"> The Kurdish Identity: A Cause for Conflict?


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December 15, 2010 The Kurdish Identity: A Cause for Conflict?

Kurdishaspect.com - By Saeed Kakeyi


In the period immediately after the First World War, a weak Kurdish sense of nationhood combined with poorly organized leaderships meant that the hope for an independent Kurdish state arising from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire remained only a hope. Nevertheless, the end of the Cold War Era and the effects of globalization on intrastate conflicts have served the Kurds to solidify their sense of “Kurdishness” and transform it to building a “unique nation.” For the Kurds, Kurdishness means unity and continuity. Also, it is a “Hi-Cyberization” of individualism which brings to the attention of Kurds in one country the activities of Kurds in another.


Like most peoples of the world, the Kurds have their own identity based on their common race, language, religion and geographical territory called Kurdistan in which they have been living for a long time. However, since the division of Kurdistan by boundaries imposed on it by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, a perceived sense of injustice has served to sharpen Kurdish nationalist views in the different countries, though in different ways.

What is nationalism and how does it formulate views? What are these Kurdish nationalist views? How do they differ from each other? This paper will answer these and other questions related to the Kurdish identity. Then, in a brief historical background, this paper explains why the Kurds have not been able to establish their own nation-state. What are the ramifications of not having a Kurdish political identity? In conclusion, the paper will stress the essential role of the Kurds in conflict avoidance.

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurds, totaling some 35 million people, are often defined as a nation, or a ‘non-state nation’; an ethnic group possessing all of the characteristics of a nation except their own state (McDowall: 1997, 1). Their homeland, Kurdistan, is divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria (1997, 1). The governments of these four countries have different ways of relating to their Kurdish population.  The Turkish government barely acknowledges their mere existence as a group and have since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 been the target of a politics of assimilation (1997, 2). The Turkish state has not acknowledged their existence as a minority, and has denied them cultural and linguistic rights. It is within this context that the Kurdish identity has survived for the better part of the last century. The ongoing struggle for identity recognition implies the Kurdish resistance against the hegemony of the Turkish nation-state. This historical and political framing is important when trying to understand the broader context of the Kurdish identity since the claim for recognition of the rights of the Kurds depends crucially on the existence of a Kurdish community that is perceived as culturally different from others. 

Although Iran acknowledges the linguistic and cultural rights of the Kurds—less numerous than those of Iraq and Turkey—within the context of “the universality and expansion of Islam” (Kreyenbroek and Sperl: 1992, 190), it has always been ruthlessly “opposed to any suggestion of Kurdish separatism” (1992, 21). The core issue between the government of Iran and Kurdish nationalism is “not the supposed ‘universalism’ of Islam, but rather…the boundaries of the nation-state called ‘Iran’” (1992, 190).

The case of the Kurds against the government of Iraq differs significantly from those of Iran and Turkey. When Iraq became an independent nation-state in 1932, it legally has pledged its obligation to guarantee the autonomous rights of the Kurds. Though never was materialized until the populous Kurdish uprising in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, Kurds have had legal bases “to claim a greater say in their own and national affairs” (1992, 24). However, the chauvinistic responses of the consecutive governments in Baghdad were savagely brutal to the extent where the deposed tyrant, Saddam Hussein, used chemical weapons in his ethnic cleansing and genocidal campaigns in a bit to eliminate the Kurdish conflict.

In the case of Kurds in Syria, Kurdish identity exclusion from Syria’s nation-state definition dates back to 1940s and became more apparent in 1950s and 1960s; and statelessness remains away of life for many Kurds. Policies of denial, brutal repression and assimilation perhaps are more aggressive than those of Turkey and Iran.

Historical background for Kurdish identity

Many scholars consider the Kurds and their Kurdish language to be Indo-Europeans. For instance, according to Vladimir Minorsky, a Russian diplomat and orientalist, Kurds are direct descendant of Medes (1968: 43). Similarly, many Kurdish historians, anthropologists and scholars assert that the Medes are the ancestors of the Kurds who were the first in ranking and organizing their military system which the Greeks and the Romans made use of them later. 

