Are Kurds a pariah minority?

Are Kurds a pariah minority?

Michael Rubin

KURDS invariably greet visitors to “Kurdistan” with a cup of sweet tea and the complaint that they are “the largest people without a nation.” They are right. Approximately 24 million Kurds are spread across Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iran, and the countries of the Caucasus. While the Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East (after Arabs, Persians, and Turks), they remain destined to be a minority spread among nations. (1) But are they a pariah minority? And what historic responsibility do the Kurds themselves bear for their status?

Kurds and Kurdistan

The term “Kurdistan” first appeared in the fourteenth century, but like many regions before the rise of nationalism, its boundaries shifted through time (Nikitine, 1956: 23). Today, the area claimed as Kurdistan spans 500,000 square kilometers–roughly the size of Spain–and stretches from the center of Turkey to the southern Caucasus and then southward along the Iran-Iraq border (Bois, 1965: 1-2). Kurdistan literally means “land of the Kurds,” but the area is not homogenous and contains Arabs, Turks, Persians, Assyrians, and Armenians, among others. Many Kurds live outside Kurdistan as well. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the shahs of Iran’s Safavid dynasty transferred Kurds to Khorasan in what is now northeastern Iran, conscripting them to guard the frontier against marauding Uzbeks (Avery, 1991: 4-5). More recently, urban migration has shifted Kurdish demographics. The city with the world’s largest Kurdish population today is Istanbul, followed closely by Ankara, even though neither city falls within traditional Kurdistan (Koknar, 1999). There is even disagreement over who can be considered a Kurd. When I lived in Iraqi Kurdistan during the academic year 2000-2001, some officials insisted that the Lur and Bakhtiari tribesmen of Iran were actually Kurds, although most Lur and Bakhtiari consider themselves distinct peoples (Tapper, 1997: 11; Garthwaite, 1983: 18; Mortensen, 1993: 44). Likewise, linguistic or religious minorities, such as the Zaza of Turkey and the Chaldeans of Iraq, often seek to be recognized as separate ethnicities.

Despite the frequent use of the term “Kurdistan,” only in Iran and Iraq does the name have official definition. In Iran, Kurdistan is a province, albeit one that encompasses just one-eighth of the area in Iran inhabited by Kurds. (2) In Iraq, the 1974 autonomy law defined Kurdistan as areas found by the 1957 census to have a Kurdish majority, meaning the governorates of Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah. However, Kurds have long disputed the census, and make additional claims on both the city and governorate of Kirkuk (McDowall, 2000: 336).

Among the Kurds, there is religious, linguistic, and tribal diversity. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, with perhaps 15 percent Shiite. Tens of thousands of Kurds also adhere to Islamic heterodox and pre-Islamic religions. For example, perhaps I million Alevi Kurds live in Turkey. Alevi theology combines a pivotal role for the Caliph ‘Ali (one of Muhammad’s companions and the fourth caliph) with vestiges of pre-Islamic beliefs (Boseley, 1989). (3) Yezidi Kurds are concentrated in Iraq’s Ninawa and Dohuk governorates; they claim approximately 140,000 adherents in Iraq (Khayli, 2001; Pope, 1993). (4) (Yezidism is a pre-Islamic belief combining a cult of angels, with vestiges of pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism.) (5) Communities of Kaka’is (Ahl-i Haqq) blend pre-Islamic beliefs with Shia Islam and live in mountain villages along the Iran-Iraq border (During, 1998).

Language is perhaps the factor that most divides Kurds today. Kurdish is an Indo-Iranian language similar to the Persian spoken in neighboring Iran (and very dissimilar to Arabic and Turkish, both of which belong to separate language families). Kurdish is, however, divided into numerous dialects, not all of which are mutually intelligible. Generally speaking, the two most important Kurdish dialects are Kurmanji (sometimes called Bahdahnani, after a nineteenth-century emirate) and Sorani. Kurmanji is spoken in Syria, Turkey, and the northernmost portions of Iraq; Sorani is spoken in northwestern Iraq and Iran. Many Alevis in Turkey speak Zaza, a language more closely related to the Caspian languages of Iran than to Sorani or Kurmanji (Mutlu, 1996: 518-519).

The Kurmanji-Sorani linguistic split within northern Iraq runs roughly through the region of Shaqlawa. A variety of other dialects are spoken, especially among communities in the Zagros Mountains along the Iran-Iraq border. Overlapping, although not necessarily coinciding with the dialectic boundaries, is a regional alphabet soup. Kurds in Turkey use the Latin-Turkish script, Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Syria use a modified Arabic alphabet, and Kurds in the Caucasus use both modified Cyrillic and Latin scripts.

Among more traditional segments of Kurdish society, tribal affiliation still matters; Kurdish tribes include the Hakkari of Turkey, the Baban and Hamawan of Iraq, the Jaff of Iraq and Iran, and the Mukri and Bani Ardelan of Iran (Nikitine, 1956: 159-175). Nevertheless, Kurdish tribalism tends to be overemphasized by many scholars and commentators. To the growing number of urban Kurds, tribal affiliation is irrelevant. Recent intra-Kurdish conflicts, such as that in Iraq between Jalal Talebani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Mas’ud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), have much more to do with political patronage than tribalism, hence the division of families by the 1994-1997 PUK-KDP conflict.

Do the Kurds Have a Common History?

Although nationalism is very much a nineteenth-century phenomenon, newly independent countries and peoples aspiring to nationhood often seek retroactively to extend their historical narrative. For example, after Uzbekistan’s independence in 1991, authorities in Tashkent actively promoted the thirteenth-century conqueror Amir Timur (Tamerlane) as the father of their country. (6) Likewise, successive Iraqi governments used archaeology to root Iraq’s legitimacy in Babylon past, even though Iraq only emerged as a state in the aftermath of World War I (Bernhardsson, 2003). The Kurds are no different. Historian David McDowall notes that “[i]t is extremely doubtful that the Kurds form an ethnically coherent whole in the sense that they have a common ancestry” (McDowall, 2000: 8); yet Kurdish teachers and professors in Iraq today base their claims to nationhood on alleged common descent from the Medeans, a nomadic people who established an empire in Iran in the eighth century B.C.

Kurds across national boundaries also promote Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (commonly known as Saladin in the West) as part of the Kurdish historical legacy. In the twelfth century, Salah al-Din defeated the Crusaders, reestablishing Muslim rule over Palestine and Syria. Salah al-Din may be history’s most famous Kurd, but including him in a nationalist historical narrative is artificial, since Salah al-Din fought in the name of religion, not ethnicity (Spuler, 1960: 93). Recognizing this, some nationalistic Iraqi Kurds interviewed have bragged about urinating upon the tomb of Salah al-Din in Damascus because “he betrayed his nation for the sake of Islam” (interview in Halabja, October 14, 2001).

