On 4 November, the Iraqi Members of Parliament finally decided to set aside six seats for minority groups in the Provincial Councils, thus going back on its earlier repeal of Article 50 of the Constitution that had guaranteed such representation. Thus, of the 150 M.P.s present, 106 approved the new arrangements giving three seats to Christians and three others to be divided amongst other groups. This the Christians gain one seat in Baghdad, one in Nineveh and another in Basra, our of a total of 440 seats for all the country’s Provincial Councils. The Yezidis will get one seat in Nineveh and the Sabaens one in Baghdad.
However these alterations to the electoral law have not soothe the discontent of the Christians, who recall that the UN Special Envoy to Iraq had recommended that twelve seats should be set aside for the country’s minorities.
On 5 November, the day after the law was passed, Shlemon Warduni, the Vicar-General of the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, considered that this measure did not really take into account “the rights of the Iraqi Christians” or counter the “marginalisation of the Christian community”. “The government had promised to restore Article 50 in the electoral law. This had given fifteen seats to the minorities, thirteen of which were for the Christians”. In Monsignor Warduni’s opinion, this law would not enable the Provincial Councils to be elected without changing their present composition or without the minorities being better protected or represented. He also criticised the inertia or indifference of the United Nations and the international community.
This has not prevented the law from being ratified by the Presidential Council, which is composed of the President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, (a Kurd) and the two Arab Vice-Presidents, Tariq Hashemi (Sunni) and Adel Abdul Mahdi (Shiite). The Council had earlier refused to sign the previous Bill passed by the Iraqi parliament last July on the grounds that certain of its measures were unconstitutional.
Ethnic and religious tension, which are suffered rather than desired by the bulk of the inhabitants of Mosul, are stirred up by political of religious groups acting more or less freely in the face of an indifferent Central Government, according to several of the persecuted groups. Moreover, the fact that provincial elections are due to be held early in 2009 could be the source of the renewal violence and intimidation directed at minorities. On 2 November, a radio station, recently started in Mosul, was closed down by the city’s local authorities for having incited “sedition” and “stirred up tension” between Kurds and Arabs in the town, according to Ismail Goran, a Kurdish member of the Provincial council. It is interesting to note that this radio station was connected with a Sunni Arab M.P, Osama al-Nujaifi who, last September, had launched a series of unverified accusations against the Kurds, accusing them of being the source of the wave of murders against Christians — which the latter, as well as the Kurdish Regional Government, have always denied. This Iraqi M.P. has not failed to attack the closing down of the station as a “measure to silence the voice of patriots and to satisfy Kurdish officials who want to get rid of any rivals in the coming provincial elections”. According to al-Nujaifi, this radio station was, indeed, intended to relay the election campaign of a Sunni Arab political group whose sole aim was to oppose the Kurds in the Mosul constituency.
At the moment, the Nineveh Provincial Council, which includes Mosul, has a Kurdish majority because of the boycott of the 2005 elections by the Sunni Arabs. The Kurds are politically allied to the Christians and the other minorities, which makes it highly unlikely that they would engage in anti-Christian manoeuvres, as some Arab papers have claimed. Indeed, as KRG Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, has pointed out, any religious purging of Nineveh could only weaken the coalition of Kurds and Christians there and favour the most radical Sunni Arab political factions at work in the region. Thus the Sunni Arabs there have vigorously opposed the Kurdish demand for a quota of representatives on the councils for the Nineveh minorities. Indeed, the probable political alliance of the Kurds with Christian and other religious groups cannot fail to worry all those political parties that are opposed to federalism. This also applies to the present Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, who, for the last six months, has been trying to strengthen his personal power in the country, and has been calling for a strong federal state: an expression that the Kurds translate as a will to recentralise power — an old spectre that has bedevilled f Iraqi politics since the creation of the state.
The Central government’s fear of such an alliance between the Kurds and the minorities could find some justification in the increasing number of voices within these communities that are calling for joining the Kurdistan Region. The Shabaks are a religious sect whose beliefs are fairly close to those of the Alevis and whose language is close to Kurdish but includes many borrowings from Turkish, Persian and Arabic. While, in the course of the past, their relations with Moslems, be they Kurdish or Arab, have been fairly tense, the recent persecutions to which they, like the Yezidis and Christians, have been subjected, have encouraged them to opt for “Kurdishness”. Thus they also demonstrated in the streets of Nineveh for incorporation in the Kurdistan Regional Government: “Today, hundreds of Shabaks have organised peaceful demonstrations calling for their incorporation in the Kurdistan region, on the grounds that they are Kurds and not Arabs”, declared the head of the Bashiq district of Nineveh, Thanun Yunis, on Iraqi National Radio.
