Kurdish-inhabited area by CIA (1992).
|Location||Western and Northwestern Iranian Plateau: Upper Mesopotamia, Zagros, Southeastern Anatolia, including parts of northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey|
|Area (Est.)||190,000 km²–390,000 km²
74,000 sq.mi–151,000 sq.mi
|Population||35 to 40 Million (Kurdish Population) (Est.)|
Kurdish nationalism is the political movement that holds that the Kurdish people are a nation deserving of a sovereign homeland, Kurdistan, partitioned out of the territories where Kurdish people form a majority. Currently, these territories lie in northern Iraq (including, but not limited to, Iraqi Kurdistan), northwestern Iran (Iranian Kurdistan), southeastern Turkey (Turkish Kurdistan), and small parts of northern and northeastern Syria (Syrian Kurdistan).
Early Kurdish Nationalism has its roots in the days of the Ottoman Empire, within which it became a significant ethnic group. With the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish-majority territories were divided between the newly formed states of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, making Kurds a significant ethnic minority in each state. Kurdish nationalist movements have long been suppressed by Turkey, Iran and the Arab-majority states of Iraq and Syria, all of whom fear loss of territory to a potential, independent Kurdistan. Since the 1970s, Iraqi Kurds have pursued the goal of greater autonomy and even outright independence against the Baath Party regimes, which responded with brutal repression. In the 1980s, an armed insurgency led by the Patriotic Front of Kurdistan challenged the Turkish state, which responded with martial law. After the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi Kurds were protected against the armies of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by NATO-enforced no fly zones, allowing them considerable autonomy and self-government without the control of the Iraqi central government. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurdistan became an autonomous region, enjoying a great measure of self-governance but stopping short of full independence.
The Kurdish nationalist struggle first emerged in the late 19th century when a unified movement demanded the establishment of a Kurdish state. Revolts did occur sporadically but only decades after the Ottoman centralist policies of the 19th century began did the first modern Kurdish nationalist movement emerge with uprising led by a Kurdish landowner and head of the powerful Shemdinan family, Sheik Ubeydullah. In 1880, Ubeydullah, demanded political autonomy or outright independence for Kurds and the recognition of a Kurdistan state without interference from Turkish or Persian authorities. The uprising against Qajar Persia and the Ottoman Empire was ultimately suppressed by the Ottomans and Ubeydullah, along with other notables, were exiled to Istanbul. The Kurdish nationalist movement that emerged following World War I and end of the Ottoman empire was largely reactionary to the changes taking place in mainstream Turkey, primarily radical secularization which the strongly Muslim Kurds abhorred, centralization of authority which threatened the power of local chieftains and Kurdish autonomy, and rampant Turk ethnonationalism in the new Turkish Republic which obviously threatened to marginalize them. Western powers (particularly the United Kingdom) fighting the Turks also promised the Kurds they would act as guarantors for Kurdish freedom, a promise they subsequently broke. One particular organization, the Kürdistan Teali Cemiyeti (Society for the Advancement of Kurdistan, or SAK) was central to the forging of a distinct Kurdish identity. It took advantage of period of political liberalization in during the Second Constitutional Era (1908–1920) of Turkey to transform a renewed interest in Kurdish culture and language into a political nationalist movement based on ethnicity. This emphasis on Kurds as a distinct ethnicity was encouraged by around the start of the 20th century Russian anthropologists who suggested that the Kurds were a European race (compared to the Asiatic Turks) based on physical characteristics and their language which is part of the Indo-European language group. While these researchers had ulterior political motives (to sow dissent in the Ottoman Empire) their findings were embraced and still accepted today by many. During the relatively open government of the 1950s, Kurds gained political office and started working within the framework of the Turkish Republic to further their interests but this move towards integration was halted with the 1960 Turkish coup d'état. The 1970s saw an evolution in Kurdish nationalism as Marxist political thought influenced a new generation of Kurdish nationalists opposed to the local feudal authorities who had been a traditional source of opposition to authority, eventually they would form the militant separatist Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK), or Kurdistan Workers Party in English.
