Kurds in Turkey

Last Updated on April 30, 2019

Citizens of Kurdish descent constitute a significant minority of Turkey’s population, perhaps as many as 10 million (in a population of about 76 million).

Although Turks and Kurds resemble one another physically and both peoples are predominantly Muslim, the Kurds speak an Indo-European language related to Persian, and cling tightly to family and clan traditions.

Iran, Iraq and Syria also have significant Kurdish minorities, especially in areas near Turkey’s eastern and southeastern borders.

During Ottoman times and under the early Turkish RepublicKurdish unrest was not uncommon. As with other minorities in Turkish lands, some Kurds dreamed of living in an ethnic Kurdish nation-state. Their claims to territory in eastern and southeastern Turkey brought them into conflict not just with the Turkish government, but with Armenian revolutionaries, who also made claims to large parts of eastern Turkey.

In one of the darkest chapters of 19th-century Ottomanhistory, Sultan Abdulhamid II organized irregular Kurdish fighters into what were known as Hamidiye Battalions to counter Armenian revolutionary and terrorist activities in the east. The Hamidiye Battalions earned a reputation for savagery and lack of discrimination which reverberated far beyond Turkey’s borders.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) led a campaign of terror against the Turkish government with the avowed interest of separating much of eastern and southeastern Turkey into a new, independent Kurdish state. The party’s platform was based on communism, but its operations were more akin to those of organized crime, and it was officially listed as a terrorist organization by the US Department of State.

More than 30,000 people died in the terror and the army’s response, a terrible national tragedy for both the Turks and the Kurds.

The late Turgut Özal (1927-1993), prime minister (1983-1989) and president of the Turkish Republic (1989-1993), told me in an interview that he had Kurdish blood.

“What’s the problem?” he asked. “I have Kurdish blood, and I’m the president of the republic!”

The capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan by Turkish commandos in Nairobi in 1999 reduced the scope of PKK activities, but the group is still active and is apparently responsible for violent incidents in some of Turkey’s eastern provinces such as Tunceli and Bingöl.

For current conditions, refer to the US Embassy in Ankara’s website.

—by Tom Brosnahan

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