Who are the Kurds?

Audio 15:34
Kurds gather to defend the yes vote in the referendum
Kurds gather to defend the yes vote in the referendum Reuters/Azad Lashkari

Iraq’s Kurds have been making international headlines since September after forging ahead with their independence referendum, despite regional and international warnings. They are the only one of the Middle East's Kurdish communities to have their own regional government. The other notable communities are in Turkey, Iran and Syria. So who are the Kurds?

  • Origins

“They are a separate ethnic group, living in the Middle East where Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq meet. They have been there as long as we know,” says Michael Gunter, a professor at the Tennessee Technological University, who has been researching and writing about the Kurds for over 30 years.

And as Gérard Gauthier, an anthropologist and researcher at the Kurdish Institute of Paris, adds ”You also have Kurds in the former Soviet Union [….] There have been Kurds in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Georgia, you even have Kurds, I suspect, in China as well. So they are present in a lot of places. But basically the heart of their area is the Middle East.”

While an actual Kurdish state is harder to trace in history, the fact remains that the Kurdish people have been in the Middle East region since as far back as 400BC.

  • Contact with ancient Greece

In fact, an ancient Greek general by the name of Xenophon details this in his work, Anabasis (The March Up Country).

“Xenophon was the head of a troop of 10,000 Greek mercenaries and they were working for a Persian king," explains Gauthier. "And they were defeated and they had to leave Tsifphon, which is near Baghdad, at the time and had to walk all the way back to Greece. At one point they found a tribe of mountain people who blocked their passage, and those people described themselves as Kardokhoy.”

It's hard to verify 100 percent if the Kurds were in fact this Kardokhoy or Karochi group and another theory states they are descendants of the Medes, an ancient people who lived in the north-west of what is now Iran.

“The Kurds themselves claim to be the descendants of the Medes," adds Gunter. "The Medes were an Assyrian empire in 612BC. But we're not absolutely sure of that. The origins of the Kurds are lost in history. But they certainly have been there for a long time."

  • Tribal allegiances

The Kurds speak a language that is similar to Persian but unrelated to Arabic or Turkish. In fact, Gunter points out that the Kurds are a “separate ethnic group, completely different from the Turks and Arabs. [They] speak an Indo-European language, so they are related to the Iranians.”

Even though there was a common language and culture among the Kurds, as was the case among other ethnic groups in the area, Kurdish unity was often based on tribal lines.

This idea of fidelity to tribal lines goes back as far as the Middle Ages, says Gauthier, as it was important in “ keeping the communities together in times when you had the big wars and destruction” such as the Crusaders and the invasion of the Mongols. He adds that such events brought along destruction to the Middle East and so divisions along tribal lines would have been reinforced.

  • Arrival of Islam

During the seventh century, Islam spread from the Arabian Peninsula, bringing another unifying element to the Kurds: religion. Although uniting the Kurds under one banner was not really what was happening. “Because at the time of the empires -- Ottoman empires, Persian empires -- even before when it was the Caliph and you had a united Middle East with a Muslim caliph, then you had a lot of different communities in there. You had Turks, you had Arabs, Persians, Kurds, and the people they had unity and the banner of Islam basically,” explains Gauthier. He adds that like the other groups within the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds would also have spoken several languages.

One famous Kurd from the Abbasid Muslim Caliphate was Saladin; he was a sultan, though he also received the title of king, but he was known for leading Islamic forces against the European Crusaders. After his big victory, however, he was revered not for his ethnicity as a Kurd but simply for being a great fighter.

  • Independence

So we see that the Kurds have always been a part of the regional history of the Middle East.

But have they ever had independent states?

“Well into the 19th century there were Kurdish immigrants who by today's standards meet many of the criteria for independence,” says Gunter. “And there's an ancient Kurdish history called Sharafnama, written by Sharaf al-Din Bitlisi in 1596, in which he talks about at least five Kurdish dynasties or emirates in the past that had the attributes of what we would today call independence. So it's possible to say that in effect there were independent Kurdish entities four to five hundred years ago which were eventually wiped out by the Ottoman and Persian empires.”

Gauthier notes that al-Din Bitlisi was in fact a Kurd, although the manuscripts were written in Persian, since he was an administrator in the Ottoman Empire and also with the Savafid shahs, the rival Persian dynasty at the time. He began to put to paper the history of the Kurdish local dynasties. As Gauthier explains, Bitlisi wondered if they, the Kurds, had their own prince who could lead them; perhaps they would no longer be exploited by the Turks, Persians and Arabs.

So already by the 16th century, we see that the Kurdish people, under Ottoman rule by then, were feeling the pinch.

One mustn’t forget that under Ottoman rule, different ethnic and cultural groups were living side by side; but no one had independence. Each province, such as Syria, or Egypt, was ruled by a chosen representative of the Ottomans.

  • The idea of the nation-state

The notion of the nation-state as it is currently understood is a modern idea, appearing at the end of the 19th-century.

It was really after World War I, which saw the disintegration of the Ottoman empire, that the push for nation-states took effect in the Middle East.

“Obviously there was a big push for the idea of a nation-state with Kurds at the end of the Ottoman empire because the people had to choose,” says Gauthier. “A lot of those Kurds, they were generals, officers, administrators to the Ottoman empire, they had Ottoman identity.” And so when the Ottoman empire ceased to exist, many Kurds had to make a choice.

And this is where the Kurds may have had a chance to have a state. But don’t forget they had spent years spread out over the region. So when Turkey, Iraq and Syria all pushed for independent states in response to the mandates run by Western powers that replaced the Ottomans, the Kurds found themselves in the middle of it all.

“Then in 1918 when the modern state system was created, you created another division between Kurds: Turkish Kurds, Iranian Kurds, Iraqi Kurds and Syrian Kurds” explains Gunter. “That's been going on for a 100 years now. So that's another way the Kurds are divided between the four states that they live in.”

In fact, the Kurds almost had a state.

As the big Western powers were carving up the Middle East, the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres proposed a Kurdish state in part of what was to become Turkey, although the Kurdish nationalists themselves could not agree on what its borders should be.

But the treaty was rejected by the creator of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who launched a war against the Greeks, Italians, British and French.

“He [Ataturk] first recruited them [Kurds] against the imperialists, saying we are going to set up a state, which will be a state of brotherhood between Turks and Kurds and when he won he told them there [are] no Kurds,” explains Gauthier.

Added to that problem was the fact that the Kurds didn’t have a central figure to bring them together to push for their own state at the time.

So they turned to the British. The British were in the north of Iraq and were initially interested in creating a Kurdish state, as a kind of buffer state between Iraq and Mustafa Kemal’s Turkey. “But then they discovered the oil, so they forgot about this buffer state,” says Gauthier.

So the Kurdish populations were absorbed into Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

But constant tensions between the Kurdish communities and their country’s governments have always been a reason for them to push for their own state.

In the case of Iraq’s Kurds, the US's 2003 invasion of Iras gave them outside support to set up their autonomous region, says Gunter.

But as Iraqi’s Kurds face the consequences of pushing ahead with their quest for independence, Falah Mustafa, the foreign minister of the Kurdish Regional Government says that the Kurds are “a different nation”.

Their efforts for independence have not worked out thus far, but “we tried our best, we went to Baghdad, we played a positive role. …. we should not be punished. We have to be realistic.”

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