A growing identity crisis for Iraqi Kurds

There is a gnawing sense that the war against ISIL may be the final test for Iraq’s Kurds.

Iraq Kurdish flag
With tensions running high amid the war on ISIL, many Kurdish intellectuals believe it is a time of crisis for the Kurdish identity [AP]

Sulaimania, Iraq – “Someone must have slandered Josef K, for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested,” reads the opening line of Franz Kafka’s 1925 novel, The Trial.

Substitute Josef K for Karwan, Diyar or Hazhar, and the story might as well be taking place in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, where tales are rampant of outspoken critics of powerful politicians suddenly “disappearing” or dying in freak accidents.

At least, this is how novelist Rauf Behgard sees it. His anthology of short stories, entitled Slaw Kafka (Dear Kafka), will be released soon. He argues that Kafkaesque themes now pervade all aspects of Kurdish life, including feelings of alienation from society, and labyrinths of bureaucracy.

“There is a sense of disillusionment, and the Kurds have changed as a result,” he told Al Jazeera.

With tensions running high across Iraq’s Kurdish region as 150,000 Peshmerga fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Behgard and other Kurdish intellectuals believe it is a time of crisis for the Kurdish identity.

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Fighting for the survival of their nation is nothing new for Kurds; in the last century alone, they have fought the Ottomans, the British, and the Baathists. But for many Kurds today, there is a gnawing sense that the ongoing war against ISIL may be their final test.

“In the past, the battle used to be about land, about borders,” said Behgard, who also serves as head of the Sardam Publishing House. “That’s all changed with ISIL. Now it’s about minds, ideologies. This is more dangerous, and it’s a bigger problem.”

Iraqi Kurdish novelist Rauf Behgard says the ideological war is more dangerous than the battle to secure borders [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]
Iraqi Kurdish novelist Rauf Behgard says the ideological war is more dangerous than the battle to secure borders [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]

For centuries, Iraq’s Kurds have clung to their ethnicity, as well as their distinct culture and language, to set them apart from the Arabs, Turks, and Persians flanking their ancestral region. Even in the 1990s, through the dark days of the civil war between the two main Kurdish political parties in northern Iraq, nationalist sentiments never wavered.

In the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kurds were enthusiastic supporters of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, viewing the ouster of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime as the panacea to all of their problems.

Over a decade later, average Kurds in the semi-autonomous northern region still endure daily hardships, including a chronic lack of electricity, while budgetary problems have left civil servants unpaid for months. As many Kurds grow increasingly resentful of having to make sacrifices yet again for a nationalist cause, their politicians’ chief preoccupation these days appears to be “the presidential crisis” – Massoud Barzani’s refusal to cede the position after his term expired on August 19.

As a result, Behgard says many Kurds today find themselves questioning everything they once believed in, and thousands are trying to leave the region for Europe or the United States.

“It’s more about the individual now than the nation,” he says. People care more about themselves than the cause. We are no longer in love with our trees, our mountains and our lakes.”

According to Darya Ibrahim, a 34-year-old graphic artist in Sulaimania, people are “losing faith in the regional government and their country day by day”.

Even though inside we may be divided politically and bicker among ourselves, when it comes to fighting an enemy of the Kurds, we fight together, united.

by Mullah Abbas Khadr Faraj, preacher at the Awal Bakrajo Mosque in Sulaimania

“On the one hand, there is ISIL, which has made people angry and pushed us to fight and defend our land, but on the other hand, we have a dysfunctional [regional] government that doesn’t care about us,” he lamented.

“Our politicians are absorbed in this stupid presidential crisis, but when you look at the faces of average people on the street, what they seem to be saying is: ‘What am I doing in this country? Shouldn’t I be living a better life elsewhere?'”

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Behgard says the sense of disillusionment did not happen overnight; rather, it has slowly crept up on the Kurds.

“Compare the mood now, with the mood … after the 1991 [Kurdish] uprising, when the Peshmerga came down from the mountains,” he said. “They were received as angels from the sky who had come to liberate Kurdistan from the Baathist regime. But we slowly discovered that they would not be the solution to our problems. We gave them a chance, for years, until 2003, because we had come to believe that it was Saddam Hussein who was the greatest obstacle to our collective aspirations. But that period of hope quickly dissipated.”

