In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Kurdistan and Kurdish Politics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Kurds in World Politics
  • Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Kurdistan

International Relations Kurdistan and Kurdish Politics
Bahar Baser
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0131


Kurds are an ethnic group in the Middle East and they constitute the biggest stateless nation in the world. It is estimated that more than 40 million Kurds live in Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria and in other countries in the Middle East such as Lebanon. Approximately half of the world’s Kurdish population lives in Turkey. There is also a growing Kurdish diaspora in western Europe and in the United States, which emerged in the wake of both conflict-induced and voluntary migrations of the Kurds from their homeland. Although they constitute the largest or one of the largest minority groups in their respective homelands, their ethnic identity has not been historically recognized and they have been deprived of their minority rights. In each state in which they have lived, different mechanisms of oppression operated to deny them their identity, which in the end engendered different Kurdish resistance movements challenging the oppressive state authority that denied the Kurds their identity and their basic human rights. Because the Kurds have lived under different regimes, many linguistic, religious, ideological, and tribal differences emerged among Kurdish groups in the Middle East. In terms of religion, although the majority of the Kurds are Muslim, they belong to different sects of Islam (mainly Sunni or Alevi), and, thus, they cannot be treated as a homogenous group with the same affiliations and goals. Therefore, the sections in this article are divided into various subheadings that emphasize these differences. An important body of work has emerged on Kurdistan and Kurdish politics since the 1990s. Prior to then, it proved extremely difficult to conduct fieldwork in the region; nevertheless, many scholars did manage to contribute to the literature on the Kurds in completing careful ethnographic studies. Access to research opportunities is easier today and many scholarly works are based on ethnographic studies in all parts of Kurdistan. An established scholarship exists in various fields of social science, such as political science, international relations, sociology, and history. In addition, many scholarly works adopt an interdisciplinary approach. The topic attracts international scholars as well as scholars from the region. Therefore, literature on Kurdish studies is sufficiently abundant to include both insider and outsider views. The sources cited here serve as a guide to Kurdish studies, which offer an introduction to a deeper engagement with the literature.

General Overviews

An important body of work has been established in Kurdish studies especially since the 1990s. Among them, several works listed here provide a general overview of the Kurds as a society and the Kurds as political actors in the Middle East. Van Bruinessen 1992 on the societal and political structures of Kurdistan is a classic in this regard. Randal 1998 and McDowall 2003 are also two books that are widely cited when it comes to defining who the Kurds are in treating their plight, aspirations, and conditions. Ozoglu 2004 is a valuable study of the Kurdish notables in Ottoman times and it highlights the emergence of Kurdish ethno-nationalism before the Turkish republic was founded. Meiselas 2008 is an excellent source full of visual material that narrates the historical story of the Kurds. Manafy 2005 is a detailed account of the Kurdish struggle and the reasons behind it in the Middle East. Natali 2005 portrays the dilemmas that the Kurds have faced from an international relations perspective. Klein 2011 is one of the substantial books that analyzes the Kurdish groups during the Ottoman Empire and their relations with other ethnic groups, such as the Armenians.

  • Klein, Janet. The Margins of Empire: Kurdish Militias in the Ottoman Tribal Zone. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804775700.001.0001

    Klein explores how states incorporate minority groups as part of their aim to incorporate them into the state structure and how groups that seek autonomy try to reach their goals through the use of state mechanisms. Although that may sound contradictory, Klein, by examining the Ottoman state’s use of Kurdish tribal militias to deal with the perceived Armenian threat in eastern Turkey, demonstrates that it can be done. One of the best books that deals with the issues of Kurdish and Armenian groups in the Ottoman Empire.

  • Manafy, A. The Kurdish Political Struggle in Iraq, Iran and Turkey: A Critical Analysis. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005.

    A well-written analysis of the Kurdish movements of the 20th century enriched with details from the author’s personal observations.

  • McDowall, David. A Modern History of the Kurds. London: I. B. Tauris, 2003.

    A comprehensive book on the history of Kurds that looks at Kurdish history from 1800 onward and methodically explains the plight of Kurds, who are divided among four different countries.

  • Meiselas, Susan. Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

    Meiselas’s book is an important contribution to Kurdish studies as it is a compilation of photographs, archival documents, and diaries as well as well-written historical narratives, which are rarely found in other academic studies.

  • Natali, Denise. The Kurds and the State: Evolving National Identity in Iraq, Turkey and Iran. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005.

    This is one of the best books to read to acquire an understanding of the evolution of Kurdish identities and nationalisms and their complex nature.

  • Ozoglu, Hakan. Kurdish Notables and the Ottoman State. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

    An excellent and well-written volume on the Kurdish notables during Ottoman times. The book dwells on the evolution of Kurdish nationalism in premodern Turkey. Ozoglu’s work is based on a careful archival study of Ottoman and British sources as well as parliamentary minutes and interviews. He argues that the Kurdish notables remained loyal to the Ottoman Empire until its collapse and Kurdish nationalism emerged just before the end of the empire. He also explains the clashes with the Kemalist regime.

  • Randal, Jonathan C. After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998.

    A must-read book written by journalist Jonathan Randal. Full of insights and personal experiences about the situation of the Kurds in the Middle East.

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

    This is one of the essential books to be read for beginners of Kurdish studies and it has been viewed as the most important contribution to this literature. It is based on a major ethnographic study and it gives an overall picture of the Kurdish societies and their relations with the states in which they live.

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