An ATP Report Production – on this episode Barry Nussbaum examine the definition and history of the Kurdish people and their role in the Middle East
Welcome to Because You Asked, I’m Barry Nussbaum.
As the war news from the Middle East becomes more intense regarding the fighting between the various coalition forces and the fighters of ISIS, one group is constantly mentioned as a key player in the battle to eliminate the scourge of ISIS, the Kurds. However, there is rarely if any description of who they are, and why they are identified separately in so many news reports.
Today on Because You Asked, we will answer a U.S. soldier’s question, who are the Kurds, and do they practice Sharia like their Arab neighbors? This is an especially important question during our 4th of July week because unlike Americans, the Kurds don’t have their own country, yet!
To begin let’s take a look at Kurdish history, where do they come from and what they believe. Between 25 and 40 million Kurds inhabit the mountainous region straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. They make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but they have never obtained a permanent nation state.
In recent decades, Kurds have increasingly influenced regional developments, fighting for autonomy in Turkey and playing prominent roles in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, where they have resisted the advance of the brutal Islamic state, aka ISIS.
Where do the Kurds come from? The Kurds are one of the indigenous people of the Mesopotamian plains and the highlands in what are now south-eastern Turkey, north-eastern Syria, northern Iraq, north-western Iran and south-western Armenia.
Today, they form a distinctive community, united through race, culture and language, even though they have no standard dialect. They also adhere to a number of different religions and creeds, although the majority are Sunni Muslims.
In the early 20th century, many Kurds began to consider the creation of a homeland – generally referred to as “Kurdistan”. After WWI and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the victorious western allies made provision for a Kurdish state in the 1920 treaty of Sevres.
Such hopes were dashed three years later, however, when the treaty of Lausanne, which set the boundaries of modern Turkey, made no provision for a Kurdish state and left the Kurds with minority status in their respective countries. Over the next 80 years, any move by Kurds to set up an independent state was brutally squashed. Portions of the region are recognized by two countries: Iran, where the province of Kurdistan lies, and northern Iraq, site of the autonomous region known as Kurdistan regional government (KRG) or Iraqi Kurdistan.
Kurds were mostly nomadic until the end of WWI and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Kurds make up about 10% of the population in Syria, 19% of the population of Turkey, 15-20% of the population of Iraq, and nearly 10% of Iran.
The Peshmerga is the 100,000-strong national military force which protects Iraqi Kurdistan, and includes female fighters.
Kurds and Arabs are Muslims, but they speak different languages, live in different regions, and have different cultures.
Kurds, or Kurdish people, speak the Kurdish language. They are a multilingual people and speak two or more languages. Generally, they speak Kurdish as well as the language of the nation where they are from, such as Arabic, Persian, or Turkish. The Kurds living in diaspora communities are fluent in three or more languages. For example, Kurdish Christians and Kurdish Jews speak Aramaic as well. Kurds are mainly Sunni Muslims, but there are minorities of Shia Muslims also living in regions like Kermanshah province and llam, Iran. Fayli Kurds are also Shia Muslims living in southeastern and central Iraq. Alevis are another community of Shia Muslim Kurds living mainly in Turkey, Tunceli, and Sivas, etc.
The most widely practiced Kurdish religion is Islam. Nearly all (98%) Kurds in Iraq identified as Sunni Muslim, while the other 2% identified as Shiite Muslims. Despite various religious fundamentalist groups in the region, Kurdish people, and Kurdish Muslims in particular, are widely recognized to be one of the few cultures in the Middle East that practice religious tolerance. In a move of religious tolerance and equality, the Kurdish regional government or KRG refused to accept teachers from the central Iraqi government in 2012, and declared that Kurdish schools would be religiously neutral. The 25 to 40 million Kurds living in different regions of the world compare to over 300 million Arabs. Obviously, they are outnumbered by their Arab, Persian and Turkish neighbors by 10 to 1. Perhaps that is why they tend to be less fanatical and more accommodating depending on their immediate environment.
It is impossible to answer conclusively if the Kurds as a people would all want to practice Sharia as the law for their lands because there are so many factions within the various Kurdish communities. The KRG admits that its religious tolerance stems from a long history of suffering at the hands of “Islamic brothers.” Both their suffering, as well as their rich history have made Kurds particularly welcoming of other religions. The Kurdish people are not Arabs, but rather historically identify with the Medes, an ancient people described in the bible. In fact, most Kurds were Christians long before they began converting to Islam in the sixth century.
Thanks to David Wilcox for this great question, and for your service to this wonderful and special country of ours!
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