Kurds and Kurdistans

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Jan 24 14:17:09 UTC 2005

The Eurasian Politician - Issue 3 (February 2001)

Kurds and Kurdistans
By: Antero Leitzinger, March 2001

Translation: Anssi Kullberg

The edition is based on Antero Leitzingers lecture in the University of
Helsinki, in the Studia Generalia series "Crisis Kettles and Religions in
World Politics", part "Nations without State" on 8th March 2001.


Western thinking leads us to figure out nations on the basis of a common
language or religion. According to the principle of nation-state, each
nation must have a homeland. But are the Kurds one united nation, or
rather a heterogeneous group of various nations in the same way as, for
instance, the Scandinavians [Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Icelanders] or the
Baltic Finns [Finns, Estonians, Karelians, Ingrians, Veps, Livonians]?

The Kurds speak several languages and confess even more religions. Equally
big differences prevail between Kurdish languages as between them and
Persian. If Gurani and Luri are just dialects of one and same language,
then are not also Sorani and Kurmandji dialects of Persian? If the Kurds
still need a state separate from other Iranic nations, would there next be
a liberation movement of Zazakistan within independent Kurdistan?

There are several Kurdistans, "lands of the Kurds", in the world  not only
because the traditional territory inhabited by Kurds is divided between at
least six states, but also because each Kurdish party has their own idea
of the borders, governance and future of their ideal state. The Kurds have
dozens of nationalist parties, and besides, many Kurds support
cross-country parties that exceed ethnic boundaries in those countries
where free party activity is legal at all.

In Iran, there is a province called Kordestan, rooted in medieval times,
but the Kurdish state that declared independence in 1946 was not located
in Kordestan, but in the province of Western Azerbaijan. In Iraq, the
Kurdish region is divided into three parts: the stripe governed by the
Baath party, and the territories of the competitor Kurd parties KDP and
PUK. The "Red Kurdistan" that officially belongs to Azerbaijan, is
presently ruled by Armenia. Part of Syrias Kurds have lacked citizenship
and civil rights for four decades already. In Turkey, the position of
Kurds is better than in any of her neighbouring countries, but still it is
the Turkish Kurds, whose human rights are usually covered by international

Whose Kurdistan is the right one? The Iraqi Kurds are under the protection
of the NATO, but the PKK considers NATO their enemy. Founding a national
state in the Middle East has its model in Israel, but the idea was once
agitated by the Soviet Union. The Kurdish national identity is often
shaped among the immigrants in Europe, and under the influence of
controversal political programmes. The problem touches Europe, but is it
necessarily a problem?

* * *

The Kurds and Kurdistan  a nation and a state? Western line of thinking
leads us to the idea of nation-state, but can it be suited to the reality
of Middle East? What is a nation? Does every nation need a state on their
own? Does one Kurdistan exist, or are there several of them?

Before we concentrate in the Kurds, it is a good idea to pay some
attention on their bigger neighbour nations: the Turks, the Arabs, and the

The Turks are linguistically and culturally a very united nation. They
inhabit a very wide zone from Cyprus to the Great Wall of China. Only
about half of the worlds Turks are living in Turkey. The core area is
Turkestan, "land of the Turks", in Central Asia. It is divided by at least
seven states. When Turkish nationalism developed in the 1800s, it adopted
the model from Europe, but this European-modelled national idea has still
not yet spread very deep into east.

The Arab nation is divided into dozens of states, among which none was
entirely independent hundred years ago. Arab nationalism was connected
with Arab socialism, but still failed in its attempts to unite the Arab
world in the 1900s. What remained was a lot of bitterness and chronical
problems of international politics.

The Persians belong to the Iranic peoples. They have their nominate state
Iran, which was earlier called Persia abroad. Also Tajikistan and
Afghanistan are Iranic states.

The relationship between Iran and Turkey is interesting. Every fourth
Iranian is ethnically Turk. In Irans Southern Azerbaijan there are more of
Turkish "Azeris" than in the formally independent Northern Azerbaijan.
Iran also has Turkmen population larger than Turkmenistan. These Turkish
tribes differ from each other about as much as Savonians and Karelians
[two Finnish tribes].