Kurdish nationalists complain that the Great Powers undercut Kurdish unity by dividing Kurdistan. Had it not been for the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the treaties of Sevres and Lausanne, the argument goes, then the Kurds might have realized their dream for a united and independent homeland (Kendal, 1993: 33-35). While such sentiments are appealing, Kurdish divisions predate the twentieth century. The border between Iran and Iraq, despite minor fluctuation, has remained remarkably consistent, and even corresponds approximately to the frontiers of the great Byzantine and Persian Empires. In recent centuries, Kurds straddled the frontier between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, often fighting against fellow Kurds on behalf of their respective suzerains.

Although Kurds in various areas of Kurdistan historically do have local histories of autonomy, most Kurdish entities were fleeting and geographically limited. For example, in 1880 Shaykh ‘Ubaydullah crossed from the Ottoman Empire and seized Iranian territory centered on Mahabad and Lake Urumiya. However, he underestimated the shah’s power, and within two years the rebellion was over. The Mahabad Republic, established in the aftermath of World War II, did not survive one year. On the downfall of the shah in 1979, the Kurds again established fleeting autonomy in Iran, but were not able to sustain their resistance against the Islamic Republic (Abrahamian, 1982: 527). In Iraq in 1923, Shaykh Mahmud Barzinji presided over an autonomous Kurdish entity centered in Sulaymaniyah. Celebrated today as a hero on murals in Sulaymaniyah’s central square, his autonomous region lasted only two months.

Indeed, while the Kurds maintain cultural and linguistic ties, the multiplicity of experience among various Kurdish groups indelibly marks their current situation and contributes significantly–perhaps as much as division across political frontiers–to the inability of the Kurds to form a cohesive whole. The Kurds appear destined to permanently remain a minority in others’ lands, although their status varies among the countries in which they hold citizenship. Even though the Kurdish experience has been deadliest in Iraq, Iraqi Kurds have also come farther than any other Kurdish group in their drive to overcome their pariah status. In Turkey too, the Kurdish minority has made unprecedented strides in recent years to shed a similar pariah status. However, in Iran and Syria, the Kurds continue to face massive discrimination by governments whose official ideologies are based on ethnic or religious chauvinism.

Iraq’s Kurds

The Western press tends to focus disproportionately on the stares of Kurds in Turkey, but the Kurdish plight has been most severe in Iraq. Iraq arose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire with the combination of the Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul vilayats. The former two provinces were overwhelmingly Arab, the latter heavily populated by Kurds and Turkomen. Kurds initially hoped that United States President Woodrow Wilson’s rhetoric of self-determination would bring to fruition Kurdish ambitions for an independent homeland. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, promising Kurds eventual autonomy in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq, aided that optimism (McDowall, 2000: 464-465).

Events beyond the Kurds’ control overtook nationalist aspirations raised by the Treaty of Sevres. The European powers had initially agreed to divide Anatolia among themselves, leaving Turkey with only a rump state. Greece, in what amounted to a blatant land grab, invaded, seizing Izmir and driving eastward. Mustafa Kemal (soon to take the moniker Ataturk) rallied Turkish forces, and consolidated control over Anatolia, allowing Turkey a far more advantageous negotiating position. During the 1923 negotiations for the Treaty of Lausanne, Ataturk refused to compromise on Turkish sovereignty over the whole of Anatolia (Lewis, 1961: 249). Kurdish hope for some degree of self-rule in the Mosul vilayat was likewise dashed. Britain and Turkey deferred the question of ultimate sovereignty of the vilayat, but in 1925 the League of Nations awarded the province to Iraqi control, albeit on three conditions: that the largely Kurdish province remain under League mandate for 25 years; that Kurdish would be the official language of the region; and that Kurds would in practice administer the province (McDowall, 2000: 146).

As with many diplomatic agreements, implementation and obligation remained separate issues. Successive governments in Iraq failed to fulfill their commitments to Iraq’s Kurdish minority. Clashes between Iraqi government forces and Iraqi Kurds occurred both under the Iraqi monarchy (1921-1958) and the succeeding republic. Kurds initially were a pariah minority in Iraq because of Baghdad’s distrust of their nationalist aspirations. After all, Kurds did not enter Iraq willingly; there was no corollary movement to go it alone in either the Baghdad or Basra vilayats. Arab nationalism cemented antipathy toward the Kurdish minority in Iraq, steamrolling minority rights in Iraq, just as it did in Algeria, Egypt, and Syria. That Kurds inhabited Iraq’s richest agricultural land and oil fields only increased Arab antagonism.

It was not until the rise of Saddam Hussein after the 1968 Arab Socialist Ba’th Party coup that the Iraqi government altered its policy from blatant discrimination to ethnic cleansing and mass murder. Ba’thist ideology leaves little room for ethnic plurality. Instead, Ba’thism, formulated in 1943 by the Lebanese Christian Michel ‘Aflaq and later implemented in Syria and Iraq, bases itself on Arab ethnic chauvinism. (7)

Much of the Kurds’ pariah status inside Iraq is also due to geography. Iraqi Kurds consider Kirkuk to be the cultural capital of Kurdistan. In an interview published last winter, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talebani called Kirkuk “the Jerusalem of Kurdistan” (Talebani, 2002: 22). Kirkuk was also the site where oil was first struck in Iraq in 1927 and for decades was the center of Iraq’s oil industry. Accordingly, Kirkuk became both an economic cornerstone of Iraq’s economy and the focus of the Ba’th Party’s “Arabization” campaign. After the failure of autonomy accords in 1970 and 1974, Baghdad accelerated the transfer of Kurds from Kirkuk and their replacement by Arabs. The ethnic cleansing quickly expanded after Saddam Hussein consolidated dictatorial control. The Iraqi government razed perhaps 1,400 Kurdish villages and forcibly transferred at least 600,000 Kurds to “collective towns” (McDowall, 2000: 339).

Ethnic cleansing intensified throughout the next decade against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq War. After Iraq’s initial invasion of Iran bogged down, Saddam feared with some justification that the Kurds, the subject of brutal persecution, could become a fifth column against his regime. While some Iraqi Kurds may have, at various points, sided with the enemy, Saddam’s reaction was extreme if not genocidal (Muir, 1988). In 1985, Iraqi forces razed almost 200 Kurdish villages, displacing 55,000 Kurds. Iraqi security forces summarily executed or detained and tortured several hundred Kurds, including children (McDowall, 2000: 352). During the 1988 Anfal campaign, the Iraqi government destroyed approximately 4,000 of Iraqi Kurdistan’s 4,655 villages; the Iraqi government executed or “disappeared” an estimated 182,000 men, women, and children (Middle East Watch, 1993; Sideek, 2001; Fayli, 2001). Between April 1987 and August 1988, 250 towns and villages, as well as 31 uninhabited strategic or agricultural areas, were exposed to chemical weapons (Baban, 2000; Middle East Watch, 1993: 13-15). The March 16, 1988 chemical weapons bombardment of Halabja–resulting in the deaths of 5,000–remains the most publicized incident during the Anfal campaign.

