Kurdish people

Missing image
Kurdish-inhabited areas of the Middle East and the Soviet Union in 1986.

Kurds are an Indo-Iranian, non-Arab population that inhabits the transnational region known as Kurdistan, a plateau and mountain area in Southwest Asia including parts of Iraq, Turkey, and Iran and smaller sections of Syria and Armenia. They speak Kurdish, an Indo European language of a similar lineage to that of Persian. They are widely thought to be descended of the Medes. Xenophon the ancient Greek historian recorded the Kurds in the Anabasis as "Khardukhi" a fierce and protective mountain dwelling peoples who attacked his armies in 400 BC. Although many Kurds live in modern-day Middle-Eastern countries, it is worthy to note that they differ from Arabs, Persians, Turks and others, both culturally and ethnically.

Comprising more than 30 million people, they are the world's largest ethnic group without its own state. For over a century, many Kurds have been campaigning (some through violence as well as political means) for the right to self-determination. The governments of those countries who have sizable Kurdish populations are actively opposed to the possibility of a Kurdish state, which would require them to give up parts of their own territories.



Before the Islamic conquerors in the 7th century, most Kurds believed in Zoroastrianism which is believed to be one of the oldest religions in the world. With unofficial estimates, today, 95% of Kurds are Muslims, and 75% are Sunni Muslims. They are the only large Sunni Muslim population in Iran. There are also Shia Muslims (10%) who primarily live in the Kermanshah and Ilam provinces of Iran. Alevi Muslims make up another 10% and are mainly found in Turkey. The remaining 5% are made up from Christians, Jews and Yezidis.

Some sources claim that in Iraq, there are more than 1 million Shia Kurds known as the "Fayli-Kurds". Their Kurdish identity is not as strong as other Kurds.

Yezidism is an ancient Kurdish religion. Their holy place lies in Iraqi Kurdistan in the village of Lalish north of Mosul. Most of the Yazidis live in Iraqi Kurdistan in the vicinity of the cities of Mosul, Sinjar, and Lalish. Large numbers of Yezidis are also found in Syria and Turkey. According to Yezidi sources, there are 800,000 Yezidis in the world.


Main article: Kurdish language

The Kurdish languages belong to the northwestern group of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European family; a close relative is Persian, which is in the southwestern group.

The Kurdish languages form a dialect continuum, with comprehensibility diminishing as the distance from one's native dialect increases. The principal Kurdish languages are:

Kurdish people in the past and today

In Iraq

Under the former Iraqi Ba'athist regime, which ruled Iraq from 1968 until 2003, Kurds were initially granted limited autonomy (1970), and after the Barzani revolt in 1961, given some high-level political representation in Baghdad. However, for various reasons, including the siding of some Kurds with Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the regime became opposed to the Kurds and an effective civil war broke out. Iraq was widely condemned, but not seriously punished, by the international community for using chemical weapons against the Kurds, which caused the death of thousands of Kurds.

Kurdish regions during the 1990s had de facto independence, with fully functioning civil administrations, and were protected by the US-enforced Iraqi no-fly zone which stopped Iraqi air raids. During the period of self-governance there were armed clashes between the three main political/military groups in the area, each claiming the title of Kurdistan's government, which undermined the effectiveness of the Kurds in their fighting with the Iraqis.

Following the unseating of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003, little is known as to how the 'Kurdistan' issue will be dealt with in the future. The American-sponsored idea of a Federal Republic, with a relatively high level of autonomy for the Kurds, currently appears to be the most popular. Steps towards greater autonomy were encouraged when the Iraqi president was elected in 2005. President Dr. Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is one of the longest serving Kurdish Iraqi politicians but has currently distanced himself from the movement for Kurdish independence, pledging to support Iraqi federalism at least for the time being.

In Turkey

Teaching in Kurdish and the publication of both printed and audio-visual media is allowed, after having been forbidden for more than 80 years, although it is still very restricted. Kurds are forbidden the right to have public education in their mother tongue and whilst private courses are available, they are very expensive and forbidden to children under the age of 12.

