Kurds in Turkey

Kurds in Turkey
Total population
13,4 million[1]
(KONDA 2013 estimate)
12,6 million[2]
(CIA World Factbook 2008 estimate)
22,5 million
(Kurdish claim)[3]
Regions with significant populations
Mainly in Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia,
Large migrant population in Istanbul, Izmir, Adana and Mersin
Northern Kurdish   Turkish
(Predominantly Sunni, minority Alevism)
Related ethnic groups
Zazas and other Iranian peoples

Kurds in Turkey (Kurdish: Kurdên li Tirkiyeyê, Turkish: Türkiye'deki Kürtler, Türkiye Kürtleri) are the largest ethnic minority in the country. According to various estimates, they compose between 15% and 20% of the population of Turkey.[4][5][6] Unlike the Turkish people, the Kurds speak an Indo-European language. There are Kurds living in various provinces of Turkey, but are primarily concentrated in the east and southeast of the country, the region of Northern Kurdistan.

Massacres, such as the Dersim rebellion and the Zilan massacre, have periodically occurred against the Kurds since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. In an attempt to deny their existence, the Turkish government categorized Kurds as "Mountain Turks" until 1991,[7][8][9] and the words "Kurds", "Kurdistan", or "Kurdish" were officially banned by the Turkish government.[10] Following the military coup of 1980, the Kurdish language was officially prohibited in public and private life.[11] Many people who spoke, published, or sang in Kurdish were arrested and imprisoned.[12] Since lifting of the ban in 1991, the Kurdish population of Turkey has long sought to have Kurdish included as a language of instruction in public schools as well as a subject. In Turkey, it is illegal to use Kurdish as a language of instruction in both public and private schools. Kurdish language is only allowed as a subject in some schools.[13]

Since the 1970s, the European Court of Human Rights has condemned Turkey for the thousands of human rights abuses. Some judgments are related to executions of Kurdish civilians, torturing, forced displacements, destroyed villages, arbitrary arrests, murdered and disappeared Kurdish journalists. The latest judgments are from 2014.

Since the 1980s, Kurdish movements have included both peaceful political activities for basic civil rights for Kurds in Turkey as well as armed rebellion and guerrilla warfare, including military attacks aimed mainly at Turkish military bases, demanding first a separate Kurdish state and later self-determination for the Kurds.[14] According to a Turkish opinion poll, 59% of self-identified Kurds in Turkey think that Kurds in Turkey do not seek a separate state (while 71.3% of self-identified Turks think they do).[15]

During the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, food embargoes were placed on Kurdish villages and towns.[16][17] There were many instances of Kurds being forcibly expelled from their villages by Turkish security forces.[18] Many villages were reportedly set on fire or destroyed.[18][19] Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, political parties that represented Kurdish interests were banned.[10] In 2013, a ceasefire effectively ended the violence until June 2015, when hostilities renewed between the PKK and the Turkish government over Turkey's involvement in the Syrian Civil War. Violence was widely reported against ordinary Kurdish citizens and the headquarters and branches of the pro-Kurdish rights Peoples' Democratic Party were attacked by mobs.[20]


Early modern period

The Mahmudi or "Pinyanişi" was an Ottoman-Kurdish tribe in the Lake Van region, who according to Evliya Çelebi had 60,000 warriors.[21] Their chief, Sarı Süleyman Bey,[22] strengthened the Hoşap Castle[23] in the Lake Van region, in 1643.[24]

19th century

Kurdish Anatolian carpet, early 19th century.

After ca. 1800, the Cihanbeyli, Resvan and Sihbizin tribes migrated into central Anatolia from the east and southeast.[25] The total Kurdish population in Turkey was estimated at around 1.5 million in the 1880s, many of whom were nomadic or pastoral.[26]

20th century

After the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, which ended the caliphates and sultanate in Turkey, there have been several Kurdish rebellions since the 1920s: Koçkiri Rebellion,[27] Sheikh Said Rebellion, Dersim Rebellion,[28] Ararat rebellion.