Shedding Saddam–and Pariah Status

If the 1980s marked the nadir of Kurdish history, the 1990s was the decade that saw the elevation of at least one state’s Kurdish minority to unprecedented heights. On February 28, 1991, Saddam agreed to a cease-fire after United States-led coalition forces liberated Kuwait from Iraqi forces and swept into southern Iraq. Four days later, the Kurdish uprising against Saddam began. Within 15 days, the peshmurga (the Kurdish militia whose name means “those who face death”) controlled Iraqi Kurdistan’s major towns and cities (McDowall, 2000: 335).

Saddam ordered his forces to counterattack; they did so with brutal efficiency. Today, many Iraqi Kurds see that attack as evidence of American betrayal. Not only had President George H. W. Bush encouraged the uprising, but he also released prisoners of war from the Iraqi Republican Guards–known for their fealty to Saddam–in time to regroup and deploy against the Kurds (Rustam, 2000). With memories fresh of the Saddam’s brutality less than three years previous, and reports of fresh atrocities in districts recaptured by Saddam, a mass panic ensued, driving more than a million refugees into wintry mountain passes along the frontiers with Turkey and Iran (Middle East Watch, 1993: 75-92). At an April 8, 1991, European Community summit, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl told reporters that Iraq was “on its way to a genocide” (Wielaard, 1991).

The previous day, President Turgat Ozal of Turkey, himself part Kurdish, urged the creation of a “safe haven” in northern Iraq, an idea grasped upon by the United States, Canada, and a number of West European countries. The United States, Great Britain, and France declared a “no-fly zone” above the 36th parallel in Iraq to guarantee the safety both of humanitarian airlift and the Kurdish refugees. UN Security Council Resolution 688 provided immediate justification. (8) Some United Nations officials were lukewarm to the idea of a safe haven, but only the Iraqi government strongly opposed the move. Iraq’s UN ambassador, Abdul Amir Anbari, declared that there was no need for a safe haven since “the whole of Iraq is a safe haven to everyone” (Drozdiak and Ottaway, 1991).

Initially the safe haven was quite small–only 36 square miles centered on the northern Iraqi town of Zakho–but it soon expanded to incorporate Dohuk and now encompass 3,600 square miles. In October 1991, faced with the resumption of Kurdish guerrilla activity, the Iraqi government imposed a strict blockade on the recalcitrant north, seeking to starve the Kurds into submission (McDowall, 2000: 378). The move backfired; the PUK and KDP filled the vacuum left by Saddam, expanding their area of control to 15,500 square miles, roughly the size of Switzerland. They have enjoyed de facto autonomy since, even though the United States government has never clarified whether the safe haven includes areas outside Zakho and Dohuk. Today the area is politically divided between the PUK, whose territory falls largely below the no-fly zone, and the KDP, which controls the area that stretches along the entire length of the Turkish frontier. Iranian-backed Islamist groups administer small pieces of territory near the Iranian border.

Despite their long status as pariahs, the Iraqi Kurds in the safe haven have demonstrated that they can be responsible state builders. Indeed, even though the European Union, Arab states, and the United States have poured billions of dollars into the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Kurds have achieved far more democracy, stability, and social reform than the PA with far less international assistance. In May 1992, the various Kurdish groups held truly democratic elections, a rarity in the region. The KDP won 45 percent of the vote, while the rival PUK took 44 percent. Smaller parties divided the remaining votes.

Barzani and Talebani formed a unity government in which they shared equal power. Governors or ministers from one party always took deputies from the other. In the 105-member Kurdistan National Assembly, the KDP and PUK each held 50 seats, while Assyrian Christian parties took the remaining 5 seats. Turkomen parties boycotted the election (but retained their own militias).

Relations between the rival KDP and PUK strained and then broke amid disputes over revenue sharing from the lucrative Ibrahim Khalil (Habur) border crossing. The resulting civil conflict lasted three years and claimed perhaps 2,000 lives, uprooting thousands more. While distrust remains, the impact on outside observers was much more significant regarding the status of the Kurds as pariahs, since it reinforced the idea that Kurds were incapable of unity and self-government. Kurdish political leaders shoulder responsibility for the fact that the Western public continues to consider the dispute between the KDP and PUK as the Middle Eastern equivalent of the Hatfields and the McCoys. Despite thawing relations and cooperation in many sectors, Barzani and Talebani, the leaders of the KDP and the PUK, have yet take the relatively simple step of coauthoring an opinion article for a major newspaper confirming that they share a unified vision for the future of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Despite the failure of the Kurdish leaders to adequately engage the international community, what the Iraqi Kurds have achieved in the safe haven is astounding. The Kurds’ achievements are even more impressive given that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) remains under the same international sanctions the Iraqi government claims are responsible for the deaths of millions. (9) However, unlike Iraq, which has siphoned off money for its biological weapons program and continues to smuggle more than $1 billion in oil each year outside the auspices of the United Nation’s humanitarian “oil-for-food” program, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has used its 13 percent share of oil-for-food income to develop the Kurdish region’s long-neglected infrastructure and to invest in projects that benefit the general populace (the Iraqi government itself has continually sought to undermine the program) (Butler, 1999; Clawson, 2001). Hence, between 1996 and 2002, infant mortality has decreased and fertility has increased substantially in the Kurdish zone. The KRG has reconstructed more than 2,600 of the 4,000 villages destroyed in the Anfal campaign. In the Dohuk and Erbil governorates alone the Kurdish administration has built over the last five years 410 new schools, 145 health clinics, 3,600 kilometers of new roads, and 90 kilometers of new sewers (Sideek, 2001). The supermarket in Dohuk now boasts Italian fashions and the latest Japanese electronics. Cashiers use infrared scanners at checkout. The Iraqi dinars used in the northern governorates are worth one hundred times more than those bearing Saddam’s likeness that have been newly printed in Baghdad. Because contracts are not limited to members of the Ba’th Party, money circulates more equitably, further bolstering the Kurdish economy. Ironically, many Arab Iraqis come north to seek employment. Regarding the success of the oil-for-food program, PUK Prime Minister Barham Salih recently called it “truly revolutionary,” adding “never before in our history have we had a government obliged by international law to devote Iraq’s oil revenues to the well being of the Iraqi people” (Salih, 2001).

Despite the Kurdistan Regional Government’s success, the very existence of the safe haven remains tenuous. The University of Dohuk is less than 5 kilometers from the Iraqi army’s front lines, and Erbil is less than a 15-minute drive from Iraqi armor. A peshmurga commander on the front line near Chamchamal estimated that at most, his unit could delay an Iraqi advance into Sulaymaniyah by eight hours. Meanwhile, Kurds remaining under Iraqi government control have seen no let up in persecution. Ethnic cleansing continues, especially in the vicinity of Kirkuk, Khanaqin, and Sinjar, (10) In one three-year-old document that was recently smuggled into the safe haven from Iraq proper, one of Saddam’s governors issued detailed expulsion instructions; attached was a list of 1,380 people to be forced out over the course of three months. The September 19, 2000, edition of the official Iraqi newspaper Sawt al-Ta’amim (Voice of Nationalization) detailed the distribution of 10,000 plots of land confiscated from Kurds to members of the Iraqi military and security forces. According to the U.S. Committee on Refugees, the number of internally displaced people in northern Iraq increased from approximately 640,000 in 1994 to almost 1 million in 1999. Indeed, the United Nations often turns a blind eye to the status of pariah minorities (not only in Iraq, but in Iran and Sudan as well) in order not to embarrass the host government upon which it depends for access. A 2001 draft report by the UN Center for Human Settlements (Habitat) curiously replaced the term “internally displaced person” with “Kirkuki” in reference to the nearly 200,000 non-Arabs the Iraqi government has expelled from their homes in the post-1991 period (Darseem, 2002). The change in terminology deflects attention from the continuity and sheer scale of the Iraqi government’s ethnic cleansing campaign.

