General information on the cultural, demographic and religious background of the Kurds. [ZZZ22068.EX]

Kurdistan1 or "land of the Kurds" is home to the vast majority of the world's Kurds (Van Bruinessen 1992, 11; The Encyclopaedia of Islam 1986a, 439-40; More 1984, 21). Covering an extremely mountainous terrain, Kurdistan currently comprises parts of four countries: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Armenia and Azerbaijan also have sizable contiguous Kurdish populations (The Encyclopaedia of Islam 1986a, 439-40; FIDH Jan. 1995, 5; Van Bruinessen 1992, 11). Kurdistan occupies a strategic geographic position in the Middle East that is rich in natural resources; of particular note are the oil fields, fertile land and mineral deposits (Chaliand Feb. 19927, 34; Gunter 1992, 1; Van Bruinessen 1992, 13). This Response will focus primarily on providing background information concerning Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

Several sources attest to the difficulty of detailing an accurate map of Kurdistan2 as the issue of borders is a matter of much debate (Bulloch and Morris 1992, 52-53; MRG Sept. 1991, 8; The Encyclopaedia of Islam 1986a, 439-40). Kurdistan's borders have never been precisely defined and The Encyclopaedia of Islam notes that "the nominal extent of Kurdistan [has] varied ... throughout the centuries" (ibid.).

Kurds make up the majority of the population in several southeastern Turkish provinces, including Mardin, Siirt, Hakkari, Diyarbakir, Bitlis, Mus, Van and Agri (Gunter 1990, 6). The same source adds that "significant numbers also live in the contiguous provinces of Urfa, Adiyaman, Malatya, Elazig, Tunceli, Erzincan, Bingol, and Kars" (ibid.; see also The Encyclopaedia of Islam 1986a, 439; More 1984, 30).

The Kurds of Iraq live in the departments of Arbil, Sulaymaniyya and Dohuk, the districts of Zakho, Amadiya and Aqra, and the provinces of Kirkik, Salahadin (Tikrit), Mosul and Kiyala (Khanahin and Mandali) (More 1984, 30; see also The Encyclopaedia of Islam 1986a, 440). The Kurdish Yezidi (see subsequent section on Kurdish Religious Minorities) occupy Shaykhan and Sindjar (ibid.; More 1984, 30).

Kurds occupy the mountainous north-west regions of Iran, along the border with Turkey and Iraq (MRG Oct. 1979, 1; Iran: A Country Study 1989, 89). According to Iran: A Country Study, the Kurds of Iran inhabit "most of West Azerbaijan, all of Kordestan, and much of Bakhtaran (formerly known as Kermanshahan) and Ilam, and parts of Lorestan" (ibid.). The same source notes that smaller groups of Kurds can be found in the provinces of Fars, Kerman, Baluchestan va Sistan and northern Khorasan (ibid., 90; The Encyclopaedia of Islam 1986a, 440).


In addition to the imprecise borders of Kurdistan, it has been difficult to establish a precise count of the world's Kurds (Van Bruinessen 1992, 14; IAHRK 1993, 2; Gunter 1990, 6). Kurdish sources tend to over-estimate their numbers while government officials are apt to down-play the size of their minorities (ibid.; MRG Sept. 1991, 9; Entessar 1992, 3). The International Association for Human Rights in Kurdistan (IAHRK) states in their 1993 report that "[t]he estimate of 40 million made by Kurdish sources is certainly too high, and the number of about 12 million that can be deduced from official state sources is too low" (IAHRK 1993, 2).

Various attempts to count the Kurdish population in the Middle East have resulted in estimates of between 9.6 to 12 million in Turkey; 5 to 7 million in Iran; 3 to 4.1 million in Iraq; 800,000 to 1 million in Syria; and 300,000 to 500,000 in the former Soviet Union (MRG Sept. 1991, 9; ibid., 1990, 195; Third World Quarterly 1992, 475; Chaliand Feb. 1992, 34). It is generally agreed, however, that the Kurds represent one of the world's largest ethnic groups that do not have a state of their own (FIDH Jan. 1995, 5; Gunter 1990, 1; MRG Sept. 1991, 6).

