Kurds in Lebanon – Najlaa Aboumerhi

Kurds lived in Lebanon since long time, even before the creation of the Greater Lebanon. The dates of their flux to Lebanon might be one of the certainties about their history in this country. Not the same could be said about their community size in Lebanon; it is often an estimation based on unofficial census. Lebanon had one and last census since 1932. But also other communities in Lebanon have no certain figure regarding its sizes; it is the census again. Nevertheless, communities have full citizenship; they can vote, be elected and teach their language (like the Armenians) but not the Kurds. Even Kurds who are naturalised, their citizenship is incomplete. This essay will present a background of the Kurds in Lebanon passing by their role during the civil war. It will elaborate on their political representation and citizenship dilemma, and how this shaped their relation with certain political leaders (Muslim in general, Sunni specifically). It will also highlight the stand of the confessional power sharing in Lebanon as an obstacle in the way of Kurdish community to be considered as sect within the framework of the Lebanese system

Kurds in Lebanon; Background and Socioeconomic Conditions

Kurds came to Mount Lebanon long time ago; many figures of them played important roles in shaping the socio-political history of Lebanon in the Ottoman and in modern history. One of the prominent Lebanese families is Jumblat, it was Kurdish originally. First person of the family came to Mount Lebanon in 1630 and was hosted by Prince Fakhreddine, originally Kurdish too. One of the Jumblat descendants, Ali, married the daughter of the Head of sheikhs in Chouf, Kabalan Tannoukhi (Druze). Later, after the death of Sheikh Tannoukhi, Ali Jumblat was nominated to replace him. Therefore he changed his confession from Sunni to Druze, and since then all the line of Jumblat family became Druze till current. One of their prominent figures who played an important role in politics in the recent history was Nazira Jumblat. She inherited this role from her husband and passed it to her son Kamal Jumblat who will have an influential role in helping the Kurds sorting their circumstances relatively for the better

The creation of the new state system, after the World War 1 established different conditions for the stateless Kurds. The new state ideologies projected their societies profoundly in different ways, with radical future plans. Demands of minority nationalisms for representation, power –sharing or simple existence were considered as “illegitimate”. Each one of the four states; Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria dealt with the Kurdish issue differently. However one aspect remains common which is the official denial of the Kurdistan as a territory on its terms

Lebanon presented, maybe because its “singularity”, another way of dealing with the Kurds community. Since its creation, Lebanon was formed from different minorities; Sizeable minorities mainly are defined by religion while some are defined by ethnicity. Kurds came to Lebanon also between 1925 and World War 2 and between the mid of 1945s and early 1960s. They were encouraged by previous groups, promised with a prosper life. Most of the Kurds who arrived between 1920s and 1960 have settled in low income areas in Beirut, because they were poorly educated and possess few skills other than the agricultural ones . Many of the current Lebanese family, specifically Beiruti families, have Kurdish origin like Ayubi, Orfali, Doughan, Kurdi, Kalash. Most of them arrived with the Ottoman troops from Turkey

There is no confirmed number of their community size currently. But there is estimation that on 1985 they were between 60 thousands and 90 thousands, taking in to account that thousands of Kurdish families fled Lebanon during the war from 1975 to 1990 . However, Kurdish community declares that they count a number of 125 thousands naturalized Kurds , so their community size including the unnaturalized could be more than that. It is worthy to note that most Kurds who left Lebanon during the war continue to visit the country on regular basis. Their behaviour is similar to any other migrated Lebanese; they send money to their family members who remained in the country and invest in the real estate. Kurds in Lebanon need this help form their relatives abroad, because they often face difficulties finding a good job due to their ethnicity. The Kurds have always belonged to the lower social class; they possess neither good wealth nor good education. This ethnicity difference, being not Arabs, restricts them from humanitarian support and equal treatment in government offices even after they became citizens. But at the same time the naturalised Kurds have improved their socioeconomic situation specifically the naturalized Kurds of 1994. Over half of the naturalized Kurds were born in Lebanon; therefore they were familiar with the Lebanese system which seemed an advantage to their status. Also because they were concentrated in the capital Beirut, they benefit from the economic boom occurred on the city. Furthermore, being naturalized in Beirut means they become Beiruti voters which give them another value for the “Beiruti Sunni political machine”, something they can bargain on in exchange of services and aid