The same goes for the Yezidi Kurds, resolved no longer to be dependent on Baghdad even though, in past centuries, their relations with their Moslem fellow Kurds have been fairly distant. “We hope that the land on which we now live will be joined to the Kurdish Region”, declared their leader and representative, Prince Tahsin Beg to Associated Press. “This will depend on the referendum, but our lands must return to their original home country”.
While the AKP government and the Turkish Army seem to have agreed to start a process for recognising the Irbil Kurdish government, Ankara’s stand on the Kurdish Question in Turkey seem to be hardening, both with regard to the Prime Minister’s attitude to a series of facts and legal decisions that are incompatible with calming the situation.
Thus Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent visit to Diyarbekir is in marked contrast with the tour of Turkish Kurdistan he had carried out in 2005. On that occasion and in this same city, he had broken a taboo by recognising the existence of a “Kurdish question” in Turkey. This time, however, the content of his remarks were of a strict Kemalist orthodoxy, that the Prime Minister himself summed up in these terms: “What can we say? What we say is that this is one Nation, one Flag and one State”, adding that those who did not subscribe to this principle had better leave the country. This is virtually identical to the ultranationalist Grey Wolves “Ya sev, ya terket”.
The reaction of the inhabitants of Diyarbekir, even the most moderate of them, shows a growing disillusion about the AKP’s real intentions and a feeling that there is now other way out but war. Mehmet Kaya, President of the town’s Chamber of Trade and Industry, commented on Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s remarks in these terms: “Of course we have no objection to there being only one flag and one State. However, I am a Kurd — and what does he mean by one Nation?”
A taxi-driver confided to the paper Bianet thus: “On one side there is the organisation (the PKK) and on the other the Prime Minister, who rejects us. What is going to become of us? We are used to being rejected, this here is our country, and we will remain”.
Despite the impact of his remarks, which even surprised some members of his own party, Erdogan repeated them in the town of Erzurum: “We have always been against regional or ethnic nationalism. We have never practiced discrimination on the basis of a denomination or a religion. We keep an equal distance from all religions”.
The DTP Kurdish party, over which hands the threat of a banning order, has descried these remarks as “racist” and demanded an apology. The Prime Minister replied by a Press Conference in which he accused the DTP of being the direct instigator of and so responsible for the Kurdish riots that shook Turkey the month before at the beginning of November, as well as of the poor welcome he had received during his visit of the towns of Turkish Kurdistan. Thus, he accused the DTP in Van of having threatened the shopkeepers; to make them shut their shops on the day of his visit; as well as the Hakkari Municipality of having done nothing to improve the town’s services since his last visit. Stating that PKK supporters had attacked the press during the riots, the head of the Turkish government also, paradoxically enough attacked this very press for giving too much importance to that movement in its media coverage, whereas the journalists had not sufficiently covered his tour of the Kurdish region, his speeches or his opening of schools and hospitals.
The Prime Minister’s last remarks against the media illustrate the increasingly bitter relations between Recep Erdogan and the Turkish press as a whole. Thus he s said to have taken great exception to an editorial by Fermi Koru in the periodical Yeni Safak who, making a parallel with the US elections, said that the AKP leader was “changing into a George Bush, whereas he had been elected as a Barack Obama”. This criticism was directly aimed at the government’s apparent hardening on the Kurdish question.
Other papers, however, have remarked that the government’s change is more part of an inevitable trend in Turkish politics as the Kurdish question is raised. Hasan Cemal, in Milliyet, draws a parallel with former President Demirel Suleyman and former Prime Minister Tansu Çiller. Thus in 1991 Demirel had also admitted the existence of a “Kurdish reality” in Turkey and had promised a democratic constitution as soon as elected — a promise he hastened to forget as soon as he received a “warning” from the Army. Similarly, Tansu Çiller had begun promoting democracy and even envisaged, in 1993, some autonomy for the Kurdish region on similar lines to that of the Basque region, before doing a U-turn under pressure from the Army.
