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Kurdistan and the Challenge of Islamism

Rebaz Ali

A Conversation with Dr. Hadi Ali, former Chairman of Kurdistan Islamic Union’s Political Bureau

When and how did the Islamic movement in Kurdistan begin?

The Islamic movement in Kurdistan emerged in the 1950s, when Iraq was still under royal rule. At the time, Muslim Brotherhood ideology started to reach Iraq and parts of Kurdistan.

In the beginning, a number of Muslim clerics joined the Islamic movement, particularly in Kirkuk, Erbil and Halabja. After the fall of the royalty as a result of the July 14, 1958 revolution, the space for politics in Iraq widened considerably.

The Iraqi Communist Party stepped into the opening and grew considerably. In response, Muslim Brotherhood members started the Iraqi Islamic Party, which still exists today. The Islamic Party turned quite active in the Sunni populated areas of Iraq, including Kurdistan. So the Islamic movement in Kurdistan was part of Iraq’s Muslim Brotherhood activities. The reason why the Brotherhood ideology proved so attractive was because the communists turned viscerally against religion. The Brotherhood acted as a vehicle for religious people to stand against communism’s attacks on religion and religious people.

The Muslim Brotherhood ideology never increased or decreased tensions between Arabs and Kurds because there were no tensions in the first place. Kurds and Arabs had no problems coexisting. The problem has always been between the political authority in Iraq and the Kurds.

Do you think that the Islamic movement in Kurdistan is particular to Kurdistan? Or is it part of the same movement in Iraq and the Arab world

The Islamic movement in Iraq, like other groups across the region, traces to the Muslim Brotherhood’s beginnings in Egypt. The Islamic movement in Kurdistan was part of that movement until the 1980s, albeit under Iraqi leadership. During the 1980s, the Islamic revolution in Iran and the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan had a major impact on the Islamists in Kurdistan. Part of the movement transformed into a jihadi wing under the umbrella of the Islamic Movement in Kurdistan (IMK). The leaders of IMK were religious clerics who started fighting against Saddam and his regime alongside other Kurdish secular and nationalist parties.

After the first Gulf war in 1991 and the creation of a safe haven in northern Iraq, which included the establishment of a Kurdish parliament, Islamists in Kurdistan joined the political process. The non-jihadi faction of the movement launched a moderate political party, the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU).

Ever since, Kurdish Islamists have been trying to function independently of the Islamist movement in Iraq and other Arab countries. However, their ideology has always remained under the influence of Arab Islamists.

Moreover, some Islamists in Kurdistan have fallen under the influence of Salafism in Saudi Arabia, known as Madkhali Salafism. This particular school of Salafism is growing in Kurdistan, in part because the major parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), hope its growth will sap the strength of their KIU and Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) political rivals.1 Indeed, the main reason why both KDP and PUK have chosen to overlook this particular school of Salafism is because the Salafists strongly oppose the political Islam of the KIU and the KIG. The Salafists have shown no interest in politics whatsoever. Instead, they teach Muslims to show complete loyalty to the prevailing ruler, no matter who that ruler might be. This ostensibly serves the PUK and the KDP agenda.

However, I strongly believe that this particular policy of the KDP and the PUK will have dangerous repercussions in the region, since the roots of radical Islam go back to this particular school of Islam centuries ago. Madkhali was founded by Mohammad Bin Abdulawahab, who was influenced by Ibn Taymiya, who in turn was influenced by Ahmed Ibn Hanbal. These are the roots of radical Islam.

Among which subset of the population is the Islamic movement in Kurdistan most popular?

In general, Islamist ideology is spread among different segments of Kurdish society. The jihadi ideology is most popular among the lower educated Islamists who live in rural areas; currently, the ideology of ISIS is probably the favorite of radical Muslim Kurds. It is important to mention that the ideology of ISIS is very limited, and very few Kurds have joined the movement since they started last year. Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, a few hundred young Kurds have joined up with radical militant groups in Syria. They generally stem from very religious families or have relatives who have in the past joined radical Islamists. For many of those youths, unemployment and poor economic conditions are big factors. Meanwhile, the majority of moderate Islamists or those favoring Brotherhood ideology come from the major cities and are well educated.

