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The Northern Mosaic: Peoples and Faiths of North Iraq

Although the US appears to be initially facing somewhat greater challenges from various Shi`ite groups in southern Iraq (See the Lead Story), the complexity of peoples in northern Iraq remains a long-term challenge that could prove extremely volatile, particularly given the longstanding ambitions of the Kurds and the possibility of Turkish intervention. In Part 1 of this Dossier, we examined the ethnic groups of northern Iraq -- Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and smaller groups -- and noted that these sometimes overlapped with religious community. Part 2 looks more closely at the religious mosaic in northern Iraq, and at the potential for outside intervention.

As noted in Part 1, most of Iraq's Kurds are Sunnis (though a few are Shi`ite); yet they come from a different legal school (madhhab) of Sunnism than do Iraq's Sunni Arabs, since the Kurds are Shaf`i and most Iraqi Arabs who are Sunni belong to the Hanafi school. But Kurdish Muslim identity is more closely linked to Sufi mystical orders than to orthodox legal schools, and some of these Sufi mystical orders may include members who are not Muslims at all but members of one of the syncretistic sects of northern Iraq. For like many mountain regions of the Middle East, northern Iraq is one of those areas where small, almost fossilized communities continue to exist, with their roots veiled deep in history and their beliefs often secret to protect them from persecution by the majority.

There is some overlap, and there is considerable room for argument about how to categorize the religious groups of northern Iraq. Almost no one has ever considered the Yazidis, for example, to be Muslims, since they have a very distinct set of religious beliefs and since many Muslims denounce them as "devil-worshippers"; yet other small groups, such as the `Ali-Ilahis, have very similar beliefs to the Yazidis but are sometimes classed as extremely heterodox Muslims. This Dossier does not seek to get into such debates about classification, but the very fact that sometimes a given group can be considered one thing and other times another may have something to do with the confusion about how many belong to each group. Are there 100,000 Yazidis? That would seem to be on the high end of most estimates, but some Yazidi authors have claimed they number 800,000, though not entirely in Iraq. Numbers will not be cited very frequently in this Dossier precisely because it is so hard to come up with reliable statistics.

Muslim Groups For northern Iraq, most mainstream Muslims (leaving out some of the small syncretist groups) are Sunnis, though there are some Shi`ites, either Kurds (particularly along the Iranian border), or Arabs resettled from southern Iraq as part of the Arabization program. As noted, Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds belong to difference legal schools of Sunnism.

But among the Kurds in particular, the fact that one is a Sunni of the Shaf`i legal school is usually of importance only to religious scholars. Far more important are the traditional identification of tribal groups with one of the major Sufi mystical orders. Sufism is not a sect -- there are Sunni Sufis and Shi`ite Sufis -- but an approach to religious practice and devotion, often associated with membership in a particular "order" (tariqa) following certain specific ceremonial practices and faithful to the teachings and rituals of a (sometimes hereditary) chain of sheikhs. In a few areas of the Islamic world, Sufism and specific Sufi orders have had profound impact; among these areas are Central Asia and the Caucasus, plus Kurdistan. Often, in all these areas, the sheikh of a Sufi order was also the military leader of tribes which might resist the power of the central government. We are not speaking of remote medieval events here: the Barzanis who have led the Kurdistan Democratic Party in the past century are hereditary sheikhs of the Naqshbandi order.

There are Sufi orders among the Shi`ite Kurds as well as the Sunnis, and the Nurbakhshi order is one of the most influential there. But among Sunni Kurds, the two major orders are the Qadiri and the Naqshbandi. The Qadiri take their name from their founder, the 12th century sheikh `Abd al-Qadir al-Gailani (Gilani, Khaylani). The other order, the Naqshbandi, was founded at Bukhara in Central Asia in the 14th Century by Baha' al-Din Naqshband, and introduced into Kurdistan more recently, really taking hold only in the early 19th century under the influence of a particularly charismatic leader.

The two orders tend to divide geographically: to the northern and western parts of Iraqi Kurdistan one finds mostly Naqshbandis; to the east and south, Qadiris. These divisions also follow tribal lines. As already noted, the Barzani family, leaders of the KDP, are hereditary Sufi masters as well as political leaders. The Talabani tribe of Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), are Qadiris, though the Talabani leadership of the PUK, unlike the Barzanis in the KDP, is not itself from a line of Sufi sheikhs.

