The European Kurds rallying to fight IS

With Kurds in Iraq and Syria under attack from the Islamic State, many young Kurds in Europe have been joining resistance forces—a trend occluded by the media focus on European-born jihadists.

Janroj Yilmaz Keles
10 December 2014

A Kurdish protest against IS in London. Flickr / Alan Denney. Some rights reserved.

Kurds, of whom there are estimated to be 30-35m, comprise the largest ethnic community in the Middle East after Turks, Arabs and Persians—and the largest in the world without a state. Most live in the disputed territory of Kurdistan. which covers east and south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, west Iran and northern Syria. Various revolts in pursuit of an independent Kurdistan or autonomy within these national borders have wrought no significant political or structural changes, except in Iraq, where Kurds have had a de facto state since 1991.

The Kurdish question has remained largely hidden from the international community due to the coercive policies of the host states—their nadir the massacre in Halabja, where 5,000 people were killed by the Iraqi regime in 1988.The most significant change followed the first Gulf war in 1991, when a Kurdish uprising in Iraq, brutally suppressed, forced the international community to establish a safe haven and no-fly zone in the Kurdish region.

As a result of the long war between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Turkish state, over 3m people were displaced by the military in the 90s. Many fled to Turkish cities or Western countries. The PKK is involved in talks with the AKP government to find a peaceful settlement to the Kurdish question in Turkey. Since the Syrian crisis, Kurds in Rojava (western Kurdistan / northern Syria) have become a global political concern but their counterparts in Iran are yet to be so regarded.

The Kurdish diaspora, product of war, displacement and migration, has made the question of Kurdistan a transnational political subject. Though worldwide, this diaspora is concentrated in Europe.


The movement of Kurds to the EU differs from those who migrated to fill labour shortages or following enlargement. Some, mainly from eastern Turkey, did travel as Gastarbeiter but most fled from discrimination, persecution, war and hardship in the wider contested territory of Kurdistan.

The flow to Europe began in the early 60s and increased in the 70s and 80s, as the movement for autonomy in Iraq faced repression and Kurds in Iran took refuge from the oppressive policies of the Shah and his Islamist successor. But most Kurds who have arrived in the EU since the 80s have escaped from the battleground between the Turkish state and the PKK.

The statelessness of Kurds has affected their lives in settlement countries, where they have been registered according to titular nationality—rendering them invisible in official data. The estimated number of European Kurds is 1.5m or fewer, most (around one million) living in Germany. They include more than 200,000 Yazidis (or Ezidis), the target of states and fundamentalist groups in the Middle East—most recently of Islamic State (IS) in the Mount Sinjar area of Iraq—due to their religious and, to an extent, their ethnic background.

A Kurdish ‘imagined community’ has been constructed in Europe, and elsewhere, via homeland-oriented organisations as well as transnational communications and transport technologies. This poses a considerable challenge to the nationalistic hegemony of the implicated states. The engagement of the diaspora with homeland politics has played a crucial role in post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq, in organising petitions, fundraising, holding demonstrations, lobbying the settlement-country government and connecting the cause and homeland organisations to international political structures. Indeed, the diaspora in Europe and the US has been able to speak on behalf of the subordinated Kurdish population in homelands where expression of ethnic identity, language and political position is denied.

The diaspora, however, has neither an ascribed ethnic identity nor a single political aim, due to contemporary Kurdish fragmentation. It should not be considered a bounded group with a fixed customary practice but rather hybrid and changeable. While some Kurds have taken to European streets to protest against mistreatment at home, others have joined the Kurdish forces to fight against these states and most recently against IS attacks on Sinjar and Kobane.

If the media have only recently noticed that some young people are heading to Kurdistan to fight against IS, joining the Kurdish guerrilla groups has in fact been a trend since 1985. In particular, as the war between the PKK and the Turkish state intensified, the conflict spread to Europe, especially Germany, through Turkish and Kurdish organisations, political actors and media. The PKK has become a powerful Kurdish party straddling multiple nation-states, mobilising refugees and second-generation Kurds for homeland politics. Latterly, other conflicts in different parts of Kurdistan have further politicised the diaspora community and given rise to deterritorialised solidarity among Kurds around the world.

While the Kurdish authorities in south Kurdistan  / Iraq and Rojava / Syrian Kurdistan say they need weapons rather than ‘fighters’, a few hundred young people have recently joined Kurdish forces, in particular the peshmerga in south Kurdistan. Their parents stem from different parts of Kurdistan and various socio-economic backgrounds. Some are university students from middle-class families. An equally large group came to Europe as youngsters but later decided to go back to join Kurdish forces—they have usually studied to high-school level. Not only young people are joining the movement, however: the German newspaper Bild reported that more than 50 Yazidi/Ezidi men had travelled to Sinjar to fight IS and provide humanitarian aid and Die Welt said a ‘German Ezidi commander’ had been killed in Iraq.