Do you believe that Islamists in Kurdistan are part of the Kurdish nationalist movement? How do they view Kurdish nationalism?

Secular and leftists parties started the Kurdish nationalist movement and they still lead it. Islamists were not part of the movement in the beginning and they never had a clear understanding of Kurdish national aspirations. During the 1960s, there used to be a sort of misunderstanding and mistrust between Islamists and nationalists. Both sides were new to one another and took a hesitant, cautious approach to each other. However, by the mid-1980s, both sides had grown closer to one other and started working together. The atrocities of Anfal and the chemical attacks of the Saddam Hussein regime acted as unifying tragedies that underscored the need for Kurdish unity. Islamists and nationalists alike perceived the dangers posed to the entire Kurdish nation by their common enemy.

Since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, both Islamists and nationalists have had a similar understanding of Kurdish nationalist aspirations. The Islamists in Kurdistan, just like the nationalists, have called for an independent Kurdistan. On a national level, Islamists can never call for anything less than an independent Kurdistan because it is the expectation of the entire Kurdish people. The differences between Islamists and nationalists center on processes and procedures, and not on the overriding objective of an independent Kurdistan.

What are the main factors for the decline of Islamists in Kurdistan?

There are a few reasons for the decline of the Islamic movement in Kurdistan. For one, as I just mentioned, it failed to be a part of the Kurdish nationalist movement from its inception several decades ago. Although Islamists joined the movement during the 1980s, it was already too late.

Islamists have a religious policy aimed at a particular slice of society. The public views them as religious people, not as politicians or statesmen. They are still behind other secular parties when it comes to Kurdish nationalist aspirations and remain more focused on religion and religious issues. The dominant Kurdish issue is nationalism and not religion. Although Islamic parties have seventeen seats total in the current Kurdistan Parliament, they still come behind KDP, PUK, and Gorran (Change Movement). 2

What political and ideological differences exist between different Islamic groups in Kurdistan today?

In the late 1990s, a few groups split from the IMK and formed Jund al-Islam, which later became Ansar al-Islam. Another group that split from the IMK was the KIG, which is still an active party in the region.

Until 2003, both the KIU and the KIG had very different political and religious ideologies. The main difference was that the KIG believed in jihad and fielded its own militia ready to fight. However, the KIU did not—and still does not—believe in jihad as a form of politics. The KIU never stood up a force.

In 2005, the KIG’s emir, Ali Bapir, was jailed by the U.S. military. The real reason for his imprisonment is still unclear, but I suspect it was because the KIG used to be a jihadi group and had ties with Ansar al-Islam before the U.S. invasion. A year later, when he was released from prison, he announced that the KIG was no longer a militant group and had abandoned its militia and jihadi beliefs. One can easily surmise that at the moment there are few political and ideological differences between the KIU and the KIG.

Are all Islamic groups in Kurdistan part of the Muslim Brotherhood?

In the beginning, all Islamists belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. The group of clerics who started IMK during the 1980s, however, abandoned their ties to the Brotherhood. Today, both IMK and KIG do not consider themselves part of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, KIU is still considered a representation of the Brotherhood in Kurdistan.

Islamists in general, and the KIU in particular, were very happy about the rise of the Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, such as in Tunisia. They believed that after many years of political deprivation, the era of the Muslim Brotherhood had arrived. KIU was therefore extremely disappointed with the collapse of the Morsi government in Egypt. They organized public demonstrations in Erbil and elsewhere protesting the Egyptian military takeover. KIU faced criticism for organizing these protests in solidarity with the Brotherhood while neglecting to organize similar solidarity rallies for the Kurds suffering in Syria, among other places.

