“Compared to the unbeliever, the Kurd is a Muslim.” This proverb, which is widespread in the Turkish and Arab environment, to some extent reflects the fact that historically, the Kurds have not always been the best examples of Islamic orthodoxy. With regard to the ideas of radical Islam that are becoming increasingly popular lately, this is still true.
Most of the Kurds are Sunni Muslims, and mostly they belong to the Shafi’i madhhab, which distinguishes them from their Turkish and Sunni Arab neighbours, who are mostly of the Hanafi madhhab.
When speaking about the relationship between the Kurds and Islam, one should mention the figure of Salah ad-Din, who, being of Kurdish origin, was and still is perceived in the entire Muslim east as a defender of the faithful. In the minds of a large number of people outside the Islamic realm, he is also one of the symbols of commitment to this religion.
Today’s Islamic radicals, who pretend to be defenders of Islam, are a completely different phenomenon. Among the Kurds, there are also organizations of this kind. These include, for example, the Turkish (Kurdish) Hezbollah (not to be confused with the Lebanese party), the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, and the Islamic Unity Movement of Kurdistan (the last two are based in Iraqi Kurdistan). None of these groups, however, have a substantial impact on the socio-political processes in the region where they are active. In the 1990s and 2000s, Saudi Arabia allocated significant amounts of money to build mosques in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Wahhabi Islam was preached, but these activities did not attain significant success. With respect to recent years, when the situation in the near east and Middle East has been considerably aggravated, it is sometimes claimed that up to several hundred Kurds have joined the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, even if this is the case, the figures cited represent individual cases only.
In contrast, some consider the Kurds to be the most tolerant Muslim people in the region. Various ethnic and religious minorities—non-Sunni Muslims, Yazidis, Christians (Assyrians and Chaldeans), and Jews historically found themselves comfortable enough in Kurdistan. Indeed, there is evidence of the Kurds’ adherence to the principles of religious tolerance: in recent years, many Christians in Iraq fearing for their lives due to ISIS persecution fled to territories controlled by the Kurds.
There are several main reasons why Islamism has not gained widespread support among the Kurds. The first reason is that in the early stages of the struggle for Kurdish rights, Kurdish Islamists did not have a clear understanding of Kurdish national aspirations, and the dominant motivation in the Kurdish issue is nationalism, not religion.
Another reason that Islamist ideas are unpopular among Kurds is that the appeal to unity between Muslims often sprang from the very same forces that divided Kurdistan and which are the main opponents of the Kurdish national movement. It is not accidental, therefore, that the massive radical movement that emerged in the Kurdish milieu was not based on religion, but on a leftist-socialist agenda. The most notable mouthpiece of such ideas is Abdullah Ocalan, who has quite a secular identity.
The wide presence of secularism among a significant part of the Kurdish population is vividly manifested in the exceptionally wide rate of participation of women in social and political life, which is unusual for the Islamic East. The rate of participation is so widespread that one of the main components of the Kurdish military units’ image today is a woman in military uniform with a rifle in her hands.
“Moderate religiousness” has become one of the important reasons that western powers, particularly the United States, support the Kurdish movement. There are even voices in favour of the creation of an independent Kurdish state, which would serve as a model for neighbours in the region in terms of democratic values and secular principles of social structure. According to some observers, the Kurds are the only Muslim people in the region who are capable of establishing a moderate social order. This view is of course somewhat simplistic, if only because of the experience of the successful (at least thus far) Kemalist project in Turkey. However, one can already assume that the more the problem of religious radicalism in the near east and Middle East intensifies, the more support the idea of creating an independent Kurdish state will receive, and not only in the West. This argument could be considered favourably among other countries such as China, India, and Russia.
News has appeared lately that some Kurds are moving away from Islam completely. This phenomenon is unlikely to become widespread, but an indisputable fact is that the soil for spreading the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism among the Kurds is gradually becoming less stable.
The emergence of ISIS
The emergence of ISIS and the intensification of the terrorist threat in the Middle East in general, however unexpected it may sound, can have positive consequences for the Kurdish national movement: the Kurds have become critically important both for major international players and (albeit to a lesser extent) for the governments in Baghdad and Damascus as an effective force combating terrorists. Kurds are fully aware of this and are using it to their advantage.
At the moment, manifestations of radical Islamism in Kurdistan are mainly related to the activities of the Islamic state. With some reservations, one could even say that, despite being on different sides of the trench, both Kurds and ISIS oppose the same powers that dominate the region.
And yet, most importantly, there is no tangible support of ISIS apologists’ ideas among the Kurds. So far, there has been no reason to expect a large Kurdish Islamist movement to emerge: no significant prerequisites for implementing such a scenario are present. In particular, there is no single radical organisation that would encompass the whole of Kurdistan, or at least one of its four parts. More importantly, already discouraging experiences with Islamists have been aggravated by several years of bitter struggle between the Kurds and ISIS. For the short term at least, this relieves the need to worry about the danger of religious extremism spreading in Kurdish society.