The Origins of the Kurds

The precise anthropological origins of the Kurdish people remain unknown (More 1984, 47). Several sources agree, however, that there is basis to the theory that Kurds are not a single ethnic group, but rather an amalgamation of several groups (ibid.; MRG Sept. 1991, 9; Bulloch and Morris 1992, 57). The IAHRK reports that the earliest known references to tribes inhabiting the Zagros mountains in present day north-western Iran date from 3-2000 BC (IAHRK 1993, 1; see also Gunter 1990, 5). Minority Rights Group states that by the beginning of the 7th century AD "the ethnic term 'Kurd' was applied to an amalgam of Iranian or Iranicized tribes, some autochthonous (possibly Kardu?), some semitic, and, probably, some Armenian communities" (Minority Rights Group Sept. 1991, 9; Third World Quarterly Oct. 1989, 83). Nader Entessar, a professor of political science and international relations at Spring Hill College, writes that "[m]odern-day Kurds trace their origin to the Medes, an Indo-European tribe that descended from Central Asia into the Iranian plateau around 614 B.C.", whose descendants intermingled with other ethnic groups who also inhabited the region (Entessar 1992, 3). Martin Van Bruinessen concurs, stating that "the Medes ... were perhaps the major single group from which the present Kurds descend" (van Bruinessen 1992, 115-16; see also Gunter 1990, 5).


The Kurds have a linguistically diverse culture and do not speak one commonly understood language (Entessar 1992, 4-5; see also Chaliand Feb. 1992, 38). Some sources refer to Kurdish languages, while others speak of Kurdish dialects; there exists some contention among scholars as to whether the vernaculars that Kurds speak are, in fact, separate languages or separate dialects of one language (Mango 1994, 35; Entessar 1992, 4). One source maintains, however, that "variations among [the Kurdish languages] ... are 'far too great by any standard linguistic criteria to warrant the classification of these tongues as simply dialects of the same language'" (ibid.; see Mango 1994, 35; Van Bruinessen 1992, 21-22; IAHRK 1993, 1; Bulloch and Morris 1992, 56 for further discussion about Kurdish languages and dialects).

Most scholars recognize the three principle Kurdish languages or dialects as being Kurmanji, Sorani or Kurdi3 and Zaza (Entessar 1992, 4-5; IAHRK 1993, 1; Bulloch and Morris 1992, 56). Sources concur that these dialects or languages "are in some cases mutually incomprehensible, with wide variations in both vocabulary and grammar" (ibid.; Van Bruinessen 1992, 21-22; Entessar 1992, 4-5).

The widely spoken Kurmanji language is broken up into northern and southern Kurmanji dialects (ibid.; Iran: A Country Study 1989, 89; see also IAHRK 1993, 1). It is, according to Entessar, "for all practical purposes, the literary language of the Kurds" (Entessar 1992, 4; see also Mango 1994, 35). Northern Kurmanji is spoken mostly by Kurds in the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union, while the southern dialect is used in Central Kurdistan (Entessar 1992, 4). Kurdi is spoken by most Iranian Kurds and by southern Iraqi Kurds "living south of the Great Zab" (Mango 1994, 35-36; Entessar 1992, 4). Minority Rights Group indicates that Kurdi has become "official Kurdish" in Iraq (Minority Rights Group Sept. 1991, 9). Zaza is spoken primarily in north-western Kurdistan (Van Bruinessen 1992, 22; Entessar 1994, 5), including the Turkey's Tunceli (Dersim) province (Mango 1994, 35). According to one source, "Zaza is the least developed Kurdish literary language" (Entessar 1994, 5).

Despite this, however, the Kurdish languages share a north-western Iranian linguistic origin (MRG Sept. 1991, 9; IAHRK 1993, 1; Bulloch and Morris 1992, 56; Van Bruinessen 1992, 21) and are closer to Persian than to any Arabic languages (Entessar 1992, 4). Kurdistan's mountainous terrain, the lack of a central Kurdish administrative body and the modern geopolitical alignment, which has divided Kurds among several separate states, has contributed to what is described as the "heterogeneity of the Kurdish languages" (ibid.).


Most Kurds are Muslim, with the exception of smaller groups of Christians, Yezidis, Zoroastrians and "some two hundred Jewish families in the Iranian city of Sanandaj" (Entessar 1992, 5; see also State of the Peoples 1993, 185). Approximately two-thirds of Kurds are Sunni Muslims of the Shafi'i4 school or rite (Entessar 1992, 5; Van Bruinessen 1992, 23; Chaliand Feb. 1992, 38). Aside from the Shi'i Kurds of the Kermanshah region in Iran, there is typically a religious distinction between the Kurds and the people of the states they inhabit; although most Turks and Arabs in the region are also Sunni Muslim, they follow the Hanafi school (ibid.; Van Bruinessen 1992, 23; MRG Sept. 1991, 10). Parts of Iraq, Azerbaijan and most of Iran are populated by Shi'i Muslims (Van Bruinessen 1992, 23; see also Entessar 1992, 5).

