Kurdistan, in Iraq, is losing social cohesion. The substance, or substances that once held society together are no longer desirable. In this piece, I demonstrate how the historical contributions of Kurdish and Muslim identities have made to social cohesion in Kurdistan through beliefs, routines, symbols, stories, and imagination. Being Muslim and being Kurdish, as demonstrated by the Kurdayati vision, are now irreparably fractured for a number of reasons.

The killing of Xwamas Wrya

In July 2023, an unusual killing happened in the town of Chamchamal, on the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah. A 22-year-old actor known as Xwanas Wrya was killed by a young man after a quarrel over belief and religion.

This killing heralds a brand-new phenomenon in which regular individuals may murder others while being persuaded by extreme ideologies.

Among other things, this incident marks the start of a serious social disintegration that could lead to a war of all against all. It demonstrates how fragmentation leads to small groups considering each other as adversaries and desiring bloodshed. In many ways, the death marks the breakdown of social and political cohesion among Iraqi Kurds.

Whatever happened to the Kurdayati?

The religious identity of Kurdish Muslims, which sometimes expands to the feeling of being member of the Islamic community as a whole, and the secular identity of Iraqi Kurds have traditionally been two major cornerstones of Iraqi Kurdistan’s individual and communal identity. Despite having a tumultuous connection, the two components of a same identity coexisted and formed the Kurdish worldview. Overal, Kurdayati is the name given to this specific identity.

The debate surrounding the idea is extensive among various academic disciplines and institutions. The primordialist school pioneered by C.J. Edmonds argued that “the Kurds constitute a single nation that has occupied its present habitat for at least three thousand years”.

Others disagreed with this approach, such as the ethnocentric group, which rejects the primordialist viewpoint. The foremost expert in this field is Martin Van Bruinessen, who makes a distinction between Kurdayati and those who are conscious that they are Kurds. They saw the Sheikh Ubeydullah uprising of 1880 as the beginning of the Kurdayati. Abbas Vali, one of the Modernists, claims that Kurdish nationalism is “unmistakably modern” and that its origins are the relationship between the self (Kurdish) and other identities that emerged in the early period of the 20th century. The Modernists challenge the primordialist and ethnocentric views on the origin of Kurdish nationalism and defend modernity as the primary factor behind its emergence.

The domination of a neoliberal consumer ethos in a rapidly urbanized and educated society challenged the narrative and symbolism of Kurdayati even further. Currently, one could argue that Kurdayati is far from unifying the Kurdistan community; it rather contributes to dividing it. One should consider the negative role of social media in that regard; Jonathan Haidt has reflected on this aspect elsewhere.

However, the average Kurdish viewpoint was not improved by this robust discussion, and Kurdayati did not permeate daily life in Iraqi Kurdistan. This aspect of the identity was contested, and its dominance was questioned, during the Kurdish Civil war that broke out in the 1960s and raged for decades after. The idea’s poor quality did not help, especially as the Kurdayati was linked to political parties and their actions or inactions, particularly the KDP. When corruption, poor leadership, and economic class arose in Kurdistan as a byproduct of oil money, this further degraded.

This disintegration is noteworthy because it exemplifies a contemporary secular component of identity and identity formation in the area. It is even more crucial since Kurdish society, like any other society, is incapable of creating institutions, uniting its forces, or engaging in economic development if its members lack a sense of shared identity and trust. As a direct outcome of this, it is now simpler for ordinary Kurds to envision Kurdistan division—splitting Sulaymaniyah, for example—and the dissolution of the KRG itself due to the erosion of this narrative. The Kurdayati conflict has cut off ordinary Kurds from their history, their political cause, and one of their primary sources of identity.

Kurdayati is now criticized by the KDP and its elites throughout the broad spectrum of the Kurdish community. The subject of identity has become partisan due to this politicization. One can contend that the independence referendum of 2017 marked a turning point in this situation. The referendum’s results severely undermined Kurdayati discourse and linked it to the KDP. Lacking a compelling narrative, the KDP accepted the Kurdayati without truly embracing it. Dispersed groups, including Islamists, anti-KDP, and left-affiliated parties, as well as others who feel they are being excluded from any rewards or gains from the Kurdish project in Iraqi Kurdistan, are those that reject Kurdayati.