No political speeches can be made in the Kurdish language. Recent reforms promised limited broadcasting in Kurdish. However, Kurdish schools and television stations are frequently harassed by the authorities over technical reasons. Kurds, if they renounce their nationality and describe themselves as Turks, may take their place in any part of Turkish life including the National Assembly. However, if Kurds describe themselves explicitly as Kurdish in regard to their nationality or ethnicity, they are not allowed to participate in any legal process.

Torture and ill-treatments of Kurdish civilians have been one of the ways the Turkish government has dealt with civilians since the beginning of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict in the south east. Show trials often are used to implement these policies. Although prime minister Erdogan of Turkey now claims a "zero tolerance policy on torture", in reality this is still not the case [1] (http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news/press/16060.shtml) according to Amnesty International.

Hundreds of thousands of people were driven away from Turkish south-eastern region (sometimes referred to as Kurdistan) under the Turkish government policy of burning villages. This was often accompanied by massive human rights abuses by the Turkish army, recorded by various human rights organizations. The official number for Kurdish internally displaced persons is 353,000 people. Human rights organizations and various NGOs estimate the real number is between 1 and 4.5 million.

In Iran

Although intense fighting occurred between Kurds and the Iranian state between 1979 and 1982, since 1983 the Iranian government has had control over the area which the Kurds inhabit. This area encompasses West Azarbaijan, Kordestan, Bakhtaran, Ilam and parts of Lorestan.

In Iran, Kurds, like other minorities can express their cultural identity freely, they are however denied the right of self-government or administration. Membership of any Kurdish nationalist party is an offense punishable by death.

Kurdish human rights activists in Iran have been threatened by Iranian authorities in connection with their work. [2] (http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGMDE130102005?open&of=ENG-370)

In Syria

Kurdish human rights activists are under threat from torture, ill-treatment and unfair trial and imprisonment. [3] (http://web.amnesty.org/pages/syr-100305-action-eng)

In Armenia

In the Soviet Union, from the 1930s to 1980s, the Kurds were a protected minority under Soviet Law. They had their own state sponsored newspaper, radio broadcast and cultural events.

During the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, many Kurds were forced to leave their homes.

Timeline of modern Kurdish history

1920: Treaty of Svres determines borders the territory of Kurdistan

1921: Boundaries of the modern Iraq overlaps the territory of Kurdistan, which had been determined by the Treaty of Svres.

1923: Boundaries of the modern Turkey determined by the Treaty of Lausanne overlaps the territory of Kurdistan, which had been determined by the Treaty of Svres.

1922 to 1958: The Iraqi Kurds live under the Iraqi Kingdom.

1925: The first kurdish revolt in Turkey, led by Sheikh Sayid, is violently crushed by Atatrk's armies.

1930: The Dersim revolt is crushed in a similar way.

1937: The Ararat revolt is crushed.

1946: A defacto Kurdish republic is set up with Soviet assistance in Iranian Kurdistan. After Soviet and Allied forces leave Iran, the Shah destroyed the republic, hanging their leaders.

1958: Abdel Kareem Qasem becomes President of Iraq; Iraq's new constitution declares 2 major ethnic groups in Iraq: Arabs and Kurds. The President invites Mustafa Barzani from the Soviet Union to Iraq for discussions about Kurds.

1961: Failed negotiations between the government and Kurds ignites the September 11 revolt of Barzani. Fighting continues until 1970.

1970: The March 11 autonomy agreement reached by both sides (the Baath party is now in power).

1974: Relations break up again about economic issues. Fighting erupts again. Governments bombs Kurdish towns such as Qela Dize where over 250 people die, half of which are children.

1975: The Algiers agreement declares an end to the Kurdish revolt and Iran discontinues its support of Iraqi Kurds. Kurdish uprising disbanded. Barzani flees to the United States.

1975 to 1980: The son of Mustafa, Masoud Barzani, encourages a new uprising against the government.


  • The Islamic Revolution in Iran gives the Kurds an opportunity to receive some autonomy. They failed.
  • The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) is created.


  • PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan flees to Syria and trains his armed supporters in several places including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and possibly Iran.
  • The Iran-Iraq war affects Kurds in both countries. Support to either government by Kurds could cause repercussions for Kurds in the other country. Both governments send Kurds to the frontlines. More than 1 million die on both sides.

1984: PKK guerillas launch their first attacks on Turkish targets in Turkey and abroad.