Does the United Nations Reinforce Pariah Status?

The deference of United Nations employees to Iraqi government authority further exacerbates the Kurds’ pariah status. Under the terms of a 1996 “Memorandum of Understanding” (UN, 1996), Baghdad retains ultimate control over visas for all UN workers and also has final say over any UN projects, even in Iraqi Kurdistan. Baghdad has refused to grant visas to hundreds of UN workers who do not come from Arab countries sympathetic to Baghdad (Sevan, 2001); many Kurdish officials point to an “Egyptian mafia” within the UN relief operations. Both PUK and KDP officials often complain that the World Health Organization, World Food Program, and UNICEF disproportionately hire nationals from countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Sudan that are more loyal to Arab solidarity than to their UN mandate (Roelofsma, 2001b; Salih, 2001). An example: on February 17, 2001, Rima al-Azar, a Lebanese national and UNICEF child protection officer, sent an e-mail circular to several international NGOs operating in the safe haven in which she unilaterally severed UN collaboration with NGOs operating in Iraqi Kurdistan, including a “Peace Winds Japan” project providing vocational training to adolescents and a Diakonia project offering psychological services to traumatized children. When queried by the press, UNICEF officers in New York denied the contracts’ cancellation until shown al-Azar’s e-mail; she soon was transferred.

High-ranking Iraqi Kurdish officials privately accuse many other Arab nationals in UN service of seeking to undermine reconstruction in Iraqi Kurdistan, but fear raising the issue too publicly will play to Baghdad’s advantage; the Iraqi government claims that the oil-for-food program does not work and all oil-sale revenue should revert to direct Baghdad control. Even other UN officials recognize the problem. One senior South African UNICEF employee reported going through a UNICEF report “with a red pen” to remove the biased data and propaganda inserted by his Jordanian predecessor. A German Food and Agriculture Organization employee spoke disparagingly of the “Egyptian and Sudanese” mafia running UN operations in Baghdad and Iraqi government-controlled cities. He complained that they were politically loyal to Saddam, but not overly competent in their jobs, sometimes corrupt, and that they also mistreated their Iraqi employees (Interview, 2000; 2001a).

Although the successes the Iraqi Kurds have achieved in the 1990s are precarious, the decade has permanently altered the pariah status of this minority. The language of instruction at the University of Sulaymaniyah remains Kurdish and English; many students can no longer read, write, or even speak well in Arabic. The revenue sharing of the oil-for-food program has reinforced Iraqi Kurdish desire for federalism; the Iraqi Kurds see their affluence as conditioned on remaining an integral part of Iraq. Indeed, January 6–Iraqi Army Day–is still an observed holiday despite the atrocities perpetrated against the Kurds by the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein. Simultaneously, the freedom and autonomy of the past decade have reinforced the consensus that the Iraqi Kurdish minority can no longer entrust its livelihood and well-being to a strong, centralized government in Baghdad. Many Kurds have indicated that they would rather fight than allow a successor regime in Baghdad to resume control over provincial matters. A perception by the Kurds that pariah status has resumed will be met with a low-intensity conflict that would have serious repercussions not only in Iraq, but also in Turkey.

Turkey’s Kurds

Turkey is host to the world’s largest population of Kurds–it has also been the center of disproportionate attention to its treat of the Kurdish minority. It is ironic that while Iraq was slaughtering Kurdish civilians by the tens of thousands, in some cases employing chemical weapons, European attention focused on Kurdish human rights in Turkey. This discrepancy is largely due to Turkey’s historic proximity to Europe, its willingness to make itself more accessible to international visitors–even after the outbreak of separatist violence in 1984–and the Turkish government’s decision to allow discussion of the Kurdish question to occur at a time when Iraq, Iran, and Syria prohibit serious debate.

The separatist campaign of Abdullah Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan, or PKK) has dominated discussion of Turkey’s Kurdish issue, but the often strained relations between the Turkish government and Kurds predate the insurgency. Many human rights groups and Kurdish sympathizers in Western Europe automatically trumpet the Kurds’ pariah status because they are the weaker party. However, such blanket sympathies simplify the complexity of the situation in Turkey, where ethnic lines are often blurred and millions of Kurds are fully assimilated Turkish nationalists. Exclusive attention to the post1984 manifestation of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict also ignores its historic complexity and context. Kurds do share some blame for enflaming distrust between Turks and the Kurds in the wake of World War I.

The Turkish Republic was born of force. At the conclusion of World War I, France, England, Italy, Russia, Greece, and the Armenian people each tried to seize territory in the Anatolian peninsula, designating for the Turks a rump-state less than one-quarter the size of Turkey today. In October 1920, as the Turks fought for their survival against simultaneous invasions of Greeks in the west and Armenians in the east, a Kurdish chief named Alishan Beg hijacked a shipment of arms and rose in rebellion. Turkish nationalist forces subdued the rebels, but the willingness of the Kurds to be a fifth column permanently sparked distrust in Turkish officialdom.

It would be a mistake to retroactively attribute nationalistic motives to the Kuchgiri rebellion, or succeeding uprisings. Arbitrary tax levies and livestock seizures by Turkish soldiers deployed to the east to fight Armenian militias did antagonize local Kurds. The primary cause of the early rebellions, however, was more religious than nationalist (Lewis, 1961: 403-404; Cornell, 2001). Many conservative elements in Kurdish society distrusted the Turkish leadership’s opposition to the caliphate, the traditional seat of Islamic rather than nationalist rule (McDowall, 2000: 188). With the Greeks repelled, Ataturk turned his attention to building the new Turkish nation-state. Wary of perceived Kurdish disloyalty at a time of crisis, and fearful of the potential secessionist threat arising out of the Mosul vilayat dispute, Ataturk offered the Kurds little flexibility in the design of the new state. Turkish became the sole language of both state and education (McDowall, 2000: 191).

It was the final abolition of the caliphate in combination with Bolshevik support that spurred a new Kurdish rebellion in 1925 (McDowall, 2000: 192-196). Turkish forces decisively put down the rebellion, but the damage was done when it came to the issue of trust between the government in Ankara and the Kurdish tribes in the east (Lewis, 1961: 260-261). The rebellion convinced Ataturk that a loyal opposition was not possible. He used the emergency Law for the Maintenance of Order, enacted in the wake of the uprising, to promote his agenda in areas far beyond the localized Kurdish problem (Ataturk also based his decree abolishing the fez on the Law for the Maintenance of Order) (Lewis, 1961: 265).

