The Muslim Fans and Fanatics of Zakho

asharifi_opt_438422230_121270469.jpgBy DR. AMIR SHARIFI
One of the most pernicious hate crimes is that of seemingly pious men, who as self-proclaimed servants of God, incite their followers to rise up in divine frenzy against the “kafirs” the heretics. From their pulpits, they preach and teach violence in the service of God as they seek their political ambitions and agendas. They take possession of impressionable minds. They issue their malicious “fatwa”, to do away with other minorities and their institutions by imposing religious prohibitions. Their fans and fanatics robbed of their ability to judge and filled with a vague enmity, attack others as they attach themselves to God. Such was the animosity that a mullah’s sermon on Dec 2, 2011 caused in Zakho and other towns, resulting in horrid acts of violence against Assyrians and Yazidis. Many Kurds, in lingering disbelief and dismay, witnessed how a mob of misguided youth, some armed with sticks, with mindless malevolence, in their vendetta vandalized, destroyed, and burned Christian businesses, leaving behind an endless trail of destruction.

These horrific scenes of religious sectarianism and images counter the messages of religious and spiritual tolerance and diversity that we Kurds in our ethical discourse and ethnic rhetoric profess to cherish and cultivate. The barbaric attacks on the Christian businesses and Yezidis ,unprecedented in living memory, remind us of what Islamic extremists have done to religious and ethnic minorities under “Velayate Faghih” in the Islamic Republic of Iran, under which religious minorities whether recognized such as Christians , Jews, Zoroastrians or unrecognized at all like the Baha’is are deprived of the most fundamental rights . Even the Sunni Muslims are not spared from the exclusionary and hegemonic ideology of theocracy.

What is troubling is how so many misinformed and credulous youth could easily be manipulated to commit such acts of violence without any attempt on behalf of others to stop them. Unfortunately KRG and the secular forces have yet to adopt and implement policies and practices that would establish and strengthen religious moderation and democratic and legal institutions to stop transgressions of religious radicalism; it is in this void that fanaticism takes root and grows, threatening the very foundation of the noble goals of the Kurdish movement, in which religion has played very little or no role.

We need to remind ourselves that one of the bold promises and cherished values of the Kurdish movement has been to become a model of and a model for the entire Middle East in relation to tolerance for religious and ethnic differences in its continued efforts to create cultural, spiritual, commercial and intellectual spaces co-constructed by diverse communities in Kurdistan.

The Islamic Jihadist ideology is a serious threat to the old traditions and the new democracy. The critical criteria for the Kurdish democracy lie in the ways in which other minority groups are treated. This would require the separation of politics from religion and making it impossible for different religions to impose on the state the government control of religion on the one hand and control of government by religion, on the other. Failing to protect and ensure the safety and inalienable rights of religious and ethnic minorities including their commercial, cultural, ethnic and civil and occupational rights would only embattle and embitter them, posing a serious threat to collective identities of communities who have lived together since immemorial times, communities whose histories are intimately intertwined.

The December riots revealed that the young generation is prone to misconstrued beliefs and misconceptions about religious and spiritual differences. If a democracy is not fully and constitutionally functioning properly and institutionalized, religious radicalism is bound to grow. In a democracy accountability would be critical to issues of parity and fairness; in such moments responsibility should be placed on all those who played a direct or indirect role in the transgression itself and even those who have downplayed the adverse effects of the immoral act. Only independent legal sanctions and legal actions can stress the immediacy and seriousness of the issues, giving rise to public debates about the ethical, legal, and political violations involving crimes of hate and bigotry.

From a political perspective there is great concern about the future developments in territories under KRG as religious forces are gaining more ground and resort to unethical politics of elimination of others and thereby undermining or metamorphosing the very nature and culture of the Kurdish movement that has been predominantly secular even when led by religious figures. The worrisome aspect is the kind of gravitational force that the young people are finding in the so-called religious figures whose political agenda is to polarize, exclude and subordinate along their religious and sectarian lines and loyalties. The extent to which the youth become involved actively in the decision making and institution building can shape the future of the Kurdish autonomy; the new generation has to become informed and connected with the past and contemporary struggles of the Kurdish people so that they can grapple with, participate in, shape, and influence, and contribute to socio-political and economic developments in meaningful ways. This would be inconceivable without the dynamic and dialectical process of democratization of political and popular culture and institutions. If we do not want the youth to be absorbed and indoctrinated by religious zealots, their participation in political life should not be seen as deterrent but a predisposing condition for the gradual advent and development of Kurdish self-determination, democracy, and diversity of beliefs, values and practices .The lack of self-scrutiny on the part of KRG and monitoring legal actions by independent and nonpartisan representative bodies against such transgressions and violent actions against minorities will only tarnish the image of the semi-autonomy and weaken and threaten its foundations internally and externally.

The key to the future of democracy in Kurdistan is a participatory democracy that ensures the youth to be more conscious, active, and engaged in the lived experiences of their communities. The challenge of KRG and secular forces is one of creating and building democratic spaces and institutions to facilitate radical transformations in the social and local fabric otherwise it would remain vulnerable to extremism from within and without. If Kurds have not achieved the real right to self-determination in Iraq, they can at least exercise local democracy autonomously to sustain and deepen their achievements economically, politically and culturally.

The future of Kurdish democracy lies in understanding the historical roots and relation of diversity to its very being and way of life, its social dimensions rather than as a formal political apparatus to be manipulated by those who aspire to seize or hold onto power. This model is based on the fundamental understanding of religious tolerance and mutual respect for all kinds of freedoms and awareness of and sensitivity to other people’s civic rights and learning how in a civilized way to discuss political, ethical, religious, and ethnic differences otherwise as the December riots revealed, naive and marginalized youth can be turned into a ubiquitous destructive force of organized violence, that would make it possible for religious extremism to persist and prosper. The youth should be able to directly participate in political, social and cultural life of the community as productive citizens engaged in building and fostering liberty and equality for themselves and others. This participation should reflect the changes that were to be brought about by a largely secular nationalist movement, keen on the creation, preservation and promotion of a political culture with institutional possibilities appropriate to the pluralism that the Kurdish society embodies. Popular participation in creating and sustaining a democracy is the key to long term institutionalization of its underlying principles as a viable historical alternative to sectarianism and chauvinism. Such a democracy will encourage and provide the context for contestations of various social forces on the basis of dialogue, cultural, religious, and linguistic rights of the ethnic and religious and indigenous groups that inhabit the land. Such a democracy will educate the community of the historical context of heterogeneity and would accommodate pluralism.

* Amir Sharifi is President of Kurdish American Education Society (KAES) in California.