The reasons why young people give up life in Europe and join Kurdish forces—including the peshmerga, the PKK and the People's Protection Units / Women's Protection Units (YPG-YPJ) in Rojava—are complex. First, stateless diasporic communities (Kurds, Tamils, Palestinians, Kashmiris and so on), being different from labour migrants, experience a sense of loss, feelings of displacement, a strong ethnic identity and a solidarity with people in the homeland. Allied to the ‘myth of return’ common among diaspora, these create a ‘diasporic consciousness’, in that their background, expulsion and sense of belonging are central to who they are and how they behave.

A crucial element of the stateless diaspora is the dream of a real or imaginary homeland. This is a key reason why many Kurdish young people in Europe have decided to join the Kurdish forces in the region. In comparison with previous generations, global communications—in particular, Kurdish satellite TVs and the internet—have compressed time and space, connecting Kurds in different political and geographical arenas. In these spaces they can not only meet for the first time and create a sense of belonging, sharing experiences and exchanging ideas, but can also follow the mistreatment of Kurds by the Turkish, Iranian and Syrian regimes, as well as non-state groups such as IS or al-Nusra. Transmitted images of torture, lethal attacks against Kurds and the desperation of people in the region connect the movers with the stayers and reduce the emotional, political and cultural distance.

In this sense, the Kurdish diaspora remains loyal to a homeland it no longer inhabits. Members feel a moral obligation to engage in solidarity with co-ethnics ‘suffering from oppression’ and a sense of guilt that they have abandoned their homeland for the West. These social norms play an important role in altruistically inspired activities, whether becoming involved in homeland politics in the settlement country or joining armed forces in the homeland. 

Secondly, after almost a century of persecution and war, Kurdish political movements in Turkey, Iraq and Syria have become genuine actors working towards a state (in Iraq) or democratic autonomy (in Syria and Turkey). Engaged European Kurds believe that it is time to ‘push ahead’ and realise their dream. Against this background, for those well connected through social media and Kurdish satellite TV stations, reports of IS atrocities have triggered massive reactions—in particular in Germany where most European Kurds live, including 200,000 Ezidis.

The Kurdish diaspora, product of war, displacement and migration, has made the question of Kurdistan a transnational political subject.

Some see the IS attacks as part of a co-ordinated plan by regional countries to ‘destroy Kurdish political gains’ and believe that the international community does not care enough about the suffering of Kurdish people. And there are enough reasons for this distrust: until the US-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, many young members of the diaspora believed strongly that the UN, the US and the EU would again let down the Kurds. The old saying that the Kurds have ‘no friends but the mountains’ was repeated by many in online and offline conversations. Hence the case for direct action by going to the region to fight IS.

Many recalled how the then US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, had supported the Kurds in Iraq in 1975 but had then withdrawn American support after mediating between Iran and Iraq, signing the Algiers agreement to secure US interests in the region. As for today, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been accused of anti-Kurdish politics—particularly with his claim that the IS-besieged Kurdish city of Kobane in Rojava/Syria was “about to fall”.

Thirdly, most European Kurds who join the Kurdish forces have been directly affected by events in Kurdistan, having lost family members in previous conflicts. Now these young people go to the Kurdish region, as they see it, to protect relatives still living there.

Indeed some have themselves experienced state violence in Turkey, Iraq, Syria or Iran. A significant segment of the Kurdish diaspora in Europe has been traumatised by torture and other severe human-rights abuses in the homeland. And the images of killing, kidnapping and displacement of Ezidis in Sinjar and Kurds in Rojava, in particular in the besieged city of Kobane, bring back memories of displacement and maltreatment. The sense of powerlessness and the lack of immediate action by the international community over the kidnapping of Kurdish women and children, and their selling as sex slaves, has added to diaspora frustration. 

Finally, the search for a grand narrative also drives young people on a long and dangerous journey. A young Kurd from Berlin explained the motivation: “Because the Kurdish cause is a burning political issue and this issue has an impact on our identity. It creates a collective and solidaristic identity amongst Kurds. It doesn’t matter where you live. If I say Kurdish identity I am talking about a politicised Kurdish identity that stands up for our rights. I am interested in a new Kurdish identity, not the past … Because I see a society which is rapidly forming here and in Kurdistan.” For such second-generation Kurds, identity is a political project to defend Kurds from oppression and build a new Kurdish society—not a search to recover lost traditions.


While the UN Security Council has passed a resolution restricting the movement of foreign fighters intent on joining IS, and many countries have discussed the potential threat associated with their return, some EU countries have said they would not conduct legal proceedings against European Kurds fighting against IS “unless they committed war crimes” and “used banned weapons”. This is because they are not considered a threat to society or the political system in their settlement countries. The UK has, though, advised its ethnically Kurdish citizens not to get involved in fighting in the region and to “stay out of the conflict”.

Evidently, the European Kurdish fighters are perceived differently from those who join IS or al-Nusra, possibly because the Kurdish young people are fighting for their ‘ethnic/national rights’ in a delimited space—Kurdistan—rather than seeking to export, impose and disseminate their ideology through violence to other societies in Europe. And the European Kurds in the region are integrated in organisations which work closely with the international community, including states and/or NGOs, and have declared they will comply with international conventions—unlike the foreign-born jihadists, “mediaeval in character”, who are notorious for beheading, rape and the mass killing of members of other ethnic and religious communities.

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