This state of unease seems to have affected Mr. Erdogan’s own party. Thus the AKP Vice-President, Dengit Mir Mehmet Firat, a Kurd, has abruptly resigned all his duties, officially for health reasons. However, the character of the person who has replaced him as the party’s Deputy President reflects the new “hard” line. Abdulkadir Aksu, former Minister of the Interior in the previous AKP government, is well known for his intransigent attitude on the Kurdish issue, although himself of Kurdish origin — a fact that has earned him the sobriquet of “janissary”. This new promotion and Firat’s departure are consequently seen as signs of a radical change in the AKP’s Kurdish policy. Thus is corroborated by sources close to Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, who report the disappointment caused by the Prime Minister’s speeches in Kurdistan. Till then, he had exercised considerable influence over AKP’s Kurdish Members of Parliament and no one can say if Abdulkadir Aksu will be able to exercise the same influence. Being originally from Diyarbekir, the AKP leadership may well envisage making him stand in the coming municipal elections so as to dislodge the present Mayor, the popular Osman Paydemir.
On 1 November, even while the difficult Iraqi-American negotiations on the adoption of the S.O.F.A. (State Of Forces Agreement) were taking place, the President of Kurdistan, Massud Barzani, declared, just after meeting the White House government team in Washington, that in the event of failure to reach an agreement, the Kurdish Region was disposed, on its own initiative, to welcome a US base on its soil.
“If the United States were to request it, I am certain that the Kurdistan Regional Parliament and the people of the Kurdistan Region, would willingly welcome them”, the Kurdish President declared at a reception at the Centre of International and Strategic Research in Washington. Massud Barzani, however, said he hoped that Iraq and the USA would manage to reach an agreement on the temporary maintenance of US forces after the expiry of the UN mandate, i.e. after the 31 December 2008. However, expressing his scepticism about the vote in the Baghdad Parliament, he wanted, come what may, to reaffirm his support for the S.O.F.A and his conviction that it was the best one possible in the present state of affairs.
The President of Kurdistan could not fail to be aware that, by alluding to the possibility of a unilateral decision of the Irbil Parliament to welcome US troops without reference to the Iraqi National Assembly, he would arouse hostile reactions from the Arab world. He was, on the other hand, in no danger of such reactions from public opinion in his own region, since the inhabitants of Kurdistan see such as an eventuality as a long-term political guarantee of the autonomy they enjoy and as a means of deterring the aggressive impulses of neighbouring States. “With American bases in the Region, I would feel safer. It would also prevent any aggression against Kurdistan in the future”, confirmed Rebwar Mohammad, a student of Irbil’s Salahaddin University, interviewed by the paper Gulf News. Bashdar Amin, Kurdistan’s Minister of Education is even more explicit: “The presence of permanent US Bases in the Region would prevent any future attack by an imprudent Central government”.
In an undoubted attempt to calm down the unrest among the Iraqi politicos following this statement by the Kurds, Jalal Talabani replied in his usual more conciliatory manner that the US troops would only be installed in the Kurdistan Region after Baghdad’s approval: “It is impossible for American troops to remain in Kurdistan without the approval of the central government”, he declared in a television broadcast on the Al-Iraqiya channel. “Kurdistan is part of Iraq, and all the country’s constitutional laws apply to it”.
At the same time, the Bush Administration recognised that it had accepted some last minute amendments demanded by the Iraqis, adding, however, that it considered that the time for negotiations was “ended” and that the text it had sent to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was considered final. The latter then called on the Iraqi M.P.s to ratify the text, describing it, in turn, as the best option possible for “guaranteeing the sovereignty of Iraq and the departure of all foreign soldiers”. “This agreement gives us the possibility of building up our country, successfully carrying our internal reforms, setting up security forces and policies distanced from any sectarian challenge”, he declared at a Press Conference in the capital. Nuri al-Maliki also warned the Iraqi M.P.s that rejecting the S.O.F.A. could lead to another UN mandate authorising the American Army to remain in Iraq, but under the existing conditions of occupation, that he described as a “painful situation”.
On the contrary, the Sadrist militia called for mass demonstrations against the military agreement and marched through Baghdad in large numbers. However the fierce opposition of the Shiite leader Maqtada al-Sadr cannot significantly alter Parliament’s vote as he only has about 30 seats in Parliament.