Azerbaijan and Kurdistan are in many ways like mirror images of each
other. Both were promised independence at the end of the World War I. Both
got to taste Soviet-styled independence after the World War II. Ten years
ago, Northern Azerbaijan and Southern Kurdistan became free from the
occupation of Russia and Iraq, but their independence is still weak. On
the other hand, Iran, now surrounded by newly independent states, fears
more than ever before that her Western parts would split up.

The world around the Kurds is not whole and not simple. The problems are

Are the Kurds one, united nation, or are they a group of Iranic tribes?
Can the difference between a nation and a tribe be objectively defined?

According to the Persians, the Kurds speak various dialects of Persian.
According to others, Kurdish is a distinct relative language to Persian.
The boundary is soft, and Luri might be as well a Persian dialect as a
Kurdish language. After all, the choice is political: which group one
wants to be identified with.

Between Kurdish dialects or languages there are so big differences that
they must be taken into consideration in interpretation. The differences
are bigger than between German and Danish or between Spanish and

In Iran, three important Kurdish languages are spoken:

Gurani is the liturgical language of the "People of Truth" (Ahl-i-Haqq).
They constitute an old religious group, which lives in the historical core
of Kurdistan, in the area of the medieval khanate of Ardalan.

Sorani is the most studied and best-known Kurdish language. It has an
official status in Iraq, where it is spoken by the Kurds living around
Suleymania. They, too, believe that they descend from the Ardalan Khanate.

Kurmandji is spoken in all the Kurdish homelands. In Northern Iraq, the
Kurmandji area is governed by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which
uses Arabic script. The Turkish Kurmandjis use Latin alphabet of the
Turkish model. In the Soviet Union, Kurmandji was also written with
Cyrillic letters.

The fourth important Kurdish language is Zaza or Dimili, which is spoken
in Turkey. Many Zazas aim at forming a special area of Zazakistan, instead
of independent Kurdistan. Despite their geographic distance, Zaza and
Gurani are closer to each other than to Sorani or Kurmandji. This is due
to the fact that Kurdish settlement has spread westwards with rapid and
long pulses.

Linguistic disunity is not as such a hindrance to united national feeling.
Nationalism has often been based on a hardly common written language. In
the neighbourhood of the Kurds, the Georgians and the North Caucasians
have proved this. Also Italian language and the Slavonic languages of the
Balkan countries were only created in the 1800s to support the ideas of
national unification and political independence.

The Kurdish languages are strongly based on Arabic loan words. So were
also Persian and Turkish based on Arabic loans before the linguistic
reforms of the 1900s, in which the written language was "cleaned" of
"alien" elements. When the differences between the three great linguistic
groups of the Middle East were emphasised, the Kurdish languages fell in
between. In a way, the Kurds were born in the vacuum left by the narrow
interpretation of the dominant cultures.

One Kurdish dictionary has been published in Finnish, by Lokman Abbas. The
Kurdish in it is Sorani. In Sweden one has published a pocket dictionary
in Kurmandji. Also in other European languages there are Kurdish
vocabularies, but the quality differs. Kurdish literature is plentiful but
developing a useful written language still takes its time. Culture cannot
be ordered like a home pizza; one has to toil for it devotedly, and there
must be lasting need for it.

Besides language, religion can be used to unite or separate nations.

Most of the Kurds are Sunnite Muslims of the Shafi discipline.
Disciplinary differences are however that small that they do not
relevantly separate the Kurds from their Hanafi neighbours, the Turks and
the Arabs.

As Sunnite Muslims, most Kurds are separated from the Shiite Islam, which
is the state religion of Iran. Yet the Iraqi Feilis are Shiite Kurds.
Besides, many sects with Shiite origin are represented among Kurds, and
many of these sects also have strongly non-Islamic influences.

Many believe that the most genuine Kurds are the Yesids, whose religion is
a strange mixture of Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. On
the other hand the Yesids feel deep distrust at all outsiders, and often
they are not even classified as actual Kurds.

