This article was previously published on Fair Observer.
By Aras Ahmed Mhamad
The lightning advance of the Islamic State (IS) in June 2014 remains a direct threat to coexistence in Iraq. Sparking intensified religious conflict, along with economic and political disintegration, the sudden surge prompted fears of further destruction in the minds of the country’s various communities.
The IS threat and appalling acts against religious minorities is the legacy of the unresolved, deeply rooted distrust that successive Arab politicians brought about while in power. In particular, they failed to promote a culture of coexistence due to their abuse of political power and by neglecting the rights of other ethnicities in Iraq, including but not limited to the Kurds. IS poses a grave danger to Iraq’s fragile unity and to its neighbors, as recent events in Lebanon highlighted.
Hundreds of thousands have fled to Iraq’s Kurdistan region. How do the people see the conflict and potential ways forward? I spoke to Kurdish students, academics, and authors to learn more.
Minorities, Despotism and Coexistence
Jalal Hasan Mistaffa, a PhD student at Newcastle University and lecturer at the University of Human Development, points out that the dreadful deeds of IS have historical and political-religious bases:
“Historically, a quick look at the history of the early Muslims demonstrates that minorities, either political or cultural, were not sufficiently respected. As an example, Imam Hussein and his followers, a political minority, were ruthlessly eradicated by the political majority of Muawiya and his followers. IS considers the establishment of a caliphate as a religious requirement, which is, in fact, a political concept. Accordingly, this has massive consequences for the way IS has been treating minorities. Minorities, either political or religious, have been perceived as threats on the way of strengthening their caliphate and, thus, have been subject to an eradication campaign.”
Prior to 2003, Saddam Hussein always endorsed the hegemony of Sunni Arabs and smeared the Kurdish nation in his wars against Iran in the 1980s and Kuwait in 1990. Further, the tendency for rulers to hold onto power and refuse to step down has long plagued the Middle East. Throughout the past 100 years, you are unlikely to find any Iraqi leader who has retired from their post unless there is a coup d’état. Late Prime Minister Abdul-Karim Qasim, for instance, overthrew King Faisal in 1958 and was then overthrown himself by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr’s Baath Party in 1963. The party then remained in power until it was overthrown by coalition forces in 2003.
Yasin Mahmoud Aziz, author of Dum Dum Castle, tells me that the culture of despotism was established due to the creation of Iraq and other Middle East countries by colonial powers:
“This despotic culture has grown into a culture of war and hatred, consequently leading to a continuously volatile situation in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. This is rooted in the colonial powers’ reliance on the culture of tribalism and religious and ethnic differences, with their own political agenda at stake. Therefore, there was no space left for the values of tolerance and respect for human rights and democracy. Added to that were the Baathist regime’s policies of corrupting and dehumanizing Iraqi society. Thus, patching up a sense of togetherness in Iraq is impossible. However, the final solution for the current situation in Iraq might be three loose autonomous regions under the umbrella of a federal government.”
Speaking about the tools that were used to dehumanize the Kurdish people, Aziz explains that the Baathist regime forced people to support them, to become Baathist and to spy on others regarding any political activities against the regime:
“Their allegiance was conditional to get good jobs or higher education posts, and they had to spy on their neighbors, family members and friends, reporting them to the security services if need be. Undermining all the religious, friendship, familial and human values, that is dehumanization, is it not? People feared losing their jobs and the regime’s reprisals such as arrest, torture, and execution. They were dehumanized for the sake of the regime’s survival. It used all methods of repression, including barring people from leaving the country. That is why many young people gave up their own life and went to the mountains to join the Peshmerga–there was nothing left to hope for. As Peshmerga knew, most probably would be killed or badly injured, but they still went to fight the regime.”
