The Kurds are the world’s largest nation without a state. Yet, when thrust onto the world agenda, questions over the group’s identity invariably arise.
Supporters of Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party dance during Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year, in Istanbul, Turkey, March 24, 2019. (EPA-EFE/SEDAT SUNA)
Every now and again the Kurds, or at least one fraction of that divided and tormented nation, thrust themselves to the top of the world news agenda, usually as the victims of their enemies or from the treachery of their friends.
Then the storm inevitably passes and the Kurdish issue lapses into its more customary obscurity until the next crisis resurrects the question of “Who are the Kurds?”
There is no straightforward answer, in large part because those who identify themselves as Kurds are defined as much by their divisions as by their unity.
The Kurds are invariably described as the world’s largest nation without a state. It is an accurate enough definition, but it subtly implies that there is a unified Kurdish collective that merits or aspires to statehood.
While a series of referenda in the northern Iraqi territory of the Kurdistan Regional Government consistently delivered more than 90% of votes in favour of independence, most accept the reality of a continuing relationship with Baghdad.
Elsewhere in majority Kurdish regions — in Turkey, in Syria and in Iran — even the most radical movements now demand a greater degree of autonomy within existing national boundaries rather than independence.
It was the first of many appeals to the outside.
Demands for autonomy were at the root of the first stirrings of nationalism in the 19th century when the Kurds straddled the dividing line of what were then the Ottoman and Persian empires and in whose opposing armies they frequently battled.
Launching a tribal revolt against the Ottomans in 1880, Sheikh Ubaidullah of Shamdinan declared:
“The Kurdish nation is a nation apart. Its religion is different from that of others, also its laws and customs. The chiefs of Kurdistan, whether they be Turkish or Persian subjects, and the people of Kurdistan, whether Muslim or Christian, are all united and agreed that things cannot proceed as they are with the two governments.”
It was the first of many fateful appeals to the outside world, in this case Britain and other European powers, to intervene on behalf of the Kurds. Sheikh Ubaidullah’s revolt was subsequently smashed.
As head of a Kurdish tribal league, the shiekh may have put too much faith in the unity of his people as well as in the reliability of potential outside allies.
Having been denied statehood in the aftermath of World War I in a settlement imposed by the same external powers to whom they had appealed, the Kurds focused more on their relationship with the modern states in which they found themselves than on broader pan-Kurdish aspirations.
Today, across the whole Kurdish heartland, differences in social and political attitudes, even language, persist.
Divisions have existed even within individual states. As late as 1991, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein employed a large Kurdish militia whose task it was to put down rebellion by their fellow Kurds. The selection was almost exclusively along tribal lines.
In the succeeding three decades, de facto autonomy in northern Iraq has generated an increased sense of Kurdish identity in a region that has always been at the forefront of the Kurdish struggle.
They have been dealt a feeble hand by history.
In Iran and Turkey, many Kurds see themselves as integral to those states. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current scourge of Syria’s Kurds, has often proved more popular with a conservative Kurdish population than has the underground Kurdish movement that opposed him.
It is difficult for outside observers not to feel sympathy for a nation that has been dealt such a feeble hand by history, even if its own divisions have often compounded the disadvantages.
That sympathy, however, can translate into a somewhat romantic perception of the Kurds in which the stance of a minority is taken as representative of the whole.
Those who consistently held out against the dictatorship of Iraq’s Saddam were characterised as fiercely independent tribesmen, even at times when their erstwhile comrades-in-arms were taking up ministerial posts in Baghdad in the hope of advancing the Kurdish cause.
Today, the Kurds of Syria are perceived as the vanguard of the Kurdish cause. Led by a post-Marxist offshoot of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, the Syrian Kurds are viewed by foreign admirers as leading a social as well as national struggle.
“Turkey moves to crush Rojava, the Kurds’ radical experiment based on democracy, feminism and ecology,” according to one recent admiring headline.
Well, up to a point. It is an assessment that ignores the strained relationship of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, PYD, with other Kurdish movements in Syria and elsewhere and glosses over its somewhat ambivalent ties to the Syrian government of Bashir Assad.
Despite the movement’s heroic fight against the jihadist militant group ISIS — initially a seemingly doomed defensive action — its ideology is not fundamentally Kurdish nor does it reflect the views and aspirations of a majority of Kurds.
As ever there is no one answer, it seems, to “Who are the Kurds?”
Harvey Morris was a foreign correspondent for Reuters, The Independent and Financial Times. He covered revolutions, wars, politics and diplomacy in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and North and South America in more than 40 years as a journalist. He did on-the-ground reporting of the Iranian, Portuguese, Nicaraguan and Romanian revolutions, three Iraq wars, Argentina’s ‘dirty war’, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and two Palestinian intifadas.