Nowadays the Assyrian Christians of Northern Iraq declare they are Kurds.
The Jewish Kurds were once evacuated to Israel. So, there are Kurds
belonging to every main religion of the region.

The Kurds cannot be exclusively defined by language, religion or any
single cultural feature. Even the spring celebration Nevruz, which the
Kurds will celebrate after two weeks at the time of the spring equinox, is
an old all-Iranian tradition. It is also celebrated by Central Asian

The Kurdish culture changes in time. Some "age-old Kurdish traditions"
were in fact born in Germany in recent decades. This is nothing unusual,
as many nations without state have found their identity in exile, in

The strength of the Kurds and the vitality of Kurdish culture are in their
ability to create new, and to combine traditions of the Middle Eastern
dominant cultures and numerous minorities. The variety and flexibility of
expression, typical for spoken language, the religious plurality, and the
whole wide scale of culture are not necessarily weaknesses splitting up
the community, and by no means they are reasons for shame. The Kurds have
not succeeded in imitating European nationalism of the 1800s, but they
have succeeded in what todays Europeanity is dreaming about: unity in

A nation without state may feel orphan or homeless. In that case, however,
the state has been given tasks that it could hardly fulfil.

The main Kurdish parties are all state-centrist, their background being
hard-line socialist. The KDP and its Iranian brother party were founded in
Stalins protection. In that time the Kurds were hailing Stalin as "the
liberator of small nations".

When the KDP was released from the Soviet Unions guidance in the 1960s,
the PUK was founded to defend fundamentalist Marxism. The Kurdish section
Komala was split up from the Iranian Communist Party.

By time, the number of Kurdish parties was increased by splitting. Those
shocked of the collapse of Soviet power founded Workers Communist Party
(WCP) in Iraq and Iran. This party has spectacular presence in the virtual
reality, in internet.

Also "Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tse Tungs thought" gained supporters among
Kurds. They founded the Kurdish Workers Party, PKK, which is
internationally the best-known, but by no means the only, Kurdish

There are dozens of specially Kurdish parties. Many of them are one-man
enterprises or stages of the main parties. All in all, they share a common
belief in the idea that a state on their own would solve all the problems
of the Kurds, and the problems are understood as basically economic

Because the Kurds have many but dear parties, also the goals of
independence are rather party politics than national projects. There is no
consensus on Kurdistans borders, form of government and symbols like flag.
Each party has its own Kurdistan. Each party also has its own army, its
schools, and its health system. The parties have adopted many tasks of
tribes. Membership in a party is often strategic allegiance of family and
tribe, not free and ideological choice of the individual.

Each party has its international sponsors: PUK has historically leaned at
Syria, and KDP at Turkey. PKK has leaned at both Syria and Iraq.
Exploitation has been mutual.

The Kurdish parties are fighting each other. For three years now, KDP and
PUK have respected their ceasefire, mainly due to external pressure, but
meanwhile, PKK has fought against both these Iraqi Kurdish parties.

In democracy it is natural that parties disagree. Usually they do,
however, agree on large-scale national questions, and in the times of war
they act under common war command. For example, the Chechens demand
independence before all, and only secondarily come the questions of the
countrys future systems of justice and economy. The Finnish Jger [Finnish
freedom fighters trained in Germany before the independence] included Red
and White, Monarchists and Republicans. Among the Kurdish parties, such
agreement is missing.

Kurdistan has been founded many times and in many places.

In Iran, the Kurds declared independence in 1946, but it happened in the
city of Mahabad, not in the actual province of Kordestan.

The Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, recognised by the Iraqi government in 1970s,
the de facto independent regional administration of Kurdistan since 1991,
and the no-flight area controlled by NATO, do not entirely coincide in
coverage. Besides, KDP and PUK have divided their interest spheres along
the dialect boundary.

In Turkey, Kurdistan has never been profoundly defined. It has been at its
best a vague anthropological conception, a bit like the "wolf zone" in
Finland [expression of periphery].

