Kurds are the largest ethnic and linguistic minority in Turkey. The estimated numbers claimed by various sources range from 10 to 23 per cent of the population. According to the 1965 national census, those who declared Kurdish as their mother tongue or second language constituted around 7.5 per cent of the population. However, for various reasons, it is possible that this figure was under-inclusive at the time. Today, most estimates suggest that between 15 and 20 per cent of the Turkish population are Kurdish.
Kurds speak Kurdish, which is divided into Kurmanci, Zaza and other dialects. The majority are Sunni Muslims, while a significant number are Alevis. Historically, Kurds are concentrated in the eastern and south-eastern regions of the country, where they constitute the overwhelming majority, large numbers have migrated to urban areas in western Turkey.
Turkey’s Kurdish community, besides being the largest minority in the country, is also one of the most discriminated against. Their situation deteriorated further following the outbreak of fighting in 1984 between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed opposition group fighting for self-determination. Increasing violence on both sides has resulted in the displacement of millions of civilians.
Kurdish tribes enjoyed virtual autonomy until the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Fearful of the Armenian threat during World War I, Kurds cooperated in the Ottoman government’s genocide of one million Armenians, only to find themselves the target of forcible assimilation in the 1920s and 1930s. From the late 1950s, Kurdish immigration was initially voluntary and economic. But repeated Kurdish rebellions were suppressed with ruthlessness, bordering on genocide. All Kurdish expression was outlawed.
A few Kurds began to call for recognition in the 1960s, and a growing number identified with the Turkish left in the 1970s. In 1984 Kurdish nationalism found violent expression in the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which embarked on a guerrilla war against the state.
In tandem with this, the PKK also succeeded in mobilizing much of the Kurdish civilian population. The struggle has been partly a class one. Kurdish identity was infused with a sense of economic as well as political deprivation. The PKK deliberately targeted certain members of the Kurdish landlord class as accomplices with the system of oppression (though some landlords identified with the PKK, often for reasons of local rivalry). The PKK also targeted perceived agents of the Turkish state such as school-teachers.
With the outbreak of armed conflict in 1984 between the Turkish army and the PKK, more than 1 million Kurds were forcibly evicted from rural and urban areas in eastern and south-eastern Turkey. The displaced settled in urban centres in the region as well as towns in western and southern Turkey, and many fled to Europe. By 1996 the state only retained control of south-east Turkey through the forced evacuation of over 3,000 Kurdish villages, consequently causing the destitution of 3 million people, with widespread and routine arbitrary arrests and torture common.
A major factor in Turkey’s rapid urbanization in recent decades, especially the main cities in south-eastern Turkey, was the policy of village destruction, which was central to Turkey’s internal conflict against the PKK. By 1994, at least 3,000 villages had been deliberately destroyed as part of this campaign. The European Court of Human Rights gave judgment in a number of cases and established that Turkey had destroyed many villages as part of a military strategy. In this context, urban centres such as Diyarbakır experienced rapid growth, tripling in size during the 1990s even as many residents themselves moved elsewhere in Turkey or abroad to escape the violence. Though there is no consensus on how many exactly were displaced, reliable estimates range between 1 and 3 million. This legacy of large-scale displacement persisted even before the recent resumption of hostilities, with the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimating there to be at least 953,700 Kurdish internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Turkey as of December 2014 – the majority were originally uprooted by fighting between 1986 and 1995. IDMC reported that most of these long-term displaced have had to survive without external support, either in urban areas in relative proximity to their home villages or in cities in other regions of the country, often in low quality housing.
The Kurdish struggle for cultural and political rights is complicated by social and religious factors. Many rural Kurds are primarily motivated by clan or tribal loyalty, with long-standing local conflicts reflected in support for rival political parties at national level. Inter-tribal politics can determine whether support will be given to the PKK or government forces. Loyalties are also determined by religious sentiment. Possibly up to 25 per cent of Kurds in the south-east are still primarily motivated by religious affiliation. Many still accept tarikat guidance (voluntary Islamic social welfare organisations that provide guidance and aid for Muslims. They have ancient mystic and traditional roots in Turkey) when it comes to voting. This has benefited religious parties and parties of the right. The south-east remains underdeveloped compared with the western half of the country.