Till current, there has been no census in Lebanon except the one of 1932. The 1932 census played an essential role in the process of building the Lebanese state; its findings was the base of the political representation, for personal registration of the population residing on Lebanese territories, and for obtaining citizenship in the Lebanese state. A study of the 1932 census shows that the Christian “majority” in Lebanon was more political “was relying on the exclusion of considerable numbers of residents on Lebanese territories and the debatable inclusion of significant numbers of emigrants”. The census guidelines in Decree 8837 favoured the naturalization of Christian rather than Muslim applicants for Lebanese citizenship. This favouritism mainly took place after the census, when courts had to deal with demands for naturalization. Furthermore, an unknown number of residents in Lebanon were denied citizenship because of the enumeration process, despite their presence on the Lebanese territories for generations

In Lebanon the demographic figures has an important political significance because fixed proportional representation constitutes the essential ground of the political representation in the country. Therefore the probability of ignoring the population figures in Lebanon will continue as long as the consociational political agreement, which is a confessional power-sharing agreement mainly between Christians and Muslims, based on quota is considered as the model for the political distribution in the country

Based on the above, Kurdish community size in Lebanon is estimated but not confirmed by a census, same thing for other communities in the country. Because they are Muslims in majority, Kurds faced the complex of ethnicity and the confession in the Lebanese context which have been depriving them from their human rights for long time; later those rights were partially improved

Kurds in the Lebanese Conflicts

Unlike Kurds in Iran, Turkey, Syria, or Iraq, Kurds in Lebanon didn’t state any appeal for autonomy or separation. Lebanon was never part of historical Kurdistan, it was their asylum whether they were displaced from Turkey mainly or Syria, or they were born on its territories and embraced within the society; despite their feeling of discrimination and their deprivation of certain rights they do feel that they have no country other than Lebanon. Furthermore, some of them feel that they are Lebanese; it is another layer of identity that they will expose specifically when they are offended for being not Lebanese

Being part of the social fabric of Lebanese society, they contributed via their parties in the civil war, same as any other Lebanese community. Some parties took the side of the “Lebanese National Movement, AL-Haraka AL-Wataniya” , which was headed by Kamal Jumblat whom his family has Kurdish roots. The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) had strong ties with Jumblat, therefore when Syrian forces entered Lebanon in 1976 they supported his rejection to the Syrian interference which he called it “Invasion”. KDP in Lebanon believed that the country is worth to defend his independence and sovereignty against any exterior interference in Lebanese affairs . The KDP leaders paid the price of this support by being persecuted from the Syrian Intelligence Forces (Mukhabarat) and being forbidden from practicing any political activity in Lebanon. Late 70s, in parallel with the new Islamic revolution in Iran and with the alliance between the head of this new power Ayatollah Khomeini and the Syrian regime, Kurds, mainly KDP, engaged in fighting with Lebanese Shiites, this battle of the sectarian war in Lebanon was incited by the Syrian forces as the proponents of the Kurds believe . Khomeini have declared the war on Kurds in Iran after they launched their political campaign for autonomy, so Syrian Regime wanted to help his ally by hammering some Kurdish factions mainly KDP in Lebanon. But on the other hand, other Kurdish parties like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) took the side of the Syrian forces and the Iranian Regime, this relation didn’t distort till the 1998 , but afterward it was resumed between PKK and Syria’s allies in Lebanon. Kurdish community’s involvement in the Lebanese civil war was in a sense ideological; politically and economically the project of the LNM appealed to KDP, they also often offered help to Al- Murabitun (a Sunni faction in Beirut), while didn’t attract PKK. Kurds factions had to fight not only for ideological reason but also to earn their daily bread which was the case also for other Lebanese community .
Despite the discrimination they feel for being regarded as non-citizen in the eyes of Lebanese, Kurds, like other Lebanese communities are engaged in the political life and have different political tendency within the community. For example currently, Kurdish parties are divided between the two mainstream political camps in Lebanon 8 March (Hezbollah and Syrian Regime proponents) and 14 March (Future movement and Syrian Regime opponents). While Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) with Hezbollah members attacked the Kurdish activists who took part in anti-Syrian regime demonstrations in Beirut ; others were supporting the coordination effort between some Lebanese leaders and Masoud Barzani’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic movement in Iraqi Kurdistan to weaken the support that the Syrian regime gets from Hezbollah who dominates the government in Lebanon

