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KURDS invariably greet visitors to “Kurdistan” with a cup of sweet tea and the complaint that they are “the largest people without a nation.” They are right. Approximately 24 million Kurds are spread across Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iran, and the countries of the Caucasus. While the Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East (after Arabs, Persians, and Turks), they remain destined to be a minority spread among nations.1 But are they a pariah minority? And what historic responsibility do the Kurds themselves bear for their status? Kurds and Kurdistan The term “Kurdistan” first appeared in the fourteenth century, but like many regions before the rise of nationalism, its boundaries shifted through time (Nikitine, 1956: 23). Today, the area claimed as Kurdistan spans 500,000 square kilometers—roughly the size of Spain—and stretches from the center of Turkey to the southern Caucasus and then southward along the Iran-Iraq border (Bois, 1965: 1-2). Kurdistan literally means “land of the Kurds,” but the area is not homogenous and contains Arabs, Turks, Persians, Assyrians, and Armenians, among others. Many Kurds live outside Kurdistan as well. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the shahs of Iran’s Safavid dynasty transferred Kurds to Khorasan in what is now northeastern Iran, conscripting them to guard the SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Spring 2003) Are Kurds a Pariah Minority?* MICHAEL RUBIN *I am grateful for the help provided by Seth Wikas, a research assistant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as well as that of many Iraqi Kurds who must remain anonymous until their future is more secure. frontier against marauding Uzbeks (Avery, 1991: 4-5). More recently, urban migration has shifted Kurdish demographics. The city with the world’s largest Kurdish population today is Istanbul, followed closely by Ankara, even though neither city falls within traditional Kurdistan (Koknar, 1999). There is even disagreement over who can be considered a Kurd. When I lived in Iraqi Kurdistan during the academic year 2000-2001, some officials insisted that the Lur and Bakhtiari tribesmen of Iran were actually Kurds, although most Lur and Bakhtiari consider themselves distinct peoples (Tapper, 1997: 11; Garthwaite, 1983: 18; Mortensen, 1993: 44). Likewise, linguistic or religious minorities, such as the Zaza of Turkey and the Chaldeans of Iraq, often seek to be recognized as separate ethnicities. Despite the frequent use of the term “Kurdistan,” only in Iran and Iraq does the name have official definition. In Iran, Kurdistan is a province, albeit one that encompasses just one-eighth of the area in Iran inhabited by Kurds.2 In Iraq, the 1974 autonomy law defined Kurdistan as areas found by the 1957 census to have a Kurdish majority, meaning the governorates of Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah. However, Kurds have long disputed the census , and make additional claims on both the city and governorate of Kirkuk (McDowall, 2000: 336). Among the Kurds, there is religious, linguistic, and tribal diversity . Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, with perhaps 15 percent Shiite . Tens of thousands of Kurds also adhere to Islamic heterodox and pre-Islamic religions. For example, perhaps 1 million Alevi Kurds live in Turkey. Alevi theology combines a pivotal role for the Caliph ‘Ali (one of Muhammad’s companions and the fourth caliph) with vestiges of pre-Islamic beliefs (Boseley, 1989).3 Yezidi Kurds are concentrated in Iraq’s Ninawa and Dohuk governorates ; they claim approximately 140,000 adherents in Iraq (Khayli, 2001; Pope, 1993).4 (Yezidism is a pre-Islamic belief combining a cult of angels, with vestiges of pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism.)5 Communities of Kaka’is (Ahl-i Haqq) 296 SOCIAL RESEARCH blend pre-Islamic beliefs with Shia Islam and live in mountain villages along the Iran-Iraq border (During, 1998). Language is perhaps the factor that most divides Kurds today. Kurdish is an Indo-Iranian language similar to the Persian spoken in neighboring Iran (and very dissimilar to Arabic and Turkish , both of which belong to separate language families). Kurdish is, however, divided into numerous dialects, not all of which are mutually intelligible. Generally speaking, the two most important Kurdish dialects are Kurmanji (sometimes called Bahdahnani, after a nineteenth-century emirate) and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 295-330
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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