The use of minority language people’s names was prohibited until recent years, which was particularly detrimental for Kurds. In July 2003, a reform of the law removed the restriction on parents’ freedom to name their children with names ‘deemed offensive to the national culture,’ but kept the requirement that names should ‘comply with moral values,’ and not be offensive to the public. In September 2003, the law was restricted to curtailing names containing the letters q, w and x, which are common in Kurdish. Thus, Kurds are still precluded by law from giving their children Kurdish names that include these letters.
While the conflict continued to exact a heavy death toll and displace hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians, the government also maintained a heavily discriminatory policy towards the community as a whole. This included the removal of Kurdish public officials, harassment of Kurdish political groups, targeting of Kurdish media outlets and the arrest of Kurdish politicians for holding party gatherings in Kurdish. The government also continued to conflate any effort to promote Kurdish rights, such as use of the Kurdish language, with support for ‘PKK terrorists’.
Although the conflict between government forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) continued in 2012 with bombings and counter-insurgency operations causing deaths and displacement on both sides, talks began in October to negotiate a ceasefire. In early 2013, the implementation of a ceasefire between the government and the PKK held the promise of bringing an end to decades of violent conflict. However, after two years, the ceasefire ended and a new chapter in the bloody conflict began.
Following the outbreak of renewed hostilities in July 2015, the government banned Kurdish demonstrations and restricted access to related websites. Turkish authorities also launched a heavy security crackdown, including the imposition of an extended curfew to allegedly contain Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters in the predominantly Kurdish city of Cizre in September that left residents without electricity and with limited access to food, water and medical treatment. Kurdish organizations, businesses and individuals were also reportedly targeted by nationalists. Elsewhere, too, the conflict reignited inter-communal tensions and led to a spate of attacks against Kurds, including the fatal stabbing in Istanbul of a 21-year-old Kurdish man by a gang who had overheard him speaking Kurdish on the phone. In November 2015 Tahir Elçi, a renowned Kurdish human rights lawyer and peace advocate, was murdered in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir. An estimated 100,000 people attended his funeral, with his death seen as representing a further setback for efforts to secure a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Since then the conflict has claimed thousands more lives, including hundreds of Kurdish civilians. While the PKK and associated groups have been responsible for a number of brutal violent attacks in Istanbul and elsewhere, the Turkish military offensive in the south-east has been accompanied by widespread human rights abuses, including reports of torture and extrajudicial killings. The indiscriminate use of shelling in populated areas has devastated many areas, displacing hundreds of thousands predominantly Kurdish residents, with the historic centre of Diyarbakır almost completely destroyed. This has been accompanied by a parallel process of repression against Kurdish civil society, which was particularly targeted in the wake of the failed coup attempt in 2016 and the subsequent state-led purge. Kurdish NGOs have been closed, private schools with Kurdish language curriculums have been shut down, and Kurdish teachers, academics and officials summarily dismissed.
While the ongoing conflict remains the primary cause of displacement, many Kurdish residents in the south-east of the country have also been uprooted by various development projects including the highly controversial 1,200 megawatt Ilisu dam on the Tigris River in south-east Turkey. Reports suggest that it will displace as many as 78,000 people and the destruction of much irreplaceable heritage, including the flooding of the ancient city of Hasankeyf.
Language is another area where Kurds have faced acute discrimination in Turkey. Until recently, the use of minority languages in people’s names was forbidden by law and even though some of these restrictions were lifted in 2003, names containing a q, w or x – all common letters in Kurdish – continue to be prohibited. A democratization package proposed lifting this ban and other discriminatory practices, such as the student oath in which children – regardless of their ethnicity – have to pledge each day in schools to be ‘a Turk, honest, hard-working’. It was also proposed that the original place names for Kurdish villages in the south-east of the country could be used again, rather than the Turkish names put in place in the 1980s, but larger cities were not included (although the government stated that these could be considered).
Updated June 2018
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