What is the impact of Jihadi Salafists on Islamists in Kurdistan?

Currently, the jihadi Salafist ideology has a lesser impact on Islamists in Kurdistan, mainly because of all the atrocities that have been committed in the region under the guise of Islam. This is especially true with the rise of ISIS. I believe that the Islamic groups in Kurdistan are seeking distance from that ideology.

However, one cannot deny that Madkhali Salafism from Saudi Arabia is having some impact on Islamists in Kurdistan. As I mentioned earlier, Madkhali Salafism is permitted by both the KDP and the PUK as a counter to Islamic parties such as the KIU and the KIG. This creates ideological tensions among the groups and could led to the eventually radicalization of the Islamists. It is important to reiterate that Madkhali Salafism exists within neither the KIU nor the KIG, since it categorically rejects political Islam and Islamist parties.

Do you think that the Kurdistan Islamic Union has been able to overcome the Brotherhood framework? Or is it still within that framework?

Until this very moment, as I mentioned, the KIU has not been able to outgrow the Brotherhood, or as I call it, Ikhwanism. However, the voices that call for such a separation are growing louder and stronger. So such a separation will probably occur in the near future, particularly after the scheduled party convention in mid-2016.

Some people have presented proposals to the party leadership. I have also submitted a comprehensive project to the KIU leadership. The project is designed to transform the party into a non-religious political party, meaning the separation of politics from religious activities. Islamists should understand that the time has come to separate religious activities from politics. If they want to work on educating people about religion and religious duties, then they should abandon politics. They can never be successful doing both together.

So far, I have received positive feedback and reactions from some members of the party, so hopefully it will make some changes in the future.

How have Islamic groups balanced their Islamist and Kurdish identities?

Unfortunately, Islamists in Kurdistan have not been able to strike a balance between their Islamist and Kurdish identities. They have been trying to overcome that gridlock but have been unsuccessful, mainly because they lack the ability to reform ideologically and religiously.

Recently, with the participation of several colleagues, I started a think-tank called the Kurdish Institute for Dialogue as the first practical step for encouraging greater discussion among Islamists. In the name of the Institute, we travel the country and hold seminars and public discussions.

Do Islamic groups hold similar views on women’s issues, human rights, democracy, and citizenship? Or are they different?

Islamic groups have differing views on women’s issues, human rights, and democracy. Some have proven more flexible and open than others.

Obviously, the KIU is more open-minded on such issues than the IMK and the KIG. And that’s mainly due to the fact that the KIU, unlike KIG and IMK, emerged from a non-jihadi ideology. Since its inception in 1994, the KIU has declared that it believes in those principles and has worked on practical measures to improve the conditions of women and human rights. Women have always played a significant role within the ranks of the party, and have held top leadership positions.

However, both the IMK and the KIG are still behind, owing to their jihadi background. They have struggled to overcome the rigid religious principles of centuries past.

Overall, Islamic groups have conflicting views on issues of women, human rights and democracy. I would encourage these groups to show courage and bluntly express their views on those important issues.

What is the role of Islamists in the process of religious reform? Have they been able to play a significant role in that process?

I strongly believe that religious reform is a crucial necessity for the entire Muslim world, and particularly for Islamists. It’s very important for Islamists to have newer and more critical interpretations of Islam. They should criticize many wrongdoings in the history of Islam with regard to the interpretation of Quran “Tafseer”, the Hadith, jihad, caliphate, women, and human rights. Unfortunately, Islamists in Kurdistan have not taken many serious steps in that direction.

With the emergence of ISIS, and its atrocities (including against Yezidi women), the issue of religious reform has again risen in importance. Some individual Islamists have shown interest in having serious discussions on questions of religious reform.

Kurdish Islamists reformers, for example, are influenced by the writings of Iranian scholars, including Abdulkarim Srush and Shubastari. There is also a lot of interest in the writings of the Arab Islamist Muhammad Shahrur, who is originally from Syria but now resides in Lebanon. But I think it’s not enough and they still need to do more.

