The largest of these minority groups is the Kurds. With more than 30 million Kurdish people in the Middle East, they are hardly a minority when taken as a whole. But, because they are a people without a national homeland, they live as minorities in several nations. The most significant Kurdish populations are in the mountainous regions of eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, and western Iran, where they are actually the majority.
In Turkey, there are about 15 million Kurds (20 percent of the nation's citizens); in Iraq, there are more than 5 million (20 percent of the population); and in Iran, there are another 5 million (10 percent of the republic's people). While Kurds also live in parts of Syria, Lebanon, and the former Soviet Union, these groups account for less than 5 percent of the global Kurdish population. Of all the world's Kurds, the vast majority are Sunni Muslims, though some are Shi'ite Muslims or Christians. Others practice various forms of Zoroastrianism.
Who are the Kurds? Start by determining who they are not. Kurds are not ethnically Arabs, Turks, or Persians, nor is Arabic, Turkish, or Farsi their mother tongue. These highlanders come from the same Indo-European stock as many Iranian tribes, but their distinct Kurmanji and Sorani languages set Kurds apart. In addition, unique Kurdish clothing styles, music, and so on have developed among these mountain people.
After being promised an independent Kurdish state in 1920, the Kurds watched Western governments divide their homeland among the newborn nations of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
While some believe the Kurds are descendants of the ancient Medes, their exact origins remain uncertain. As with most modern questions of ethnicity, the concept of Kurdishness has become politically charged. For some Kurds, having their traditional homeland divided among Arab, Turkish, and Iranian nations is unacceptable. In their estimation, an independent Kurdish state should be formed in the region they call Kurdistan. At the same time, many Kurds are content with life under a non-Kurdish government, as long as they are not victims of discrimination.
In response to Kurdish nationalism, the governments of Turkey and Iraq have tried to suppress any possibility of rebellion. Over the past fifteen years, thousands of Kurdish guerrillas and civilians have been shot, gassed, or tortured, while the living have been prevented from speaking their language or celebrating their heritage. Whatever their ancient roots or nationalistic aspirations, today more than 30 million people proudly consider themselves Kurds.