• Council on Foreign Relations

Who Are the Kurds?


The Kurds are one of the indigenous peoples of the Middle East and the region's fourth-largest ethnic group. They speak Kurdish, an Indo-European language, and are predominantly Sunni Muslims. Kurds have a distinct culture, traditional dress, and holidays, including Nowruz, the springtime New Year festival that is also celebrated by Iranians and others who use the Persian calendar. Kurdish nationalism emerged during the twentieth century following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of new nation-states across the Middle East.

The estimated thirty million Kurds reside primarily in mountainous regions of present-day Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey and remain one of the world's largest peoples without a sovereign state. The Kurds are not monolithic, however, and tribal identities and political interests often supersede a unifying national allegiance. Some Kurds, particularly those who have migrated to urban centers, such as Istanbul, Damascus, and Tehran, have integrated and assimilated, while many who remain in their ancestral lands maintain a strong sense of a distinctly Kurdish identity. The Kurdish diaspora of an estimated two million is concentrated primarily in Europe.

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire dispersed Kurds into four nations nearly a century ago, they have pursued recognition, political rights, autonomy, and independence. Throughout this period, Kurds have been persecuted, Kurdish identity has been denied, and thousands of Kurds have been killed. In each of the four nations, Kurds have had uneasy relationships with authorities, at times rebelling and at other times cutting deals with the governments. The destabilization of Iraq, civil war in Syria, and the rise, and collapse, of the Islamic State present new challenges, but also opportunities, for the Kurds.

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