US President Donald Trump ignited a Twitter storm Wednesday after calling a Kurdish journalist "Mr. Kurd" at a news conference following the United Nations General Assembly meeting. Rahim Rashidi, the journalist, said afterward he was "very proud" and thanks Trump for "recognizing Kurdistan's contribution in the fight against ISIS."
Trump's comments came during a long press conference, in which two Kurdish journalists asked him about US support for Kurds in the Middle East. Emmy-nominated Kurdish journalist and New York bureau chief for Rudaw Media Network, Majeed Gly, told the president that Kurds were under a lot of pressure this year in Syria and Iraq.
"What will you do to elevate their position and support them," he asked. Trump said that "we defeated ISIS... with a lot of support from the Kurds." He said Kurds were great fighters and "great people" and said that the US administration was discussing what to do next.
In the exchange with Rashidi, Trump said "yes, please, Mr. Kurd," when calling on the journalist.
"What will be the US relations with the Kurds post-ISIS?" asked Rashidi.
"We are trying to help them a lot," Trump said. "It is their territory. They fought with us, they died with us, tens of thousands of Kurds died fighting ISIS. They died for us and with us and for themselves. They are great people, and we don't forget. I don't forget. I don't forget."
In the US the comment was initially greeted incredulously.
"I promised myself I wouldn't live tweet Trump's press conference but he just called this guy 'Mr. Kurd' and wow," tweeted Brian Ries of CNN.
"Amazing," wrote Wajahat Ali, a New York Times contributing op-ed writer.
But many Kurds greeted the hashtag #MrKurd with pride. Namo Abdulla wrote, "There is an outcry on social media as if Trump was being disrespectful. He was not! I am Kurdish and Mr. Kurd is my colleague [at Rudaw]. Kurdishness is an identity most Kurds are openly proud of."
Both the Kurdish journalists who had asked Trump questions said they were not offended either. Gly wrote that he was "proud to be a Kurd. I actually take it as a compliment if you call me Mr. Kurd."
Most of those who were dumbfounded by the comment or offended were non-Kurdish.
"It's a hell we're all living in," one woman tweeted in response to the comment.
"Yet another performance that left me stunned," a commenter responded.
Kurds tried to explain why they saw it as a positive. "Thanks for the concern," wrote Sara Roza. "The solid truth is that our neighboring countries (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria) consider us (by force, torture, exiling and discrimination) as Persians, Turks or Arabs. But now being called Mr. Kurd doesn't really sound entirely uncool."
Another Kurdish twitter user noted that Turkey had historically discriminated against the Kurdish language. "For those of you who think we Kurds take this as an insult, you should know we have been denied our race, culture, language, land and identity by Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, so please understand we take this as a compliment," wrote a man named Kawa in response.
The Kurdish responses refer to the fact that in Iraq, Kurds faced genocide under Saddam Hussein and thousands of their villages were destroyed, in Turkey the government refused to acknowledge that Kurds existed, referring to them as "mountain Turks" until 1991.
In Syria, many Kurds were denied citizenship and the Arab nationalist government under the Assad regime tried to erase Kurds by replacing business and place names, according to Human Rights Watch. The regime refused to even register children with Kurdish names.
Kurds watched for years as US administrations worked closely with Turkey and Iraq, and even sought to patch up relations with Syria from time to time. All the while the Kurdish suffered extreme oppression.
Today, the situation has reversed itself with Kurds in Iraq running an autonomous region, and Kurds in Syria playing a key role fighting ISIS. In Turkey, in the last decade and a half the previous attempts to not mention the Kurdish minority has changed. But Kurds fear that the US will walk away from eastern Syria and they will be at the mercy of the Assad regime again.
In Iraq, Kurds felt betrayed last year when the US condemned the independence referendum and appeared to support Baghdad sending its US-trained army into the disputed city of Kirkuk. Many questioned whether the US was only working with Kurds to fight ISIS and would then abandon them to the growing power of Iran and other enemies.
The questions at Trump's press conference sought answers. Trump's response, recognizing Kurdish sacrifices were welcomed, but his lack of specifics likely leave many wondering how he intends to stick by his allies in the region.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.