"The Kurds have no friends but the mountains."
Kurdistan - Kurdish Conflict
Kurds are united by language and culture, but divided by politics and religion. The Kurds are notoriously fractious, with political formations based on diverse formal ideologies, as well as more traditional clan-based rivalries. Most Kurds are Sunni, some are Shia, and a few are Yazidi. This complexity produces interesting results, as in late 2014 when the Islamist government of Turkey allowed "good" Kurds from Iraq to relieve the siege of Kobane, while prohibiting such aid from the "bad" Kurds of the secular Kurdish groups in Turkey and Syria.
The Kurd population, stretching across at least 4 countries, with a diaspora in many more, historically has been hard to quantify. In 1987, estimates suggested that probably numbering close to 16 million kurds, inhabits the wide arc from eastern Turkey and the northwestern part of Syria through Soviet Azerbaijan and Iraq to the northwest of the Zagros Mountains in Iran, respresented the population of what has been referred to as "Kurdistan." About half of all Kurds worldwide lived in Turkey. Most of the rest lived in adjacent regions of Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
Kurds represent by far the largest non-Arab ethnic minority of Iraq, accounting in 1987 for about 19 percent of the population, or around 3.1 million, and also Turkey's largest non-Turkish ethnic group. By 2008 Turkey still had the dominant Kurdish population in the region, with an estimated 14 million. Iraq was estimated to have a population of some 4-6 million Kurds, with another 4-5 million in Iran. Kurdish populations that represented less than 10 percent of the total population continued by that time in countries such as Syria and Azerbaijan as well.
In Turkey, the Kurds were historically concentrated in eleven provinces of the southeast, the same area that their ancestors inhabited when Xenophon mentioned the Kurds in the fifth century BCE. There are also isolated Kurdish villages in other parts of Turkey. Kurds migrated to Istanbul for centuries, and since 1960 they had migrated to almost all other urban centers as well. There are Kurdish neighborhoods, for example, in many of the gecekondus or shantytowns, which grewn up around large cities in western Turkey. Turkey's censuses do not list Kurds as a separate ethnic group. Consequently, there has been no reliable data on their total numbers. In 1995, estimates of the number of Kurds in Turkey ranged from 6 million to 12 million.
In Iraq, the Kurdish dialect of Kurmanji is divided into North Kurmanji (also called Bahdinani) and South Kurmanji (also called Sorani). South Kurmanji, or Sorani, is the language of a plurality of Kurds in Iraq. Major subdialects of South Kurmanji are Mukri, Ardalani, Garmiyani, Khushnow, Pizhdar, Warmawa, Kirmanshahi, and Arbili (or Sorani proper). Kurds in Iraq are the overwhelming majority in As Sulaymaniyah, Irbil, and Dahuk governorates. Although the government of Saddam Hussein hotly denied it, the Kurds were almost certainly also a majority in the region around Kirkuk, Iraq's richest oil-producing area, a reality that came to the forefront after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Kurds are settled as far south as Khanaqin. Once mainly nomadic or seminomadic, Kurdish society was characterized by a combination of urban centers, villages, and pastoral tribes since at least the Ottoman period.
By the nineteenth century, about 20 percent of Iraqi Kurds lived in historic Kurdish cities such as Kirkuk, As Sulaymaniyah, and Irbil. The migration to the cities, particularly of the young intelligentsia, helped develop Kurdish nationalism. Since the early 1960s, the urban Kurdish areas grewn rapidly. Kurdish migration, in addition to being part of the general trend of urban migration, was prompted by the escalating armed conflict with the central authorities in Baghdad, the destruction of villages and land by widespread bombing, and such natural disasters as a severe drought in the 1958-61 period. In addition to destroying traditional resources, the severe fighting has hindered the development of education, health, and other services.
There were approximately 4 million Kurds in Iran as of a 1986 census. They were the third most important ethnic group in the country at the time after the Persians and Azarbaijanis and accounted for about 9 percent of the total population. They have been historically concentrated in the Zagros Mountain area along the western frontiers with Turkey and Iraq and adjacent to the Kurdish populations of both those countries. The Kurdish area of Iran includes most of West Azarbaijan, all of Kordestan, much of Bakhtaran (formerly known as Kermanshahan) and Ilam, and parts of Lorestan. Historically, the Kurds of Iran were been both urban and rural, with as much as half the rural population practicing pastoral nomadism in different periods of history.
By the mid-1970s, fewer than 15 percent of all Kurds were nomadic. In addition, during the 1970s there was substantial migration of rural Kurds to such historic Kurdish cities as Bakhtaran (known as Kermanshah until 1979), Sanandaj, and Mahabad, as well as to larger towns such as Baneh, Bijar, Ilam, Islamabad (known as Shahabad until 1979), Saqqez, Sar-e Pol-e Zahab, and Sonqor. Educated Kurds also migrated to non-Kurdish cities such as Karaj, Tabriz, and Tehran. There were also scatterings of Kurds in the provinces of Fars, Kerman, and Baluchestan va Sistan, and there was a large group of approximately 350,000 living in a small area of northern Khorasan as of 1987. These were all descendants of Kurds whom the government forcibly removed from western Iran during the seventeenth century.