The stagnating economy and overall dissatisfaction with the regional government’s performance are not the only factors contributing to the current malaise. Roughly 95 percent of Iraq’s Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but the local Islamist parties have never been successful in drawing a large number of supporters.

In the 2013 Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) elections, they garnered only 17 seats in parliament and 16.5 percent of the vote. That fell to 12.8 percent of the vote in the 2014 provincial elections. Kurds have traditionally rallied around nationalist slogans rather than Islamist ones.

Still, it has been a challenge for Kurdish authorities to ensure that ISIL’s sophisticated online recruitment ploys and sleeper cells in the region do not capitalise on the discontent and lure young, vulnerable Kurds to the cause. While tens of thousands of Peshmerga fighters man the front lines across northern Iraq, Kurdish religious leaders have been mobilising to fight another kind of war: an ideological and theological one.

Mullah Abbas Khadr Faraj says about 400 young Kurds have 'been lost' to ISIL since the war began in 2013 [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]
Mullah Abbas Khadr Faraj says about 400 young Kurds have ‘been lost’ to ISIL since the war began in 2013 [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]

According to Mullah Abbas Khadr Faraj, a preacher at the Awal Bakrajo Mosque in Sulaimania, some 400 young Kurds have “been lost” to ISIL since the war began in 2013.

“We’ve lost about 400 young men to ISIL, but that’s nothing compared to the thousands of men coming from Europe to fight with ISIL,” Faraj, who is also a member of the Kurdish region’s Islamic Scholars Union, told Al Jazeera. “We have a 1,000km border with ISIL-controlled areas, and we have lost only 400 men. What is Europe’s excuse?”

The latest official figures place the number of European fighters joining the ranks of ISIL at about 6,000.

In the cities of Sulaimania and Erbil, mullahs routinely use Friday sermons to condemn ISIL as an aberration of Islam, and to urge young men and women to resist succumbing to the group’s appeal to fight against the artificially imposed borders of Sykes-Picot, equally abhorred by Kurds for robbing them of the opportunity to have a homeland of their own.

“We, the mullahs of the Kurdish region, are regularly holding conferences and workshops on Islam and Islamic issues to educate the children, the young generation, about the life of the Prophet Muhammad and how Islam is a religion of peace. We are working to create better awareness over issues that ISIL seizes on and about which it spreads misinformation,” Faraj said. “But it isn’t just the youth of Kurdistan; it’s also the youth of Europe, who lack knowledge about the religion.”

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Faraj believes young men aged between 18 and 25 years are most susceptible to ISIL’s propaganda.

“It’s a vulnerable age group. And I’ve met some of them. They’ve been brainwashed,” he said. “No matter what you tell them, they only believe what they were told. And they believe that we are the ‘kafirs’ [infidels], and they are the ones who are on the right path.”


Lara Fatah, a journalist and analyst of Iraqi Kurdish affairs, acknowledged the general malaise in Kurdish society, but she believes the ongoing war against ISIL has actually amplified nationalist sentiments, which had been on the wane a few years ago. Back in 2011, Iraqi Kurds, inspired by the Arab Spring, also took to the streets to protest against government corruption.

“These days, you sense people are aware that their legitimate concerns about the government ought to be placed on the back burner for now, although this might change if government salaries remain unpaid. The Kurds are faced with the onslaught of ISIL, and there is a war to be fought and won,” she told Al Jazeera. “People are greatly supportive of the Peshmerga on the front lines, and nationalist fervour is palpable again.”

The city’s bazaar, always a good indicator of the Kurdish psyche, has been replete with war paraphernalia: Peshmerga costumes for children, as well as caps, bags and other accessories emblazoned with Kurdish flags.

The Kurdish mullah isn’t worried either.

“ISIL is no doubt a threat to our nation, our culture, our identity. This group doesn’t believe in nations – only Islam – and they are trying to affect the culture in Kurdistan,” Faraj noted. “It’s a big threat, but we have a very strong Kurdish identity. Even though inside we may be divided politically and bicker among ourselves, when it comes to fighting an enemy of the Kurds, we fight together, united.”

With a smile, he added: “Besides, most people here place their Kurdish identity before their religious identity – although I, for one, am equally proud of both my identities.” 

Source: Al Jazeera