Under the millet system, Kurds' primary form of identification was religious with Sunni Islam being the top in the hierarchy (millet-i hakimiye). While the Ottoman empire embarked on a modernization and centralization campaign known as the Tanzimat (1829–1879), Kurdish regions retained much of their autonomy and tribal chiefs their power . The Sublime Porte made little attempt to alter the traditional power structure of “segmented, agrarian Kurdish societies” – agha, sheikh, and tribal chief. Because of the Kurds' geographical position at the southern and eastern fringe of the empire and the mountainous topography of their territory, in addition to the limited transportation and communication system, agents of the state had little access to Kurdish provinces and were forced to make informal agreements with tribal chiefs. This bolstered the Kurds' authority and autonomy; for instance, the Ottoman qadi and mufti as a result did not have jurisdiction over religious law in most Kurd regions. In 1908, the Young Turks come to power asserting a radical form of Turkish ethnic identity and closed Ottoman associations and non-Turkish schools. They launched a campaign of political oppression and resettlement against ethnic minorities – Kurds, Laz people, and Armenians, but in the wartime context they could not afford to antagonize ethnic minorities too much. At the end of World War I, Kurds still had the legal right to conduct their affairs in Kurdish, celebrate unique traditions, and identify themselves as a distinct ethnic group. The Treaty of Sèvres signed in 1920 “suggested” an independent Kurdish and Armenian state but after the establishment of the Turkish Republic by a Turk ethnonationalist government which balked at the treaty, the 1923 Lausanne Treaty was signed which made no mention of the Kurds. The once politically unified Ottoman Kurdistan was then divided into the different administrative and political systems in Iraq, Turkey and Syria.
By the enforcement of laws such as Article 57 of the Turkish Constitution of 1982 which outlaws “any activity harmful to national unity and territorial integrity of the Turkish Republic”, Kurdish civic rights can be constrained within the context of a Constitution guaranteeing equality without acknowledging them as a distinct group. Equal citizenship rights were enshrined in Turkey’s 1920 Provisional Constitution. Article 8 asserted that the country was composed of both Turks and Kurds but under the law they would treated as common citizens. However, the 1923 formation of the Republic of Turkey marked the beginning of continuing period of reduced civic rights for Kurds. The Caliphate was abolished a year later as well as all public expressions and institutions of Kurdish identity. Kurdish madrassas, newspapers, religious fraternal organizations, and associations were shut down.
To give an example of the early republican government's attitude towards the citizenship rights of Kurds, Law No. 1850 was introduced after popular revolts, giving after-the-fact legal sanction to civilians and military personnel who killed Kurds during the revolt.
Kurdish regions were placed under martial law and the use of the Kurdish language, dress, folklore, and names prohibited.
Civic rights were temporarily improved with the Turkish Constitution of 1961 which allowed freedom of expression, the press, and association for Kurds. The 1964 Political Parties Act criminalized Kurdish political parties and the acknowledgment of the existence of different languages and races in Turkey. The 1972 Law of Association further restricted rights to association and political organization.
In 1991, Law 2932 was repealed and the Kurdish language was allowed for informal speech and music but not for political or education purposes or in the mass media. The same year a new Anti-Terror bill was passed which defined terrorism as “any kind of action with the aim of changing characteristics of the Republic” essentially criminalizing Kurdish political activism and many basic forms of expression. In 2004 laws were further liberalized allowing Kurdish-language broadcasts and other restrictions, including the giving of Kurdish names to infants have been removed.
British Mandate after Post-World War I
Post-World War I Iraq came under a British Mandate. To avoid unrest, the British granted the northern Kurdish region considerable autonomy and recognized their nationalist claims. They even tried to institutionalize Kurdish ethnic identity in the 1921 Provisional Iraqi Constitution which stated that Iraq was composed of two ethnic groups with equal rights, Arabs and Kurds, and enshrined the equal legal status of the Kurdish language with Arabic. The mandate government even divided the country into two separate regions, one Arab, one Kurdish in administrative policy and practice. Two policies emerged regarding Kurds in Iraq: one for non-tribal urban dwellers and one for rural tribal population meant to discourage urban migration. The government institutionalized advantages for rural Kurds – tribes had special legal jurisdiction, tax benefits, and informally guaranteed seats in parliament. In addition they were exempt from two of the strongest facets of the modern state; they had their own schools and were outside the jurisdiction of national courts. This privileged position lasted into the 1950s. Kurdish rights were further entrenched in 1932 by the Local Languages Law, a condition of the League of Nations (undoubtedly under British influence) being that to join, Iraq had to enact constitutional protection for the Kurds. Political rights were fairly open in the interwar years as continued British internal interference and a series of weak government prevented any one movement from dominating national politics prevented the creation of a formal exclusionary citizenship. However, later the central governments nation-building strategy centered around a secular conception of national identity based upon a sentiment of Iraqi unity (al-wadha al-iraqiyya) with the government dominated by Sunni Arabists. Within this new framework, as non-Arabs, the Kurds would experience unwelcome changes in status.