The debate preceding its adoption by the Iraqi Parliament was lively and the sessions were interrupted several times. One of the most virulent adversaries of the agreement was, naturally, Moqtada al-Sadr, radically opposed on principle to any “agreement with the occupier”. However, the Shiite Alliance for a United Iraq, the largest political coalition, with its 85 seats out of a total of 275, and the Kurdish Alliance with its 58 seats, both voted in favour, and it only required a simple majority of 138 seats for adoption. The President of the Shiite Alliance, Ali al-Adib, said he was satisfied that the negotiators had taken into account the “fears” of the M.P.s, while the Speaker of the House, speaking on behalf of the Sunni Arab Concord Front expressed reservations about the text and indicated that the had sent the government demands for alterations, particularly regarding the release of prisoners.
As, however, the Iraqi M.P.s do not always follow their party’s directives, the result could have been different from the stands taken by the group bosses. Furthermore, Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani, the most eminent religious authority in the country, roundly condemned the M.P.s who had chosen to absent themselves from the debate by going to Mecca on the Pilgrimage. Thus a leading official of his office informed AFP of the Great Ayatollah’s anger with the “members of parliament who had goner on the Pilgrimage and avoided the Supreme Guide’s appeal that they assume their national and historic responsibility by frankly giving their views on the agreement”. Al-Sistani, who virtually only expresses himself through his advisors, had expressed his opposition to any agreement that might damage Iraqi sovereignty but had considered that the final decision should lie with the government in office.
Thus, on 16 November, the Iraqi Parliament approved the agreement by 148 votes out of the 196 M.P.s present, with 35 against and 86 absentees. The US forces will begin withdrawing from the towns in June 2009 but will remain in Iraq for any potential military need.
A referendum will take place throughout Iraq in June 2009 to endorse the agreement, at the demand of some Sunni Arab members who, in exchange for their votes, secured this concession as well as an amnesty for prisoners who could not be proved to have taken part in acts of violence linked with the insurrection. The Sunni Arabs had also demanded an end to the “deBaathisation”, but in any case a revision and softening of the legal measures is envisaged, which alone prevent former members of the Baath Party from holding public office. They also asked for a readjustment, in their favour, of the balance of power within the government.
Following the Khanaqin crisis, which had almost led to a confrontation between the Peshmergas and the Iraqi Army that had come to take possession of the region, fresh tensions have surfaced between the Central Government in Baghdad and that of the Kurdish Region.
This time it is not over the issue of provincial elections or the referendum, but over the setting up of local militias, answerable to the Central Government that the Kurds consider as essentially auxiliaries recruited amongst Arab tribes with the sole object of controlling Kirkuk and preventing its possible return to the Kurdistan Region.
Known by the name of “Sahwa” (Awakening) the setting up of these pro-government armed groups has been encouraged, over the last two year, by the United States that has used them, in the Sunni Arab province of Anbar, as a means of controlling the insurgent fighters. However, the Kurds (but also many Shiites) have received these militia, also called “support councils”, with suspicion, seeing in them the a return of bad memories of armed groups acting solely at the service of the Central government. Thus the two main Kurdish parties, the KDP, led by Kurdistan President Massud Barzani, and the PUK, led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, have declared, in a joint communiqué, that the formation of such armed groups was unconstitutional as it contravened the law on the disarmament of armed militias in Iraq: “We firmly oppose the setting up of any armed group whatsoever, whatever may be the reason, in Iraq and in Kurdistan, and especially in the disputed regions”.
Faced with this refusal, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at first expressed his “sadness” while defending the setting up of these “councils”: “It was necessary to form these groups to ensure order in provinces that has experienced insecurity before the return of Armed forces coming to re-establish stability”. However, in Massud Barzani’s view these groups, supposedly to maintain security, especially in view of the coming elections, are quite unnecessary in Kurdistan or the regions controlled by the Peshmergas. There presence in regions that will be subject of a referendum regarding their possible inclusion in Kurdistan can only stir up conflict. “The Kurds reject the formation of these “councils” in areas where they form the majority of the population. While they may be justified in certain region, they are not necessary elsewhere. They have no reason for existing in Kurdistan or in the disputed regions. This is playing with fire”.
For his part, Rizgar Ali, a Kurd who leads the Kirkuk Provincial Council, declared that he had personally told Nuri al-Maliki that his “province had no need for such militia” and that the security forces at present working in Kirkuk were effective at ensuring security. Rizgar Ali also invited the Iraqi government to use the money planned for maintaining these militia for the reconstruction and renovation of Kirkuk and its infrastructures, which are in a lamentably dilapidated in many areas.