However, after the demise of the Median Empire in the sixth century B.C. and the subsequent rise of the Persian Empire, Kurds became subjects of the successive Iranian empires with which most Persian historians claim that “Kurds are not a separate nation; rather, they are of Persian origin” (Ghassemlou: 2000, 25). Likewise, the rise of Islam and its forceful spread amongst the devoted Zoroastrian Kurds had made some Arabs think of the origins of the Kurds differently. Ali Ibn Al-Masudi, an Arab Abbasid historian (c. 896-956), recorded asserting that Kurds are “Sons of Jinns—Genies” (1989: V.2, 123).

Knowing that the Kurds are the inhabitance of the rich agrarian lands of Mesopotamia, such aforementioned claims, aside stemming from resource scarcities, have had a lot to do with variations of worldviews between members of these nations. 

Furthermore, Arabs’ aggressive means in converting the Kurds into Islam forced the Kurds; first into resistance, then alliance with the Byzantine Christians, and finally the hard-line Islamic Sofi Mysticism interpreted in the teachings of Ibn-Taimiya which led to rise of present-day Islamic extremist school of thought. The Kurdish religious fragmentation and subsequent fermentation contributed to the emergence of Islamic Fraternal Orders. Qadiriya was and still is one of the strongest and best known of those orders (Fisher and Ochsenwald: 1990, 92).

The Turkish Seljuk conquests of the Middle East in eleventh century inflicted woe upon the Islamic administrative system resulting in “disunity and internecine warfare among the petty Muslim states” (1990, 120). Western feudal Crusaders took advantage of the situation by conquering Jerusalem on July 15, 1099; and later, forming alliances with Syrian and Kurdish feudalists in defeating the Seljuk rulers in Asia Minor (1990, 120-21). Saladin Ayyubi—a Kurdish feudal and a previous lieutenant in the Turkish ruled Mosul principality—dissolved the Turkish Zangid authority by establishing his own Ayyubid Dynasty, took on his “Islamic” fight against Muslim disunity. Under his rein, Ayyubid forces were able to liberate Syria from the Franks and drove out the Turks form Kurdistan.

Saladin’s military and good governance qualities earned him the title of Sultan over the then Islamic world. Thereafter, as the Crusaders became greedy in their exploitations of the region, Saladin turned against the Franks by liberating Jerusalem in 1187 and much of other principal Arab cities (1990, 123). For a quarter of a century, Kurdistan and much of the east “was in turmoil because of the eruption of the Mongolian Turks led by the Sunnite Muslim Timur Leng (“Timur the Lane,” or Tamerlane)” (1990, 127-28).

It is worth mentioning that the death of the Ayyubid Sultan in Egypt in 1249, played well into the hands of the Turkish Maluks (Slaves). A Turkish slave general, who married one of the widows of the dead Sultan, announced the end of the Ayyubid era. But, when later his Kurdish wife had him murdered in his bath, the Turkish slave soldiers of the self proclaimed slave Sultan beat her to death. Accordingly, the rule of Egypt passed to the slave Turks (1990, 125-26). As a result, animosities between the Kurds and the slave Turks grew ever since.

In the wake of the Mongols barbarian tide, the Muslim world produced three Turkic dynasties; the Ottoman Dynasty in the heartlands of Asia Minor, a fragmented Turkmani-Persian Dynasty in Iran and a Mamluk Dynasty in Egypt. After the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the Ottomans were able to expand their dynasty into a fledgling empire and the Persians managed to build their dual Turkic-Persian Safavid Empire in 1488 (1990, 179-85).

Meanwhile, Kurdish feudalists went on to setup their own various dynasties. Nonetheless, being sandwiched between the Ottomans and the Safavids, the Kurds were devastated by the rivalries between the Safavids and the Ottomans.  In the course of consolidating their power and economy, the Safavids invaded Kurdistan in 1504. Heavy taxations associated with brutalities of the Safavids in their attempts to convert the Sunnite Kurds into Shii’sim, forced the Kurds to seek alliance with the Ottomans. The outcome was the battle of Chaldiran in 1514 between the two contending empires which led to the first partitioning of Kurdistan; western Kurdistan was seized by the Ottoman forces to be administered a few “well-defined” autonomous Kurdish dynasties and the east enclosing the Kurdish dynasties of Ardalan and Mukrian to remain semi-independent under the Safavid sphere of influence.

