Saturday, 24 February, 2018


What is Kurdistan?

Kurdistan is the ancestral homeland of the Kurds, the fourth largest ethnic group of the Middle East.  The Kurdish homeland, Kurdistan, is, in many places, mountainous and currently lies within the borders of the countries of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. There are an estimated 30-35 million Kurds, and about half of them live in Turkey. Iran and Iraq have roughly six to seven million and it is estimated that there are approximately 2.5 million Kurds in Syria.  Following various waves of immigration, there are also Kurdish populations spread throughout Lebanon and the former Soviet Union, and there is a sizeable Kurdish diaspora population in Europe.  Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century, the Ottoman imperial power in the region was replaced by the European powers who sought to divide the Middle East, including Kurdistan, among themselves.  Decades later, direct European power in the region was replaced by local nationalist movements with their own expansionist designs, and the Kurdish homeland remains divided between various states, with the Kurds rendered a minority within nation states that, to varying degrees, denied the Kurdish identity.  To this day, the Kurdish people, divided between four states, remain the world’s largest ethnic group without a nation-state of their own.

The language of the Kurdish people is Kurdish, an Indo-European language.  The Kurdish language itself includes a number of dialects, the most commonly spoken of which are Kurmanji, which is spoken by most of the Kurds of Turkey and Syria and some in Iraq and Iran, and Sorani, which is spoken by most Kurds in Iraq and Iran.  Kurdish can be written using both the Latin alphabet and a modified Arabic alphabet – the Kurds of Turkey and Syria often use the Latin script, while those in Iran and Iraq usually use the modified Arabic script.  Today, most Kurds are multilingual, speaking their own native Kurdish dialect along with the language of the state in which they live.

The culture of the Kurdish people, who are separated from one another by both national borders and mountains, varies significantly.  Common phenotypes of heritage are expressed in the recognizable form of dancing – circle dances are held where men and women perform intricate footwork to traditional music.  Music and poetry have long served as important expressions of Kurdish identity, with topic matter ranging from love to political struggle, and indeed often love stories are used as metaphors for the tribulations of oppression and yearning for self-determination.

A burgeoning film scene is coming alive in the Iraqi region in hubs like Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. In these cities, young and old can be seen visiting coffee shops, and restaurants.

Religion typically plays a smaller role with Kurds than it does much of the other populations in the Middle East. They are largely secular, but belong to several faiths.

While the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, there are a significant number of Shi’ite Muslim Kurds in Iran and Iraq, and in Turkey there are a many Alevi Kurds, who subscribe to a heterodox Islamic sect and comprise the majority of the population of the Dersim province (called Tunceli in Turkish).  Other religious minorities within the Kurdish nation include Yazidis, Christians and Jews.

The major Kurdish political parties active in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria generally embrace secularism, gender equality and advocate autonomy for the Kurdish people and collective protections for social welfare of the Kurds. With the establishment of a constitutionally acknowledged Kurdish federal entity in Iraq, the Kurdish government of the region has attracted significant interest from foreign investors, opening up Kurdistan to the rest of the world after decades of embargo and war.

Many Kurds desire to live in a Kurdish nation-state, with their identity acknowledged and not subjugated by neighboring groups.  The history of Kurds in the past century has been riddled with violence.  Faced by pressure from various Turkish, Arab, and Persian regimes, there has scarcely been a moment of calm.  At various times, the Kurds have engaged in armed resistance against these regimes. In some cases, Kurdish groups have been targeted by Western countries, while in others they have been supported.

The various states occupying Kurdistan have inflicted their own types of oppression and brutality on the indigenous Kurdish people living within their borders.  In Iran, executions of Kurdish people were common both during the time of the Shah and after the revolution which led to the establishment of today’s Islamic Republic.  In Iraq, decades of subjugation culminated in Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurdish people and the use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians, resulting in the deaths of over 100,000 and the dislocation of many more.  Turkey has long denied the very existence of the Kurdish identity and language, and has destroyed over 3,000 Kurdish villages and used the judiciary to ban a number of Kurdish political parties and imprison politicians and activists who dare to address the existence and concerns of the Kurdish people.  Syria which, like Iraq prior to April 2003, is ruled by the Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party and denies the rights of the Kurdish people and for decades even denied the citizenship of over 100,000 Syrian Kurds, rendering them stateless.  Education in the Kurdish language did not exist in Syria until the recent Rojava revolution, and it is still heavily suppressed in Turkey.

The countries that occupy Kurdistan are seeing significant changes and instability.  In Iraq and Syria, long established authoritarian regimes have either faced or are facing armed resistance.  Following the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Iraq gradually entered into a period of de facto civil war between Shi’ite and Sunni Arab groups.  In Syria, demonstrations throughout the country gave way to an armed conflict in which various radical religious groups are playing a significant role.  Sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims throughout the broader Middle East, a major dynamic long kept away from the view of the world by the region’s authoritarian regimes, is now an open and major concern.  With an increase in open sectarian strife and a breakdown of the old order of the Middle East in which established regimes used organized terror to preserve their own power and a façade of stability, the Kurdish people have become increasingly bold and successful in making their voices heard and fighting to free their land and gain a say over their own affairs.  That said, both external opposition and internal disputes among the Kurdish people threaten moves to self-determination.

This large number of threats aside, it is undeniable that the Kurds are a rising political force in the Middle East, and their brave struggle against the ISIS terrorist organization has gained them the attention and admiration of many.  In the Middle East, where sectarianism, intolerance, and disregard for human rights is common place, the struggle of the Kurdish people provides hope for those who seek to see an island of peace and prosperity emerge after many decades of hardship.


The first question which comes to mind is that of the origins of the Kurds. Who are they? Where do they come from? Historians generally agree to consider them as belonging to the Iranian branch of the large family of Indo-European races. In prehistoric times, kingdoms called Mitanni, Kassites and Hourites reigned these mountainous areas, Read more…

Learn Kurdish

Kurdish Language classes are tentatively scheduled to be offered by WKI in the future, but have yet to be determined. Dr. Chyet’s Kurmanji dictionary or Shafiq Qazzaz’s Sorani dictionary are the texts that we use. Please contact WKI for more information and Read more…


A wide range of publications about Kurdistan, Kurdish people, politics, human rights, history, literature, and geography. Read more…

Washington Kurdish Institute 2001 L Street NW, Suite 500 Washington, DC 20036 Tel: 202.484.0140 Email: