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Middle East Team Dispatch

Speak Your Mind…..The Kurdish Conflict
March 15, 2000

While the Kurds have always been an entity in and of themselves--with their own language, traditions, and heritage-they are currently a people without a country, their territory carved up between nations like slices in a pie.

Mainly occupying the mountains and uplands where Turkey, Iran and Iraq meet, the Kurds are the end products of thousands of years of internal evolution and assimilation of new peoples and ideas. While invaders brought Islam from Arabia and modern technology from the West, the Kurds absorbed these influences but retained their distinct identity. Their language closely resembles Persian, but is divided into two main dialects, and although they are predominantly Sunni Muslim, the Kurds embrace other religions as well, such as Christianity and Judaism.

For hundreds of years, the Kurds lived in autonomy-both nationally and culturally--in the area known as Kurdistan, their historical homeland. Kurdish society traditionally revolves around a strong tribal organization, and today, without a national Kurdish state and government, tribes serve as the highest native source of authority in which people place their allegiance.

The Great War, or World War I, was disastrous for the Kurds and their homeland. Prior to World War I, the Kurdish tribes lived an autonomous existence along the borders of the Ottoman Empire (which encompassed Turkey, southeastern Europe, the Arab Middle East and North Africa) and the Persian Empire (which included everything between Greece and India at one point, but by this century had dwindled to the borders of modern-day Iran). The Ottomans and the Persians allowed the Kurds their independence in exchange for keeping the peace along the border dividing the great empires.

The War, though, spelled the end of the Ottoman Empire (which was called the "Sick Man of Europe" because of its weakness). Kurdistan was divided among several nations, and the results are still apparent today. Though Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, (after the Arabs, Persians and Turks), they are scattered throughout Turkey (approx. 52% of all Kurds), Iran (25.5%), Iraq (16%), and Syria (5%). The Kurds have remained the only ethnic group in the world with indigenous representatives in three world geopolitical blocs: the Arab World (in Iraq and Syria), NATO (in Turkey), the South Asian-Central Asian bloc (in Iran and Turkmenistan), and, until recently, the Soviet bloc.

The demise of the Ottoman and Persian Empires brought devastating changes to the Kurds' identity and existence. In 1920, after World War I and the Ottoman Empire's collapse, the victorious Western allies briefly promised the Kurds independence in the Treaty of Sevres. But when the Treaty was renegotiated, promises for Kurdish autonomy were ignored.

Traditionally independent in their thought, language, culture and traditions, the Kurds now were pressured to conform to the ways of the majority. They were expected to learn the official languages of their new states-whether it was Turkish, Arabic or Farsi. In addition, their Kurdish identity was in jeopardy, as the nationalism of Turkey, Iran or Iraq was forced upon them. While most Kurds struggled against these encroachments on their identity, others tried to work within the confines of nationalism and the newly-formed governments.

The oppression of nationalist governments wasn't (and isn't) the only bar to Kurdish independence: the Kurds themselves have always been notoriously divided, with different political agendas. Kurdistan's political parties run the gamut from radical left-wing to Islamic to more traditional tribal structures and, as a result, the Kurds have often fought each other instead of uniting against the common enemy. The Kurds' future is uncertain, as the various groups seem to be as divided as ever. Meanwhile, despite their many differences, the governments of the region are "united in their absolute determination to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish state" (from A Short History of the Kurdish Question,

In Turkey, specifically, the struggle between the Kurds and the Turkish government is an acute reality, and has been since World War I. Although eight to 10 million Kurds populate Turkey, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge their identity as a people. They are forbidden to use their own language or to call themselves Kurds. Rather, they are referred to as "Mountain Turks."

These sanctions have been enforced since the modern Turkish State was founded in 1923. The 1920's and 1930's witnessed a Kurdish rebellion, but the repercussions of the struggle were fierce and severe. The Turkish government responded with massive deportations of rebels from their homeland.

Today, the oppression persists.

Beginning in 1993, the Turkish government stepped up its persecution of the Kurds and Kurdish identity. Efforts to quell Kurdish voices, opinions, human rights activism and protests are rampant throughout Turkey, with writers, lawyers, journalists, intellectuals, activists, and even members of parliament being targeted. No one is immune. Called $#34;prisoners of consciousness," many people are serving prison terms for speaking their mind.

Leyla Zana is one of these prisoners of consciousness. Serving a fifteen-year sentence, this Kurdish Member of Parliament spends her days in solitary confinement in a Turkish prison.

For what reason?

Speaking her mind.

Kurdish villages continue to be evacuated and destroyed. Thousands of Kurdish civilians have lost their homes.


nationalism - devotion to the interests or culture of a particular nation (for example, Turkey)
autonomy - independence
persecution - attacking or punishing someone for their beliefs or race
suppression - forcefully preventing opinions from being heard
consciousness - a sense of one's identity

There are no clear-cut answers--as in so many areas of the world today. As independent thinkers, we must stay educated on human rights throughout the world. It is our moral and political responsibility. A common theme weaves through many social issues today….the need to speak up, stand up, and help be the catalyst of change.

Change is a process--often slow, often painful--but essential. Never underestimate the power of the individual. Enough socially and morally responsible individuals make up a loud voice of protest and change. Be a part of that voice…Speak your mind.

Following is a basic outline put together by the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN) regarding the Kurdish struggle (

AKIN calls for:

  • an independent international human rights investigation into widespread human rights abuses committed against Kurds, particularly against Kurdish women;
  • a UN special investigation into torture, arbitrary detention, and extra-judicial executions, and for the perpetrators of these grave violations to be brought to trial;
  • the Kurdish people to be allowed to exercise their fundamental universally acknowledged right to self-determination;
  • a negotiated settlement to the Kurdish question, with the governments with jurisdiction over the Kurds agreeing to open an unconditional dialogue with representatives of the Kurdish people;
  • the US, Canada and all European countries to immediately stop supplying weapons to Turkey;
  • all nations to end the deportation of Kurdish refugees;
  • tourists to boycott Turkey as a holiday destination.


The Kurdish Human Rights Project-all about the struggle in Kurdistan

Human Rights Watch, an organization that tracks abuses throughout the world


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