The tone quickly grew sharper, going from “sadness” to direct accusations. On 8 November, answering the joint statement from the Kurdish parties by a Press Conference, Nuri al-Maliki in turn accused the Kurdish regional government of unconstitutional actions, particularly by the signing oil contracts between the KRG and foreign companies. He above all called for a revision of the constitution, approved by referendum in October 2005, so as to give greater power to the Central Government as the expense of federalism. “This Constitution was written in a hasty manner and in unusual conditions. It limits the Central Government’s power and arouses the fear that federalism might handicap the country”.
“If we want to strengthen Iraq, this can only be done by strengthening the regions and provinces”, countered Fatah Mustafa Bakir, Minister for International Relations of the Kurdistan Region. “This is the very opposite of al-Maliki’s projects. The Kurds agree to amending the Iraqi Constitution — but in accordance with the mechanisms provided for in the Constitution itself and on condition that such amendments contribute to advancing freedom with respect to the ethnic and religious rights while guaranteeing the supremacy of the Law. The political experience of Iraqi Kurdistan is an example of the success of the federal system for Iraq”.
Nor did Nassih Abdulghatur, a Kurdish Alliance M.P. in the Baghdad Parliament, see the timeliness of any constitutional revision and he refuted the accusation of “hasty” drafting of the constitution made by Nuri al-Maliki: “The Iraqi Constitution was drawn up over a period of three years, which is acceptably long drafting time and it enjoys the consensual agreement of all parties”. He also recalled that “80% of the Iraqis voted for this constitution. What al-Maliki is now demanding is against the law and the constitution itself”. Another Kurdish Alliance M.P., Khalid Sawani, went one further: “The Constitution determines the form of the system of government in Iraq and was voted in by 12 million Iraqis. This is not the first time that al-Maliki has made such statements while seeking to set up a strong central government in Iraq. For about 80 years until 2003 Iraq was dominated by a central government and many are the crimes and violations of human rights committed in all Iraqi provinces in those years. After having voted for the present Constitution we will not accept to be again dominated by such governments. Our State, today, is a State of laws, a Constitutional State, and al-Maliki is fooling himself if he thinks that the State can forcibly impose his power”.
The confrontation has taken on a more ethnic character with demonstrations in support of the Shiite Prime Minister organised in several Iraqi towns to protest against the Kurdish government’s statements.
Thus in Takrit, Saddam Hussein’s former fiefdom, the demonstrators against federalism, both Shiite and Sunni, marched to demand a “unified Iraq” and shouting “Kirkuk, Mosul and Diyala are Iraqi!” Farhan al-Awd, a Member of Parliament and Provincial Counsellor for that Province explained that: “the Arab tribes support Maliki’s national stand of preserving Iraqi unity by imposing the law and re-writing the constitution. There are no disputed regions there is only one country”. Ahmad al-Dulaymi, a member of the controversial “support councils” in the Sunni province of Salahaddin, accused the Kurds in these terms: “Those who oppose Maliki’s project want a weak Iraq and are pursuing a divisive policy”. In Kirkuk Province, thousands of Arabs also assembled in the Hawijah football stadium to support the Prime Minister and his project of militia.
However, outside the Sunni Arab provinces, the support is much smaller. Thus the Shiite holy city of Kerbela was only able to rally a few hundred demonstrators. Last March, fierce fighting in those same Shiite cities took place against the Iraqi Army that had come to impose the disarmament of local militia.
Following the law strictly limiting the recourse to polygamy, the Kurdish parliament also passed a law forbidding the practice of excision, current in some parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, while the head of he Irbil government himself launched a campaign in support of equality and protection of women.
At the beginning of November a commission, appointed by the Kurdish government and presided by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, met to discuss and evaluate the latest measures taken b the Kurdistan Regional Government, to debate judicial and legislative means of preventing violence and crimes against women and Amnesty International’s recommendations on the subject.
“Our Region must become the best of models for Iraq”, declared the Prime Minister, urging more cooperation between all the Ministries to achieve better results.
In particular, the commission approved the government’s decision, the year before, to celebrate 25 November as an International Day for the elimination of violence against women. Another measure considered to have given satisfactory results was the setting up of a department for training the police and raising their awareness of cases of violence to women. This system of training and guidance has contributed to improving the care of victims of such violence in the three provinces of Duhok, Irbil and Suleimaniah. There has also been a notable increase in the filing of complaints at police stations by women victims. Measures have also been taken to protect plaintiffs who feel threatened. In general, the campaigns to raise awareness have had an effect on public opinion, so that sentences passed by the courts on aggressors have become heavier, going even as far a capital punishment in some cases of so-called “honour crimes”.