In 1937–38, approximately 10,000-15,000 Alevis and Kurds[29][30][31] were killed and thousands went into exile. A key component of the turkification process was the policy of massive population resettlement. Referring to the main policy document in this context, the 1934 law on resettlement, a policy targeting the region of Dersim as one of its first test cases, with disastrous consequences for the local population.[32] The Dersim massacre[29] is often confused with the Dersim Rebellion that took place during these events.

After the 1960 coup, the State Planning Organization (Turkish: Devlet Planlama Teşkilatı, DPT) was established under the Prime Ministry to solve the problem of Kurdish separatism and underdevelopment. In 1961, the DPT prepared a report titled "The principles of the state's development plan for the east and southeast" (Turkish: Devletin Doğu ve Güneydoğu‘da uygulayacağı kalkınma programının esasları), shortened to "Eastern Report". It proposed to defuse separatism by encouraging ethnic mixing through migration (to and from the Southeast). This was not unlike the policies pursued by the Committee of Union and Progress under the Ottoman Empire. The Minister of Labor of the time, Bülent Ecevit of partial Kurdish ancestry,[33][34] was critical of the report.[35]

During the 1970s, the separatist movement coalesced into the Kurdish-Turkish conflict. From 1984 to 1999, the Turkish military was embroiled in a conflict with the PKK. The village guard system was set up and armed by the Turkish state around 1984 to combat the PKK. The militia comprises local Kurds and it has around 58,000 members. Some of the village guards are fiercely loyal to the Turkish state, leading to infighting among Kurdish militants.[36] At the same time, the PKK was recruiting Turkish members to their ranks.

Due to the clashes between Turkish Army and the PKK in the countryside in the southeast was depopulated, with Kurdish civilians moving to local defensible centers such as Diyarbakır, Van, and Şırnak, as well as to the cities of western Turkey and even to western Europe. The causes of the depopulation included Turkish military and the Turkish state's military operations against Kurdish population, some PKK atrocities against Kurdish clans they could not control and the poverty of the southeast.[37] An estimated 3,000 Kurdish villages in Turkey were virtually wiped from the map by the Turkish government, representing the displacement of more than 378,000 people[38] or, as put by the Human Rights Watch:

"Evacuations were unlawful and violent. Security forces would surround a village using helicopters, armored vehicles, troops, and village guards, and burn stored produce, agricultural equipment, crops, orchards, forests, and livestock. They set fire to houses, often giving the inhabitants no opportunity to retrieve their possessions. During the course of such operations, security forces frequently abused and humiliated villagers, stole their property and cash, and ill-treated or tortured them before herding them onto the roads and away from their former homes. The operations were marked by scores of “disappearances” and extrajudicial executions. By the mid-1990s, more than 3,000 villages had been virtually wiped from the map, and, according to official figures, 378,335 Kurdish villagers had been displaced and left homeless."[38]

21st century

In 2010, after clashes between the PKK and the government forces in eastern and southeastern Turkey, several locations in Iraqi Kurdistan were attacked by the Turkish Air Force early in June 2010.[39] The air attack was reported 4 days later in a news article released immediately after the attack.[40] The tense condition has continued on the border since 2007, with both sides responding to each other's every offensive move.