It needs to be emphasized that the real distinctions here are not doctrinal, but involve religious practices and a sense of belonging to a larger organization; the practices may include dancing and chanting, meditation, and the like, with some rituals characteristic of the particular order. The fundamental structure of a Sufi order, in which the murid or follower is loyal to a sheikh or master, fits neatly into a basically tribal society, and has often been the reason that Sufi masters could become powerful rebel chieftains, since they have a following of loyalists already in place. If those loyalists also happen to belong to the same tribe, the bonds of loyalty are reinforced. Thus the Barzanis -- Ahmad, Mustafa, and now Mas`ud have been both religious and political/military leaders of their region.

Thus, too, the longstanding split between the KDP and the PUK has multiple levels of identity: it is a split between rival political organizations, and between the personalities of Mas`ud Barzani and Jalal Talabani; but it also reflects the division between Naqshbandi and Qadiri, tribal divisions, and even dialect areas of Kurdish.

The Christians Most estimates today put the total Christian population of Iraq at about 3% of the country's 26 million people. It was once considerably larger; persecution, the Assyrian massacres of 1933, and hopes for a better life have led many Iraqi Christians to emigrate. Though a small community, the Christians have often been influential, and as most people probably know, the one powerful Christian in the Saddam Hussein regime was Deputy Prime Minister Tariq `Aziz, a Chaldean Catholic. Some have suggested that `Aziz' long survival was in part due to the fact that, since a Christian will never be the leader of a 97% Muslim country, he posed no threat to Saddam.

Christianity spread early to northern Mesopotamia. The Kingdom of Adiabene, which had in fact had Jewish rulers at the time of Christ, became Christianized early; the faith also spread into the mountains to the north, and Armenians are always noting that they were the first kingdom to make Chrsitianity official, some years before Constantine in the Roman Empire. In the debates over the nature of Christ which split the early Christian councils and created lasting divisions, the churches of what is now Iraq belonged to the so-called "Nestorian" tendency, denounced as heretical by both the "Orthodox" and "Monophysite" sides of the controversy. (All three groups considered themselves orthodox of course; "Nestorian" and "Monophysite" were terms used by their rivals, and today most believers of each group believe the original dispute was one of misunderstanding and semantics, not of fundamental faith.) The so-called Nestorian Church also was divided from the other Christian churches loyal to Rome or Constantinople by being behind the boundary of the Parthian Empire; it therefore developed separately, and in fact carried out extensive missionary activities throughout Asia, including India and China.

The heir of historic Nestorianism is the church which today calls itself the Assyrian Church of the East. It is headed by a Patriarch. As noted in the last issue, some of the members of the Assyrian Church still speak Aramaic as their first language; this is particularly true of those who migrated out of what is now eastern Turkey during the First World War. The majority, however, speak Arabic or in some cases Kurdish.

Beginning in the 15th century, some members of the Church of the East came under the influence of Roman Catholic missionaries. Over time, as disputes over the patriarchate arose, more bishops of the Church of the East recognized Rome, and an "Eastern Rite" of the Catholic Church was formed, the Chaldean Catholic Church. Like other Eastern Rites, it maintains its distinct liturgy and customs but recognizes the Pope as the head of the Church. The Chaldeans came by the 19th century to outnumber the independent "Nestorian" Church of the East, and today Chaldeans are the largest Christian denomination in Iraq. Its patriarch bears the title Patriarch of Babylon. In recent years there has been much dialogue between the Assyrian and Chaldean churches, both facing pressure from the overwhelming Muslim majority.

There are other Christian groups present as well, though the Assyrians and Chaldeans are the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Christians. The Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Church, and other Middle Eastern Christian denominations are also represented. These are most often identified with specific ethnic communities, or, in the cases of some of the Syrian Orthdox, near the borders.

Under Saddam Hussein, the Christians generally did not fare any worse than other Iraqis generally; there was no religious pressure on them from the government, and many saw the regime as a protector and patron.

Jews Baghdad may have been 20% Jewish at one time, but at the time of Israel's creation there were major efforts to bring Iraqi Jews to Israel. Still, Judaism has ancient roots in Mesopotamia, where the Bible says Abraham was born, and where the Babylonian captivity took place; there were Jewish kingdoms in northern Mesopotamia in the first century AD, and a flourishing community in Baghdad as well as smaller communities elsewhere.

The number of Jews still living in Iraq is unclear. During the war, one Iraqi Jew arrived in Israel and was quoted in the Israeli media as saying that there were only 35 Jews still living in Iraq, but this number seems to have referred to the regions under Saddam's control. There has long been a significant Kurdish-speaking Jewish community in the north, and while most of those, too, have migrated to Israel (one can find Kurdish restaurants in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem), it is believed that some remain behind in the Kurdish autonomous zone.

