Who’s to blame for creeping religious extremism in Kurdistan?

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The tragic killing of a young artist in Chamchamal, a town in Sulaymaniyah province, on June 22 has sent shockwaves through the Kurdistan Region. This incident raises critical questions about an escalating wave of religious extremism and its potential fallout. Not only does this growing trend challenge Kurdistan’s reputation as a beacon of progress and inclusivity, it also underscores the expanding influence of extremist ideologies. 

This alarming incident unfolded when 22-year-old artist, Khwanas Wrya — whose name ironically translates to ‘believer in God’ — known for his critical stance towards religion, was fatally shot. The alleged perpetrator, a vocal supporter of the Salafi ideology known to be influenced by a Salafi cleric, has been charged. While personal disputes were initially suspected, both the victim’s family and local authorities assert that the motive was rooted in the victim’s beliefs, not personal conflict. The alleged perpetrator even took to his Facebook account after the crime, proudly posting, “I do not let anyone swear at the prophet of Allah. I do not let.”

Through the lens of this tragedy, it’s clear that religious extremism in Kurdistan is being shaped by a complex web of influences, from ideological foundations to the role of mainstream and social media, political dynamics, and societal factors. This multifaceted landscape necessitates thorough examination if we are to truly understand and address the problem at hand.

Over the past few years, a significant uptick in the influence of ultraconservative Islamic clerics, known as Salafists, within the Kurdish community has been observed. Salafism preaches that the most authentic form of Islam is one that aligns with the practices and beliefs of the early generations of Muslims, referred to as the Salaf, who lived closest to the time and physical proximity of Prophet Muhammad. 

In a 2020 survey of 121 participants, 14 individuals, making up 11.6%, identified “Salafi” as their most significant identity. Although the majority of respondents (71.9%) prioritized their “Kurdish” identity, the rise of Salafism is undeniable, particularly considering its relatively recent emergence in the Kurdistan Region. The majority of Iraqi Kurds traditionally follow a form of Islam based on the Sunni Shafi’i school, infused with Sufi traditions.

Salafi clerics have successfully leveraged various platforms to spread their extreme interpretations of Islam to a broad audience. Beyond weekly prayers at mosques and Friday Sermons, they’ve skilfully used social media platforms to propagate their views. This often contradicts the platforms’ community guidelines, as it can propagate sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. 

Nevertheless, primarily because the content is in Kurdish and not English, these posts have garnered millions of views. Meta platforms like Instagram and Facebook are generally more responsive than TikTok in removing flagged content. Meta has invested significant resources into a team based in Dublin that moderates content in the Kurdish language. However, content still falls through the cracks on its platforms. On TikTok, it’s possible to find 100s of examples of harmful Islamist content with just a basic keyword search. 

The majority of the aforementioned extremist Kurdish clerics perpetuate outmoded orthodox views and actively disseminate misinformation both offline and online. They sternly oppose any form of public activity involving interactions between men and women, such as sports, hiking, yoga, and music. They hold the misguided belief that earthquakes result from “music and song” and “engaging in premarital sex.” They claim that shoulder pain stems from “carrying the burden of sins.” Astonishingly, one such claim came from a medical professional, Dr. Abdulwaheed Mohammed, who serves as a university professor at a medical college and heads a prominent clinic in Sulaymaniyah. This claim was published on the clinic’s official Facebook page.

These clerics are not confined to social media platforms; several have set up their own media outlets and television stations. Mainstream Kurdistan media often grants these clerics a platform to spread their extremist views without rigorous questioning or challenge. An example is visible during the Covid-19 pandemic, when Rudaw channel hosted Abdullatif Ahmed, the de facto leader of the Salafi movement in the Kurdistan Region. In discussing the origins of the pandemic, Ahmed posited that the Covid-19 virus was a ‘divine soldier’, a ‘punishment from God inflicted upon China for their actions against the Islamic community.’ 

Political factors also play a part in mainstream media’s hosting of extremist clerics, particularly given the clerics’ views on the politics and leaders of the Kurdistan Region. 

The region’s two dominant political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have tactically harnessed religious extremist views for immediate political advantage. Abdullatif Ahmed, the de facto leader of the Salafi movement, is frequently received as an esteemed guest by high-ranking officials, including KRG’s Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and PUK leader Bafel Talabani.

Ahmed’s open support for the KRG rulers aligns with Salafist beliefs, which hold that Muslims must accept any Muslim leader, regardless of their secularism, as divinely appointed. Ahmed rationalizes the perceived secularism and incompetence of these leaders as the result of “secular advisors” who have misled the ruling elite.

Recently, Ahmed reiterated that Prime Minister Barzani and his deputy Qubad Talabani are the undisputed leaders of Kurdistan and that the Kurdish people should follow their orders. Erbil-based Salafi cleric Abu Harith similarly asserted that opposing the government and participating in demonstrations are not only forbidden but also against the principles of Islam. The ruling Kurdish parties often use Salafists against traditional Kurdish Islamic parties, exploiting the Salafist belief that Muslims should refrain from engaging in politics.

There have been instances where KRG institutions and politicians have disregarded human rights and laws to placate Salafi leaders and radical Muslim communities. One recent instance was a decree issued by Sulaymaniyah’s local authorities banning all gender-related activities in universities and public institutions, claiming they “corrupted Kurdish youth” and “undermined family foundations.” This decree was part of a broader attack campaign by extremist Islamic clerics and Kurdish Islamic parties against gender centers and feminist activists.

Another example was when Bafel Talabani spearheaded a crackdown on several nightclubs in Sulaymaniyah’s Sarchnar area last December, an action that received considerable support from radical Islamists, especially Abdullatif Ahmed. Footage showed Talabani personally driving to the clubs and overseeing the closures himself.

Notably, the rise in religious extremism has exploited a void left by the waning influence of proactive Kurdish secular intellectual elites and civil society organizations in the Kurdistan Region. Over recent years, these elites have seen a diminished engagement with the general population and less impact on public discourse. Many members of this group live abroad, focusing primarily on abstract theoretical debates far-removed from the everyday concerns of people in the Kurdistan Region. This has left the public sphere vulnerable to the sway of extreme scholars and religious figures. These figures have been actively involved at the grassroots level, particularly in peripheral areas, where they have found a safe haven supported by the authorities, allowing religious extremism to flourish.

Religious extremism in Kurdistan poses a significant threat, demanding immediate attention and proactive measures. The rise of such extremism has the potential to disrupt social harmony, undermine religious tolerance, and erode the multicultural fabric of the region. Extremist ideologies, often fueled by sectarian divisions and dogmatic interpretations, can breed violence, fuel radicalisation, and perpetuate a cycle of hatred. Religious extremism also jeopardizes human rights, equality, and freedom of expression, stifling individual liberties and hampering the progress of a pluralistic society.

The Kurdish ruling parties’ co-optation of extreme Salafi ideology may bring short-term gains, but they should be mindful of the potential long-term consequences. While allying with Salafism might appear politically expedient in the short term, the long-term ramifications could be severe and far-reaching.

The Kurdish ruling parties are caught in a strategic-tactical bind. They promote (directly and indirectly) social liberalization to sideline political Islam, even while co-opting political Islam when it suits their immediate needs. The first approach is strategic. The latter, tactical. It remains to be seen whether their reach will extend beyond their grasp. 

Renwar Najm is a London-based journalist known for his incisive reporting on human rights, freedom of expression, and religious extremism in the Kurdistan Region.