Following Turkey's electoral board decision to bar prominent Kurdish candidates who had allegedly outstanding warrants or were part of ongoing investigations for PKK-links from standing in upcoming elections,[41] violent Kurdish protests erupted on April 19, 2011, resulting in at least one casualty.[42]

On the eve of the 2012 year (28 December), the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said that the government was conducting negotiations with jailed rebel leader Öcalan.[43] On 21 March 2013, after months of negotiations with the Turkish Government, Abdullah Ocalan's letter to people was read both in Turkish and Kurdish during Nowruz celebrations in Diyarbakır. The letter called a cease-fire that included disarmament and withdrawal from Turkish soil and calling an end to armed struggle. The PKK announced that they would obey, stating that the year of 2013 is the year of solution either through war or through peace. On 25 April 2013, the PKK announced that it would be withdrawing all its forces within Turkey to Northern Iraq.[44]

A protest
Kurds protesting the Siege of Kobanî, 29 September 2014
A celebration
HDP supporters celebrating election results in Istanbul, 8 June 2015

On 6 and 7 October 2014, riots erupted in various cities in Turkey for protesting the Siege of Kobani. Protesters were met with tear gas and water cannons; 37 people were killed in protests.[45] Following the July 2015 crisis (after ISIS's 2015 Suruç bombing attack on Kurdish activists), Turkey bombed alleged PKK bases in Iraq, following the PKK's unilateral decision to end the cease-fire (after many months of increasing tensions) and its suspected killing of two policeman in the town of Ceylanpınar (which the group denied carrying out[46]).[47][48] Violence soon spread throughout the country. Many Kurdish businesses were destroyed by mobs.[49] The headquarters and branches of the pro-Kurdish rights Peoples' Democratic Party were also attacked.[20] There are reports of civilians being killed in several Kurdish populated towns and villages.[50] The Council of Europe raised their concerns over the attacks on civilians and the blockade of Cizre.[51]


Political parties

Banned Kurdish parties in Turkey[52]
Party Year banned
People's Labor Party (HEP)
Freedom and Democracy Party (ÖZDEP)
Democracy Party (DEP)
People's Democracy Party (HADEP)
Democratic Society Party (DTP)

Kurds in Turkey are represented by the political parties of Rights and Freedoms Party, Communist Party of Kurdistan, Islamic Party of Kurdistan, Peoples' Democratic Party, Kurdistan Democratic Party/North (illegal), Revolutionary Party of Kurdistan (illegal). Defunct parties include Democracy Party (1993–94), Democratic People's Party (1997–2005), Democratic Society Party (2005–09), Freedom and Democracy Party (1992), Kurdistan Islamic Movement (1993–2004), Peace and Democracy Party (2008–14), People's Democracy Party (1994–2003), People's Labor Party (1990–93), Workers Vanguard Party of Kurdistan (1975–92).

Kurdish rebellions

According to human rights organisations since the beginning of the Kurdish-Turkish conflict 4,000 Kurdish villages have been destroyed and some 40,000 people have been killed.[53] In December 2015, Turkish military operation against Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey has killed hundreds of civilians, displaced hundreds of thousands and caused massive destruction in residential areas.[54]



Between 1982 and 1991 the performance or recording of songs in the Kurdish language was banned in Turkey, affecting singers such as Şivan Perwer, Mahsun Kırmızıgül and İbrahim Tatlıses. However a black market has long existed in Turkey, and pirate radio stations and underground recordings have always been available. Although there was no ban on performing Kurdish language music, it was effectively prevented from being broadcast on radio or television through censorship.[55]

Şivan Perwer is a composer, vocalist and tembûr player. He concentrates mainly on political and nationalistic music - of which he is considered the founder in Kurdish music - as well as classical and folk music.

Another important Kurdish musician from Turkey is Nizamettin Arıç (Feqiyê Teyra). He began with singing in Turkish, and made his directorial debut and also stars in Klamek ji bo Beko (A Song for Beko), one of the first films in Kurdish. Arıç rejected musical stardom at the cost of debasing his language and culture. As a result of singing in Kurdish, he was imprisoned, and then obliged to flee to Syria and eventually to Germany.[56][57]


Some sources consider Ali Hariri (1425–1495) as the first well-known poet who wrote in Kurdish. He was from the Hakkari region.[58]


In 2011, Kanal D, Turkey's largest television station, began filming "Ayrılık Olmasaydı: ben-u sen" in majority-Kurdish Diyarbakir. The show, written by a Kurdish screenwriter, professed to be the first in the popular genre to portray the Kurds in a positive light. The show was set to debut in early 2012, but suffered numerous delays, some say because of the controversial subject.[59]


Turkish Kurdish girl.


