Who are the Kurdish people?

The Kurdish people have a cultural identity distinct from their Arabic-speaking neighbours. ‘Kurd’ itself, historically, was not an ethnic grouping but rather ‘a general term meaning shepherd.’[1] Of course, since then the term has evolved to refer to a people populating regions of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and linked by a common language and religion.

Despite being natives of the Middle East, where dialects of Arabic remain the most widely spoken languages, the Kurdish people primarily speak Kurdish languages (Kurmanji, Sorani and Southern Kurdish) or Zaza-Gorani languages which are unique to the North-Western Iranian region.[2] Unlike the majority of Iranians and Iraqis, however, most Kurdish people are adherents of the Sunni sub-sect of Islam, as opposed to the less practised Shia branch of Islam.[3] While Sunni Muslims believe that the prophet Muhammad did not designate a successor and that his father-in-law Abu Bakr was rightly elected as the first caliph, Shia Muslims believe that Muhammad named his cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor.[4] From this initial divergence two separate schools of practice emerged, morphing into a contentious debate over which is the ‘right’ form of Islam.

The Kurdish Institute of Paris estimates that as of 2016, there were between 36.4 and 45.6 million Kurds living in the world, including significant diaspora communities in Europe and the former USSR. In Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, this number is between 36 and 44.1 million.[5]

Map produced by the Kurdish Institute of Paris

Were a Kurdish state to be recognised, its territory would likely span over the current borders of all four countries and would consist of a sizeable portion of modern Turkey, where between 15 and 20 million Kurds live.[6] This fear of secession is potentially driving Turkey’s recent excursion into Northern Syria.

However, the Kurds have also been persecuted historically. In the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, Western nations granted territory for a Kurdish state, but only three years later they reneged on this promise when the Treaty of Lausanne set the borders of Turkey.[7] By essentially relegating the Kurdish people to minority status in their own nations, Western states ensured decades of conflict to come. In Turkey especially, during the 1920s and 1930s, the government responded to rebellions by Kurdish minority groups with strict measures against the entire ethnic group. Kurdish names and attire were banned, and restrictions were placed on the use of Kurdish languages.[8] Between 1925 and 1939, approximately 1.5 million Kurds in Turkey were either deported or massacred.[9] Since then, there have been numerous reports of unlawful detentions, executions and torture of Kurds, with the European Court of Human Rights finding Turkey to be in violation of its human rights obligations multiple times.[10] In this time, Kurdish rebel groups within Turkey have also fought for independence and greater autonomy both through activism and armed conflict.[11]

The Kurdish people living in Turkey may not have a right to secede under international law, as although the majority of the ICJ refused to decide the issue in their Kosovo advisory opinion, Koroma J in his dissent persuasively concluded that secession without the consent of the current state would be contrary to international law’s preservation of territorial boundaries.[12] Nevertheless, the Kurdish people’s well-established right to self-determination is likely being infringed by the Turkish government. It is possible that their level of oppression rises to the standard suggested in the Canadian Quebec case,[13] or perhaps we can draw analogy with the situation in Kosovo, where a persecuted ethnic minority has been granted a pseudo-state by the international community. If so, there may be a case for Kurdish separatism compatible with international law. However, clearly Turkey will not allow the rise of a Kurdish nation without protest and as recent events show, it will pursue Kurds even beyond its own borders.

[1] Izady, Mehrdad R. The Kurds : a Concise Handbook London, UK: Routledge, 2015.

[2] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Kurdish-language

[3] https://thekurdishproject.org/history-and-culture/kurdistan-religion/

[4] ‘Sunnis and Shia: Islam’s ancient schism.’ https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-16047709

[5] https://www.institutkurde.org/en/info/the-kurdish-population-1232551004

[6] https://www.institutkurde.org/en/info/the-kurdish-population-1232551004

[7] ‘Who are the Kurds?’ https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440

[8] Ibid.

[9] https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/kurdish-repression-turkey

[10] https://echr.coe.int/Documents/Annual_Report_2014_ENG.pdf

[11] ‘Who are the Kurds?’ https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440

[12] https://www.icj-cij.org/files/case-related/141/141-20100722-ADV-01-02-EN.pdf

[13] Reference re Secession of Quebec [1998] 2 SCR 217, [131]-[135]. https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/1643/index.do.