Historians and scholars have often criticized the draconian nature of Turkey’s Kurdish policies. David McDowall, for example, has argued that, in the wake of the 1925 revolt, that “the army … now found control of Kurdistan to be its prime function and raison d’etre” (2000: 198). Human rights groups such as Amnesty International often criticize the Turkish military’s press and civil restrictions. But these criticisms fail to consider that from Ankara’s perspective, the early Kurdish challenge threatened the very existence of a state that neighboring powers had already proved all too willing to try to extinguish. Perhaps the Kurds are labeled a pariah minority as a result of the restrictions, but Turks feel that their survival is at stake; they have no desire to become a pariah minority themselves. That Kurdish groups received support from the Soviet Union, and more recently from Syria and Greece, has only reinforced this belief (Kitfield, 2002; Barkey, 1996: 77).

Under Ataturk and his successors, Turkey industrialized and modernized its economy. Industrialization largely bypassed Kurdish areas in eastern Turkey, however. While it is easy to condemn the underdevelopment of Turkish Kurdistan as a by-product of anti-Kurdish bias, eastern Turkey was also far removed from ports and markets, electrical generating stations, and a critical mass of educated people. Indeed, the geographical isolation of Kurds in Turkey is not unique. In Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, the Kurds not only populate areas far removed from centers of political power, but also live in mountainous regions difficult and expensive to develop (Fuller, 1993). The underdevelopment of North Dakota, Appalachia, and the interior of Maine in the United States does not indicate that residents of those states and areas are pariah minorities.

The growing schism in wealth and development between Turkey’s cities and its countryside led to urban migration. Simultaneously, Kurdish birth rates increased. In eastern Turkey, the Kurdish population growth rate was more than twice that of the local ethnic Turkish population (McDowall, 2000: 402). In the 1960s, concurrent with the rise of the Kurdish rebellion in neighboring Iraq, underground Kurdish political parties developed in Turkey, though many of these proved short-lived. Numerous socialist and far-left parties also attracted (and encouraged) Kurdish nationalists (McDowall, 2000: 406-410). In 1971, two far-left groups, the Turkish Popular Liberation Army and the Turkish Popular Liberation Front, began a campaign of violence, robbing banks and abducting American servicemen. The Turkish military seized power to restore order, and called new general elections for 1973. Bulent Ecevit of the Republican People’s Party won the first of his five terms as prime minister. In July 1974, he granted amnesties to many leftists detained during the preceding two years of military rule (McDowall, 2000: 410-411). Marxist and Maoist opposition groups blossomed across the country, recruiting heavily from the rapidly increasing ranks of university graduates. Underground Kurdish nationalist groups again began to form. Tensions reached a boiling point as rightist and leftist groups skirmished. After a December 1978 clash in Maras killed more than 100 people, Ecevit imposed martial law in the Kurdish provinces. Although many academics and activists today may seek to retroactively apply inflexible standards of the contemporary human rights community and condemn any declaration of martial law, the situation at the time in both Iraq and Iran cannot be ignored. The Iraqi Kurds were conducting low-intensity guerilla warfare against the Ba’thist government, while in Iran, Kurdish separatists had taken up arms, taking advantage of escalating domestic unrest when Tehran lost control over the country’s periphery (Redmont, 1979).

In September 1979, the Turkish military seized power against the backdrop of growing unrest, much of which was leftist or Islamist rather than ethnic nationalist. Many Kurdish historians assume that the subsequent crackdown on dissidents was aimed specifically at the Kurdish community. McDowall, for example, points to deployment of two-thirds of the Turkish army to eastern Turkey as evidence that Ankara’s goal was suppression of Kurdish nationalism (McDowall, 2000: 414). Such claims ignore the threats posed by the Islamic revolution in neighboring Iran, where Iran’s new “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued virulent calls to export revolution at the same time that Iran became engaged in the Iran-Iraq War.

As with previous periods of military rule, the generals showed little inclination to maintain power once they restored order. Voters went to the polls in 1983, and Turgut Ozal’s Motherland Party triumphed. In Ozal, Turkey’s Kurds had a partner for peaceful and constructive engagement. Unfortunately, some Turkish Kurds chose a different path, and thus branded the entire Kurdish community with pariah status for years to come.

In August 1984, Abdullah Ocalan’s PKK launched a violent terrorist and separatist campaign, seizing towns in eastern Turkey and declaring separatist goals over loudspeakers. When Turkish troops advanced to engage PKK cells, the rebels often fled into Iraq and Iran (thereby justifying the earlier Turkish troop deployments to areas along the Iran and Iraq frontiers). The PKK uprising was not entirely domestic in cause; many captured PKK guerillas reported that they had received training in Syrian camps (Cohen, 1984). In 1989, Iran allowed the PKK to establish bases in Iranian territory that could be used to stage raids into Turkey, a means of support that continues to the present day (Bodgener, 1989; Roelofsma, 2001a; Rustam, 2000). Turkey has also accused Armenia of hosting PKK cells (Human Rights Watch, 1995).

Between 1984 and 1995, fighting between the PKK and the Turkish military resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 people (Kirisci and Winrow, 1997: 126). PKK tactics and ideology have not only sullied the Kurdish cause in general, but have also eviscerated much of the organization’s support among the populace it claims to represent. Despite Turkey’s human rights abuses, PKK terrorism and attacks on civilians have at least inside Turkey have contributed to an image of Kurds as an enemy group rather than as merely a victimized minority. This has set back the Kurdish cause decades.

The PKK actively targeted Kurdish civilians to secure the submission of villages to its authority. In March 1987, Ocalan ordered a number of villages to be attacked and burned. The PKK often employed indiscriminate fire when raiding villages, engaged in summary execution, hostage seizures, and terrorist bombings. As Kirisci and Winrow have noted, “The brutality of the raids had earned the PKK a similar reputation to that of the Shining Path guerillas in Peru.” (127). Ironically, international NGOs often cast almost sole blame on the Turkish government in the displacement of Kurdish villagers. (11) The lack of partiality on the part of Western human rights organizations has discredited many international NGOs as honest brokers and undercut their credibility in addressing issues affecting the Kurdish minority.

The PKK vowed to “liquidate” anyone working for Turkey within areas claimed as Kurdistan. Subsequent actions made clear that the organization considered those working for Turkey to include teachers (Human Rights Watch, 1995). Declaring that the education system was a means by which Ankara could assimilate Kurds, between August 1984 and November 1994 PKK guerillas killed more than 120 teachers and burned down almost 200 schools. At the beginning of the 1994-1995 school year, the PKK declared that only teachers it approved could work. PKK guerrillas then executed six unapproved teachers in Tunceli and four in Erzurum (Kirisci and Winrow, 1997: 128-129).