Kurdish Religious Minorities

Most Alevi or Alawite Kurds5 reside in north-western Kurdistan, or the central-east parts of Turkey, and are "broadly distributed in the provinces of Maras, Malatya, Elazig, Tunceli and Erzincan" (IAHRK 1993, 2; McDowall May 1994, 4). There are an estimated fifteen million Alevis in Turkey, of which approximately three million are Kurdish (ibid., 3 Oct. 1995; Günlük Mar. 1992, 2). The Alevi faith has been labelled "an extreme offshoot of Shiism" (Bulloch and Morris 1992, 225; MRG Sept. 1991, 10) and one scholar argues that some Alevi groups "can hardly be called Islamic at all" (Van Bruinessen 1992, 23; see also Bulloch and Morris 1992, 225). A separate source states that Turkey's mostly Zaza-speaking Kurdish Alevis are often treated with suspicion and contempt by Turks as well as by some Kurds (ibid.). This may be because most Alevis are popularly considered politically "dangerously leftist" by many Turks, despite the fact that "only a minority [of Alevis] support illegal organisations" (McDowall May 1994, 4). The Alevi religion also distinguishes the group from the Sunni population, both Turkish and Kurdish (ibid.; Günlük Mar. 1994, 2).
One source states that "Alevi beliefs and religious ceremonies are claimed to be acts of heretic sects" (ibid.). In addition to what researcher David McDowall calls "the state denial of all Kurdish identity", Kurdish Alevis are "a disparaged minority of a disparaged minority" (McDowall 3 Oct. 1995; ibid. May 1994, 4).

According to one source cited by Middle Eastern Studies, there are currently over 200,000 Yezidi (Yazidi, Ezidi) worldwide, of whom the bulk of 120,000 are found in Iraq (Middle Eastern Studies Oct. 1992, 994). Other sources indicate that the Yezidi number only 70-100,000 and live predominately in the Mosul region of Iraq (More 1984, 38; Bulloch and Morris 1992, 225; see also Van Bruinessen 1992, 24). In addition, there are reportedly 60,000 Yezidi living in the Caucasus, where they constitute the majority of Armenia's Kurdish population (Middle Eastern Studies Oct. 1994, 994; see also MRG Sept. 1991, 10), a total of 20,000 in Turkey and Germany and 10,000 in Syria (Middle Eastern Studies Oct. 1994, 994). The Yezidi are a Kurmanji-speaking group and are exclusively Kurdish (Van Bruinessen 1992, 24; MRG Sept. 1991, 10). Yezidi beliefs incorporate aspects of several major religions in the region, including Zoroastrianism, Islam, Nestorian Christianity, Judaism and Manichaeism (Bulloch and Morris 1992, 224; MRG Sept. 1991, 10). Pejoratively referred as "devil-worshippers" by members of other faiths (Van Bruinessen 1992, 23; Middle Eastern Studies Oct. 1994, 995; Chaliand Feb. 1992, 39; Bulloch and Morris 1992, 225), the Yezidi "deny the existence of evil and believe in the dualism of God and Malak Taus, or Satan, whom they believe to be the agent of the divine will" (ibid.; see also More 1984, 38-39; Middle Eastern Studies Oct. 1994, 995). Several sources indicate that due to the unorthodox nature of the Yezidi faith and the allegations of devil-worshipping, many have been mistreated for centuries by Turks, other Kurds and Arabs (Bulloch and Morris 1992, 225; Middle Eastern Studies Oct. 1994, 993; MRG Sept. 1991, 10; Chaliand Feb. 1992, 39).

The Ahl al Haqq, or People of the Truth, are located primarily in southern and south-eastern Kurdistan around Kermanshah and Kirkuk and most speak Gurani, a Kurdish dialect particular to the region (Van Bruinessen 1992, 23; MRG Sept. 1991, 10; Chaliand Feb. 1992, 38-39; see also Bulloch and Morris 1992, 226). One source states that the Ahl al Haqq and the Alevis "share a belief in reincarnation and in successive incarnations of the divinity in human form, and many of their rites are similar" (Van Bruinessen 1992, 23; see also The Encyclopaedia of Islam 1986b, 261 for information on the Ahl al Haqq). According to a 1994 article in the International Journal of Middle East Studies the "Ahl-i Haqq were-and to some extent still are-labelled heretics and subjected to religious persecution by their 'orthodox' neighbors" (International Journal of Middle East Studies 1994 268).


