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Will Iraqi Kurds turn to religious extremism?

November 27, 2021

Young people in northern Iraq are so disillusioned that many are trying to leave the country any way they can. Some fear widespread discontent could push people toward potentially dangerous religious fundamentalism.

Students stage a protest outside University of Sulaimani in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq on November 24, 2021.
Students in Iraqi Kurdistan have demanded financial support from their governmentImage: Fariq F. Mahmood/AA/picture alliance

Over the past few days, there has been yet another indicator of how dissatisfied the people of Iraqi Kurdistan are with their leaders.

Thousands of demonstrators, many of them students, took to the streets in the semi-autonomous northern Iraqi region to demand the restoration of financial stipends that local authorities stopped paying around 2014. During the protests, security forces used a water cannon, fired tear gas and then live bullets to disperse increasingly angry crowds.

This is not the only such indicator. Other recent headlines involve this week's drowning of 27 people in the English Channel, most of whom, British media have reported, appear to have been Kurds from Iraq. Additionally, many of the would-be asylum-seekers trapped on the border between Belarus and Poland are also Iraqi Kurds.

This has led outsiders to ask why so many Iraqi Kurdish people are so desperate to leave home that they would risk such a hazardous journey.

Men stand in a mosque around the repatriated body of Iraqi Kurdish migrant Gailan Diler, who died while trying to illegally cross into Poland via Belarus, during his funeral in Arbil.
The body of a 25-year-old Kurdish man, who died trying to get into Europe, was repatriated earlier this monthImage: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

Social division, inequality, injustice

After all, at one stage, Iraqi Kurdistan — which operates independently from the central Iraqi government in many ways and is home to the country's Kurdish minority — was being described as "the new Dubai." It seemed prosperous, peaceful and business-friendly, especially in comparison to the rest of the country.

"But behind this propaganda, Kurdish society was falling apart," Kamal Chomani, a Kurdish student based in Germany, wrote for New Lines Magazine earlier this week. "Society was divided into two socioeconomic classes: one of the political elite, its patrons and their brokers, and the other consisting of the masses."

Things began to change in earnest around 2014, a time of greater insecurity thanks to the rise of the extremist group known as the "Islamic State" as well as further political conflict with the federal government and a financial crisis. Almost two-thirds of Kurdish households were (and are) on the public payroll, and the government said it had run out of money to pay some sectors, including teaching and medical professionals.

A migrant carries her children after being helped ashore from a RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) lifeboat at a beach in Dungeness, on the south-east coast of England.
The number of people making the dangerous crossing over the English Channel has continued to riseImage: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

The state of democracy in the semi-autonomous region has been laid bare over several elections, as it became evident to voters that the two parties holding the most power in the region — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the KDP — didn't plan to give anything up. 

The dream of a Kurdish homeland, a unifying idea that previously took precedence over other divisions, has also dimmed. 

Unemployed for life

All of this has resulted in a youthful population that has lost hope of ever achieving political change or personal economic security. Around a quarter of the Iraqi Kurdish population, which is thought to be over 5 million, is aged between 18 and 34, and by 2018, the United Nations mission in Iraq reported, more than a fifth thought they would never get a job.

Now, some have expressed concerns that those frustrated young people may be turning elsewhere — to fundamentalist religion.

The majority of Kurdish Muslims are Sunni, and ultraconservative Sunni clerics, known as Salafists, have been active in the region since the 1950s; "salaf" means ancestors, and Salafists advocate adherence to what they see as the original rules of Islam.

Often, the Salafist clerics have studied in Saudi Arabia or other Gulf countries where a similar conservatism is dominant. When they returned to Iraqi Kurdistan, they started Salafist schools and mosques which received funding from those nations. Kurdish Salafists often have a major presence on social media, and some also have their own religious satellite TV channels.

Political support

In the past, Salafist groups were behind terrorist attacks or supplied recruits to extremist organizations.

