By Kemal Burkay language, religion and history
During recent years the Kurdish question has reappeared, more intensely than before, on the international agenda. For years, this question has been of fundamental concern to the countries of the region, and it has led to extensive internal controversies and economic and social crises. In order to further an understanding of the Kurdish question in its present dimensions, a summary of its historical and geographical background is necessary.
Language, Religion, and History
The Kurds are, together with the Arabs, Persians, and Armenians, one of the most ancient peoples of the Near East. The country they inhabit is called Kurdistan. The Kurds have their own language, Kurdish. Kurdish is a member of the Indo-European family of languages; like Persian, Afghan, and Beluchi, it is one of the Iranian languages. Kurdish is unrelated to the Arabic or Turkish languages.
Literary works have been written in the Kurdish language since the tenth century A.D. Kurdish is a lively and rich language that has managed to survive despite all the oppression and bans to which it has been exposed. There are hundreds of poets, writers, and researchers writing in Kurdish. Many dictionaries and grammar books have been written for the Kurdish language. Kurdish folklore also has a very rich tradition.
Over time, various dialects have arisen within the Kurdish language. The most widely disseminated dialect is Kurmanci. It is spoken by about 90% of the Kurds in Turkey, in Iranian and Iraqi Kurdistan in the northern areas near the Turkish border, and by the Syrian Kurds - that is, by about 60% of all Kurds. The Sorani dialect is spoken by about 25% of the Kurds. This dialect is spoken in the middle and southern regions of Iranian and Iraqi Kurdistan. Zazaki is a third dialect, which is spoken in certain regions of Turkish Kurdistan. In the southernmost parts of Kurdistan, Gorani and other dialects are spoken.
The great majority of Kurds, about 75%, are Sunni Moslems; about 15% are Alevite Moslems. The Alevites are in the majority in the northern and western areas of Turkish Kurdistan and in the Chorasan region of Iran. In Iran and Irak there exist other religious groups such as Shiite Kurds (Feyli) and the Ehlihak ("the people of God"), who are closely related with the Alevites. In the various parts of Kurdistan, especially in the region where the borders of Turkey, Iran, and Irak meet and in Armenia, there are Kurdish Yezidi communities. In earlier times, the Yezidi faith was a widely shared religious orientation. Its roots go back to Zoroastrianism. Finally, in the middle regions of Kurdistan there are small groups of Christianity.
Kurds have played a significant role in the history of this region since its early epochs. A great deal of information on this can be found in numerous Greek, Roman, Arab, and Armenian sources. According to them, the Kurds founded several important states during the Islamic epoch between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, such as Shadd‚diden, Marv‚niden, and AyyŻbiden - as well as in the distant past. Sultan Salahaddin (Sal‚h al-DÓn), the founder of the AyyŻbid state, which included Egypt, Syria, and Kurdistan, played a particularly significant role in history.
The Turks, whose roots are in Middle Asia, migrated to Anatolia via Iran after the eleventh century and founded the Selchuk and subsequently the Ottoman states. For a long time, Kurdistan was the theater of military clashes between the Ottoman and the Persian empires. During this period, the Kurdish princes sided first with one side, then the other, thus maintaining their autonomy. But in the year 1638, Kurdistan was officially divided between these two states in the Treaty of Kasri Shirin. From that time until the mid-nineteenth century, both states made armed attacks on the Kurdish princedoms in order to destroy them.
The Kurds' struggle against these two great states took on a nationalistic character at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Kurdish princes such as Bedirkhan and Yazd‚nsher, as well as religious leaders such as Sheik Ubeydullah, fought for the unity and independence of Kurdistan, but they were defeated.
After World War I, the Ottoman Empire became past history: new states arose on its former territory. According to the Treaty of SŤvres, which was signed on 10 August 1920, the state of Kurdistan was also to be established in the region. But this intention was not subsequently implemented. In the Treaty of Lausanne, signed on 24 July 1923, that part of Kurdistan which had been part of the Ottoman Empire was carved up again. Part of it was included in the British and French Mandates, where Syria and Iraq later came into being. The largest part of Kurdistan remained within the state borders of the Republic of Turkey, which had been founded on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman and the Persian Empires, which had divided up Kurdistan between themselves, did not question the existence of the Kurdish people at any time. The Republic of Turkey also initially defined its new borders as the "borders of the Misak-i Milli (National Pact), which include the areas settled by the Turkish and Kurdish majority". About 70 Kurdish Members of Parliament were present at the first session of the Great National Assembly in Ankara; they were officially designated as the "MPs of Kurdistan". The Turkish representative, Ismet Pasha, declared at Lausanne: "The Kurds and the Turks are the essential components of the Republic of Turkey. The Kurds are not a minority but a nation; the government in Ankara is the government of the Turks as well as of the Kurds."