Do all Islamic groups have the same view on issues of radicalism and terrorism? Do you think that Islamic groups in Kurdistan play a role in the fight against terrorism in general, and ISIS in particular?

Officially, all Islamists condemn terrorism; however, their views on the issue are not the same and there is some confusion and ambiguity in that.

The confusion and ambiguity is more with those Islamists who used to be part of the jihadi movement in the past. They still don’t have a clear understanding of the issue. That’s one of the main reasons why there are still young Kurds among ISIS and other jihadi groups.

The role of the Islamists in the fight against ISIS is limited to condemnation of the group’s brutality. All agree that ISIS presents a serious threat to the safety and stability of Kurdistan, and all seem to believe that it is important to stand against ISIS. Many hope that Islamists will play a larger role in persuading young Kurds to stand against ISIS’ radical ideology. For the KIU’s anniversary last February, President Barzani issued a statement in which he officially asked the KIU and other Islamist groups to play a role in combating extremism among young Islamists. There haven’t been any practical steps taken in this regard yet.

Kurdish parents, on the other hand, have been playing a large role in preventing their sons and daughters from succumbing to ISIS’ false promises. For instance, just recently Kurdish security forces arrested an ISIS sleeper cell in Erbil. The parents of the leader of that cell were the ones who had informed on him and alerted the authorities. This is a good example of local Kurds standing at the ready against extremism.

What are the ideological and political tensions between Islamism and Kurdish nationalism?

There have always been tensions between the Islamists and Kurdish nationalist parties. One major reason is that many Kurdish nationalists have communist or Marxist backgrounds. As I mentioned earlier, Islamism and communism have a sore history in Kurdistan.

Today, Kurdish nationalists claim that they are liberals, but as a matter of fact, their communist background still has a negative influence on their views towards Islamists. Many of these nationalists are quite aggressive and anti-religious, and many of them appear on public television attacking and criticizing Islam. Naturally, this provokes reactions from young Islamists. Moreover, one of the elements of Islamic extremism has always been discomfort with secularism.

Are there tensions between Islamists and the Kurdish tribes?

There are no real tensions between the Islamists and the Kurdish tribes. Tribes in Kurdistan have played a significant part in the social and political life of the country. Many people, particularly in rural areas, maintain deep loyalties to their tribes, even if tribal identity has receded over the past several decades. Tribes play an especially important role during elections; a tribal leader’s endorsement is a coveted prize in Kurdish politics that could even swing an election.

Islamists and Kurdish tribes have good relations with one another. However, Kurdish tribes and their leaders tend to focus on personal interests when they establish relationships and contacts. They are less interested in religious commitments. Without access to the levers of power, Islamists cannot satisfy many of the tangible tribal requests while in opposition. The tribal leaders therefore have better connections and loyalties to the parties in power.

What do Kurdish Islamists think about Iranian Islamists and the Iranian regime?

Since Kurdish Islamists are Sunnis and the regime in Iran is Shia, there is always a baseline of mistrust and sensitivity in the relationship. Moreover, Iran’s policies at home and abroad have always been sectarian and anti-Sunni. At the same time, the regime in Iran is pragmatic and open to relations with everybody. I can say that there is a political relationship and cooperation between the regime in Iran and the Islamists in Kurdistan. The regime in Iran has similar and sometimes better relations with the secular and nationalist parties as well.

How do Kurdish Islamists see the rise of the AKP and the policies of the Erdogan government in Turkey?

Islamists in Kurdistan are happy to see Erdogan’s party growing. They look at AKP as a successful political party with an Islamic background. There is also growing interest among Islamists to apply the lessons of the AKP to Kurdistan. Many Islamic leaders, particularly within the KIU, look upon the AKP experience as a successful model that Islamists around the world should learn from. Islamists are very proud of the fact that the Kurdish issue in Turkey has seen dramatic development within the last decade. They usually try to use that as an advantage especially during elections. But the issue is far more complicated even for Erdogan who is seen as somebody who is trying to resolve the issue. The Syrian conflict and what happened in Kobane are examples of that complication.