Traditional Kurdish society is based upon tribalism (Gunter 1990, 6; Chaliand Feb. 1992, 45; MRG Sept. 1991, 11). The power and influence of the Agha, or tribal chieftain, has evolved from a centuries-old tradition of nomadism and semi-nomadism, a tradition which, according to one source, is "now virtually non-existent" (ibid.; see also Gunter 1990, 6; Nisan 1991, 27-28). Kurdish tribalism is based on both family and territorial loyalties (MRG Sept. 1991, 11; Van Bruinessen 1992, 51; Chaliand Feb. 1992, 45-47), although one source maintains that "blood ties ... are often more mythical than real .... [and] tribes represent alliances of convenience which shift according to circumstance" (Bulloch and Morris 1992, 75-76; see also MRG Sept. 1991, 11; Chaliand Feb. 1992, 45-47).

The strength or influence of historical Kurdish tribalism has waned in this century, due to a variety of socio-economic conditions such as mechanization, the urbanization of the population and rising unemployment in Kurdish regions (Entessar 1992, 6-7; MEI 28 Apr. 1995, 18; MRG Sept. 1991, 11). Despite this trend, however, several sources contend that tribalism represents the principal obstacle to Kurdish unity (Gunter 1990, 6; Nisan 1991, 28; FIDH 30 Mar.-6 Apr. 1995, 10). Bulloch and Morris write that

[t]raditional Kurdish society was divided into members of tribes.... The first duty of the tribesman was to his tribe and its chief, and his second to his religion. The concept of a national duty towards fellow Kurds was practically non-existent. If a chief decreed that it was in the interests of the tribe to fight on the side of the non-Kurdish state authorities against other Kurds, then his followers would obey. Even to this day, in Turkey and Iraq, there are Kurds who side with Ankara and Baghdad against their fellow Kurds without any sense that they are betraying some higher national Kurdish cause (Bulloch and Morris 1992, 75; see also Gunter 1992, 3).

The debilitating role of Kurdish tribalism is most evident in Iraqi Kurdistan, where rival Kurdish leaders have been engaged in a civil war since May 1994 (Middle East Report July-Aug. 1994, 7). In an article published in Middle East International, David McDowall argues that the rivalry between Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq (KDP) leader Masud Barzani and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani is symptomatic of the re-emergence of a new form of Kurdish tribalism (MEI 28 Apr. 1995, 18). While agreeing that the role of traditional tribalism and the power of the Aghas has diminished over time, McDowall contends that:

Regardless of whether Kurds live in town or country, patrons are still necessary-perhaps more than ever-to help with employment; housing materials; purchase or sale of scarce commodities; protection; provision of relief supplies. The two major party leaderships have now taken on the role once played by the paramount chiefs, and we are witnessing the burgeoning of neo-tribalism. The similarities between old and new are striking: both operate through intensely loyal retinues and, through these, command the loyalty of several "tribes" (ibid.).

One source argues that the Kurds possess "a sense of self, community and of shared space", stressing that most Kurds continue to live in "contiguous areas" of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria (Third World Quarterly 1992, 475). In addition, international borders within Kurdistan tend to be fluid, as Kurds interact with groups and individuals in neighbouring countries (Middle Eastern Studies Oct. 1994, 989; Gunter 1992, 109-13). "Family and clan attachments cross national borders, and modern frontiers are considered little more than an unwanted inconvenience that should be disregarded whenever possible" (Bulloch and Morris 1992, 54). Finally, despite their many differences, the World Directory of Minorities notes that "the Kurdish people do form a unique community with its own distinctive culture stemming from a tribal nomadic or semi-nomadic past, blood ties and territorial loyalty" (MRG 1990, 197; see also Nisan 1991, 28).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the DIRB within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Bulloch, John and Harvey Morris. 1992. No Friends But the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chaliand, Gérard. February 1992. Le malheur kurde. Paris: Editions du Seuil.

Contemporary Religions: A World Guide. 1992. Edited by Ian Harris et al. The High, Harlow, Essex: Longman Group UK.

The Encyclopaedia of Islam. 1986a. New ed. Vol. 5. Edited by C.E. Bosworth et al. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

_____. 1986b. New ed. Vol. 1. Edited by C.E. Bosworth et al. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Entessar, Nader. 1992. Kurdish Ethnonationalism. Boulder, Col.: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Günlük, Nergis Canefe. March 1994. MHP/MCP, the Turkish State, and Alevi Turks: Dangerous Alliances. North York: Centre for Refugee Studies.

Gunter, Michael M. 1992. The Kurds of Iraq: Tragedy and Hope. New York: St. Martin's Press.