Post-World War II
The 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s demonstrated a pattern. The new Arabist leader would assert his belief in the Kurds as distinct and equal ethnic group in Iraq with political rights. For instance the Constitution of 1960 claims “Kurds and Arabs are partners within this nation. The Constitution guarantees their rights within the framework of the Iraqi republic”. Once successful at consolidating their power they would repress Kurdish political rights, militarize Kurdish regions, ban nationalist political parties, destroy Kurdish villages, and forcibly impose resettlement (especially in petroleum-rich areas). As a result, from late 1961 onwards there was near constant strife in Iraqi Kurdistan. A major development was made when the Iraqi government and Kurdish leaders signed the 1970 Peace Agreement. It promised Kurdish self-rule, recognition of the bi-national character of Iraq, political representation in the central government, extensive official language rights, the freedom of association and organization, and several other concessions aimed at restoring full civic rights to the Kurdish population. It was to come into effect within four years. In 1974 the weaker Law of Autonomy in the Area of Kurdistan was actually implemented with much weaker citizenship protections and conflict soon resumed. The 1980s, especially during the Iran-Iraq war, were a particular low point for Kurdish rights within Iraq. Approximately 500,000 Kurdish civilians were sent to detention camps in southern and eastern Iraq and the Iraqi armed forces razed villages and hamlets in and near the battle area. It is also this time that the Iraqi military infamously used chemical weapons on Kurdish towns.
After the Gulf War an autonomous “safe haven” was established in Northern Iraq under UN with USAF and RAF air protection. Under the democratically elected Kurdish Regional Government, citizens experienced civic rights never previously enjoyed. Student unions, NGOs, and women's organizations emerged as forces in a new civic society and institutionalized tolerance for the region’s own ethnic, religious, and language minorities, e.g. the Iraqi Turkmen. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the downfall of Saddam Hussein, the Kurdish population has found itself drawn back into Iraq with promises of autonomy and citizenship based on a federal, ethnically inclusive model with strong minority rights and guarantees against discrimination. The new Iraqi Constitution drafted in 2005 establishes Kurdish as an official language alongside Arabic, acknowledges the national rights of the Kurdish people, and contains the usual promises about absolute equality of citizens regardless of race, religion, gender, etc. How effective this constitution will be in safeguarding the equal citizenship of the Kurdish population is unclear in the current unstable domestic situation.
Under the French Mandate of Syria, the Kurds enjoyed considerable rights as the French mandate authority encourage minority independence movements as part of a divide and rule strategy and recruited a large Kurdish segment for its local armed forces. The repression of Kurdish civic rights escalated with the short-lived unification of Syria and Egypt as the United Arab Republic in 1958, partly in response to more vocal Kurdish demands for democracy, recognition as an ethnic group, and complaints that the state police and military academies were closed to Kurds. 120 000 Kurds (40% of the Syrian Kurd population) were stripped of their citizenship in the 1962 Census when the government claimed they were in fact Turks and Iraqis illegally residing in the country. Stripped of their nationality however, these now stateless Kurds still found themselves subject to its obligations through conscription in the military. The Kurdish language and cultural expressions were banned, a state that continues today. In 1962 the Government announced its “Arab Belt” plan (later renamed “plan for establishment of model state farms”) which would have forcibly expelled the Kurdish population from a 350 km long, 10 to 15 km deep strip of land along Syria’s northeast border and replaced them with Arab settlers but was never fully implemented. There was no change in policy under the new Ba’athist regime post-1963. It refused to implement its program of land reforms that was benefiting Arab peasants where Kurds would predominantly benefit until 1971. From the 1970s on there was relaxation of official treatment of Kurds but the late 1980s saw renewed widespread denial of Syrian citizenship status to domestic Kurds especially in refusing national identity documents such as passports.
Many Kurds consider the Kurdish-majority regions of northern and northeastern Syria to be 'Western Kurdistan' (Kurdish: Kurdên rojava) and seek political autonomy within Syria (akin to Iraqi Kurdistan in Iraq) or outright independence as part of Kurdistan.