Because they genuinely get emerged in the Lebanese society living its advantages and facing its inconveniences, Kurds deficient right to be represented within the social political Lebanese system as full and equal citizens state as flagrant unfair injustice. Therefore, despite their political differences, Kurds get together on stressing the need to adjust their status. The KDP remain hold of his solid discourse regard their demand the Lebanese authority in supporting the rights of the Kurdish community in Lebanon, specifically the necessary economic and political ones including allowing a Kurdish representative to be elected to the parliament . While other Kurdish parties, demanding the same rights but with a softer and more engaging approach mainly with Sunnis Leaders in Beirut and with other Muslim organisations (Sunnis and Shiites) to certain extent

Citizenship and Political Representation

Some Kurds believe that only two ,among Lebanese politicians, took care of their Kurdish community’s rights; the former prime minister Sami As-Solh during his seventh term 1956- 1958 and the assassinated prime minister Rafic Hariri in his term of 1994 particularly. Both Sunni leaders, they worked on the naturalisation of the Kurdish community. As-Solh objected the conversion of Sunnis Kurds to Christianity as condition to naturalize them and opened the door in 1956 to naturalize the Kurds being Sunni and not Maronites; President Kamil Chamoun naturalized some Kurds as Maronites .
But this gesture didn’t resolve the Kurds citizenship problem. Later in 1960, Lebanese authorities (with Kamal Jumblat being a minister in the cabinet) tried to resolve the matter of thousands of minorities’ applicants to naturalisation (Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs and Kurds). They were given certificates that their applications is “under consideration”. These certificates turned to be another type of half citizenship, were called “citizenship under consideration” without concluding their applications to a final status. Parents held the “citizenship under consideration” passed it to their children; the estimated number of people holding this sort of citizenship is around 30 thousands at least till the 2003, it is unconfirmed the number of Kurds among them . Kurds continue struggling not only for being half citizens, but mainly because its repercussions on their socioeconomic conditions. Their poverty, lack of occupational skills, illiteracy rate, insecurity and marginalisation by various Lebanese groups were related to their citizenship statuses

However with the political rise of Rafic Hariri in early 1990, Kurds conditions get more improved. He worked persistently on communicating with Kurds and supporting different social, charitable and cultural organisations and clubs within the community. Therefore in 1994, under Hariri prime ministership, 10 thousands of Kurds were granted the citizenship . However this citizenship was again missing essential rights that usually come with it. For example, politically, they were able to vote but not elected despite that the naturalisation law doesn’t state their inability to be represented in parliament or in municipalities. But Beiruti politicians imply the stand of Kurds united behind one candidate only. Some Kurds think of it as an excuse to cover Beiruti community rejection to vote for a Kurdish candidate. This rejection can’t be neglected by any Beiruti Sunni leader aiming to win the entire seats bloc in the election, since it is run following a closed electoral list system . In contrast, Armenian community have been never united behind the same candidates whether they were running for parliament election or for the municipalities, and despite that they have their own quota