While this was the status quo of Kurdistan for well over three hundred years, Kurdish dynasties were well-defined but weak and disunited. The Kurdish feudalists—in their struggle for hereditary rule—were involved, as was the case with others, in killing their competing kinships (Barth: 1953, 129-30). Yet, although Sharaf Khan of Bitlis himself was advocating the system of dynasties, he was very much concerned with disunity among Kurdish rulers. In his famous Sharafname book, completed in 1597, Sharaf Khan suggested a loose confederation of dynasties and municipalities as a way out of fragmentation. A century after Sharafname’s completion, Ahmadi Khani, a Kurdish poet and scholar, demanded on the unification of the principalities under a single Kurdish king, who would ensure Kurdish independence. According to Amir Hassanpour, “both visions were clearly those of the feudal society of Kurdistan, Khani’s views are more appealing to contemporary nationalists because of his problematization of Kurdish suffering under Ottoman and Safavid rule as a question of the lack of a unified independent Kurdish state” (2007).

Definition of nationalism

Although there exists no consensus among the scholars in defining nationalism; however, without at least a theoretical framework in which the definition of the term can be defined, any argument regarding nationalism remains unproductive. Therefore, "nationalism" is used in this paper to refer to a political movement of a community that distinguishes itself from others as a separate cultural and political entity. Its main objective is political self-determination through either secession or autonomy (Plano and Olton: 1988, 33-34). A political movement becomes nationalist when it makes political demands for secession or autonomy in a region that is regarded as the historical homeland and where the majority of the population belongs to the same community. Nationalist movements that demand autonomy are concerned more with the self-rule of a community without claiming a sovereign territorial entity (1988, 35).

However, as scholarly debated, often nationalism, ethno-nationalism, separatism and irredentism instigate ethnic conflict between ethnic groups. Hence, the study of ethnic conflict is of interest to students of International Relations (IR) because it is considered to be one the principal causes of war and frequently results in war crimes such as genocide (Jones: 1985, 396-435). The correlation between nationalism and ethnic conflict is important to determine the origin of nationalism in the Kurdish case.

The emergence of Kurdish Nationalism

Kurdish nationalism emerged as a political movement during and after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in a hope for progression and statehood. Kurdish feudalism played a significant role in promoting the idea and assuming the leadership, especially in Kurdistan. The fit Kurdish political organization to the definition mentioned above to lead its national aspirations was the Koma Te’aliya Kurdistanê or the Society for the Progress of Kurdistan (SPK). 

Although the Kurds organized themselves into several "semi-political societies" in late 19th and early in the 20th centuries, their organizations became purely political and began making nationalist demands only on December 17, 1918, with the formation of the SPK in Istanbul.

However, due to the feudalist ambitions of its leadership, a split occurred in the SPK, leading to an ideological polarization among its members: secessionists led by Amin Ali Bedirkhan and autonomists led by Shaykh Sayyid Abdulqadir of Shemdinan. The supporters of these wings cohered based on their collectivist mindsets and large dimensional power distance. Leaders of these two wings were from the two most influential Kurdish families which, earlier, led revolts in Kurdistan (1992, 51).

In such contrasting state of mind, the Kurds were not able to match the well organized and driven nationalist targets of their Turkish neighbors. In fact, the religiously motivated Kurdish feudalism not only contributed to the weaknesses and the immaturity of the Kurdish nationalism, but also became a disastrous catalyst for Kurdish religious and tribal decision-makers throughout the twentieth century Kurdish revolts. The disenchantment of a few Kurdish intellectuals and secular nationalists played vey well into the hands of the opponents. Ziya Gokalp (1876-1924), a Turkified Kurdish sociologist and think-tank, was one of such figures. 

