparent. For example, either King Salman himself should be a scholar himself who could derive such a law from the sources, or he should have had some interaction with such a scholar or scholars. He is not such a scholar, and any interactions are unknown.

It seems that the decision is as opaque as anything else the regime does, reflecting how it has ruled ever since it took over from the Ottoman Caliphate after its defeat in World War I. Though it was not included in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Saudi dynasty is as much a product of that agreement between France and the UK on how the Middle East was to be parceled out after the War as any of the new states that were called into being. One of the states which was not, was a homeland for the Kurds. Perhaps one of the reasons was that the Kurds were divided between the Ottomans and Persia.

The break-up of the Ottoman Caliphate led to a further division of the Kurds. Turkey retained a large number, while the new states of Iraq and Syria also gained shares. Though the recent referendum only affected Iraq, Syria and Turkey have also shown a keen interest, because a Kurdish state carved out of Iraq would provide not just an example, but also a base camp, the Kurds of Turkey and Syria.

This does not yet factor in about how Iraq would feel about being partitioned. It would be seen as a prelude to the portioning of a rump Iraq between Sunnis and Shia. Is it entirely a coincidence that the USA had first conquered Iraq, wresting it from Saddam Hussain, and was preparing for a partitioning in which oil-rich areas would partially constitute a Kurdish state. Indeed, it is that oil wealth which would allow a Kurdish state to survive. Even though the Shia government of Iraq would be greatly unwilling to give up territory, a Kurdish state would actually mean that there would be less Sunnis in Iraq.

The USA is in a bind because of this, though not necessarily a big one. It is not committed to a Kurdish state, though it would not be unsympathetic to one being formed. After all, it has used the Kurdish Peshmerga as ground troops in its fight against the Islamic State. It should be noted that the Peshmerga have origins in the YKK of Masoud Barzani, who showed that his communism was essentially tactical by jumping into bed with the USA. Barzani shows why Turkey is unhappy with the alliance between the USA and the Peshmerga. Turkey contains a substantial Kurdish minority (17 percent of the population, almost the saqme as the 18 percent of the Iraqi population), though in the post-Caliphate narrative, they were designated ‘mountain Turks’ until 1991. Under President Recep Tayip Erdogan, there has been some easing of the more intrusive restrictions (such as one the use of the Kurdish language in schools), but Kurds still oppose him as well as the CHP, which they see as right-wing and Kemalist. Kurds support the HDP, which has emerged as the second-largest party in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly because of the solid Kurd support. Turkish Kurds would see a Kurdish state carved out of Iraq as an incentive.

It seems to be a time of referenda. Just as the Kurdish referendum is opposed by the Iraqi state, so was the Catalan referendum by the Spanish, with both yielding 90+ percent ‘yes’ votes. However, unlike the Kurdish referendum, that in Catalonia covered the entire proposed national territory. Catalonia was opposed violently to the Royalist Franco during the Civil War in the 1930s, and was the centre of not just the left, but of anarcho-syndicalism, which looks down on communists (like the Kurd Barzani) as reactionaries. Catalan separatism is rooted in the Spanish Reconquista, that centuries-long process by which the Muslim conquest of Spain, and their presence there, was rolled back. Two Catholic kingdoms which survived, were Castile and Aragon, the latter being the ancestor of Cataloonia. The removal of Muslim political power, symbolised by the fall of Granada in 1492, was accomplished by these two kingdoms united, a unity achieved by the marriage of Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. Their marriage, plus the Reconquista, created modern Spain. True, the referendum yielded a ‘No’ vote, but the strength of the ‘Yes’ vote indicates that Spain is in danger.

While Catalonia has historical origins, a Kurdish state does not. Even the heritage of the most famous Kurd of them all, Saluddin Ayubi, is claimed by Iraq, which has named one of its provinces after him. It was carved out of the Baghdad province in 1976 and includes his birthplace of Tikrit, which he shared with Saddam Hussain. Salahuddin was certainly Kurdish, but he was not a son of the soil as his father was. It was not as a Kurd that he liberated Jerusalem, but as the ruler of Egypt, and though he spent his life surrounded by fellow Kurd soldiers, he was larger than his nation. The nationalism which is invoked by both Kurds and Catalans is anyhow a 19th-century construct, and out of sync with Muslim orthodoxy.

However, that orthodoxy has not completely dealt with the impact of colonialism on Muslim societies. The overturned driving ban in Saudi Arabia may not seem as momentous as the creation of a new nation, but it should not be forgotten that it matters more for the women who will now drive for the first time in Saudi Arabia. However, it should not be forgotten that the man-woman divide postulated in feminism does not make any sense in Islamic discourse, any more than the nationalism which is bringing a Kurdish state into existence. In that respect, in that both developments reflect a variation on the narrative of victimhood that Muslims are more used to, they represent a window on the more nuanced existence of Muslims today.

The permission to drive in Saudi Arabia owes much to a feminist critique of the Kingdom and of the Wahhabi brand of Islam it follows.