With regard to the escalation of violence and extinction of the culture of coexistence and pluralism among the various nations in Iraq, Pishtiwan Faraj, assistant lecturer at the University of Sulaimaniya and a PhD student at Brunel University, thinks that more than anything else, the age-old rivalry and animosities between Shiite and Sunni and the toppling of Saddam have sparked a wave of violence between the two sects:
“The civil war, insurgencies and political upheaval that followed regime change and characterized former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki‘s Shiite-dominated government damaged all the fabrics that once held Iraq together. Therefore, it is logical to assert that Iraq was not, is not, and will never be a stable, tolerant, and peaceful country, unless it is further divided into three semi-autonomous states. The Kurdistan Regional Government already presents an ideal model for others to learn from its principles of coexistence, prosperity and the rule of law.”
The Kurdish Struggle: Past and Future
In the past, Kurds struggled to survive due to a lack of recognition, lack of political representation, and statelessness, particularly after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 suspended the commitments of the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, where the Kurds were promised the right to an independent state.
However, in recent years, their struggle has taken other forms due to the dramatic changes in the Middle East and Kurdish resistance against political and religious intolerance of the occupiers. Kurds across the region in general, and in Iraq in particular, now demand equal access to education, cultural activities, health care, unemployment insurance, economy, and political participation. Needless to say, Kurds in Iraq have better access to education since 1991 compared to those in Iran, Syria, and Turkey. This is due to the 1991 uprising by Iraqi Kurds and the eventual establishment of semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, including the region’s ministry of education.
Jafer Kakawawisi, an MA student with a BA in Law at Staffordshire University, tells me:
“Landlocked on all sides, Kurdistan has been partitioned between four invading countries. For centuries, the Kurds have been coerced into the harsh reality of having to live with their occupiers, whilst fighting one of the longest as well as bloodiest struggles for their independence. Inspired by the recent geopolitical developments in the Middle East and the rapid rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the region, the Kurdish struggle has reached a new level, with many analysts believing that the Kurds are closer than ever to their long dream of independence. As inspirational as it may seem, this idea of coexistence in perpetuity with the enemy is on the verge of a total breakdown and an independent Kurdish state appears to be one of the most credible alternative in the circumstances.”
Iraq was known as the home of the prophets, the cradle of civilization, and the land of the Code of Hammurabi. The country was known for various religious and nations, especially at the time of King Faisal. Iraq was a place of art, invention, and intellectuals, despite sporadic instabilities.
However, a quick look at the history of Iraq tells us that in no era have the minorities faced attacks and destruction as often as in recent years. For example, the Baath regime, under the name of religion, committed genocide and mass killings of the Kurds. Today, IS jihadists target minority groups much in the same way the Baathists did for decades.
Noting the main religion of Iraqi people and IS’ claims to a caliphate, Goran Sabah Ghafour, a novelist from Iraqi Kurdistan and PhD/GTA journalism student at the University of Kansas, tells me that “Muslim” and “Islam” are two different terms:
“The latter is the program and the former are the executors of the program. Therefore, it is a mistake to judge Islam by Muslims as the same is true for judging Christianity and Judaism by Christians and Jews. According to Islam’s definition for a Muslim, IS militants are not Muslim by any means. They use religion to brainwash people and gain power and money. Since their progress in several ways — the economy being the most important one — the Kurds have become a threat, or at least are considered as such by the Arabs, Persians and Turks. IS is a complicated case created by many stakeholders with a political agenda.”
On the topic of isolation and oppression of minorities, especially regarding the Kurds, Sabir Hasan, a lecturer at the University of Human Development and a PhD student at the University of Leeds, says there have been moments of tragedy throughout human history, but the bloodiest tragedies humanity has ever witnessed seem to have started from the 20th century onward:
“I think minorities have been victimized throughout history in some way, form or style. However, Kurdish tragedies and atrocities at the hands of the Baath Party in the 1980s, and the tragedies of other minorities at the hands of IS today are the most infamous in the region. The harsh reality is that some parts of the Middle East are today living in political chaos, where blood-thirsty ideologies compete to seize power by fair or foul means, without feeling responsible for the pain, suffering and tragedies they inflict upon the public at large and the minorities in particular.”