With regard to the recommendations made by Amnesty International, Nechirvan Barzani welcomed the fact that this NGO had noted the efforts being made by his government in this area. Thus several measures had been taken to strengthen legislation and crack down on “honour crimes” and judges and investigators have received training in this area. A former American Prosecutor experienced in this area was even employed as consultant and worked directly with the Kurdish police and Public Prosecutors. The KRG had also asked Bristol University’s Department of Criminology to analyse and prepare a report on “honour cries” both in Iraqi Kurdistan and also in the Kurdish community in Great Britain.
As far as legislative reforms are concerned, their reception was more mixed, depending on the measures passed. Thus the fact that polygamy had not been banned by Parliament left the militant feminist groups in Kurdistan unsatisfied. Hundreds of them had demonstrated in Suleimaniah, but other groups expressed the feeling that it was a start, enabling abolition at a future date. According to one of them, Suzan Mohammad Aref, the new law is “a positive step for women. We cannot suddenly a whole society. The difference between the number of votes in favour of banning polygamy and those just calling for its limitation was so small that it can already be considered a great success for women”. Refusing to consider the problem as a male-female cleavage in Kurdish society, Suzan Aref pointed out that the reform must also enter into women’s thinking: “We must realise that there are women who believe it is important to conform to the Islamic Sharia and so that polygamy should not be banned”. Others, like Kazibuh Ali, an office worker interviewed by the Voice of Iraq, explained that a total ban could push men into divorcing their first wife in the event of sterility, which would create a serious problem of resources in a country where most women do not work. Moreover, nothing prevents a man living in the Region from getting married in another part of Iraq where polygamy is still legal. This was confirmed by Abdul Rahman Haji Zebari, a lawyer: “The Iraqi Constitution gives the Kurdish Parliament the right o pass laws, but they are only enforceable in the Region”.
A woman M.P., Pakhshkan Zanka, speaking on the national radio, also presented this limitation as a positive advance for Kurdish women that will accelerate the decline of this practice.
The second law passed that was spotlighted by the Kurdish media was the one totally banning the practice of excision, which is practiced in certain parts of Kurdistan. This time, as it did not meet any strong social or religious opposition, abolition was voted.
According to figures given by the KRG Minister of Health, 60% of the young girls between the ages of 4 and 14 have suffered excision, despite government campaigns warning about the dangers involved. Zaryan Abdel Rahman was speaking at a 3-day conference in Irbil covering violence on women in general. He based these figures on the work of a German NGO, Wadj, which investigated 201 villages in the three provinces and also Kirkuk. Its report showed that of the 5,628 women and girls examined, 3,502 had been excised.
The Minister for Religious Affairs will ask the Imams to speak out openly against excision during their Friday sermons. The Minister of Education, for her part is planning a special programme in the schools “to encourage girls not to submit to their parents’ choice”.
A custom that came from Africa, where it is practiced equally by Moslems, Christians and animists, excision is not much practiced in the Middle East. The Iraqi Kurds themselves would be unable to say when the practice was introduced into their society. Questioned by AFP, Sheikh Sayyed Ahmad Abdel Wahab al-Punjawini, Imam of Irbil’s Hajj Jamal Mosque confirms: “It’s an old custom but has nothing to do with Islam. No religious text mentions the practice. It is a custom that some people have introduced into Moslem modes of thought”. In the daily paper Hawlati, the General Secretary of the Islamic Women’s Union also speaks out against excision and denies its religious character. “Genital mutilations of women are not Moslem practices. Many of the problems women have to face result from mistaken traditions — it is not Islam that is to blame. The Sharia has nothing to do with such practices. Excision exists because some people have wrongly interpreted the Quran”
Excision is not practiced in the rest of Iraq, nor by the Kurds of Turkey and of Syria but it exists in the areas of Iranian Kurdistan adjoining Iraqi Kurdistan. The motives often invoked are both religious and hygienic, some Shafeyite jurists (a Judicial trend to which most Sunni Kurds adhere) having considered that the term “sinut” (circumcision) also applied to female excision.
