Kurdistan in the Spotlight: Beacon of Tolerant Pluralism?


Kurdistan in the Spotlight: Beacon of Tolerant Pluralism?

Gary Kent

26 Jan 2015

The increased focus on Kurdistan as a bulwark against jihadism has revealed a tolerant society that is a beacon for its neighbours; the Kurdish model requires more international support, writes Gary Kent.

Which Middle Eastern prime minister recently delivered this clear and proud Christmas message?: "What differentiates [us] from most of the countries around us is religious and ethnic tolerance. Accepting and defending each other's rights strengthens the principle of humanity in this country, particularly in difficult times".

The answer is Nechirvan Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is consciously seeking a path to modernity in all spheres of life. Kurdistan is a largely Muslim and mostly Sunni region. The main political parties are secular while three smaller Islamic parties recently won 17 of the 100 parliamentary seats. There are also 11 seats for Turkmen, Assyrians and Armenians and a 30 per cent quota for women.

The recent report by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK Parliament into the Kurdistan Region describes it as 'a beacon of tolerance and moderation in a wider region where extremism and instability are on the rise'. It examined the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) self-image as 'a haven of tolerance and moderation in the wider Middle East' and found it largely confirmed in the evidence received. The bipartisan report also notes that 'Islam is a background presence in the law and in the conservative culture of wider Kurdish society', but highlights a general respect for the separation of religion and state, particularly among the political elite, who made clear that they view the intrusion of literalist and ultra-conservative versions of Islam into party politics as toxic.

Kurdistan's primary identifier is nationality, which embraces a deeply rooted desire for pluralism. It is central to what makes modern Kurdistan a potentially pivotal power for enlightenment in the Levant.

Kurdistan's primary identifier is nationality, which embraces a deeply rooted desire for pluralism.

One story powerfully indicates Kurdish exceptionalism. The Yezidis - the so-called devil worshippers - are Kurdistan's oldest faith group and bear the brunt of a genocidal campaign by the self-proclaimed 'Islamic State', known locally as Daish, the Arabic acronym for ISIS. It decrees that Yezidis convert or are killed. ISIS also uses Yezidi women as sex slaves and has specified when rape is righteous. The plight of the Yezidis shook Kurdish society to the core and ISIS' capture of Kurdish Yezidi lands was a major blow that is now being rectified. Remarkably, a group of Kurdish men and women recently converted to the Yezidi faith, but there has been no outrage about their apostasy, let alone calls for their execution.

Arab Christians fleeing from the rest of Iraq before the emergence of ISIS sought sanctuary in Kurdistan and were warmly welcomed. A Kurdish Christian Deputy Prime Minister received a papal knighthood for his efforts. At a roundtable in Erbil some years ago, Christians and Turkmen volunteered their enthusiastic support for Kurdistan's tolerance and warned MPs that some diaspora organisations were making much noise on the internet but that their complaints did not reflect reality.

The gap between noise and reality is seen elsewhere too. Some years back, Kurdish leaders were shocked by allegations concerning the incidence of Female Genital Mutilation. Its scale is unknown and large figures are cited, although the Kurdish Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Dr Badenan Fathulla, recently said it was nearer to eight per cent rather than the 80 per cent figure often used. One per cent is one too many, of course, but concerted measures have been deployed to reduce it along with polygamy, domestic violence and honour killings.

Kurdistan once hosted many Jews, who formed 17 per cent of the population in Slemani. I once bumped into a party of elderly Kurds from Israel, where they number about 300,000, in the home village of the Barzani clan. President Barzani told British MPs that if Iraq recognised Israel, there would be an Israeli consulate in Erbil the next day.

How did Kurds react to the Paris massacres? The Kurdish leadership rallied in solidarity with its old ally France with a strong message of support from the President, participation by Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa in the solidarity demonstration in Paris, and condemnation by the KRG's representative in Paris of 'obscurantist' extremism. Islamic party leader, Ali Bapir, argued "Prophet Mohammed did not punish those who mocked him or God for blasphemy, so why should we?".

Tolerance includes foreigners, especially since maximising huge and long-neglected oil and gas reserves requires foreign investment, as do other crucial sectors such as education and health. Kurdish leaders are also seeking economic diversification to avoid remaining a rentier state with a weak private sector and a dormant civil society: the well-spring of security states that incubate radicalisation. The nest of jihadism is small - a few hundred Kurds have joined ISIS - but prosperity can ensure it does not grow.

Kurdish desire to catch up with the outside world after decades of isolation is endangered by ISIS advances.

Kurdistan has blossomed since the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003, but it is being tested by the humanitarian and security crises created by the collapse of Mosul and a third of Iraq into the hands of ISIS in June 2014. Kurdistan had already accepted a quarter of a million Syrian refugees, who have now been joined by well over a million internally displaced people living in makeshift camps, schools and half-finished construction sites as well as mosques and churches.

Caring for these people is a priority for the KRG and many private and voluntary groups, who understand the plight of those who flee oppression. St Joseph's Church, for instance, in the Christian enclave of Ainkawa in the capital, Erbil, is a nerve centre for registering and feeding them.

Given that Kurdistan's population is normally around five million strong, the presence of so many Arab Iraqi refugees will strain public services and security if they stay long. Kirkuk, which was saved from ISIS and could be formally absorbed into Kurdistan, includes larger numbers of Arabs and Turkmen. The Kurdish Governor told me last June that the region requires greater power-sharing and decentralisation.

Pluralism, tolerance and a desire to catch up with the outside world after decades of isolation are endangered by ISIS, which came perilously close to the capital last August. It has been beaten back but remains poised along a 650 mile border. The ISIS threat is helping overcome internal political divisions from the Kurdish civil war in the 1990s and has won global support for the Kurds as an effective bulwark against jihadism.

Longstanding differences with Baghdad, which included a year-long suspension of its budget under what the Foreign Affairs Committee calls the 'sectarian autocracy' of previous Prime Minister Maliki, have been reduced with an interim deal on revenues and oil exports. Whether this can overcome the long-standing divisions that fuelled Saddam Hussein's genocide against the Kurds, and be translated into an enduring settlement remain open questions.

The popular religious and ethnic pluralism of Iraqi Kurdistan is a solid basis for co-existence and prosperity, whether it remains the success story of Iraq so far or seeks independent nationhood. Kurdistan's striking achievements as a moderate model for the Middle East should be understood and supported more widely.


The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.


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