Kurdish people are known for their generosity and hospitality. Therefore, helping all refugees and displaced persons affected by the current war is not only reviving the spirit of coexistence, but will also build up a valuable legacy of peaceful coexistence in Kurdish society for generations.
Tara Fatehi, a PhD student at Flinders University, tells me that Kurdistan has always been a safe haven for all ethnicities and religions:
“The world witnessed this on a grand scale after the influx of nearly 2 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Iraq and Syria. I know from experience that when speaking to Australian politicians and important decision-makers, this is always the point of relevance for greater support for the Kurdish people and their forces. The fact that Kurdistan was the ‘safe haven’ in Iraq and remained that way after the massive onslaught of IS just reiterated what the Kurds have argued all along: that a free and independent Kurdish state would be a model of not just democracy, but tolerance, multiculturalism, and harmony in the Middle East. We have also seen this across the self-declared autonomous Kurdish regions in Syria. I know, personally, I am very proud of the fact that Kurdistan has such a reputation — as Kurds, we have every excuse to be intolerant and aggressive to our neighbors, but choose love and peace.”
The Future of Iraq
The hegemony of religious intolerance, close-minded, and self-centered politicians in Baghdad is the reason why Iraq is unmercifully divided. Their thirst for power has led to social fracture, religious intolerance and bloodshed, and trumped respect for pluralism and democracy. Cooperation and assistance between the Sunni and Shiite political elite are undergoing a very difficult phase and there seems to be no light or hope for repairing this relationship, despite efforts by Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister, to integrate Sunni politicians into his government.
However, only time will tell if he is be able to gain not only the trust of Sunni rebels and tribal chiefs, but also some well-known religious figures among the Shiite to eliminate the IS threat. Moreover, Abadi must work on gaining the trust of Kurdish Peshmerga and Erbil if he is to win the war against IS, as Kurdistan shares a border with IS-held territory and since Kurdish forces have proved to be more effective than the Iraqi army.
According to Mohammed Shareef, author of The United States, Iraq and the Kurds: Shock, Awe and Aftermath, all the major political groups in Iraq, whether Sunni, Shiite or Kurdish, are pursuing different agendas:
“There is currently no national solidarity, nor any intention to achieve that end. The Shiite majority are clinging on to power, which they feel is rightfully theirs after decades of suppression and subjugation by Sunni-dominated Baghdad. The Sunnis, on the other hand, think they have been forcefully and unfairly removed from power, which they feel is rightfully theirs. As for the Kurds, they are working towards diminishing any influence of Baghdad in the Kurdistan region. Iraq is fragmented and dissolving quickly — the problem is the West and regional powers still refuse to acknowledge it.”
The current situation seems to be the most hopeful for the Kurds, especially after countries like the United States, Britain, Belgium, Australia, Hungary, France and the Czech Republic have offered military and humanitarian assistance.
Accommodating the vast number of IDPs and refugees will have a huge impact on the legitimacy of the Kurdish question, and serves as a clear reprimand and reminder for those who oppose the Kurds and accuse them of being mountain Turks and illiterate people. It was the Kurds’ spirit of hospitality toward refugees that influenced millions of people around the world to put pressure on the international community through demonstrations, in order to support the Peshmerga and quell the IS threat.
The defeat of the Iraqi army at the hands of IS in 2014 and the theft of advanced American weaponry by Sunni groups have paved the way for IS to further expand its military assaults — especially in those places where minorities reside. As a result, many Yazidis have been killed, while Yazidi women and children were captured and enslaved. Furthermore, many Christians from Qaraqosh escaped and are now mostly sheltered in churches in Kurdish territory.
Kurdistan is the only place on the divided map of Iraq where a glimpse of light appears for harmony between all sects and minorities. In this region, there is still breathing space for creating a pillar of peaceful coexistence.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Aras Ahmed Mhamad is a freelance journalist and regular contributor for Fair Observer. He is the Founder and Deputy Editor of SMART, an independent English magazine that focuses on literature, language, and society. In 2012, Mhamad was the top student of the College of Languages in the Department of English at the University of Human Development in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.