Voting in the Elections 1996-2010

The size of communities in Lebanon is the basis of the electoral system. The latter is the basis of the distribution of the political power. The huge community support among the constituencies is essential for a politician to be elected to the parliament. Therefore, the political or the electoral machines overdo the convincing role in order to push the electorate to vote for the leader campaigning, most often they use the services and favours as incentives. A recent published study showed that Kurds proved to be highly motivated to participate in the elections, and not mainly because of the favours system. This growing participation started from 77% in 1996 and reached the 92% in 2009. Four main reasons behind this extraordinary turnout: express opinion, national duty, influence change, vote counts for the Future Movement (Hariri). It seems that they are influenced by their political affiliation, religious affiliation, ethnic, political party, family choice and also many of them influenced by their own convictions. Despite this massive participation in elections and their believe that it is their political right and national duty, Kurds are trapped by their ethnicity and sect which are making their representation by a Beiruti Sunni politician less than a full representation. They don’t have a deputy in Parliament or a municipality member that speaks their language, or share with them same culture, same folklore, and same joyful feeling in celebration of Nuruz. It was no surprise that the study of Hourani showed that only 8 % of people included in the survey consider themselves represented while 92% consider that they were not. Those who said they are represented, half of them said by any Sunni representative while the other half said by Hariri’s bloc

Kurds want to be a sect within the framework of the Lebanese system. While the Future Movement which is currently the largest party in Beirut, mainly Sunni, look at Kurdish community as any other Sunni group. Because the influence of the size of each community on its representation, Future Movement will be less keen to fragment the Sunni community quota in the parliament and to create sub Sunni ethnic group. Therefore Kurds have the voting right with no political implementation. They have the voting weight, 125 thousands naturalised among them 25 thousands eligible to vote , which means they will always be taken care by the politicians within the services and favours system whether individually or through the Kurdish organisations

Kurds activists often compare themselves to the Armenians in Lebanon. Armenians estimate around 150 thousands concentrated mainly in North Beirut. They arrived in many flux to Lebanon in 1895-6, 1915, 1920-21 and the final one was on 1939. Like the Kurds were hosted by Sunni mainly, because they are Sunni most of them came from Mardin in Turkey, Armenians were embraced by the Maronite Leaders to enlarge the Christian population and were offered the Lebanese citizenship . This citizenship permitted the Armenians not only from voting but also from being elected. Armenians were being elected to the parliament based on their consideration as ethnic sect, but in fact Armenians make two of the eighteen religious sects in Lebanon; Apostolic and Catholic are recognised as two separated sects. This classification is not fragmenting the quota in parliament as it might happen with Kurds and Beiruti (being both Sunni mainly), in fact it will enlarge the Christian quota in general which is suits the Christian representation within the confessional political power sharing in the country. Unlike the Kurds who they didn’t manage yet to elect their own representative based on their ethnicity, Armenians deputies have been serving in the Lebanese Parliament since 1934. Taif Accord set a fixed percentage to the Armenian representation allocated in six seats out of 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament




Years after years Kurds become more assimilated in the Lebanese societies, even those who are not naturalised yet, their children will not be Kurdish only and will be more Lebanese. Kurds don’t have institutions playing an effective role in preserving their legacy. Because Kurdish community is not wealthy in general, their parties or organisations have little budget, they can’t even afford the establishing of Kurdish culture centre. Only one organisation run a Kurdish language course and only few take part in it. Also because Kurds are not considered as sect they can’t have their own schools or university unlike the Armenians. However still some families are trying to preserve the language by speaking it among its members and by teaching it to their descendants. Kurdistan administration might able through her ties with Lebanese leaders to help them establishing a sort of centre or school if they want . Kurds within the Lebanese political system might win more rights if they value their confessional identity (Sunni) more than their ethnic identity. They already gained some rights mainly because they are Sunni and not because they are Kurds. It might take more years to come when the political system in Lebanon would be revised or when the confessional base of it diminish. Then the naturalised Kurds might elect their own representative. However by then, they might be also more Lebanonized than being Kurds in Lebanon










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