1988: The genocidal Anfal-campaign is being carried out by the Iraqi government to "decrease" the Kurds. Some 4500 villages are completely destroyed and 182,000 Kurds are relocated to unknown destinations in this year alone.

1988: The Halabja-disaster on the 16th of March with intensive aerial chemical bombing such as Nerve gas, VX and Mustard gas kills more than 5000 Kurds and wounds an estimated 12,000.

1990's: The massive PKK uprising propels Turkey into a state of civil war. Attacking the KDP in Iraq in order to control another part of Kurdistan. Turkey repels PKK guerillas and pursues them in Iraq.

1991: A popular uprising by the Kurds ignites after the Iraqi defeat of the Persian Gulf war. The uprising is initially successful, but government forces crack down, causing more than 2 million Kurds to flee to Turkey and Iran. Thousands die of starvation, cold and hunger.

1991: The Kurdish language is no more prohibited in Turkey after more than 70 years of discrimination.

1992: After the setup of the no-fly zones in the North and South to protect the civil Iraqi population, the Allied forces make a security zone in the north of Iraq so that the refugees could return back. After that, the Kurds seize their area, set up an own government, start their own elections and draw autonomy borders.

1992 to 2003: The Kurds enjoy self-rule but heavy fighting erupts between the two main Kurdish factions. The KDP and the PUK almost commit political suicide in fighting in 1994, 1996 and 1997. In 1999 the two parties agree to a cease-fire.

1998: PKK leader flees from Syria to Russia after threats from Turkey against Syria.

1999: After spending months in Russia, Italy, and Kenya, Abdullah calan is arrested by Turkish special forces in the Greek embassy in Nairobi, Kenya and is brought to Turkey for trial.

2002: PKK changes its name to KADEK in an effort to remove the terrorist connotations of the name PKK.


2004: In Syrian-Kurdistan, violence broke out between Arab supporters and Kurds at a soccer match. Syria accused of killing as much as 40 Kurds causing the Kurdish population in Syria to rise up in the days of aftermath. Thousands are arrested and some are beaten to death in prisons.

2004: KADEK changes its name to KONGRA-GEL.


  • Iraqi transitional assembly and Kurdistan national assembly elections held. Jalal Talabani, secretary-general of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is elected as President of Iraq. Kurds receive more than a quarter of the votes.
Declaration by Abdullah calan of Democratic Confederalism.
  • KONGRA-GEL changes its name to the historic PKK.



The exact number of Kurdish people living in the Middle East, is unknown due to both an absence of a recent census on this issue and the reluctance of the various governments in Kurdish inhabited regions to give accurate figures. The fact that some Kurds have mixed with other local ethnic groups, has also contributed to the uncertainty.

Unofficial estimate of the number of Kurdish people in the 21st century by country.

Turkey 15,000,000 20,000,000
Iran 8,000,000 9,000,000
Iraq 5,000,000 6,000,000
Syria 1,500,000 2,000,000
Lebanon ~150,000
Germany 500,000 600,000
France 100.000 120.000
Netherlands 70.000 80.000
Switzerland 60.000 70.000
Belgium 50.000 60.000
Austria 50.000 60.000
Sweden 25.000 30.000
United Kingdom 20.000 25.000
Greece 20.000 25.000
United States 15.000 20.000
Denmark 8.000 10.000
Canada 6.000 7.000
Norway 4.000 5.000
Finland 4.800
Italy 3.000 4.000
Elsewhere in Europe and 
other western countries
1,150,000 ~1,300,000
Armenia, Georgia,
Azerbaijan, Russia,
Uzbekistan, Tajikistan,
Turkmenistan and other.
500,000 1,000,000
TOTAL 27,650,000 39,650,000

If accurate, comprising 26,650,000 - 36,650,000 people, the Kurds could be the largest ethnic group without its own state.

See also

External links

Kurdish organisations

Militant and has been involved in armed warfare actions

The Kurdish Issue in Turkey

de:Kurden fa:کرد fi:Kurdit fr:Kurdes he:כורדים ja:クルド人 ka:ქურთები ku:Kurd nl:Koerden pl:Kurdowie pt:Curdo sl:Kurdi


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