In the World War I, the European colonial powers Russia, France and
Britain were seizing new colonies by sharing the Middle East between each
other. They planned to found two newly old Christian protectorats in
Eastern Turkey: Armenia and Assyria. Both these regionally overlapped with
Kurdistan. Hatred was incited between the Christian groups and the Islamic
Kurds. This resulted massacres, for which it is nowadays fashionable to
blame Turkey, while the guilt of the European counterparts is forgotten.

Turkeys enemy in the World War I [Russia] as well as the fanatic bandit
groupings of the different parties have apparently got absolution from
their sins. Instead of Armenia and Assyria, Kurdistan has appeared on the
maps. It has traditionally had dangerous results when European powers
[like Russia and France] have started to redraw Middle Eastern maps.

Today, Turkeys Kurdistan could be defined in accordance with those
provinces that have state of emergency. However, most Turkish Kurds live
outside that region  many of them in the Turkish metropoles far west from
Kurdistan. For them, cultural autonomy would sound more sensible than
regional privileges.

Separation of the three dominant cultures of the Middle East left the
Kurds in between. As the Kurds were not "good" Arabs, and all of them did
not become "proper" Iranians or Turks, they were pushed aside and they had
to search for their own identity.

This has not always been the case and it need not be so forever. An
American journal appointed as "the man of 12th century" the Kurdish chief
Saladin, who led Islamic troops against the Crusaders. Saladin is also the
Arabs hero, and a historical regent admired by even his European enemies.
He was known for his religious tolerance and the nobility of his
character. Saladin was not profiled as rebel or terrorist leader, but as
the one who united the Middle East.

Kurdish nationalism and political activity is for a great part a reaction
to the policy of the states in the region. When the Kurds have been
respected, they have produced great statesmen like Saladin for the honour
of the whole Middle East. When the Kurds have been despised, they have
corroded the structures of all the states in the region.

The most miserable situation prevails in Syria, where most of the countrys
Kurdish population has lacked all citizen rights for 40 years  literally.

Iraqs situation is formally decent, but what value do laws and contracts
have, if the government cannot be trusted? In 1988, Saddam Husseins troops
murdered with gas raids estimated 200000 Kurds within only half a year. Is
it then a wonder that the Iraqi Kurds want to establish a humanitarian
refuge for themselves and their families in Europe, anticipating the

When Armenia conquered territories from Azerbaijan, thousands of Muslim
Kurds were murdered and expelled from their home villages. Only the Yesids
got mercy from Armenians.

Guerrilla war took place in Iran and Turkey in 1980s and 1990s. In both
countries 40000 people were killed, in Iran probably more. Leaders of
Iranian Kurds were assassinated in Europe, but for some reason the Western
press has been mainly interested in the arrest of the Turkish PKK,
Abdullah calan, two years ago.

Yet calan is about the worst possible example of a typical Kurd. calan
speaks Turkish. The emissaries of the PKK in Europe speak Turkish with
each other. calan has not for a single day fought as a guerrilla, but
still he has ordered death penalties to traitors, deserters, school
teachers and dissidents of his party. calans original idols were Che
Guevara and Pol Pot. A Kurdish activist hiding in Germany, Selim Crkkaya,
published a book named PKK four years ago. In his book, Crkkaya describes
the horrible ways of discipline, paranoia and personal cult prevailing in
the PKK. The fanaticism of the supporters, child soldiers and suicides by
burning have caused immense damage to the reputation of the Kurds and
their cause. It is not without reason that Germany, France, Britain and
the United States have prohibited the PKK as a criminal organisation.

Hikmet Cetin, who has acted as the chairman of the Turkish parliament and
even as the acting president, is not at all less a Kurd than calan, even
though he condemns the PKK. Every fifth parliamentarian in Turkey is a
Kurd. Also in Iran, the Kurds are represented in government, police and
army. All Kurds do not support specially Kurdish parties and they do not
demand a special Kurdish state. In the violence of Turkey and Iran, there
have been features of a Kurdish civil war.

Iraqs Kurds have their own great leaders. The deceised Mulla Mustafa
Barzani was virtuously leading his guerrillas, the "peshmergas", in the
mountains of four countries for 30 years. Barzanis son and colleague are
now leading opposite parties.

