Erbil, Kurdistan Region - Head north out of Erbil towards the international airport and just as you leave the city limits you arrive in the small suburb of Ainkawa.
A neon crucifix emerging over the rooftops announces the area’s Christian affiliation – Ainkawa’s population of 40,000 is mostly made up of Assyrians and Chaldean Catholics, as well as a small number of Yazidis, an ethno-religious group indigenous to the Kurdish region.
In contrast to the wide avenues of downtown Erbil, Ainkawa’s narrow crisscrossing streets give it a village-like atmosphere. Also unlike Erbil, beer, wine and liquor are freely available at any one of the many bars and liquor stores, where brightly colored icons of Jesus and assorted Christian saints watch over the customers.
Father Ninos Esho is a priest at St. John the Baptist Assyrian church in Ainkawa, a domed brick building set in the middle of a wide sunny courtyard. Esho came to Kurdistan in 2007 after fleeing his home in Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood to escape persecution by Muslim extremists.
“You would wake up in the morning and find bodies on the street – the bodies of Christians and people who had worked with the government or with the US army,” Esho recalls. “We weren’t allowed to cover them up or take them away, so the children would be playing in the street right next to the bodies while the dogs would be eating the corpses.”
Since 2003, thousands of Christians have fled Southern and Central Iraq to the Kurdish Region. It’s a world away from the sectarian violence so prevalent in other parts of the country, Esho says. “We found peace here in Kurdistan. We are living in peace with the other religious groups.”
“We do our best not to let anyone play with religion in Kurdistan,” explains Sozan Şahab, a member of parliament for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). “We don’t need that problem. We have a bigger problem – we are Kurds without a state and have to contend with the political system ruling Iraq.”
But things are starting to change, she says. “After the Arab Spring comes the Islamic Spring. It’s in the region, in the atmosphere. The mullahs have changed.”
And while, to date, Kurdistan’s three Islamic parties have only 12 seats in parliament, she says, “they use the mullahs and the mullahs use the people.”
The mullahs, Şahab says, preach against other religious groups during their Friday sermons. “They don’t give the message clearly but they speak against alcohol when the only people who sell alcohol are non-Muslims. It’s a way of saying ‘Christian’ without using the word.”
And on May 8th of this year, one of those sermons led to hundreds of people taking to the streets of Erbil in protest of an article in the Chirpa magazine, which some local imams condemned as blasphemous.
The demonstrators threw stones at police, and attacked a liquor store, television station, and social center, as well as a guardhouse outside the parliament.
Security forces reacted quickly to quell the violence, dispersing the crowd and arresting protestors, journalists and five members of the Kurdistan Islamic Group who were charged with organizing an illegal rally.
The government responded equally speedily to pacify the underlying tensions that led to the outburst of violence.
Chirpa had already been closed down and its editor arrested on charges of “violating religious sensibilities,” so Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani proposed the introduction of a blasphemy law that would “prevent any further offensive acts against any religion.”
Currently being drafted by a parliamentary committee, the bill would make acts of blasphemy – broadly defined as offending God or the prophets, deliberately damaging holy books or religious buildings – against any religion punishable by up to ten years in prison. Any media organization found guilty of publishing or broadcasting blasphemous content will be closed down for a minimum of six months.
“This is idiotic,” Şahab says, as she leafs through the latest draft of the bill, “I don’t like it. It’s against free speech. We don’t have media censorship here in Kurdistan.”
But proponents of the bill such as Dr. Basher Hadad, a member of the Kurdistani bloc in the regional parliament and head of the Endowment Committee charged with drafting the bill, deny that the new law would amount to censorship.
“It isn’t prohibiting any freedom. You’re free to say your opinion; you’re free to criticize mullahs, scholars, Islam, the history of Islam. If you go to the universities, to the market, you’ll see a lot of books that criticize religion, that criticize Islam. There’s nothing wrong with that because they present their views in a logical and rational way. What’s not OK and what’s not allowed is insulting Islam.”
Hadad cites examples where people compared God to a pimp and minarets to penises. “That’s not criticism,” he says, “it’s pure humiliation. If anyone says that is freedom of speech, then we don’t want that kind freedom in Kurdistan.”
The law, Hadad stresses, applies to all religions equally. “The name of Islam is not mentioned in this law. What it does prohibit – insulting God, the prophets, holy books – is common to all religions. This law prohibits Muslims from insulting Christians, Yazidi or other religious minorities, too.”
