William Hamblin and Daniel Peterson
years, it was common for news reports from Iraq to mention tensions and even
violence between the three principal factions within the country — the Sunnis,
the Shi’ites and the Kurds. But that tripartite division reflected a serious
misunderstanding: While the Sunnis and the Shi’ites represent the two major
divisions of Islam, the Kurds are not a religious sect but a non-Arab ethnic
group. (They are, themselves, mostly Sunni Muslims). Thus, speaking about
“Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds” is rather like discussing “Catholics, Protestants
and Canadians,” or dividing the population of Asia into the three religious
sects of “Buddhism, Shinto and Japan.”
the Kurds number roughly 30 to 45 million and occupy a relatively mountainous
area of the northern Middle East. They have been described by some observers as
the largest “nation” on the planet without its own state.
just world, there would arguably be an independent Kurdistan — a recognized
“Land of the Kurds” ruled by its own government. And indeed, following the end
of World War I and the carving up of the defeated Ottoman Empire, the
victorious Western allies formally promised the establishment of an autonomous
Kurdish state. Shortly thereafter, though, the West reneged on its promise, and
today’s Kurds, many of whom still earnestly dream of independence, are divided
between south-eastern Turkey, northern Syria, north-western Iran, and northern
relations with the countries in which they live have been troubled; none of
those countries tolerates even the idea of Kurdish separatism. (For one thing,
perhaps a third of Iraq’s oil reserves are located within Iraqi Kurdistan.)
Just a small sample of the Kurds’ history in the 20th and early-21st centuries
will provide some notion of the Kurdish situation:
and after World War I, the Turkish government displaced hundreds of thousands
of Kurds from their native areas, and many of them died in the process. For a
period beginning in the 1980s, the words “Kurd,” “Kurdish” and “Kurdistan” were
prohibited, targeted assassinations of Kurdish leaders were undertaken, and
private and public use of the Kurdish language — a West Iranian tongue of the
Indo-European language family — was altogether prohibited.
Syria, at various times, the Kurdish language has been banned, the government
has outlawed businesses bearing Kurdish titles, Kurdish place names have been suppressed
and replaced with new Arabic ones, private Kurdish-language schools and books
have been prohibited and children bearing Kurdish names have been refused
government documents, thus effectively making them nonpersons and prisoners
within Syria’s borders.
1975 and 1978, approximately 200,000 Iraqi Kurds were forced to abandon their
homes. Between 1986 and 1989, roughly 185,000 Kurds died as a result of
government genocide, including the notorious March 16, 1988, massacre of the
village of Halabja in which 5,000 men, women, and children fell victim to
mustard gas and nerve agents during a single day’s lethal attack. Following the
collapse of a Kurdish uprising in 1991, 1.5 million Kurdish refugees fled for
their lives to Turkey and Iran.
they both defied the power of the West, the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein
liked to compare himself to the great 12th-century Kurdish Sultan Salah al-Din
or Saladin, one of the heroes of the Islamic counter-crusades and one of the
foremost figures in Islamic history overall.
the differences between the two men are enormous: Saladin’s justice and mercy
were legendary. Even in the West, he was honoured as a chivalrous, wise,
honourable and generous warrior. Dante’s illustrious and fervently Catholic
early 14th-century poem “Inferno” ranks Saladin alongside Socrates, Plato,
Aristotle, Homer, and even Dante’s personal hero, the Roman poet Virgil, as a
virtuous “pagan.” No less than King Richard the Lion heart, one of his major
opponents, praised him with great respect.
the most salient fact about Saladin is that he was himself an ethnic Kurd.
Thus, Saddam Hussein’s attempt to pose as a latter-day Saladin is bitterly
ironic. Had the real Saladin returned to modern Iraq, it’s very possible that the
first of the great warrior’s targets would have been none other than Saddam
Hussein, the genocidal murderer of Iraqi Kurds.
the Kurds have been on the front lines in the battle against ISIS, the “Islamic
State,” in northern Syria and northern Iraq, fighting fiercely, heroically and
effectively. Once again, though, their fate appears to be in the hands of the
West, as President Erdogan of Turkey, no friend of the Kurds, begins to invade
Daniel Peterson founded the Middle
Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on
Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on pre-modern history.
They speak only for themselves.
Original Headline: The Kurds, caught
between four modern countries