The Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East; they have a distinct culture, their own language and are predominantly Sunni Muslims. Numbering at over 30 million, the Kurds make up one of the largest non-state nations in the world. Since the division of Kurdish territory, there has been a struggle for Kurdish nationalism and hopes of an autonomous Kurdish nation. But what do present day circumstances tell us about what could lie ahead for the Kurds?
Kurdish nationalism emerged during the twentieth century following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of the new nation-states across the Middle East. While there is a stronger sense of nationalism in Kurds who remain in their ancestral lands, those Kurds who have migrated to urban centres, such as Istanbul, Damascus and Tehran, have integrated and assimilated.
In 1920, after World War I, the Treaty of Sèvres carved up the Ottoman Empire, raising hopes for a new autonomous Kurdish state. Instead, however, the Kurds were split up, with their populations being given to Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Today there are roughly 10 to 20 million Kurds living in Turkey, around 6 to 9 million Kurds living in Iran, between 5 to 6 million Kurds living in Iraq and approximately 1 to 2 million Kurds living in Syria – with many more living in different parts of Western Europe, the USA and Canada.
Before the Kurdish nation was split up, the Kurds were not distinguished from other Arabs, but now, in Turkey and other countries around the Middle East, there has been a challenge in defining Kurds on aspects such as culture, ethnicity, geography and language. The vast majority of Kurds, approximately 75 per cent, follow Sunni Islam. However, it has been observed that the minority of Shia Kurds living in the predominantly Sunni Turkey are often adherents of the Sunni Shafi’i School of Islam as well – already highlighting ways in which lines surrounding Kurdish culture have been blurred through their assimilation in foreign nations.
Kurds in Turkey
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, attempted to use religion in order to bring the Turks and the Kurds together. Atatürk suggested that Mohammedanism, a faith whose believers follow the Islamic prophet Muhammad, was what united Turks and Kurds and separated them from other ethnicities such as the Greeks, Armenians and other ‘unbelievers’. In 1927, Ataturk explicitly declared Kurds not a minority in Turkey. During ‘The Speech’, of the progress his nationalist government had made in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne as compared to the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, he explained- under the heading ‘VII. – Protection of minorities’ that minorities had been “adopted” in Turkey’s “national pact” and stipulations are “only applicable to non- Mohammedans”.
This inclusive approach, however, meant that the idea of Kurdish independence in Turkey was belittled. For decades, any use of the Kurdish language was forbidden in Turkey, and only in recent years have things really begun to change. Turgut Özal, who was the 8th President of Turkey from 1989 to 1993 announced his acceptance of the idea of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, while Mesut Yılmaz, former Prime Minister of Turkey and leader of the Motherland Party from 1991 to 2002, suggested that Kurdish should become Turkey’s official language and in May 2015, Turkey’s current President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, boasted of the first Kurdish translation of the Quran.
Public support for the Kurds in Turkey has also increased, which was highlighted in the 2015 elections when the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won a record number 80 seats in the 550-seat Turkish legislature. This record number win gave the party enough seats to enter the Turkish Parliament and emphasised how the cultural and political rights for Turkey’s Kurds have improved drastically over the years.
Kobanî’s defeat of Islamic State
Since 2014, the Islamic State (IS), have been conquering large portions of Iraq and Syria at an incredibly fast rate. IS have secured support in Libya and the Sinai – from which further progress can be made, while also inspiring demonstrations and terrorist activities in other countries. Yet, in spite of IS’s success, the Kurdish people have been seen putting up a heroic and victorious resistance against IS, both militarily and ideologically.
During the earlier months of 2015, when the Kurdish town Kobanî in northern Syria, was almost daily in the news for its battle against IS attacks, there were hopes that the people of Kobanî would re-live the legacy of the people in the battle of Stalingrad during World War II, in which Nazi Germany and it’s allies fought the Soviet Union for control of the city of Stalingrad in southern Russia. However, the German army was defeated, leading to a stark turning point in World War II. After the battle in Kobanî, IS’s defeat looked promising, and the international popularity of the Kurds shot up as reports of strife and infighting among the ranks of IS were disclosed shortly after the Kurdish advantage.
Following the victory of the Kurds, the rest of the world began to question whether or not the horrors in Syria and Iraq would somehow turn out favourably for them and possibly even lead to Kurdish statehood.
Support from the USA
Regardless of all the progress that has been made in places such as Turkey and Kobanî, many Kurdish people are still fighting for their autonomy. It has been suggested that in order for autonomy to happen, the Kurds would need assistance from a powerful ally, which is a view supported by American professor Michael M Gunter, who in 2008 wrote a book titled ‘The Kurds Ascending’, with the subtitle ‘The evolving solution to the Kurdish problem in Iraq and Turkey’. On the last page of the book, Gunter suggests the “the USA should remove the PKK [the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – a left-wing Kurdish nationalist militant organization based in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan] from the terrorism list”. Gunter then goes on to suggest, “Once the EU follows suit, it will be able to play a stronger role in achieving peace”.
Iraqi Kurds were an important partner for the U.S. led coalition that ousted Saddam Hussein from power in 2003, but relations between the Kurds and the USA were dampened in the aftermath of the first Gulf War against Saddam. During the war, the USA encouraged the Kurds to rise against the dictator, but when the USA stopped their advance on Baghdad, no further support was given to the Kurds and nothing was done when Saddam took revenge against those who had followed the USA’s advice.
In spite of this, the Kurds still see America as a friend, while the USA’s views of the Kurds have definitely increased – especially after the fight put up by Kurdish forces against the Islamic State. The USA stepped back up to support the Kurds in the battle against IS, which was witnessed with the widely publicised 2014 USA air strikes that took place alongside Kurdish ground operations in southern Syria.
Republic of Mahabad
With everything that has happened it is clear that the Kurds are being shown increasing levels of respect by nations all over the world. If made an autonomous region, Kurdistan could be seen as a worthy contender in the Middle East, not only due to economic benefits that could be derived from its natural resources, but also because of the strength Kurds have previously shown when defending themselves against ruthless enemies.
When the Allies of World War II invaded Iran in 1941 due to the absence of a central government, the Soviets attempted to attach northwestern Iran to the Soviet Union while promoting Kurdish Nationalism. In wake of these circumstances, a Kurdish manifesto, that sought an autonomous self-government for the Kurdish people was born. A political party called the Society for the Revival of Kurdistan was formed and Qazi Muhammad was elected as Chairman.
Nationalism continued and the desire for an independent Kurdish state grew larger. In 1945, Qazi Muhammad and other Kurdish leaders sought to establish a new Kurdish republic, so decided to create the Kurdish People’s Government, and by January of 1946, the formation of the Republic of Mahabad was announced. However, the republic was incredibly short lived and lasted less than a year. The fall of the republic in 1946 was due to pressure from Western powers including the United States after the Soviets promised the Iranian government that they would pull out of northwestern Iran.
The Republic of Mahabad depended on Soviet support, but the close relationship they shared with the USSR alienated the republic from most Western powers, causing them to side with Iran. Although Qazi Muhammad denied claims that the republic was communist, he did not deny that his republic was funded and supplied by the Soviets. As a result of isolation and the withdrawal of economic aid and military assistance from the Soviet Union, support for Qazi Muhammad eventually declined.
In spite of the collapse of the short-lived Republic of Mahabad, its legacy lives on. The memory of Mahabad still serves as a source of inspiration for Kurdish nationalists everywhere and gives them hope that one-day, they may achieve their dreams of an autonomous nation.