An average Kurd, however, is not a politician and not even politically
persecuted. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds are living in Europe, a couple
of thousands of them in Finland. Most of them are ordinary, honest and
hard-working immigrants, in whose home villages the emigration started as
early as in 1960s. They try to earn their living and secure the future of
their families. They want to save their mother tongue, their religion and
their customs on the level of ordinary life. As citizens of Finland they
are faithful to their new fatherland, although Kurdistan remains in their
memories and dreams.

Many nations without state have to keep nationality apart from

Nobody denies that the Kurds as individuals would deserve full human
rights and that these rights have been violated in many countries.
However, are the Kurds also a nation? According to the British researcher
David McDowall, the Kurds became a nation at the end of the World War I.
Many other researchers are still confused at the question.

Who has the right to represent a nation? Are there some particular
"collective rights" that belong to a nation or its representatives?

Unfortunately we do not even know the actual number of Kurds, because all
the estimations appearing in the literature are based on other estimations
made decades ago. A nation without state is like a soup without case  it
slips out of hands and avoids attempts to define.

"Kurdistan" is a word that raises passions. Many governments are allergic
to it. On the other hand, many European politicians and journalists are
connecting rather romanticised ideas with Kurds. Superficial and
sensational supply of information is presenting things in a simplistic

Europe has had the bad habit of playing hypocrite with human rights.
Minorities have been used as tools in superpower politics, but in critical
situations the minorities have been betrayed and abandoned. The Kurds have
gained selective publicity, whenever European powers have wanted to avoid
speaking about Basques or Bretons. The Turkish idea of understanding all
citizens of Turkey as "Turks" does not differ from the similar conception
of nationality in France and Spain.

The Kurds have also been employed as examples of the Marxist theory of
empoverishment. The Australian Paul J. White, who published a book on
Kurds last year (Primitive Rebels or Revolutionary Modernizers), still in
our times describes the Kurds as Turkeys "proletariat". This is
artificial, condescending and insultive. Equally well the Savonians and
Karelians could be branded as Finlands discriminated proletarians, who is
suffering in Helsinkis suburbs. All Kurds would not like to be
characterised as eternal losers and they do not want to mourn their fate
and beg for sympathy.

Sometimes national identity is being interpreted in so purpose-bound ways
and so widely that it is hard to be taken seriously. A Turkish
Arabic-speaking Christian declares himself as a Kurd, because he feels
different and discriminated in his home country. If he becomes unemployed,
his bad luck is easy to explain as "persecution". Is anybody a Kurd if he
feels loser?

According to an increasing point of view, the Kurds are present Europes
nomads, wandering asylum-seekers. But is this really only due to difficult
circumstances in the coutries of origin, or is it rather due to the
reluctant immigration policy of Europe, which prefers sharing social
support to admitting work permissions? To what extent do the European
countries encourage to apply and wait for an asylum instead of giving
equal treatment and fair chance to work and embrace ones own culture?

The Kurds are an inseparable part of the whole Middle Easts cultural
heritage. In them, also the best sides of Turkey, Iran and the Arab
countries are combined. Far too often the European discussion connects the
Kurds with problems, and presents the Kurds as evidence of the social
undevelopment of the Middle Eastern countries. This only strengthens the
negative attitudes in these countries.

Kurdistan is situated where Turkey, Persia and Arabia meet. Whether it is
a point of friction or a meeting-point, a gap or a bridge, is a crucial
question for the Kurds and their home countries still for a long time for

The Kurds also belong to Europe. They are permanently present among us.

Europe has always been involved in the Middle Eastern affairs, and thus
she cannot avoid her responsibility when things are entangled into
troubles. Responsibility calls for knowledge and knowledge demands
research. The Kurds still deserve even more research and from broader
views. Also difficult questions most be discussed without fervour.

* * *

Published with the lecturers permission. Antero Leitzinger is a political
historian, researcher of the Finnish Directorate of Immigration, and
author of several books on Turkey, the Middle East and the Caucasus.


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