The personality cult surrounding Ocalan, or “Apo” (uncle), as his followers call him, has further undercut the legitimacy of the PKK for Turkey’s Kurds. The PKK tolerates no dissent, and targets those who seek to leave the organization. On June 19, 1994, for example, PKK fighters raided the house of a former guerrilla and executed his 38-year-old mother, and five siblings between the ages of 4 and 13 (Human Rights Watch, 1995). Dissent appears to be defined as any criticism of the personality of Abdullah Ocalan, who maintains a Stalinist-style personality cult. As Svante Cornell has commented, “Ocalan developed a true personality cult around himself, leading other Kurdish leaders to abandon him as a madman” (Cornell, 2001). Ocalan’s ego was perhaps best captured in a 1991 interview in which he compared himself with Jesus (Gunter, 1997: 30).

The PKK has similarly victimized Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan. During a March 2001 visit, residents in Amadya pointed to damage to their homes caused by PKK mortar fire in the mid-1990s. Heavy fighting erupted between the PUK and PKK in October 2000 after the PKK entrenched itself in Qandil and began to expropriate tax and supplies from Kurdish farmers in the Ranya plain. In April 2001, a PKK mine killed seven Iraqi Kurds near Spindar. According to Nasreen Mustafa Sideek, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s minister of reconstruction and development, the greatest impediment to rebuilding mountainous areas along Iraq’s frontier with Turkey is PKK terrorism against villagers and local Kurdish officials (Sideek, 2001). Such statements are not exceptional. High-ranking members of the Kurdistan Regional Government in both Sulaymaniyah and in Erbil have criticized the PKK for attacking the most successful “Kurdish experiment” in modern history, harming ordinary Kurds and diverting government resources from development. Many Iraqi Kurds living in areas affected by PKK violence admit that, while they resent the presence of Turkish tanks inside Iraqi Kurdish territory, they do not wish Turkish forces to completely pull out until the threat from the PKK is eradicated.

Given such sentiment, and the atrocities perpetrated by the PKK, it is astounding that the European Union did not brand the PKK a terror organization until May 2002; indeed, Italy’s protestations about the extradition of Ocalan in November 1998 created a crisis within NATO (Farrell, 1998). (Although Italy raised concerns about the legality of the death penalty in Turkey, European governments remained relatively silent about Ocalan’s trail of blood.) The PKK continually extorts money from recent Kurdish immigrants, with an implied threat to the safety and welfare of both family and property (Gunter, 1997: 54). One Swedish Kurd explained that whenever Kurdish immigrants open a pizzeria in Stockholm, they are visited by representatives of a PKK front group, who urge them to work for themselves 29 days a month, and “work for the Kurds left behind” the last day of each month. Many new immigrants feel they have no choice; the proceeds of one day–perhaps $500–are then taken by the PKK.

The insurgency and terrorism of the past 18 years have clouded much of the progress in Kurdish economic development, integration, and freedom of cultural expression in Turkey. When measures justified by insurgency and PKK terror are removed, what is the status of the Kurdish minority? The law against the public use of Kurdish was abrogated in April 1991. Kurdish cassettes are now available, although an informal September 2000 survey of booksellers in Diyarbakir did not reveal any Kurdish language books openly for sale. Only in November 2002 did Turkey lift its prohibition on Kurdish broadcasting, although this is the subject of a very active debate. While the subject is extremely sensitive in Turkey, if the attitudes of Iraqi Kurds are any indication, Ankara could undercut PKK support if they allowed such broadcasting. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the most popular Kurdish-language satellite channel is the PKK’s Med-TV. Kurds in their teens and twenties have explained that, while they reject the PKK’s ideological message, the Belgian-broadcast Med-TV is simply much better produced than other Iraqi Kurdish channels. If Turkey broadcast a 24-hour Kurdish-language channel showing nothing but soccer, American movies, and Kurdish music, Iraqi Kurds said it would have a nearly 100 percent share of audience.

Kurdish cultural expression is still limited in Turkey, but blatant discrimination of Kurds based solely on their ethnicity is much less of a problem. As Graham Fuller has noted, “Kurds in Turkey can and regularly do rise to the highest positions within the state–on the condition that they ignore their Kurdish heritage and accept assimilation as Turks. President Turgut Ozal [had] Kurdish blood, and Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin [was] a Kurd. Millions of Kurds are totally assimilated into Turkish society” (Fuller, 1993). And, despite an overwhelming desire for greater cultural expression, when asked, many Kurds stop short of seeking independence. As one former high-ranking advisor to Ozal explained in 2001, “When Kurds demanding independence are asked if they want to have to have a passport and visa to travel to Istanbul, all but the fringe will backpedal and insist they did not want true separation” (Interview, 2001b). The embrace given Diyarbakirspor, Diyarbakir’s soccer team, on its promotion to the Turkish first division in 2001 also demonstrates the softening of separatist and ethnic nationalist tendencies. Green and red banners flutter everywhere in Diyarbakir in honor of the team; and fans tend to cheer on their team not as a symbol of Kurdistan, but rather as a confirmation of equality within Turkey.

Turkey’s Kurds lost their best opportunity in decades to erode their pariah status when the PKK launched its guerrilla war. Moreover, at the same time the PKK’s actions justified treatment of eastern Turkey’s Kurds as pariahs, the Kurds, with Ozal as the country’s leader, had a real chance to make political progress, but this was cut short by Ozal’ sudden death in April 1993. Ozal did not hesitate to stand up to Turkey’s ossified political, military, and economic elite. He broached the long taboo subject of liberalizing Turkey’s Kurdish policies, such as those banning public use of the Kurdish language. He even publicly discussed formal Kurdish education and television broadcasts (Gurbey, 1996: 13-14).

It was Ozal who first proposed the establishment of a Kurdish safe haven in Iraq, albeit with the ulterior motive of stemming a Kurdish refugee influx into Turkey at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. As the Turkish military gained the upper hand over the PKK in the early 1990s, Ozal pushed the Turkish government to address the socioeconomic disparities that provided the kindling for separatist fire. He inaugurated the Southeast Anatolia Project (Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi, GAP) to create a template for development. According to one Turkish commentator, “The construction of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants will make the region an ‘export center’ for agriculture and agriculture-based industrial goods” (Ogutcu, 2001). Critics of GAP included environmentalists and self-declared Kurdish advocates who argued that industrialization would largely bypass the unskilled and poorly educated population (McDowall, 2000: 447-448). Ironically, while many Kurdish activists in Europe protested that dams would flood Kurdish villages and dislocate the population, many Kurds in Turkey welcomed the project. Mehmet Farac, an unemployed youth in Hasankeyf, one of the towns to be flooded by the now-suspended Ilisu dam project, commented, “If Ilisu makes money and jobs for us, why should we be against it?” (“Turkey’s,” 2000).