Some Islamists in Kurdistan criticized Erdogan and AKP for their policies against the Syrian Kurds especially after what happened in Kobane. Islamists, just like everyone else in Kurdistan, were frustrated when the Turkish government watched from the sidelines as ISIS besieged Kobane. However, they were relieved when Turkey allowed Peshmerga forces to pass through Turkey to help shore up Kobane’s defenses. In general, Kurdish Islamic parties, particularly the KIU, have good relations with AKP.

Does the Kurdish Islamist movement operate throughout the Greater Kurdish homeland, or are there separate, nationally-based Islamist movements in Kurdistan?

Kurdish Islamic groups in Iraq don’t operate throughout Greater Kurdistan. Other parts of Greater Kurdistan have their own Islamic movements that are separate from what we have here. In Turkey, for instance, Islamists operate under the umbrella of “Noor School” or the school of “Shaikh Saeed Noorsi.” There are also some Muslim Brotherhood activists. These are not political groups and they don’t have political activities. They mainly function as religious, educational, and charitable organizations.

In Iran, there is a big Islamic organization called “Islah and Dawa Group” that belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood. They are not registered as a political group because political activities are not allowed in Iran. Obviously, the regime in Iran is a sectarian regime and will always try to limit the activities of local Sunnis. Islah and Dawa are not happy with the regime’s sectarian policies, but I think there is very little they can do if they want to stay away from serious trouble. Because of their Muslim Brotherhood ties, they have good relations with the KIU.

What has the Kurdish Regional Government in northeastern Iraq done to lessen the appeal of radical Islamism among the youth? What could they do better?

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been successful in controlling the security situation. However, they haven’t been as successful in combating the ideology of radicalism among the youth. As I mentioned earlier, high unemployment is a big reason why many youth become radicalized, and the KRG hasn’t been successful in providing more job opportunities for young college graduates.

It’s important for the KRG to conduct serious political and governmental reforms to eradicate corruption and provide social justice for every citizen. Islamists were part of the opposition before the elections in 2013. Together with the Gorran Group, they presented a comprehensive reform project to the government, the Six Package project. After the elections, the opposition, including the Islamists, agreed to participate in a new government on the condition that it would implement their reform project. However, the government has done little toward that end, mostly because it has been too busy fighting a brutal war against ISIS, accommodating an influx of refugees, and negotiating several problems with Baghdad.

Islamist groups should be given more space for political participation. The popularity of Islamists is very limited; during past elections, they gained only 20 percent of the votes. By pressuring them, the government only isolates the Islamists, thereby forestalling their undertaking the necessary ideological and religious reforms.

Moreover, Kurdish nationalist groups should open themselves up to the principles of liberalism, moderate secularism and democracy, since Marxism and radical secularism only strengthen radical Islamism. Radical Islamism has always been a reaction against extreme secular rulings. When Islamists feel that the ruling authority offends the sacred elements of the religion, they react aggressively. Unfortunately, some Kurdish secular groups sometimes act as if they are opposed to religion, giving radical Islamists pretext to recruit and further radicalize.

Finally, Kurdish Islamists themselves have much to contribute. They should endorse moderate principles and stand against religious extremism. They should also conduct religious reforms in society. The KRG should be more open to the idea of moderate Islamism in society. Foreign NGOs can help through training and education; after all, there are examples of foreign NGOs working with Islamists in this regard to great effect.

1 The KIG was formed in 2000, after a group of top IMK leaders split and founded a new Islamic militant group.
2 Gorran, or the Movement for Change, is the main opposition group in Kurdistan that started after a group of PUK leaders led by Nawshirwan Mustafa split from PUK.

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