The Other Sects Like many mountain regions, northern Iraq has been a haven for small, heterodox belief communities which might have been exterminated long ago in an urban environment. The Yazidis and some other small groups in northern Iraq (and the Mandaeans in southern Iraq) are examples of these. Their numbers are not great (a few hundred thousand at most) and are hard to determine because most of these small, syncretistic faiths have at least some external elements resembling Islam, members may also belong to Sufi orders, and may list themselves as Muslim on official documents. (Similarly, the Mandaeans in the south, who are not discussed in this survey of the north, call themselves the "Christians of Saint John the Baptist", though they are not considered Christian by Christian communities.)

In the north, one finds the Kurdish-speaking Yazidis; farther to the south and east but still in northern Iraq there are pockets of a heterodox movement called the Ahl-e Haqq (People of the Truth), though they are increasingly seen as merely extremist Shi`ites; in Iraq can also be found elements of the `Ali-Ilahis (literally, those who deify `Ali). All these groups are syncretistic and have incorporated some elements of Zoroastrianism, bits of ancient nature religions, and (especially in the latter two cases), elements of Shi`ite Islam. The influence has run both ways, and the Isma`ili sect of Islam, in particular, has drawn upon many of the same roots. The Druze, in Lebanon and Syria, likewise incorporate some of these features.

Despite some superficial Islamic features such as the veneration of `Ali, however, these faiths generally are quite outside the Muslim tradition. There is a strong emphasis on such elements as reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. There is often a belief in a series of avatars who have come among men, and sometimes these include Muslim figures such as `Ali. There is a strong emphasis on angelic beings, and Yazidism takes its original name from an old Persian word for angel, though its resemblance to the Arabic name Yazid, name of the Caliph who martyred Imam Hussein, has meant that the name has sometimes become a pejorative among Muslims.

The actual belief systems of these faiths seems to have changed greatly through the centuries, accommodating itself to a more Islamic environment. A central figure of Yazidi belief is Malak Ta'us, the "Angel Peacock", a bird image; misunderstanding of certain aspects of this veneration have led to charges among Christian and Muslim neighbors that the Yazidis worship the devil.

These are tiny groups for the most part (the Yazidis are the largest of these groups in Iraq, but their numbers are hard to judge, perhaps as many as 100,000). Because their doctrines are secretive and their syncretist nature means that there are extensive borrowings of superficially Islamic elements such as veneration of `Ali, and because elements of some of these ideas have crept into Isma`ilism, some Sufi orders, and other Muslim traditions, it can be very hard to define exactly what an individual or group believes.

The Yazidis are also found in neighboring countries, with some in Turkey and Syria and others in the Caucasus.

Conflicting Claims As The Estimate has noted for some time and as is already clear from the events which have transpired since Kirkuk and Mosul were taken, the ethnic and religious mosaic of the north is fraught with possibilities for explosion. The Kurds have enjoyed genuine autonomy since 1991, the greatest autonomy they have had in the modern period, and have developed their own institutions and even a separate currency. They are going to be reluctant to give that up in even a loose federation, but no one really expects a federation to be so loose as not to have unified currency. Kurdish ambitions for self-rule have largely been realized in the Kurdish zone, and may now have to accommodate itself to the realities of coming again under some form of control from Baghdad.

The bigger problem lies in Kirkuk and Mosul. It was part of Saddam's policy of Arabization to replace Kurds who had fled or been forcibly removed with Arabs; now the Kurds are back and demanding their old homes and fields again. This may ultimately require legal action (the relevant laws are often from the Ottoman era), and the US (assuming it remains as an occupying power for at least a period) may have to find a way to satisfy all parties.

The Turkmen are another issue. They insist that Kirkuk and Mosul are Turkish cities, Arabized by Saddam and wrongly claimed by the Kurds. Turkey has made itself the unofficial protector of Iraq's Turkmen, and has made clear it will not accept Kurdish land grabs in the two cities. (As we have noted previously, as recently as 1995, then-Turkish President S├╝leyman Demirel asserted that Mosul was rightfully Turkish, and the issue of the border kept London and Ankara fencing for much of the 1920s. Though few expect revival of an outright Turkish claim, the Turks intend to keep a close watch on what happens in the north.)

This two-part Dossier has not by any means exhausted the complexities of northern Iraq. There are few real experts (one would need, at a minimum, a knowledge of both Arabic and Kurdish, while Turkish and even Aramaic would help). But the new occupying power may be wishing very soon that it could find a few.

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