The Kurds speak a variety of closely related dialects, which in Iran are collectively called Kirmanji. The dialects are divided into northern and southern groups, and it is not uncommon for the Kurds living in adjoining mountain valleys to speak different dialects. There is a small body of Kurdish literature written in a modified Arabic script. Kurdish is more closely related to Persian than is Baluchi and also contains numerous Persian loanwords. In large Kurdish cities, the educated population speaks both Persian and Kurdish.
Although the Kurds comprise a distinct ethnic group, they have historically been divided by class, regional, and sectarian differences similar to those affecting ethnic Turks. Religious divisions have often been a source of conflict among the Kurds. Although the government of Turkey does not compile official data on religious affiliation, scholars estimate that at least two-thirds of the Kurds in Turkey nominally were Sunni Muslims, and that as many as one-third were Shia Muslims of the Alevi sect as of the mid-1980s. Unlike the Sunni Turks, who follow the Hanafi school of Islamic law, the Sunni Kurds follow the Shafii school. Like their Turkish counterparts, adult male Kurds with religious inclinations tend to join Sufi brotherhoods. The Naksibendi and Kadiri orders, both of which predate the republic, had large Kurdish followings in Turkey although their greatest strength was among the Kurds of Iran. The Nurcular, a brotherhood that came to prominence during the early republican years, also had many Kurdish adherents in Turkey.
Whereas the number of Kurds belonging to the Alevi sect of Shia Islam was uncertain, the majority of Alevi were either Arabs or Turks. Historically, the Alevi lived in isolated mountain communities in southeastern Turkey and western Syria. The Kurdish Alevi had been migrating from their villages to the cities of central Anatolia since the 1950s. Whereas Kurdish and Turkish Alevi generally have good relations, the competition between Alevi and Sunni Turks for urban jobs led to a revival of traditional sectarian tensions by the mid-1970s. These intertwined economic and religious tensions culminated in a series of violent sectarian clashes in Kahramanmaras, Corum, and other cities in 1978-79 in which hundreds of Alevi died.
A small, but unknown number of Kurds also adhered to the secretive Yazidi sect, which historically has been persecuted by both Sunni and Shia Muslims. Small communities of Yazidi live in Mardin, Siirt, and Sanli Urfa provinces. Yazidi are also found among Kurds in Armenia, Iran, and Iraq. In Turkey the Yazidi believe that the government does not protect them from religious persecution. Consequently, as many as 50 percent of all Yazidi immigrated to Germany by the end of the 1980s, where they feel free to practice their heterodox form of Islam.
Class differences also divide the Kurds. Wealthy landowners in rural areas and entrepreneurs in urban areas tend to cooperate with the government and espouse assimilation. Many of these Kurds are bilingual or even speak Turkish more comfortably than Kurdish, which they disparage as the language of the uneducated. The economic changes that began in the 1960s exacerbated the differences between the minority of assimilated Kurds and the majority who have retained a Kurdish identity. Militant Kurdish political groups such as the PKK have exploited these class differences since 1984.
In Iran, the majority of both rural and urban Kurds in West Azarbaijan and Kordestan have practiced Sunni Islam. There was more diversity of religious practice in southern Kurdish areas, especially in the Bakhtaran area, where many villagers and townspeople followed Shia beliefs. Schismatic Islamic groups, such as the Ahl-e Haqq and the Yazdis, both of which are considered heretical by orthodox Shias, traditionally have had numerous adherents among the Kurds of the Bakhtaran region. A tiny minority of Kurds in Iran were adherents of Judaism.
Most of the Iraqi Kurds who are of the Shia branch of Islam are called Faili Kurds. The Faili Kurds have traditionally lived around Kirkuk and south to Khanaqin. Many of the Faili Kurds support the PUK.
Kurds are distinct from the Arabs, Turks, and Persians (Iranians) of their region, but are ethnically and linguistically closest to Persians. Kurdish origins are commonly traced back to the Empire of the Medes in the sixth century BCE.
Kurds live in the mountainous region of the Middle East where the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran meet. There were an estimated 20-25 million Kurds throughout the Middle East by the 1990s, though this number historically has been hard to calcuate and estimates have continued to increase. The region they inhabit has been referred to as "Kurdistan," although this does not refer to a political designation. The Kurds historically have always been a stateless people.
The term "Kurd" was a generic one used to denote nomads, and non-Arabs in particular. In Kurdish, the term "Kurd" means "warrior" or "ferocious fighter." By the time of the Islamic conquest of the northern Middle East in the 7th century CE, the name "Kurd" was already in use as a term to designate the population of Western Iranians in the Zagros Mountains.
Over time, the Kurds' physical location on the border of empires and modern nation-states had a significant impact on Kurdish identity. Kurds see themselves as not only existing without a state, but as existing between and across states. This influences how they have viewed external powers and gives them a highly tactical view of alliances.
Tribal connections remain a source of social ties in Iraqi Kurdish society. Although almost all Kurds are permanently settled and earn their livelihood from agriculture, handicrafts or industrial work, tribal ties are a source of support in times of hardship and can still be use to mobilize communities against outside interference.
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