Anti-Kurdish discrimination is still a problem in Turkey. Accordingly, some may label Turkey’s Kurdish minority as pariahs. The Kurds are not monolithic, however. Millions have chosen to assimilate fully into Turkish society and, to a much greater degree than in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, the Turkish government has embraced this. Although some Kurds and outside activists might criticize this assimilation and those who forego their ethnic culture, such intolerant sentiments implicitly disallow plurality and impose a straightjacket over ideas of culture. However, the success of millions of Kurds inside Turkey indicates that pariah status is not based on racialism, even though racism does exists. While perhaps still pariahs in some aspects of society, Turkey’s Kurds must examine their own contributions to the mutual distrust that characterizes their relationship with the Turkish government. Further improvements in the status of Turkey’s Kurds can only occur when such distrust is brought to an end.

Where Kurds Are Still a Pariah: Iran

While the situation of the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq is fairly well known, the ethnic Kurdish minorities in Iran and Syria remain pariahs in every sense of the word, and there is little hope for immediate progress.

Antagonism between Iran’s central government and the Kurds is centuries old. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, successive Iranian governments brutally suppressed the Kurds. In 1880 Iran crushed a Kurdish separatist revolt led by Shaykh Ubaydullah, an engagement glorified in nineteenth-century Iranian chronicles–if only because it was one of the central government’s few victories (Amanat, 1997: 408). Isma’il Agha Simqu sought to take advantage of Iran’s political and economic chaos in the aftermath of World War I, but Reza Khan (soon to be Reza Shah) successfully put down the revolt. In the wake of World War II, with the Soviet Red Army still occupying much of Iranian Azerbaijan, Qazi Muhammad declared the formation of the short-lived Mahabad Republic; as was noted earlier, its destruction after almost one year drove Kurdish activism underground, where it remained until the fall of the shah. Indeed, after the ouster of Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Musaddiq in a 1953 coup d’etat, Muhammad Reza Shah grew increasingly autocratic, supressing most opposition, whether secular, religious, ethnic, or nationalist. He forbade any Kurdish language instruction (Ghassemlou, 1993: 99).

During the Islamic revolution, the long-suppressed Kurds arose en masse. Common opposition to the shah’s regime, however, did not mean that the Kurds welcomed the Islamic Republic. Just three weeks after Ayatollah Khomeini’s return from exile, Kurdish forces clashed with troops of the Islamic republic. With the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran placed far greater emphasis on subduing Iran’s Kurdish regions. President Abulhassan Bani-Sadr, often considered one of the Islamic Republic’s liberals, branded the Kurds “counterrevolutionaries,” while the Iranian press labeled Kurds “godless Marxists and Zionists” (McGirk, 1980). Khomeini dispatched Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali to the region to dispense justice. Khalkhali, famous to an American audience as the ayatollah seen poking the remains of those killed in the failed attempt in 1978 by United States forces to rescue American embassy members held hostage by Iranian militants, is better known in Iran for dispatching summary justice, executing more than 100 Kurds in his first two weeks of service (Burns, 1999). For almost three years, the Kurdish countryside remained in a state of near constant rebellion. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps slowly and brutally fought to reestablish central government control over the region, killing perhaps 10,000 Iranian Kurds in the process (McDowall, 2000: 262). That the heavy-handed and ideological Revolutionary Guard sought to enforce the paramount presence of Shiite rule in a predominantly Sunni area added an additional religious dimension to the already complicated ethnic conflict (McDowall, 2000: 264). Moreover, the failure of the Islamic Republic’s constitution to guarantee ethnic

or minority religious rights for Kurds or Sunnis further reinforced the Kurds’ pariah status within the Islamic Republic (Schirazi, 1997: 12). (12)

Rather than improving at the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, the plight of Iran’s Kurdish minority worsened; now the Iranian government could devote greater resources to stamping out Kurdish opposition, not only at home but also abroad. Iranian agents gunned down the expatriate Iranian Kurdish leader Abderrahman Ghassemlou in Vienna in 1989 as he met to negotiate an end to the Iranian Kurdish uprising. Three years later, an Iranian death squad assassinated three leading Iranian Kurdish dissidents at a Berlin cafe. A subsequent German investigation and trial found the assassination directly authorized by a “Council for Special Operations” consisting of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamene’i, President ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Intelligence Minister ‘Ali Fallahian (Lockwood, 1997; Woolsey, 1997).

Inside Iran, authorities destroyed several hundred Kurdish villages and bombed others. Although the brutal suppression of the Kurds remains taboo in even reformist newspapers, some do mention the Rafsanjani administrations’ official neglect of the Kurdistan province between 1989 and 1997 (Ghaderi-Paveh, 2000). Kurds do participate in the Majlis, but the Islamic Republic actively works to undermine the effectiveness of their political representation. The Council of Guardians, for example, regularly prohibits the candidacy of ethnic Kurdish representatives who seek to use the political system to address local concerns. Other Kurdish politicians are eliminated based upon the alleged activities of their relatives (Human Rights Watch, 1997: 24). In March 2002, all six Majlis deputies from Kurdistan province resigned in protest of “discrimination against Kurd and Sunni minorities” (“Khatami,” 2001). And when Abdullah Ramazanzadeh, the governor of Kurdistan province, protested the Council of Guardians’ decision to nullify the results of the February 2000 parliamentary elections in two Kurdish constituencies, the council ordered him jailed for “spreading lies” (Muslimovic, 2001). According to the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, executions of its members continue (PDKI, 2001).

It is tempting to label the Kurds as Iran’s pariah minority, but they are only one of many groups treated as pariahs within Iran. For example, Human Rights Watch has documented that members of the Revolutionary Guards raped Kurdish women, but press reports indicate that Kurds are not alone in being victims of sexual molestation at the hands of officials of the Islamic Republic (Human Rights Watch, 1997: 26; Moghadam, 1989; IRNA, 2001). Many Western officials, journalists, and academicians may see President Muhammad Khatami as evidence of a reformist trend in Iran, yet he still represents a system that systematically discriminates against anyone who is not an adherent of Shiite Islam–that is, anyone who is a Kurd, Jew, Baha’i, or Baluchi. As other Iranian minorities are well integrated into society, it appears that the root cause of the Kurds’ pariah status under the current regime is their religious belief. Unfortunately, this indicates that Iranian Kurds can expect no improvement in their status as political and cultural outcasts until the Islamic Republic is replaced by a system more tolerant of religious diversity.

Syria’s Kurds

As in Iran, the Kurds in Syria continue to suffer as a pariah minority with little hope for immediate improvement. Friction between Syria’s minority Kurdish and majority Arab communities grew in the early twentieth alongside the rise in pan-Arabism. The French disproportionately used Syrian Kurds and Druze troops to subdue Arab revolts during the years of the French mandate, leading to lasting distrust and antagonism between Arabs and Kurds (McDowall, 2000: 467-468). The situation of the Kurds deteriorated markedly after Syrian independence. In 1957, suspected Arab nationalists set fire to a cinema, killing 250 Kurdish children in what would remain the deadliest attack in Syria until 1982, when Syrian President Hafez al-Asad slaughtered 20,000 people in Hama, a hotbed of political opposition. In 1958, the Syrian government banned all Kurdish-language publications. The Kurds’ pariah status was sealed in 1963, when a coup d’etat in 1963 brought the Ba’th party to power.

