Salafism in Iraqi Kurdistan

19th Jul 2019 by Pishtiwan Jalal

Salafism in Iraqi Kurdistan

In the past, Salafism in Iraqi Kurdistan was confined to few armed Jihadi groups based in remote areas. More recently, however, Salafism has found Kurdish audience.  

Its rise in Kurdistan is not different from its rise elsewhere: funds from Salafists in oil-rich conservative Arab monarchies and new media. This article discusses its rise, and problematises the government’s response.

The birth of Salafism in Iraqi Kurdistan

In the 1990s, only a handful of Kurdish individuals were exposed to Salafism. When the civil war erupted between the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK) in 1993, Kurdish Salafists fled to neighbouring Arab countries. Abdul-Lateef Ahmad, who would later become the leader of Kurdish Salafists, fled to Syria, Sudan, and, finally, resided in Yemen.

While in Yemen, Ahmad became a student of Sheikh Muqbil bin Hadi Al-Wadi’i, and learned Islamic sciences in Dammaj. He returned to Kurdistan after the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, and started teaching the Madkhalism school of Salafism. After several years, hundreds of Kurds were gathered around him.

The Spread of Salafism in Iraqi Kurdistan

Many factors catalysed the spread of Salafism in Kurdistan. First and foremost, Arab Gulf resources funded its mobilisation and publicity. Ahmad founded a TV channel in 2013 called Amozhgari TV. According to Mullah Wishyar Chamchamali, a former friend of Ahmad, Sheikh Salih Al-Bayzani, a Yemeni Salafi sheikh and the founder of the Arabic Athar TV, donated one million dollars for Amozhgari TV. After Bayzani shut down his own TV channel, he stopped funding Ahmad’s Amozhgari TV. Chamchamali claims that the TV channel has an office in Bahrain and is now being funded by the Islamic Heritage Revival Society, a Salafi organisation based in Kuwait.

Mullah Ubeyd Chamchamali, a Kurdish Salafi leader close to Ahmad, rejects those claims, and contends that their TV channel is solely financed by the Zakat (almsgiving) of local devout Muslims. These claims are not endorsed by all Kurdish Salafists, and has led to deep divisions amongst them, in support of, or in opposition to, Ahmad’s media project.

Secondly, the internet – and easy access to Salafi books, blogs and social media accounts of Salafi figures –  have all made it easier for Kurdish youth to learn about the different schools and camps of Salafism. This, of course, has led to further divisions among Kurdish Salafists: Mumayi’is – who are mostly located in Erbil and Duhok provinces, Hujuris – who are dominant in Erbil, Haddadis and Sa’afiqis in Chamchamal and Kirkuk, and the supporters of Ahmad in Sulaymaniya. Each of these groups claims to be the true Salafists and excommunicates the rest.

Thirdly, the KRG turned a blind eye to the spread of Salafism in Kurdistan, hoping that Salafism can diffuse the social pressure against the government. They allowed Salafi gatherings and social and missionary activities, while restricting other Islamist groups’ activities.

Early KRG tolerance towards Kurdish Salafists can also be attributed to the weak position of Kurdistan in the region. Kurdistan is a fragile, largely unrecognised state, and, thus, often concedes to regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia. In other words, the KRG needs to appease the Saudis by tolerating Salafism in Kurdistan. In return, Riyadh can support Erbil against Kurdistan’s hostile neighbours. But, as the following sections will show, there is a fine line between appeasing Saudi Arabia and containing the security threat that may come out of Salafism.

Salafism now challenges the traditionally dominant Sufi doctrine in Kurdistan. Salafists in Kurdistan build mosques exclusively to themselves. Most of them do not partake in group prayers with Muslims who are not Salafists. They distinguish themselves from the ‘other’ Muslims. They refuse to participate in group religious ceremonies that are considered un-Islamic, such as the Mawlid (the observance of the birthday of Islam’s prophet Muhammad).

The Fine Salafist Line

In general, Salafists can be divided into two broad groups: Purists – whose work focuses on missionary projects, and Jihadists – who pursue their political agenda through armed struggle. But there is a fine line between these two groups. A Salafist can – and often – shifts between the two. And the KRG government recognises this. Mariwan Naqshabandi, an official at the KRG’s Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA), said, “we don’t know when they [Purist Salafists] will change. It can happen anytime.” The spread of Purist Salafism provides fertile grounds for the spread of Jihadi Salafism among the Kurdish youth. It encouraged as many as 500 Kurdish youths to join the Islamic State (ISIS).

On the other hand, Sufi leaders oppose the teachings of Salafism and the radical discourse of Amozhgari TV in particular. In 2015, Kurdish Sufi sheikhs gave a fatwa saying that watching Amozhgari TV is haram. In a press conference, they demanded the KRG to shut the TV channel down, threatening to attack the channel and close it by force.

Despite rumours of KRG-Salafi cooperation, recent threats posed by Salafists served as a wake-up call for Kurdish officials. Many Kurdish politicians have condemned the spread of Salafism in Kurdistan. Recently, the KRG has taken strict measures against radical forms of Salafism. In 2015, MERA began monitoring Salafi imams and their mosques, punishing those who violate the moderate rhetoric outlined by the government. So far, it has expelled ten imams due to their extremist Friday speeches. The KRG also banned the books of 10 Salafi ‘ulamas, including prominent Salafi imams – such as Albani, Ibn Baz and Utheimin.

Conclusion

Banning Salafi books, jailing and firing their imams does not discourage the Kurdish youth from learning about Salafism. The appeal of Salafism has more to do with structural problems in traditional schools of Islam. The youth are disillusioned with traditional interpretations of Islam and are receptive to ‘new’ interpretations. The KRG can fight extremism through advancing alternative schools of Islam.  The MERA should encourage Kurdish religious leaders of “traditional Muslims” to reform their outdated Sufi doctrines, and bring it closer to the new generation. 

Pishtiwan Jalal is a PhD candidate (ABD) at Virginia Tech University. His research focuses on sectarianism in Iraqi Kurdistan. Twitter handle: @pishtiwan_jalal

Photo credit: Youtube.