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The Kurds: An Important Piece of the Fabric of Arab Society

posted on: Jun 20, 2018

By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer

The Kurds represent only a small population in the Arab World. However, as an ancient ethnic group in the Middle East, they continue to inhabit a large swath of an area including Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and the Caucasus of the former Soviet Union including, present-day Armenia. Kurds share with Iranians a linguistic origin in the large family known as Indo-European. As you may know, the English language is a member of that same family. Comprising around 25-30 million people, the Kurds were promised their own homeland by such diverse personalities as Britain’s Churchill and America’s Kissinger. This never happened.

Map showing the distribution of Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Armenia

In the absence of their own homeland, the Kurds have suffered from severe oppression by the leaders of at least two of the countries in which they live. Saddam Hussein is the prime example of a leader who tried to decimate the Kurds, in this case from Iraq. Almost as extreme in its actions against the Kurds is the Turkish government, which has ruled over them with an iron hand in an effort to maintain the semblance of a unified Turkey.

I have worked with the Kurds of northern Iraq for an extended period, once during Saddam’s rule and another during the post-Saddam period. I found them a highly resilient people who would love to have their own country. In its absence, they offer a good example of survival in the face of opposing forces. Kurds are part of the Middle Eastern mosaic, in which Islam has been an important theme. Thus, they are important for understanding the Arab World in its totality.

The Kurds—unified by language and culture

Kurdish is made up of several dialects. In Iraq, the language has an official status, alongside Arabic. In Iran, it is recognized as a regional language. Because the Kurds are citizens of many countries, they also speak one or two additional languages. In Iraq they are bilingual in Arabic; in Iran, in Persian or Farsi; and in Turkey, in Turkish. Kurdish language, culture and their desire for their own homeland are the unifying features of their identity. They follow the Sunni branch of Islam but in Iraq, there is also a strong Christian minority. Many Kurds lean towards a more secular form of Islam. After Arabs, Persians, and Turks, Kurds represent the fourth largest ethnic grouping in the Middle East.

Kurds in history

Most Kurds accepted Islam early on and were heavily involved in the Islamic sweep across Asia and the Middle East. Contributing to this sweep was one An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, a Kurd commonly known as Saladin. Saladin led the military campaign against the Crusaders in 1187, in which Muslim armies took control of Palestine and especially the holy city of Jerusalem. While the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem lasted for several centuries following that campaign, Saladin’s success resulted in eventual Muslim control of the area. That is, up until the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when the area reverted to Israeli occupation and control.

An image of the great Kurdish warrior, Saladin, taking on the Crusaders in the area of Jerusalem in the 12th century

The Kurds are one of the ancient peoples of the Middle East. They have preserved their uniqueness and their language despite having adopted Islam. In the past they were part of the Sunni majority and, as noted above, actively participated in the wars on the side of the Arabs and Islam. At the same time, the Kurds always saw themselves as a separate, non-Arab community. About 8-9 million Kurds live in Iraq and Syria, but together with their brethren in Turkey and Iran, the total number is around 25-30 million people.

Attempts at forming a nation

Before World War I, Ottoman Turkish rulers tried to co-opt its Kurdish minority into the Empire. They were successful, to a degree. By the time of the First World War and the decline of the Ottoman Empire, however, the Kurds attempted to gain independence, without success. More recently, in the 1990s, the Turks have driven Kurds off their land, forcing them into cities in southern Turkey so as to better control them. The Iranians have similarly repressed Kurdish attempts at self-determination.

In the 1970s an Iraqi Kurd-based movement formed a militant party called the Kurdistan Workers Party (or PKK) to support Turkish Kurds in gaining independence from Turkey. Their success in this endeavor has come to naught. For that reason, the Kurds are known as one of the largest ethnic groupings that is stateless. This is the case, despite the futile efforts of a few Western leaders to promise otherwise.

Kurds under Saddam

Both before and during the First Gulf War in the 1990s, Saddam Hussein had been on the attack against of the Kurdish population of Iraq. His intent was to squash the Kurds. He saw them as an intransigent, non-Arab ethnic minority who sat on a lot of oil and whose allegiance he had difficulty commanding. Saddam had poisoned an entire community, Halabja, with mustard gas, forced Kurds from their city of Kirkuk because the city rested on large oil deposits, and ravaged their productive agricultural lands in northern Iraq.