As in Iraq, the Ba’th in Syria promoted an ethnic chauvinist platform that in effect relegated the Kurds and any other non-Arabs to second-class status (Nazdar, 1993: 199). Almost 40 years of Ba’thist rule has only intensified the pariah status of Syria’s Kurdish minority. Nearly a quarter-million Syrian Kurds remain without citizenship; they were stripped of their nationality after the 1962 census. Many Kurds believe they lost their Syrian citizenship because of the Syrian government’s desire to “Arabize” the potentially oil-rich region bordering the Iraqi and Turkish frontiers (Human Rights Watch, 1996b). Accordingly, for four decades the now-stateless Kurds and all their children have been prohibited from owning land, legally marrying, and receiving an education. Syrian Kurds cannot even enter a public hospital (and instead must rely on unsubsidized private care), yet the government continues to forcibly conscript its non-citizen Kurds into the military. Even during the worst of times in Iraq and during the height of insurrection in Turkey and Iran, these governments did not strip their minorities of citizenship.

The Syrian government has imposed other restrictions as well to reinforce the Kurds’ pariah status. Kurdish may not even be taught in private schools (Nazdar, 1993: 200). While the European Union long criticized Turkey for restricting the Kurdish language–a law now repealed–it remains strangely silent on the Kurds’ second-class status in Syria. Accordingly, Syrian Kurds can expect little improvement in their status. The Syrian government continues to severely limit civil society and prohibit not only an independent press, but also access to outside journalists. External pressure would be the only factor that might force the Syrian government to mitigate or eliminate anti-Kurdish discrimination but, unfortunately, it appears that European countries like France place greater emphasis on trade than on human rights.


The twentieth century was not kind to the Kurds. The Turks and Iranians each have their own independent nation, while the Arabs have 21 countries. The Kurds seem destined to be minorities in others’ lands. But does this make them a pariah minority? Not necessarily. Independence is not the only antidote to oppression, nor is it a viable solution given geopolitical realities.

Simple remedies for the Kurds do not exist because the problems are as diverse as the Kurds and the countries in which they live. Arab ethnic chauvinism is a major factor in the Kurds’ pariah status in Iraq and Syria. The ideology of the ruling Ba’th party in both countries mandates second-class status for non-Arabs. The deference of the United Nations and European Union to the unelected governments in Baghdad and Damascus only reinforces those countries’ undemocratic actions. The success of Iraq’s Kurdish minority in areas freed from Saddam Hussein’s autocracy show the Kurdish potential when unleashed from government oppression.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, religion and not ethnicity is the major factor in the Kurds’ pariah status. There may be slight variations of attitude among the elite of the Islamic Republic, but every member of the Iranian government must pay allegiance to a system in which Sunni Muslims are automatically inferior. Unfortunately, there will likely be no change in the Iranian Kurds’ pariah status until the Islamic Republic falls.

The best hope for the Kurds is in Turkey. The Kurds share a large portion of blame for their historical treatment in Turkey. However, Ocalan’s capture and arrest have removed the major impediment to renewed engagement and reform. The fact that Kurds and Turks share the same religion, and that Kurds have been successful in a variety of diverse fields inside Turkey, indicate that politics and security, rather than ethnicity and religion, are the major obstacles in resolving the Kurdish problem in Turkey. This raises questions of whether, in at least some countries in the region, the Kurds can simply be seen as an adversarial or enemy group rather than a pariah minority. In both Iraq and Turkey, Kurds took up arms against sovereign states, although in the case of Iraq insurrection was largely a matter of self-defense. However, since in Turkey the problem is political rather than ethnic or religious, if the Kurds forswear violence, the Turkish government and military may increasingly show a willingness to engage, although the process will likely be lengthy because of decades of mutual distrust. Nevertheless, in at least one country, the Kurds do have reason for optimism.

* I am grateful for the help provided by Seth Wikas, a research assistant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as well as that of many Iraqi Kurds who must remain anonymous until their future is more secure.


(1) Systematic censuses of the Kurdish population are not available. Conservatively, approximately 12 million Kurds are in Turkey, 4.5 million in Iraq, 6 million in Iran, 1 million in Syria, and 500,000 in the Caucasus. The Kurdish diaspora numbers perhaps 1 million. Many Kurds claim their population exceeds 30 million.

(2) Kurds also predominate in the Ilam, Kirmanshah, and West Azerbaijan provinces.

(3) No authoritative studies have been published on Alevism given the community’s insularity; see, however, Melikoff (1993).

(4) Khayli and his colleagues neither had a firm grasp of nor interest in demographics; his figures must be treated with skepticism.

(5) Many early Western and Arabic studies of Yezidism focus on alleged devil worship; see, for example, Noury (1910). Recent works such as Allison (2001) present a much more thoroughly researched and accurate account of Yezidi theology.

(6) See, for example, Muminov (1993).

(7) For the ideology and history of the Ba’th Party, see Hourani (1991: 404-405).

(8) Spurred by a desire to avert a humanitarian crisis, Turkey, Britain, the United States, and France in April 1991 created a northern safehaven and no-fly zones above the 36th parallel and below the 32d parallel so that refugees could return to their country without fear of massacre at the hands of their unelected government. The legal basis for the no-fly zones is found in both UN Security Council Resolutions 678 and 688. France later withdrew from patrols of the no-fly zones. In 1996 the United States expanded the southern no-fly zone to the 33d parallel in response to the Iraqi military’s incursion into Erbil.

There is debate as to whether Resolution 688 also justified the no-fly zone. Opponents argue that 688 did not implement UN Charter Article VII, the “enforcement clause.” However, UN Security Council Resolution 678 authorized “all necessary means” to implement not only Resolution 660 (calling for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait) but also all “subsequent relevant resolutions and to restore international peace and security in the area” (Kirgis, 2001).

(9) An often cited 1999 UNICEF report claiming sanctions to be responsible for the deaths of half a million children was coauthored by the Iraqi government and uncritically incorporated Iraqi government statistics, both of which a former high-level official of the United Nations Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq was particularly critical. The accompanying map in the study also excluded Kuwait; see UNICEF (1999).

(10) For recent reports of Iraq’s Arabization policy, see: “Report on Recent Arabization Measures in Kurdish Region” (2002); Goldberg (2002); Darseem (2002). For accounts of the ethnic-cleansing process, see Rubin (2001). Iraqi government-controlled papers have also acknowledged the “Arabization” campaign; see, for example, Sawt al-Ta’amim, September 19, 2000.

(11) According to Human Rights Watch, Turkish security services evacuated 1,592 villages and hamlets. The Turkish government then sought to provide housing in secure areas for internally displaced persons (Human Rights Watch, 1996a).

(12) Articles 12 and 13 of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s constitution outline the tolerated minorities of the state but do not address Kurds or Sunnis.


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Michael Rubin is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent monograph is Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in Khatami’s Iran (2001). His commentary about Iraq and the Kurds has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.

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