But more recently, "militant jihadi Salafism lacks collective support in Kurdistan," a 2019 Kurdish Studies report concluded. "However, there are a growing number of non-militant forms of Salafism in Kurdistan," it noted, adding that "Salafism is on the rise in [Iraqi Kurdistan] in multiple forms."

Experts have said this is partially because ruling political parties, the KDP and the PUK, have been more tolerant of Kurdish Salafist clerics, the majority of whom do not espouse violence. Instead, they emphasize obedience to political leadership — that's in contrast to local Islamic political parties, who form part of the opposition in the Iraqi Kurdish parliament and who have often challenged the current leadership.

Construction work on a replica White House, a $20 million villa being built inside Dream City, a new exclusive residential suburb that has been developed in Irbil, Iraq.
Despite the region's image, 87% of Iraqi Kurdish households had a monthly income of less than $650 (about €570) in 2018Image: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

"The authorities in the region support Salafism in order to weaken the Islamic parties," said Ibrahim Sadiq Malazada, a lecturer in sociology at Soran University in Iraqi Kurdistan, who has researched levels of religiosity among local youth. "But this is a mistake," he told DW, adding that he believes that religious conservatism has "ruined the tolerant and open Kurdish culture" and that conservative clerics are using the region's various crises and local youths for their own ends.

Muslih Irwani, a sociologist and head of the Public Policy Institute, a think tank in Irbil, said he saw it as a "new wave of return to Islam" among the younger generation. There were two forms of this. One was more traditional and politically neutral, Irwani explained. "The second approach is more radical … and is popular among those who are devastated by the political situation in Iraqi Kurdistan," he said.

Less religion, not more

But not everybody in the region agrees that dissatisfied Kurdish youth are in danger of religious radicalization — at least, not right now.

"Young Kurdish people are angry at the current government, and they're angry at anyone that defends that government," Soran Ahmad, a local journalist covering the student protests in Sulaymaniyah this week, told DW. "The Salafists defend the government; they say the ruler must be obeyed and the status quo protected, for the sake of stability and security."

Kurdish protesters run away from tear gaz during a rally against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq December 18, 2017.
Ongoing enmities: An anti-corruption protest in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017Image: Reuters/Stringer

For that reason, he said, many young Kurds don't like the Salafists. Additionally, Ahmad pointed out, the barbaric behavior of the "Islamic State" terror group also did a lot to turn locals off religion. Although the majority still are religious, polling by the Arab Barometer in 2019 indicated that young Iraqis were actually becoming less so.

"Salafism in Iraqi Kurdistan is not new," added Kamaran Palani, a fellow at the Middle East Research Institute in Irbil, who has researched the potential for violent extremism among young people in Iraqi Kurdistan and who is in contact with Salafist locals. "And I haven't seen a substantial change lately."

Palani explained that for an individual to turn to extremism in Iraqi Kurdistan, both "push and pull" factors needed to be present.

"Imagine being a 22-year-old recent graduate here," he said. "You can't get a job, you have limited prospects and you see other people graduating from European or private universities and living a very different, very affluent life. Of course, you become more vulnerable to mobilization," said the Salahaddin University lecturer.

Next 'Islamic State'?

Perceptions of injustice, inequality and hopelessness are all push factors, Palani explained. "But fortunately, Iraqi Kurdistan doesn't really have a strong pull factor right now," he said, noting the lack of charismatic religious conservatives or violent messaging.

But this is also why, despite seeing little change in the numbers of youth attracted to the Salafist mosques, Palani has concerns for the future, concerns he worries are not shared by the authorities.

Around 2014, over 530 Iraqi Kurds are thought to have joined the "Islamic State" group. Palani was told by security sources that another 800 or so were caught before they could do so.

"But back in 2014, there was still some space and hope for young people here," said Palani. "What worries me now, in the current context, if the same thing were to happen again, we would have a lot more young people trying to join a group like the 'Islamic State.'"

Migrants stranded in Belarus face stark choice

Edited by: Sean Sinico

Correction, November 28, 2021: A previous version of this article misspelled the name Kamal Chomani. DW apologizes for the error.