Taking advantages of these weaknesses, the colonial powers, driven by their aggressive exploitation policies and in concert with the Turkish and Arab nationalists in the 1920s, partitioned the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, including western Kurdistan, amongst the newly formed states of Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Ever since, the opponents of the Kurds initiated persisting systemic repression and denial; and have been working on eliminating a separate Kurdish identity. But, such actions approved not only to be pointless; rather, they have exacerbated the Kurdish conflict more and more. “Recent events have exposed the existence of Kurdish nationalist sentiments, which have developed irrespective, or in spite, of those same boundaries: Kurdish autonomous aspirations in Iraq; the resurgence of Kurdish opposition to the policies of the Turkish state; the crackdown of the Syrian government on its Kurdish population; the under-reported suppression of Kurdish national expression in Iran” (Stansfield: 2007).

Thus, one has to go “beyond the conventional binarism of the civic/ethnic nationalism” (Hassanpour: 2007) to analyze the causes of ethnic conflict. Primordialism, instrumentalism and constructivism as theories of ethnic conflict have proven their inadequacies in explaining the complexities of the Kurdish conflict.  

In time, isn’t it time for non-state actors to involve in regional and international imperative policy making?


For the first time in Kurdish history, Kurds in Iraq have been able to shape their political identity in a “unique” way (Aziz: 2005, 61). Since 1991, the leading source of inspiration for nationalist Kurds has been the continued existence of the autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq. The legalization of this region in post-2003 Iraq has strengthened the commitment of many Kurds to what they see as their inherent national rights. 

Kurdish politicians are now able to influence outcomes in a manner that the Kurdish negotiators of the 1920s failed to accomplish. There is no imminent prospect of an independent Kurdish state, but it is possible that one may emerge in the Middle East (Stansfield: 2007).

These developments mean that the Kurdish condition has to be reconsidered with reference to new political dynamics in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and of course Iraq, and more importantly, the new political and economic outlook of the Kurds themselves (Stansfield: 2007). 

“International policy-makers find it difficult to deal with non-state actors, but this should not prevent them from engaging seriously on Kurdish issues” (Stansfield: 2007). The recent dilemma between Turkey, the PKK, and the Iraqi Kurds has shed light onto the complicated relations that connect different actors together, and has revealed the increasingly effective Kurdish political actors engaged in conflict avoidance. 

This article  was originally written in 2007 but never was published.. Reference:

McDowall, David: A Modern History of the Kurds. London/New York: I.B. Taurus 1997.

Fisher, Sydney Nettleton and Ochsenwald, William: The Middle East: A History, 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill Publishing Company, 1990.

Kreyenbroek, Philip G. and Sperl, Stefan: The Kurds: a contemporary overview. London/New York, Routledge 1992.

Jones, Walter S.: The logic of international relations, 5th ed. Boston/Toronto: Little, Brown and Company 1985.

Minorsky, Vladimir. The Kurds: Notes and Impressions. Kurdish Translation by Marouf Khaznedar. Baghdad: Dar Al-Hawadith, 1968. Al-Masudi, Abu Al-Hasan Ali ibn Al-Hussein. The meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems. Beirut, Dar Al-Qalam, 1989.

Ghassemlou, Abdul Rahman. Forty Years of Struggle for freedom. 3rd ed. Erbil: KDPI Publishing, 2000.

Fredrik Barth, Principles of social organization in Southern Kurdistan. Oslo: Brodrene Jorgensen, 1953.

Hassanpour, Amir: "Review of Hakan Ozoglu, Kurdish Notables and the Ottoman State: Evolving Identities, Competing Loyalties, and Shifting Boundaries," H-Turk, H-Net Reviews, September, 2007. http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=37281194114039

Plano, Jack C. and Olton, Roy. The international relations dictionary, 4th Ed. California/Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 1988.

Stansfield, Gareth: “The Kurdish Policy Imperative,” Chatham House, Middle East Programme, December, 2007.  http://www.chathamhouse.org.uk/publications/papers/download/-/id/584/file/11364_bp1207kurds.pdf

Aziz, Mahir. Nationalism and Kurdish national identity. (In Kurdish language), Arbil: Kurdish Research Magazine, 2005 (pp. 55-78).

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