Conflicts in the Middle East: The Kurdish National Question

Article excerpt

THE Kurds are the largest minority in the Middle East which has been subjected to national oppression in countries where they reside. The Kurdish struggle for autonomy has been a most explosive component of the national liberation struggle in the Middle East. The Kurds have been fighting for autonomy in their respective countries since the First World War. Kurdish nationalist thinking has defined the Kurdish movement: |The Kurds constitute a single nation which has occupied its present habitat for at least three thousand years. They have outlived the rise and fall of many imperial races: Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Turks. They have their own history, language and culture. Their homeland has been unjustly partitioned. But they are the original owners, not strangers to be tolerated as minorities with limited concessions granted at the whim of usurpers'.(1) The overwhelming majority of the Kurds live in Turkey, Iraq and Iran and their struggle against national oppression and for autonomy in one country has contributed to the development of the struggle in the other country.

The Kurds are a distinct ethno-linguistic community residing primarily in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria as well as Lebanon and the former Soviet Union. There are no precise data to show the exact number of the Kurdish population. The Kurds claim that there are approximately 20 million Kurds in the Middle East but a conservative estimate in 1980 indicates that there are approximately 16,320,000 Kurds. The following table shows population distribution of the Kurdish communities in 1980.

Country    Total Population          Kurds      Percentage
Turkey        44,500,000           8,455,000        19
Iraq          13,500,000           3,105,000        23
Iran          37,700,000           3,701,000        10
Syria          9,200,000             734,000         8
Lebanon        2,981,000(*)           60,000       2.1
USSR/CIS     264,519,000(*)          265,000       0.12
                            Total 16,320,000
Sources: David McDowell. The Kurds (London: The Minority Rights Group, 1985),
P-7; (*) CIA. National Basic intelligence Factbook (Washington, DC. 1980),
pp. 111-201.

The majority of the Kurds are Sunni Muslim and speak their own language -- Kurdi. Although the Kurds do not have an independent nation of their own, they have always aspired for an independent nation -- Kurdistan. Prior to the First World War the Kurds were divided between the Ottoman and Persian empires. In the post-war Treaty of Sevres, the Allied powers promised to create an independent homeland for the Kurds.(2) The Sevres Treaty was signed by representatives of both the Allied and the Turkish government in August 1920 but it was not endorsed by the Turkish National Assembly. In November 1922 the Turkish monarchy was overthrown and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk seized power and suppressed the Kurds' struggle for self-determination. In the post-war period the Kurds were further divided. Small enclaves were incorporated into French dominated Syria and the Ottoman province of Mosul, occupied by the British as the war ended, annexed to the British dominated Iraq.

The Kurds enjoyed a measure of freedom in the Soviet Union. They had their own schools, textbooks, press and a radio station broadcasting programmes in Kurdish language for the entire Kurdish community in the Middle East. The Kurdish population is relatively small in Syria and Lebanon. They had effectively been assimilated into the dominant Arab culture. However, most Kurds may speak their own language, they are |either half or wholly arabicized, that is they feel they belong now to the local Arab culture.'(3) The Kurds had been subjected to national oppression in Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The Kurdish struggle against national oppression has held sway across the Kurdistan landscape in these countries. In the past such struggles had flared up and retreated only to suddenly erupt again. …