The Kurds



The Kurds are an ethnic group of approximately 30 million with origins in a part of the Middle East that has been surrounded by the historic powers of the region. Today, the traditional lands of the Kurds are divided into parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. As a minority in each of these countries, the Kurds have long sought their own sovereign nation or at least more autonomy, with mixed results. As some of these nations have become increasingly unstable, many Kurds see an opportunity for greater control over their own destiny. Join Active Minds as we explore this complicated dynamic and seek to understand the Kurdish people and their struggle.

Key Lecture Points

  • The Kurdish people are an ethno-linguistic group closely related to Persians. They have historically lived in the mountainous region between present-day Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, and they have interacted, often violently with Persians, Turks and Arabs over the past two millennia. Throughout history they have often found themselves caught between power struggles of various empires in the region, most notably and frequently those of the Persians, Turks and Arabs.
  • Throughout the 20th Century, the Kurds experienced violent repression and the denial of cultural and political rights by the governments of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, four separate nations wherein the Kurds made up a minority of the overall populace. Promised an independent Kurdistan after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI, this outcome was thwarted before it could be realized. Since the 1920s, the Kurds have struggled to preserve their cultural and linguistic heritage while fighting for autonomous political rights within their countries or for outright Kurdish sovereignty, a Kurdistan, for some or all of the roughly 30 million Kurds in this region.
  • In post-war Iraq, Kurds have finally managed to afford themselves recognition in the Iraqi constitution as well as an autonomous Kurdish area in northern Iraq that at present is enjoying considerable economic growth.
  • Syrian Kurds have begun to play a role in the Syrian conflict, many siding with the rebels (who are predominantly Sunni Arab) in order to oust President Bashir al-Asad.
  • Kurds in Iran continue to suffer from harsh repression under the Islamic Republic, despite their initial support of the 1979 Revolution. A 2005 crackdown on Kurdish demonstrations led to the deaths of 13 civilians and wounded 200.
  • After decades of armed conflict in which tens of thousands have been killed, a potentially historic peace agreement in Turkey is unfolding between the government and the leaders of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). A genuine peace agreement could afford Kurdish citizens of Turkey with greater political and cultural rights, many of which have been utterly denied for most of the history of the Republic of Turkey.

Exploration Questions

  • What are some of the potential ramifications of the PKK withdrawal from Turkey? How might the nascent peace process in Turkey affect the Kurdish people and political situation in surrounding countries concerning the Kurds?
  • Given the Arab Spring and the continuing turmoil and instability in the Middle East, what is the likelihood of the establishment of an independent state of Kurdistan? How might this affect the economy and politics of the region?

Reflective Questions

  • Imagine the experience of being a nation spread across multiple countries. What is this like?
  • If you were the leader of a country, how would you attempt to address the predicament of a minority when some members of that minority are participating in the political process while others engage in violent acts outside of the political process?

More to Explore

  • The Kurdish Issue Click here
  • Middle East Research and Information Project (“The Kurdish Experience”) Click here
  • Middle East Research and Information Project (“The Evolution of Kurdish Politics in Syria”) Click here

Books For Further Reading

  • McDowall, David. A Modern History of the Kurds. New York: I.B. Taurus, 2004. In this detailed history of the Kurds from the 19th century to the present day, McDowall examines the interplay of old and new aspects of the struggle, the importance of local rivalries within Kurdish society, the enduring authority of certain forms of leadership and the failure of modern states to respond to the challenge of Kurdish nationalism.
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  • Izady, Mehrdad R. The Kurds: A Concise Handbook. New York: Taylor & Francis, 1992. This book, the first of its kind, is meant to serve as a quick reference. The author, himself a Kurd, has provided a brief but documented insight into matters Kurdish. Drawing on both ancient and modern source materials, the book covers the history, ethnography, geography, culture and politics of the Kurds.
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  • Lawrence, Quil. Invisible Nation: How the Kurds’ Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East. New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2008. Quil Lawrence’s intimate and unflinching portrait of the Kurds and their heretofore quixotic quest offers a vital and original lens through which to contemplate the future of Iraq and the surrounding Middle East.
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