The disintegration of Islamic worldview

Islam and the recently resurrected political Islam serve as the other pillar of the Iraqi Kurdish society. Islam was a daily practice for the average Kurd as a part of their social ritual. However, the major arguments over Islamic history and culture were confined to those who studied it and made an effort to keep Islam’s divides and differences from becoming a topic of public discussion. Therefore, the vast majority of common Kurds were unaware of Islam’s division into opposing groups, various interpretations, and competing interests.

Political Islam arrived in Kurdistan with the rise of political Islam in the wider region. The intellectual source came from Egypt; the possibility of an Islamic state became real after the Iranian revolution in 1979; and above all, the Persian Gulf oil money contributed to the emergence of different Islamic political movements in Iraqi Kurdistan. The two main political parties, namely PUK and KDP, contributed directly to making the Islamic parties’ part of the Kurdistan polity.

According to the Kurdish political analyst Aram Rafaat, the PUK started to manipulate Islamic movements in Sulaymaniyah in the early 1990s in an effort to counterbalance or exert pressure on the local leftist parties. Talabani was regarded as a master of the balancing act, and for many years he presided over the factional PUK. The PUK began to support the newly formed Islamic Union when this reapproaching with the Islamic Movement led to the latter’s strengthening.

In 2011, during what is known as the 17th of February Demonstrations, Komala and Yekgirtu islamic parties united with the civil movement headed by the Gorran Movement in the spirit of the Arab Spring. Following the PUK’s first move to bring islamists onto the political scene, the Gorran Movement is also held accountable for normalizing the Islamist perspective inside Kurdistani politics. 

To combat this, the PUK began to give the Wahabis and Salafists a place to gather in its sphere of influence. Both dominant political parties (KDP and PUK) currently support Salafis. These islamist activists are directly impacted by the proselytizing and religious teachings of Saudi Arabia. The general perception is that they are unrelated to politics, or more specifically, the ruling elites.

Officially, Salafis despise politics, but this assumption is outdated. Just like every other cliché, this one too needs to be broken down. Salafis are indoctrinating their adherents and advancing their cause while influencing the general public. By having close relationships with the major political parties, they are primarily setting the political agenda, both directly and indirectly. In light of this, they are charged with supporting the PUK and KDP. Additionally, the current generation of Salafis, who copy the Saudi school and place a strong emphasis on “obeying the ruler,” coexists with the trend toward family authority inside political organizations.

There are numerous schools and individuals who identify as Islamists; These various groups are engaged in internal and external competition for their small constituencies. The struggle among Islamic elites is currently getting more intense as a result of the emergence of social media and smartphones, which have increased competition among Islamic groups. As the many factions undermine one another’s beliefs, the terrain of Islamic thought is changing, adding to its complexity. Islamic culture is complex and contentious. In Islam, there have always been harsh and contentious interactions between the various factions. However, common Kurdish Muslims were excluded from this reality.

Many ordinary Muslims are currently perplexed by the battle between what is known as the Ash’arites and the Salafis since they have never heard of the Basra-born Islamic thinker from the ninth century. In addition to all these, the secular and religious divisions enhance each other. While Salafis are said to be close to the PUK, Ash’arites are said to be close to the KDP.

In conclusion, the secular nationalism narrative of Kurdayati and the Islamic narrative are both disintegrating and losing ground, as was made evident above. Many small, devoted, and fragmented organizations that must contend with one another for scarce resources emerge as a result of the collapse. Both theoretically and practically, fragmentation has an impact on the social cohesiveness of Iraqi Kurds. This is taking place at a time when the area needs coherence and similarities to develop institutions, integrate various armed units, and preserve societal stability. The deterioration of both identities has played a role in the rise of extremism and the normalization of violence. The absence of a fresh type of social cement contributes to the general gloominess of the situation. Due to Tik-Tok becoming the primary forum for continuing debates within the Islamic community, this is more challenging.

VIASardar Aziz (former senior advisor to the Kurdistan Parliament, researcher)