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Kurdish Revolts


The organized efforts of stateless Kurds to form a Kurdish state or achieve autonomy.

Since the late nineteenth century, the Kurds have made ceaseless efforts to achieve statehood or self-rule.
These efforts have been identified, from a state-centered perspective, as "rebellion," "revolt," "insurrection," "insurgency," "sabotage," "treason," "turmoil," "religious fanaticism," "subversion," "banditry," "tribal feud," "secessionism," "sedition," "conspiracy," "unrest," "foreign agitation," "plot," or "intrigue," and, more recently, "terrorism." By contrast, the Kurds themselves and a body of less partisan literature use terms such as "resistance," "revolution," "patriotism," "national liberation," "independence movement" or "nationalist movement," "autonomy movement," "emancipation," "uprising," "(armed) struggle," and "self-determination." Western powers, such as Russia, Britain, France, Germany, and the United States, as well as states in the region have intervened in these revolts either as supporters or adversaries of the Kurds.

Although labeled as the world's largest "stateless nation," most Kurds lived under the direct rule of independent and autonomous Kurdish principalities, often nominally dependent on the overlord states of Ottoman Turkey and Iran. As part of their administrative-military modernization and centralization projects, the two states overthrew the last remaining principalities in the mid-nineteenth century.

The fall of the principalities brought the extension of state power to all parts of Kurdistan. The leadership of revolts then transferred, according to some historians, to the sheikhs, or leaders of religious orders, although tribal and feudal lords continued to rebel. The most important revolt, occurring in 18791880 against Turkey and Iran, was undertaken by Shaykh Ubaydullah. Some scholars see this revolt as the first stage of Kurdish nationalism because Ubaydullah tried to unite the Kurds in an independent Kurdish state. However, he and many other leading sheikhs were part of the landed feudal aristocracy motivated by class and clan interests.

Modernist nationalist ideas were first expressed by the Kurdish poet Hajji Qadiri Koyi (18181897). However, the modernist nation-building and state-building projects of Iran and Turkey, powerfully expressed in the Constitutional Revolution of 19061911 and the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, denied the Kurds any degree of self-rule.

World War I led to the redivision of Ottoman Kurdistan among the new states of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Together with Iran, they emerged as centralized nationalist regimes that used violence to assimilate autonomy-seeking minority groups such as the Kurds. Kurdish nationalist resistance emerged, in part, as a reaction to modernist state violence.

A series of revolts shocked republican Turkey soon after its formation in 1923: the Shaykh Saʿid revolt (1925), the Ararat revolt (19271931, led by Khoybun, a nationalist party), and the Dersim revolt (led by religious leader Sayyid Riza). Some historians see the Shaykh Saʿid revolt as a new stage in the history of Kurdish nationalism because it was planned by a nationalist party although led by a religious leader. In Iran a series of tribal revolts in the 1920s and early 1930s reacted to Reza Shah Pahlavi's harsh centralization project. The most serious (19181930) was led by tribal leader Ismaʿil Agha Simko. In the unstable postWorld War I Iraq, the British occupying administration allowed religious leader Shaykh Mahmud autonomous rule as a bulwark against Turkish military incursions. He revolted and declared himself "King of Kurdistan" in 1922, only to be removed after a series of battles in 19231924.

During World War II and soon after, the hegemonic rule of tribal, feudal, and religious leaders gradually gave way to modern-style, secular, nationalist, party-centered politics of urban intellectuals and activists, while the peasantry remained the main fighting force, now called peshmarga, "those who face death." In the absence of civil society, political parties often had to work clandestinely and were forced into armed confrontation in mountainous countryside, but urban civil forms of dissidence began to emerge. The most important party, Komeley J. K (Society for the Revival of Kurdistan, 1942), aimed at the creation of a greater Kurdistan, reorganized as the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, Iran, and established the first modern Kurdish government, the Kurdish Republic of 1946, in northwestern Iran.

The longest Kurdish revolt in Iraq (19611975) was launched by Mulla Mustafa Barzani, leader of both the Barzani tribe and the Kurdish Democratic Party, Iraq (KDP; also known as the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, DPK). It resumed in 1976 under the newly formed Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the reorganized KDP, which in the wake of the 1991 U.S.-led war against Iraq formed the Kurdish Regional Government in the "Safe Haven" created and protected by the United States and the United Kingdom. Both parties participated in the 2003 U.S.-led war against the Baʿthist regime of Saddam Hussein.

In Turkey dissidence resumed in the 1960s with the participation and leadership of students, urban intellectuals, and political activists, who were, as of the 1970s, part of the leftist social movements of the country. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK, in Kurdish acronym) launched an armed struggle for Kurdish independence in 1984. It gradually shifted to political struggle, especially after the abduction in Kenya of its leader Abdullah Öcalan by Turkish commandos in 1998, and reorganized into the Freedom and Democracy Congress of Kurdistan (KADEK, in Kurdish acronym) in 2002.

In Iran the Kurds demanded autonomy during the Iranian Revolution and after the Islamic Republic

assumed power in 1979. Faced with Tehran's large-scale military offensive, the traditional nationalist KDP of Iran and the newly formed radical Komele (the Revolutionary Organization of the Toilers of Kurdistan), together with other groups, engaged in armed resistance, which continues to this day.

The transition from patriarchal-tribal-feudal to democratic politics has been going on since the 1890s. The nationalist movement has become increasingly urbanized, has embraced secularism, socialism, and liberalism, and has allowed the more visible participation of women. Nevertheless, a radical rupture between tribal-feudal and democratic politicsespecially in Iraqi Kurdistanhas not yet occurred.

see also constitutional revolution; democratic party of kurdistan (iran; kdp); democratic party of kurdistan (iraq); iranian revolution (1979); kurdish autonomous zone; kurdistan; kurdistan workers party (pkk); kurds; pahlavi, reza; patriotic union of kurdistan (puk); young turks.


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

Eagleton, William. The Kurdish Republic of 1946. London: Oxford University Press,1963.

Levene, Mark. "Creating a Modern 'Zone of Genocide': The Impact of Nation- and State-Formation on Eastern Anatolia, 18781923." Holocaust and Genocide Studies 12, no. 3 (1998): 393433.

McDowall, David. A Modern History of the Kurds. London: I. B. Tauris, 2000.

Olson, Robert. The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion, 18801925. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.

amir hassanpour

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