_____. 1990. The Kurds in Turkey: A Political Dilemma. Boulder, Col.: Westview Press.

International Association for Human Rights in Kurdistan (IAHRK). 1993. Annual Report 1993: On the Situation of Human Rights in Northern Kurdistan and the Kurds in Turkey. Bremen: IAHRK.

International Journal of Middle East Studies [Cambridge]. 1994. Vol. 26. Ziba Mir-Hosseini. "Inner Truth and Outer History: The Two Worlds of the Ahl-i Haqq of Kurdistan."

Iran: A Country Study. 1989. Edited by Helen Chapin Metz. Washington, DC: Secretary of the Army.

La lettre de la federation internationale des ligues des droits de l'homme (FIDH) [Paris]. La lettre hebdomadaire de la FIDH. 30 March-6 April 1995. No. 580-581. Haytham Manna. "Réflexions sur la question kurde."

_____. January 1995. No. 194. "Kurdistan."

Mango, Andrew. 1994. Turkey: The Challenge of a New Role. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers.

McDowall, David, Richmond, United Kingdom. 3 October 1995. Fax received by the DIRB.

_____. May 1994. "Briefing Note Regarding the Current Status of Alevi Kurds." (Prepared for the Newfoundland Legal Aid Commission)

Middle Eastern Studies [London]. October 1994. Vol. 30, No. 4. Andrew Mango. "Turks and Kurds."

Middle East International (MEI). 28 April 1995. No. 499. David McDowall. "The Struggle for Kurdistan-2) Iraq."

_____. 17 March 1995. No. 496. Nicole Pope. "Communal Discord."

Middle East Report [Washington, DC]. July-August 1994. Vol. 24, No. 189. Amir Hassanpour. "The Kurdish Experience."

Minority Rights Group International (MRG). September 1991. No. 91/5. David McDowall. The Kurds. London: Minority Rights Group.

_____. 1990. World Directory of Minorities. The High, Harlow, Essex: Longman Group UK.

_____. October 1979. No. C. M. Kendal. Les Kurdes en Iran. London: Minority Rights Group.

More, Christiane. 1984. Les Kurdes aujourd'hui: Mouvement national et partis politiques. Paris: Editions L'Harmattan.

Nisan, Mordechai. 1991. Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co.

State of the Peoples: A Global Human Rights Report on Societies in Danger. 1993. Edited by Marc S. Miller et al. Boston: Beacon Press.

Third World Quarterly: Journal of Emerging Areas [Abingdon, Oxfordshire]. 1992. Vol. 13, No. 3. Robert Olson. "The Kurdish Question in the Aftermath of the Gulf War: Geopolitical and Geostrategic Changes in the Middle East."

_____. October 1989. Vol. 11, No. 4. Nader Entessar. "The Kurdish Mosaic of Discord."

Van Bruinessen, Martin. 1992. Agha, Shaikh and State: The Social and Political Structures of Kurdistan. London: Zed Books.


Contemporary Religions: A World Guide. 1992. Edited by Ian Harris et al. The High, Harlow, Essex: Longman Group UK, pp. 163-64, 314-15.

Laizer, Sheri. 1991. Into Kurdistan. London: Zed Books Ltd, np.

Van Bruinessen, Martin. 1992. Agha, Shaikh and State: The Social and Political Structures of Kurdistan. London: Zed Books, np.


1 In this Response the term "Kurdistan" is used to denote the geographic territory historically inhabited by Kurds; it is not used to imply a political entity.

2 See the attached excerpts from Sheri Laizer's Into Kurdistan and Martin Van Bruinessen's Agha, Shaikh and State.

3 Kurdi and Sorani are the same language (Mango 1994, 36; MRG Sept. 1991, 9) and Entessar notes that Kurdi also includes the Gurani and Sulaymani dialects (Entessar 1992, 4; see also Van Bruinessen 1992, 22).

4 There are four different schools of Islamic Law within Sunni Islam: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i and Hanbali (Contemporary Religions: A World Guide 1992, 163). See the attached excerpt from Contemporary Religions: A World Guide for further information about the Shafi'i and Hanafi schools of Islamic Law.

5 For more detailed information regarding the Alevi Kurds see David McDowall's Briefing Note Regarding the Current Status of Alevi Kurds, prepared for the Newfoundland Legal Aid Commission in May 1994, and Response to Information Request TUR22069.E of 16 October 1995. Approximately 20-30 per cent of Turkey's Kurdish population is Alevi (McDowall 3 Oct. 1995; MEI 17 Mar. 1995, 15).

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