The similarity between Kurdish and Persian language and culture compared to the Turks and Arabs, and the more equal population balance between the ethnic majority Persians and ethnic minorities like the Kurds has resulted in a somewhat different citizenship experience for Iranian Kurds, as such most seek autonomy rather than independence.
Under the Qajar Empire
Iranian group identification and social order was based on religious identification with Islam, specifically Shia Islam, dominant. While the majority of Kurds are Sunni, in Iran they were roughly evenly split between Sunnis, Shias, and Shia splinter groups like the Sufis. Because of this preoccupation with religion over ethnicity, in practice Kurds were treated as part of the majority and enjoyed extensive citizenship rights. Unlike the Ottoman Empire, this social order was maintained while the imperial system declined and modern Iranian identity was forged by a reform movement in the late 19th century to the benefit of Kurds.
Under this regime Sunni and Shia Kurds held a privileged position as Muslims. Unlike the other minorities, Christian Armenians, Jews, Zorastrians and others, they had the right to work in food production and buy crown land. They also benefited from the tuyal land tenure system which favoured Muslims. This advantage allowed Kurds to establish strong control over food production and land. The notable absence of ethnic restrictions on holding government office allowed Kurdish tribal leaders and notables to purchase office and establish a strong Kurdish presence in Iranian politics without having to culturally assimilate or deny ethnicity. This political presence was bolstered because the Qajars appointed many tribal chiefs to government positions in exchange for internal security assurances. Within this system many Kurds reached prominent military, political, and diplomatic positions. Exceptional in Iran during the 19th century and early 20th was that the nationalist reform movement did not develop a radical, exclusionary, ethnic based conception of nationality but developed an Iranian identity that did not define itself as ethnically Persian.
The existing beneficial social framework changed with the establishment of a constitutional monarchy by Reza Shah in 1925. Similar to other states, he tried to nation-build by creating an exclusionary nationality based on a secular, ethnically Persian Iranian identity and repress the cultural expressions and equal status of ethnic minorities. These minorities, including the Kurds were coerced into accepting Persian culture and many were arrested for speaking the Kurdish language. However, Kurds were afforded a special position in the official state ethnic-based nationalism because of their cultural similarity to the Persians and their non-Arab ethnicity. Also, the distribution of seats in the Majlis (parliament) was based on religion not ethnicity, the Kurds were able to exercise greater political power than non-Muslim minorities like the Armenians and Jews. The state’s system of military conscription and centralized education served to integrate urban Kurdish populations but the majority remained rural. After World War II with the Soviet withdrawal from Kurdish regions (where they had encouraged autonomous Kurdish government as the Mahabad Republic), the Shah banned some Kurdish political parties, expressions of cultural identity ended the open political party system and ruled by firman. In 1958 there was a marked liberalization which allowed the activities of Kurdish cultural organizations and student associations but still limited political parties. Unlike other countries the Kurds were free to publish cultural and historical information in their own language. However, with massive investment and military aid from the western world, in the 1950s and 1960s Iran became a police state which clamped down on all people’s civil rights.
After the Iranian Revolution, some Kurdish groups (chiefly the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan) allied with Iranian leftist and communist groups against Ayatollah Khomeini's government. The Kurdish rebellion for autonomy in 1979 was forcibly suppressed by Tehran, with thousands of Kurdish rebels and civilians killed as a result.
The new theocratic government developed a new exclusionary conception of nationalism based on very conservative Shia Islam. Once Khomeini consolidated power he expelled Sunni Kurds from government office, placed restrictions on freedom of expression, and militarized Kurdish regions as part of the war with Iraq. Still compared to other countries Kurds were still allowed limited publications, to celebrate holidays, wear traditional dress, and use Kurdish (except as a language of instruction). Significant improvements were made in 1997 whereby the government allowed a profusion of Kurdish language in media, although some of these publications were later restricted.
The Iranian government has been facing a low-level guerrilla warfare against the ethnic secessionist Kurdish guerrilla group Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) since 2004. PJAK is closely affiliated with the Kurdish militant group Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) operating against Turkey.
- Turkey: 10–20 million Kurds live in Turkey. 
- Iran: 6–9 million Kurds live in Iran. 
- Iraq: 5–6 million Kurds live in Iraq. 
- Syria: 1–2 million Kurds live in Syria. 
- History of the Kurdish people
- Kurdish Human Rights Project
- Rise of nationalism under the Ottoman Empire
- Kurds in Turkey
- Iraqi Kurdistan
- Iranian Kurdistan
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