To protect the Kurds, in the early-mid 1990s the U.S. and Britain agreed to a system of aerial surveillance, known as the ‘no-fly zone’ by which the air forces of each nation would make daily scheduled flights over a certain line of latitude across which Saddam’s forces would cross at their peril. This procedure was intended to and effectively did protect the Kurds from further incursions by Saddam.

While the no-fly zone kept the Iraqi military out of the Kurdish area, ironically the absence of that threat enabled an active battle, in fact, a civil war, to ensue between the two major Kurdish tribal-based political factions. They were each vying for control of the entire area of what is now for them, proudly, a unified Kurdistan. During my work in Kurdistan in 1994, I witnessed the Kurds’ civil war early on, with rockets streaming across the night sky and the ever-present sound of shells plummeting earthward.

British and U.S. aerial-protected areas in Iraq during the 1990s–established to protect the Kurds in the North and Shia in the South from further destructive incursions by Saddam

Saddam’s Genocidal Chemical Attack on the Kurds

In 2008-09 I was back again working with the Kurds. While there I had the opportunity to visit the site of Saddam’s horrific genocidal chemical attack of March 16, 1988. My Kurdish colleagues wanted me to witness the memorial at Halabja, dedicated to those killed and maimed in that town. They were insistent that I visit the memorial—they wanted me to share in how their fellow Kurds had suffered so ignobly under Saddam’s rule. After our visit, I understood precisely why they wanted me to be a witness to such tragedy.

Saddam’s attack on Halabja took place during the final days of the Iran-Iraq war and was supposedly directed at an Iranian military brigade and Kurdish peshmerga (freedom fighters) who had together captured a nearby airfield. Many Iraqis saw the attack as part of Saddam’s more comprehensive Al-Anfal (‘Spoils of War’) campaign to terrorize Kurds, destroy the peshmerga, and steal their lands and oil.

The heartbreaking aftermath of Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds in Halabja

The chemical attack, which used what is commonly called mustard gas, killed 3,200-5,000 and injured 7,000-10,000 more. It affected untold thousands who died in subsequent years of chemical-related complications, such as disease and birth defects. Most of the victims were Kurdish civilians. The attack was officially recognized after the fall of Saddam by the Iraqi High Criminal Court as an act of genocide against the Kurds and recorded historically as the largest chemical weapons attack on civilians ever.

It was the residential areas of Halabja that were bombed with chemicals, a nasty nitrous oxide compound. The attack produced clouds of smoke rising high in the air, ugly chemical fumes that killed many residents immediately. Or, if it didn’t kill them instantly it drove them into hysterical behavior such as uncontrollable laughter. It prompted those who lived to tell the tale to describe that some of those residents who didn’t drop dead on the spot had “died of laughter,” hence the name for the chemical, “laughing gas.”

Kurdish-American team (author at far l.) upon visiting the memorial to children, women, and men murdered by Saddam’s chemical attack on the town of Halabja

A local resident guided my Kurdish and American colleagues and me through this now-hallowed town, comprised of endless graves and monuments. He noted that once the attack ended, Halabja looked like it had been stopped in time, frozen as a still picture, with no sense that such wanton, inhumane destruction was even conceivable. Now a large cemetery stands where houses once stood, the land dotted by numerous individual grave markers and larger stone memorials with hundreds of victims’ names etched on them. My fellow team members were as touched as I was, and as we wound our way through the memorials our conversations were marked by long silences.

Prospects for the Kurds

Whether it’s the Kurds of Iraq, Turkey, Iran, or Syria, their prospects for a successful political future are largely dependent on the conditions of the larger states of which they are a part. Except perhaps for the Kurds in Iraq, their chances for self-determination, even self-rule, are dim. The Kurds presently confront governments that range from quasi-democratic (Iraq) to authoritarian (Turkey), to theocratic despotism (Iran), to simply despotic (Syria). Still, the Kurds of northern Iraq represent one of the more positive examples of self-determination in a multi-ethnic state. If political and economic opportunities come to be equally shared in Iraq, then the Kurds will have a fighting chance to succeed as a self-directed, vibrant ethnic group. They would also then become a shining example for the rest of the Arab World.

John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and society, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing. Part of this entry was adapted from his book.