Percentage of Kurdish population in Turkey by region[60]
Turkey Total fertility rate by province (2013). Kurdish majority provinces have a higher fertility rate than Turkish majority provinces.[61]

Most Kurds live in Turkey, where their numbers are estimated at 14,000,000 people by the CIA world factbook (18% of population).[62] A report commissioned by the National Security Council (Turkey) in 2000 puts the number at 12,600,000 people, or 15.7% of the population.[4] One Western source estimates that up to 25% of the Turkish population is Kurdish (approximately 18-19 million people).[5] Kurdish nationalists put the figure at 20,000,000[63] to 25,000,000.[64] All of the above figures are for the number of people who identify as Kurds, not the number who speak a Kurdish language, but include both Kurds and Zazas.[65] Estimates based on native languages place the Kurdish population at 6% to 23%; Ibrahim Sirkeci claims the closest figure should be above 17.8%, taking into account political context and the potential biases in responses recorded in surveys and censuses.[66] The population growth rate of Kurds in the 1970s was given as 3.27%.[67] According to two studies (2006 and 2008) study by KONDA, people who self-identify as Kurdish or Zaza and/or speaks Kurmanji or Zazaki as a mother tongue correspond to 13.4% of the population. Based on higher birth rates among Kurdish people, and using 2000 Census results, KONDA suggested that this figure rises to 15.7% when children are included, at the end of 2007.[68]

Since the immigration to the big cities in the west of Turkey, interethnic marriage has become more common. A recent study estimates that there are 2,708,000 marriages between Turks and Kurds/Zaza.[69]

A research by Mete Feridun of University of Greenwich seeks to explain the possible role of the regional underdevelopment of South Eastern Turkey in the ensuing terrorism in the country. The article also aims at making a contribution towards a better understanding of some economic conditions that are related to terrorism.[70]

Turkish government statistics show that Kurdish women in Turkey give birth to about four children, more than double the rate for the rest of the Turkish population. The Kurdish population is growing, while the rest of the country has birth rates below replacement level. [71][72][73] In some Kurdish dominated provinces women give birth to 7.1 children on average. [74] Women in Kurdish dominated provinces of eastern Turkey also have a illiteracy rate about three times higher than men, which correlates with higher birth rates. In Şırnak 66 percent of 15-year old girls could not read or write. [75]


Linguistic groups

Human rights

Leyla Zana; Kurdish politician who was awarded the 1995 Sakharov Prize

Since the 1970s, the European Court of Human Rights has condemned Turkey for the thousands of human rights abuses.[76][77] The judgments are related to executions of Kurdish civilians,[78] torturing,[79] forced displacements,[80] destroyed villages,[81] arbitrary arrests,[82] murdered and disappeared Kurdish journalists.[83] The latest judgments are from 2014.[78]

The European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) reports that (as of April 2010): "The public use by officials of the Kurdish language lays them open to prosecution, and public defence by individuals of Kurdish or minority interests also frequently leads to prosecutions under the Criminal Code."[84] From the 1994 briefing at the International Human Rights Law Group: "the problem in Turkey is the Constitution is against the Kurds and the apartheid constitution is very similar to it."[85]

In 1998 Leyla Zana received a jail sentence.[86] This prompted one member of the U.S. House of Representative, Elizabeth Furse, to accuse Turkey of being a racist state and continuing to deny the Kurds a voice in the state". Abbas Manafy from New Mexico Highlands University claims "The Kurdish deprivation of their own culture, language, and tradition is incompatible with democratic norms. It reflects an apartheid system that victimizes minorities like Armenians, Kurds, and Alevis."[87]

Notable people

This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.

See also


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Further reading

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