Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria do not generally like it when people apply the term ‘minority’ to them. Your humble columnist has heard Kurds object to the term in countless conferences, public debates and opinion columns. This antipathy towards the minority label probably stems from a number of related factors.

First, there seems to exist in the region pejorative connotations towards the existence and even the idea of ‘minority.’ The modern Middle East as a whole did not prove overly kind to various minorities, and some regimes made a business of blaming minorities for whatever problems ailed the country.

Second, in Ottoman times minorities (millets) were exclusively non-Muslim communities, who were tolerated and enjoyed government protection (most of the time) but lacked equality with Muslims.

Third, for many Kurds the term ‘minority’ seems to imply that they have fewer rights to their land, as well as a less accepted place in society and the state. For a people who see themselves as the indigenous inhabitants of the area, present long before Turkic and Arab migrations to Anatolia and the Fertile Crescent, this remains unacceptable.

Finally, “minority status” can be seen by many Kurds as an impediment to either assimilation or full participation in the political system as Kurds.

Kurdish leaders and elites therefore generally rejected the minority label, even though minorities have specific rights enshrined in international law (such as use of their mother tongue education and other venues, the right to live their culture without discrimination, and so forth).

The Kurds are nonetheless a minority according to prevalent definitions of the term.  A minority is technically any group within a system that is numerically inferior to another, especially when the other forms over half the total within the system.

In sociology and politics, however, the definition can become more complicated than this. Sociologist Arnold Rose defines a minority as “…a group of people, differentiated from others in the same society by race, nationality, religion, or language, who both think of themselves as a differentiated group and are thought of by others as a differentiated group with negative connotations.”  This sense of the definition carries with it pejorative connotations ascribed to the minority by the majority.

According to Rose, such a minority need not even be a numerical one – rather, the term can be used to describe the subordinate status of a group. In this usage of the term, blacks in many parts of the southern United States might be the majority, but they are still minorities due to their relative power and status vis-à-vis white southerners. Similarly, Shiites in pre-2003 Iraq were more numerous than Sunnis, but because of their oppression by Sunni-ruled regimes in Baghdad, they were just as much a minority as Iraqi Kurds.

With the post-World War I division of Kurdistan into four parts controlled by the new states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, Kurds became a minority everywhere they lived – in both the numerical sense and the sociological sense described above. Without exception, each of these states – ruled by Turkish nationalists, Persian nationalists, or Arab nationalists (respectively) – relied on central government authority to embark on aggressive campaigns against their Kurdish population, aimed at subjugating and assimilating the Kurds.

One can therefore understand the Kurdish antipathy to minority status. Rather than asking for toleration and special rights, Kurdish parties in all parts of Kurdistan demand things like equality, including equal group rights in states dominated by Turks, Persians or Arabs. This means things like full Kurdish education rights, Kurdish media and publishing, local government services in Kurdish, Kurdish as a recognized official language of the state, and so forth.

Ankara, Tehran, Damascus and pre-2003 Baghdad denied the Kurds these rights because they feared a rise in Kurdish nationalism that might accompany such freedoms. Kurdish nationalism, state elites reasoned, leads to demands for still more group rights, decentralisation of power, autonomy and possibly secession of the Kurdish regions. Since none of these states have been very democratic (including Turkey even after 1950, when it became a very illiberal electoral democracy), the preferred approach of state elites was always to simply crush manifestations of Kurdish identity.

With the Middle East remaining the world’s least democratic region, it would seem naïve that such mentalities towards minorities will truly change any time soon. This ironically encourages and legitimises the very things state elites in the region fear – rebellions and secessionist movements. In the Kurds’ case, many reason that under such conditions, 30 to 40 million people deserve a chance to stop being a minority.

This article is written by David Romano and originally published by Rudaw. David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.