A group of members of the Irbil parliament are thus proposing a Bill that aims to make excision a criminal office in line with that on violence to women. As M.P. Hala Suheil explains: “The Kurdish Parliament is at present thinking about the phenomenon of violence exercised against women, so we are preparing two Bills aimed in this direction — one of ban and criminalise excision, the other against violence in general perpetrated on women”. For this woman M.P.: “This practice is so ancient in the region that we have no idea how it appeared here. However, the old people justify it by saying that preserves the chastity of young girls”. Unlike the Minister of Health, Dr. Suheil, a member of the Irbil Parliament, considers that there are no reliable figures regarding its extent, but condemns the conditions under which it is practiced. “The old women excise young girls with razor blades or sometimes even pieces of broken glass, often causing terrible haemorrhages and sometimes death”.
On 9 November, a huge demonstration brought to over 50,000 Alevis to Ankara from all over Turkey. While their demands are not new, the extent of this movement of protest (opportunely — or opportunistically! — supported by the opposition parties like the CHP) is a first ever in the country.
For decades the Alevis have demanded to be recognised as a religious minority, which would mean that their children could escape being subjected to compulsory classes on Islamic religion at school, that their places of worship, the cemevi, could be really recognised as such and, above all, that they would no longer be supervised by the Diyanet, the Directorate of Religious affairs. The demonstrators also demand that the Madimak Hotel, at Sivas, in which 37 Alevis intellectuals died in 1993, as a result of a bigoted act of arson, be transformed into a memorial museum.
Although the Alevis, both Turkish and Kurdish, traditionally vote for secular or left-wing parties, many of them had voted AKP at the last elections, largely because of the intolerant and sectarian stand taken up by the leader of the CHP (“centre-left kemalist”), Deniz Baykal, and also because the rising tide of extreme-right nationalism is, invariably, accompanied by aggressive acts against all religious minorities, especially Christian and Alevi. However, in this area as in so many others, the AKP has disappointed its electors, who had expected from the government significant reforms and a modernisation of the treatment of minorities. The presence of Prime Minister at the dinner to celebrate the ending of the Alevi fast in January 2008 has clearly not sufficed to sooth their anger. The Alevis are estimated to be 10 to 12 million strong in Turkey and the European Union has unceasingly reminded the Turkish State that it should finally grant them the cultural and religious rights the demand by recognising that Alevism is not just “a branch of Islam”, even though Shiite, to quote the official credo.
However the Alevis have a variety of ethnic origins and political beliefs and are not completely agreed in their demands. The Ankara demonstration was organised by the Baktashi Alevi Federation that Izzetin Dogan accuses of being more Marxist and pro-Kurdish than Alevi. Other Alevi associations and movements demand that, filing the suppression of the Diyanet, a special office be created within that institution, run by and for the Alevis. This would allow some recognition, even if only partial, of the specificity of the Alevi cult and, especially, make the State pay the dede (Alevi clerics), as is done for the orthodox Moslem Imams, as well as official recognition of their places of worship and subsidies for their upkeep.
This position of compromise, however, is criticised by those Alevi movements that refuse to be identified as Moslems. The Alevis that openly claim to be pro-Kurdish or else of extreme left sympathies often clash with the Kemalist sympathisers, such as the President of the Cem Foundation, Izzetin Dogan, who wants the Alevis to remain inside the Diyanet. This leads his opponents to accuse him to be simply seeking the job of head of the Alevi Office in the Directorate of Religious Affairs.
The suppression of the Directorate of Religious Affairs and the Islamic lessons in school are, in any case dismissed by the Minister of State concerned, Mustafa Said Yazicioglu, as “extremist” positions to which he refuses to give any credibility. Defining his ideas he recalls that the Directorate of Religious Affairs was one of Ataturk’s most important creations, an original legacy of the Kemalist State, which the Minister affirms is a model for the rest of the Moslem world: “Delegations from the whole Islamic world (…) come to Turkey to study the system of this Directorate so as to create similar institutions”.
Far from easing, repression is hardening still further in Sanandaj, the capital of the province of Kurdistan in Iran. Yasser Goli, General Secretary of the Union of Kurdish Students, was arrested on the thirteenth of the month by the Sanandaj branch of the Secret Service. The Second Chamber of Sanandaj’s Islamic Revolutionary Court has just sentenced him to 15 years imprisonment to the indignation of his lawyer, Nemat Ahmadi: “The verdict and sentence handed down by the Court is only ten lines long! This verdict by the court, which is supposed to be based on Article 168 of the Islamic Penal Code, does not refer to any proof or evidence of any facts established against my client, Yasser Goli. At no time, at any of his interrogations or during his appearance in Court has he acknowledged being guilty of anything whatsoever”.