However, after the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, Ankara's policy rapidly changed. The structures of the new state were designed wholly in accordance with Turkish interests. The Kurds' existence was denied. The Kurdish language, the practice of Kurdish culture, even the concepts of "Kurdish" and "Kurdistan" were forbidden. The Kemalist leadership paid not the slightest attention to the multi-cultural structure of Anatolia, which was in fact a mosaic of different ethnic groups. The keystone of their policy became the melting of other languages and cultures into the Turkish language and culture, thus creating "a unified nation". Article 39 of the Treaty of Lausanne, according to which the citizens of Turkey have the right to freely use their respective languages in all areas of life, was trampled upon, and the Kurdish language was totally forbidden in the educational system and the printed media. Speaking about the Kurds and criticizing the oppression of them was held to be a severe crime and was massively punished.
In 1925 the Kurds, led by Sheik Said, rose up against this policy. But this uprising was brutally suppressed; tens of thousands of Kurds were killed and driven into exile. There were more Kurdish uprisings in subsequent years, the major ones taking place in Ararat in 1930 and in Dersim in 1938. The Turkish state waged war in Kurdistan on a permanent basis.
After 1938, there was a relatively peaceful pause that lasted about 20 years. However, it is not surprising that the Kurds - who had no national rights and were being subjected to massive oppression, who were forced into poverty and ignorance, who saw all peaceful and legal avenues of political struggle closed off to them - once again began to arm themselves against the cruel oppression of the Turkish state. Since 1979, Turkey has ruled Kurdistan through military law, a State of Emergency, and a dirty war.
Similar developments unfolded in the other parts of Kurdistan. The Kurds living within the borders of Iraq, or southern Kurdistan, have also been resisting oppression since World War I. They staged uprisings that were led first by Sheik Mahmud Barzenci (1919-1923), then by Sheik Ahmed Barzani and his brother Mustafa Barzani (1933 and later). These uprisings also ended in defeat. But in Iraq, at no point was Kurdish identity denied. Moreover, because of the uprisings the Kurds were granted certain cultural rights. They were given schools, universities, radio broadcasts etc. In this part of Kurdistan, Kurdish culture is relatively well-developed.
The greatest Kurdish uprising in this part of Kurdistan began in 1961 under Mustafa Barzani and lasted until 1970. In 1970, the Kurds reached an agreement with the central government concerning an autonomous region. However, the government in Baghdad stalled the Kurds and ignored the conditions of the agreement. For this reason, the war broke out again in 1975. With several pauses, this struggle lasted until 1991.
The war against the Kurds has been expensive for Iraq. In order to halt Iran's support of the Kurds, the Saddam Hussein regime initially made territorial concessions to Iran. Then, to win back these areas, it started the destructive eight-year war against Iran which devastated Kurdistan. Iraq even used poison gas in its attacks on the Kurds. After this war ended, Iraq moved on to its invasion of Kuwait, with whose subsequent developments the reader is doubtless familiar.
Saddam Hussein suffered a massive defeat in his war against the allies. The Kurds were initially subjected to mass expulsion, but later a United Nations declaration created a security zone for them. The refugees returned to their homeland. In what is now known as "northern Iraq", i.e. southern Kurdistan, the Kurds created a parliament and a national government.
But the Iraqi problem has still not been solved today. The country is being subjected to a UN embargo, and the Iraqi Kurds are in an extremely difficult situation.
The state of Iran has practiced a policy of oppression against the Kurds similar to that of Turkey's Kemalist regime. After World War II, when Iran was occupied in the north by the Soviet Union and in the south by Great Britain, the Kurds were able to pause for breath and they quickly organized themselves. The Democratic Party of Kurdistan was founded and subsequently the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad was proclaimed. But soon thereafter the government in Tehran, with the political support of Great Britain and America, annihilated the Republic of Mahabad.
But the Kurdish people's resistance has not ceased. When the Shah's regime ended in 1978, this part of Kurdistan could once again enjoy freedom. Yet this phase did not last long either. It was soon followed by the attacks of the new regime of the mullahs. The armed resistance to this regime that began in 1979 is still continuing today.
In summary, the Kurdish people have continually resisted the cruel oppression and colonialization of them in these three major parts of Kurdistan, both before and after World War I, up to the present day. They have struggled to keep alive their identity, claim their national rights, and freely determine their own destiny. During this struggle, the Kurds have lost hundreds of thousands of their people and have been the victims of mass expulsions. Tremendous suffering has been inflicted on them. This is in fact a case of genocide. But unfortunately, neither the League of Nations nor the United Nations have lived up to their responsibilities in the face of our people's tragedy. They have merely been onlookers of these events.