Outside the safe haven of Ainkawa, life isn’t always so easy for religious minorities in Kurdistan, says Dr. Mammou Othman, Director of the European Studies Center at the University of Duhok and a prominent member of Kurdistan’s Yazidi community.
“We are the younger brothers,” he explains. “We live here together but [the Muslims] say ‘I am the older brother and you should follow my instructions. I have the power because my religion is more acknowledged than yours.’”
And this despite the fact that Yazidis inhabited the northern provinces of Kurdistan long before Islam arrived, Othman says.
“We feel like the first true natives of this country. Nobody is connected to the country like the Yazidi -- all our rituals are here, our main shrine is here. That’s why the Yazidi believes he is part of this soil, this earth.” He says.
Today, Othman explains, Yazidis are the “underdogs” of the society, seen literally as devil worshippers by many Muslims due to their reverence for Tawûsê Melek, who in Islam represents the Fallen Angel – Satan.
There are also political reasons the Yazidis earned the antipathy of Iraq’s Kurds, Othman explains.
“During the Baath regime, the Yazidi [living in the country’s disputed areas of Mosul and Sinjar] were obliged to register themselves as Arabs to get benefits from the government, to not be persecuted, not to be displaced from the area as part of the Arabization process. So some people still believe that Yazidi are opportunists because when they want to they are Arabs, and when they want to they are Kurds.”
And although the Yazidi community is doing what it can to dispel this negative image, “we cannot do it alone,” says Dr. Othman. “We need assistance from the NGOs, from good friends, from Islam, to remove these misconceptions about Yazidism.”
The proposed blasphemy law, however, won’t help, he says. Laws are already in place to protect all citizens and religious institutions from attack and the government does apply them, Othman affirms. After an angry Muslim mob attacked Christian and Yazidi-owned liquor stores, hotels and a massage parlor in the northern city of Zhako last year, he points out, the perpetrators were arrested, as were those responsible for last month’s attacks in Erbil.
“I think the government is working well, they are punishing them, they are treating them like citizens, not according to the instruction of their religion.” Othman says.
Where the government is falling short, he says, is in its lack of inclusiveness.
“We don’t have access. Why don’t we have a single director in the governorate of Duhok or Sulaimani who’s Yazidi? It’s not because we’re not qualified. The system is very partisan and party representatives meet [Prime Minister] Barzani once a month. A lot of them are Muslims and some of them are Christians; they put forward their demands but not the Yazidi. We are not part of that.” He adds.
And the new law, Sozan Şahab argues, “is not about preventing discrimination – it’s about protecting religion. The real issue is how to create a code of respect and it’s not the job of the government to change the mentality of people. You have to work on it through education.”
“It’s useless to try to change laws or amend the constitution,” Othman concurs. “The most important thing is to implement a mechanism starting with primary school through to the universities. Change the curriculum; create awareness within the family also. Create awareness that we should not mingle the principles of our religion with our duties as a citizen. We need about 20 years and within that time we can change all the society.”
“What about us?”
But until that happens, says Dr. Haddad, Kurdistan’s Muslims also need to be protected – both from those who want to insult them but also from the more extreme Islamic factions who instigated May’s protests:
“Meanwhile, what about us? Those instances could be repeated – there are people who are practicing religion in a more violent way and we want to put an end to that. I don’t want [anyone] to think that Kurdistan has become a conflict arena between religious and secularists – this is very limited. Very few people knowingly or unknowingly [insult Islam] and there are a few people who respond to that insult in a violent way but to regulate those cases, we want to have this bill.” Dr. Hadad says.
A draft of the proposed blasphemy law has been submitted to parliament and is currently pending review. Dr. Haddad says he hopes his committee will be able to come up with something that is acceptable to both sides:
“We don’t want to implement medieval practices and impose them on people. And we don’t want the non-religious people to say, ‘This place is only for us, religious people should not exist.’ We should co-exist with each other. If you’re not practicing religion, that’s fine. Let me practice it. We should respect each other.”
And that, says Mammou Othman is part of the region’s identity: “We should live with each other peacefully, cooperatively. This country, this earth doesn’t only belong to one group, it belongs to all of them. Barzani’s father once said, ‘Kurdistan is like a wreath of flowers – if you separate them, they’re not as good as they are together.’”