At the moment we have counted 15 students imprisoned in Iraq, including one sentenced to death and three others sentenced to between 6 and 16 years imprisonment. Still in Sanandaj, the Islamic Revolutionary High Court has confirmed the sentence of 3 years imprisonment on Khazur Rasul Morut. Khazur Rasul Morutis a student of literature at the city’s university and also a Kurdish language teacher. Another student, Werya Meruti, was arrested at home and taken to an unknown place of detention. Aged 25 years, he studied at the Payname Nur University. Two other young Kurds, Pejman Zafari and Peyman Hosseini, arrested a few months earlier have been released on bail of 30 million tomans. Two Kurdish students, this time detained in Teheran’s Evin Prison, who have started a hunger strike have been placed in solitary confinement and have been continually interrogated for the last 3 weeks.
As well as students, Kurdish journalists continue to be harassed, arrested and imprisoned. Bahman Tutunchi was arrested at home in Sanandaj, without any reasons for it being given or the place of detention being revealed. “The officers remained silent about the reasons for his arrest or his place of detention. He was not even given time to change out of his pyjamas into his clothes, or to pick up his glasses”, said a relative who was present. Bahman Tutunchi is a free-lance journalist who had worked with the weekly review Karaflou, banned last year.
Furthermore, a curfew has been imposed on Sanandaj since 19 November and para-military Bassiji militia patrol the streets of the town centre and the busiest streets of its various quarters as from 8 p.m.
The Kurdish film director, Jamil Rostmi was awarded the prize of the “best international director” at the Boston Festival for his film Jani Gal.
Jami Rostami was born in1971, in the city of Sanandaj, the capital of the Iranian province of Kurdistan. While studying Chemistry, he moved in cinema circles since the age of 16, either in camera or directing teams. In 2002, he directed his first short film in the Kurdish language “The problem of being a boy”, that was shown at several local and international film festivals and which won several prizes. His first full-length film “Requiem in the snow” was directed in 2005 with music by Fariborz Lachini, one of the best composers of film music in Iran. The chief cameraman was Morteza Poursamadi, a renowned Iranian photographer. Jointly produced by Iraq and Iran, the film “Requiem in the snow” represented Iraq for the foreign film Oscars.
Jani Gal, his latest film, also in Kurdish, is inspired by a novel written by the Kurdish writer and political figure Ibrahim Ahmad, the father-in-law of the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. The story takes place in Suleimaniah in the 1940s. Jwamer has just been released from prison after having been arrested and detained for several years in error. As his wide, Kaleh, was just beginning labour, he was accidentally caught up in a political demonstration as he was going to fetch the mid-wife. Arrested and taken in by the police who took him for one of the organisers, he was sentenced to ten years jail. Once free he started to search for his wife and son, from whom he had received no news. But he was also driven to choose between taking up his old style of life or joining the Peshmergas.
While the Kurdish cinema was receiving a prize in Boston, it was censored in a most unexpected manner in Switzerland, in a Festival that, this year, was half financed by the Turkish Ministry of Culture. The latter threatened to stop all subsidies if the film “Gitmek” (My Marlon and my Brando) by the Kurdish film director Huseyin Karabey was screen as planned. The organisers of “CultureScape”, who had chosen Turkey as guest of honour and partner, were, therefore obliged to alter the programme at the last minute. Jurriaan Cooiman, the General manager of the Festival did not deny being pressurized: “Perhaps I shouldn’t have compromised”, he admitted “but I wanted to save the Festival. Without the 400,000 euros from Turkey it could not have taken place”.
Jurriaan Cooiman warned the Turkish Ministry of Culture’s representative that this demand would do more harm than good to the country’s image. He also considers that the order to censor did not come from the top levels of the State and stresses the political and security “nervousness” that can bee seen at the moment in the country. The Turkish Ambassador in Bern took a stand on the Friday by making the point that he did not shared the criticism of the programme by “certain circles” saying that he had tried to serve as mediator.
“Gitmek” is the story of a Turkish woman falling in love with a Kurd in Northern Iraq. Some Cinemas in Bale, Zurich and Bern decided off their own bats to screen the film outside the Festival.