The silence of friends: Why does the Muslim world support Palestine but ignore Kurdistan’s struggle?


Two nations, orphaned by the demise of the Ottoman Empire, are fighting for statehood. But the response of global Muslim community to each is quite different.

Kurdistan is a nation without a state. So is Palestine. A nation is a group of people who have a strong sense of unity and common consciousness. Possession of a definite territory and sovereignty are sine qua non for a state but not for a nation. Nations can survive even without sovereignty. 

Kurdistan is a nation stretched across many states in West Asia. The Kurdish people, around 40 million in number, inhabit in eastern Turkey, north Iraq, north-western Iran, north-eastern Syria and some territories of Armenia. Around 22 million of Turkey’s 84 million people are Kurdish. Most of Kurdish people are Sunni Muslims and only a few are Christians. 


They are the third-largest ethnic group in the West Asia and the largest nation without a state in the world, says Davan Yahya Khalil in his book Kurdistan: Genocide and Rebirth.

A long history

Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, has always been the Kurd superhero of the Muslim world. Under Saladin’s command, the Ayyubid army defeated the Crusaders at the decisive Battle of Hattin in 1187, and thereafter wrested control of Palestine – including the city of Jerusalem –from the Crusaders. Thanks to this feat, he is still a messiah in the Islamist imagination. Ibn Taymiyyah, one of the most influential medieval writers in contemporary Islam, was a Kurd too.

The term Kurdistan nowadays means Iraqi Kurdistan, which is presently an autonomous region. Iraqi Kurdistan is centered around the cities of Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah. This area is geographically diverse with deserts, rivers, lakes, forests, mountains and fertile valleys. The region is oil rich. 

Mountains have a great role in Kurdish life. As the saying goes,”The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” The mountains provided them self-reliance and identity. “They feel no sense of connection to the rest of a supposed country, for the simple reason that frequently, they are not connected to it, thanks to the separation imposed by the mountains.” writes Khalil. “That is probably less true in this age of instant communications and rapid transport, but even with them, mountains create a feeling of separation…throughout the fight against Saddam, the mountains provided protection for the Peshmerga, those men who fought for Kurdistan’s freedom.” 


There are many sub-clans among Kurdish people and the Barzanis are the most prominent among them.

The ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia was located in present-day Kurdistan. Erbil is one of the oldest continuously occupied sites on the planet, having been inhabited from at least 4000 BC. As early as 401 BC, the Greeks mentioned “Karduchoi”, who were probably Kurds, writes Christiane Bird in A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts.

The conquest of Kurdistan by Islamic Arabs in 637 C.E was a watershed in their history. The invaders redefined the group’s ethnic profile and religious identity. Later, the area was taken over by the Persian and the Ottoman Empires.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Sheikh Mahmoud Barzani in 1918 was appointed by the British to govern. He argued for an independent Kurdish homeland. The treaty of Sevres in 1920 guaranteed that the Kurdish people would have independence as soon as the League of Nations believed that they were capable of governing themselves. But, the treaty was never ratified. 


It was superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 that made no mention about a homeland for the Kurdish people. The Kurdish people revolted under General Mullah Mustafa Barzani. The revolt failed and Barzani was exiled to the USSR. After that, rebellions spanned five countries and almost 30 years.

In 1970, Saddam Hussein, then a rising star in the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, went to Kurdistan, met with Barzani, put several blank sheets of paper before him and refused to leave until he hammered out deal for forestalling Kurdish uprisings in the north of Iraq. But the deal fell apart a few months after. Another deal was negotiated in 1974 but failed due to the dispute over Kirkuk. Oil resources in Kirkuk have been vital for Baghdad, and hence unimaginable for Iraq to give up. 

The United States extended support to the Kurdish cause as a part of ts Cold War strategy, but were reluctant to intervene militarily immediately after its Vietnam fiasco. The Iran-Iraq treaty of 1975 dictated that neither would supply weapons to Kurdish fighters within the other’s borders. Thus both Iran and the US betrayed Iraqi Kurds and condemned thousands of Kurdish people to death. A large number of Iraqi Kurds fled to Iran fearing an imminent military crackdown by Iraq. The Iraqi army transported hundreds of Kurd families to Abu Graib, the infamous prison.

The Anfal genocide

These developments were precursor of the Anfal genocide. Arabisation has been the cultural facet of the Kurd genocide. In 1983, Iraqi regime moved up to target men and boys of fighting age for mass murder. In Erbil, a large open prison was erected and around 8,000 men and boys of the Barzani tribe from the prison were butchered by Saddam Hussein’s military. 


The Anfal (spoils of war) was the bloodiest episode of the Kurd genocide in Iraq. It was the 1987-’88 campaign by the Iraqi military aimed at the extermination of the Kurds, mostly in rural areas of Kurdistan. It featured the extensive use of chemical weapons, mainly at Halabja, but also the systematic destruction of villages and imprisonment or murder of all Kurds found. 

At the start of 1987-’88, there were more than 4,600 villages in Kurdistan. Of these, 4,000 were razed by the Anfal. Around 100,000 Kurds were massacred during the Anfal, estimated Human Rights Watch in its report Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds.

The Kurdistan movement in Turkey is a more blood-stained chapter. Lungthuiyang Riamei in his work Kurdistan: The Quest for Representation and Self-Determination observes that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2010, Kurdistan has witnessed an increase in nationalism and a shift in geo-politics. 

“The Kurdish movement has given an impetus for democratic decentralisation and to struggle for self-determination,” he wrote. “The emergence of independent Kurdistan is a dream of millions of Kurds.”


The Kurdish Peshmerga and the YPG, a Kurdish militia in Syria, are the strongest forces confronting the Islamic State group in the West Asian region. But the Muslim world that venerates the Palestine Liberation Organsation and Hamas has never quite applauded the Peshmerga for its legendary resistance movement.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” said Martin Luther King Jr. The perennial silence of global Muslim fraternity about Kurdistan’s century-old struggle for self-determination, in contrast to their rhetoric about Palestine is disturbing. 

The stimulus is identical: two nations, orphaned by the demise of the Ottoman Empire, are fighting for statehood. But the response of global Muslim community, even of the international community, has been strikingly different . 

Why does the global Muslim ummah stay silent about Kurdistan while they agitate for Palestine? The reason is simple. In Palestine’s case, the rival side is Israel, a Jewish entity that is considered hostile by the Muslim world. But in Kurdistan, it is a Muslim versus Muslim conundrum. The global Muslim silence over Kurdistan and agitation over Palestine have a single root: religious tribalism. This fact alarmingly pollutes the altruist shades of their support to the Palestinian cause.

Faisal CK is an independent researcher who specialises in constitutional law and political philosophy.



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