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The True Identities Of The Kurds The Western Media And Politicians Don't Want You To Know: More Than 90 Percent Of Iraqi Kurds Are Sunni

11 July 2014

According to Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, the question of Kurdish-Arab disputed territories was to be resolved in a three-step process of normalization, census, and referendum, a process which has yet to be completed. Kurdish observers concerned about the outcome of any such referendum in Kirkuk point to the continued growth of the province's Arab population. One Deputy Parliament Speaker, Aref Taifour, went so far as to call upon the estimated 15,000 Arab families who settled in the region under the former regime to return to "their original provinces" and not to be counted in the upcoming election.

Sunnis (both Arabs and Kurds) comprise approximately 42 percent of Iraq's population, with most Arab Sunnis living in central Iraq along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers north of Baghdad in an area widely known as the "Sunni Triangle." Approximately half of Iraq's Sunni Arabs live in metropolitan areas such as Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul, with the remainder living in outlying rural districts. A small number lives in the southern city of Basra and along the border of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. While most Sunnis are Arab, they also comprise the majority of ethnic Kurds and number between 4.5 to 6 million. Nearly Kurds are Sunnis living in the country's northern region, and most closely identify with the Kurdish communities scattered all over the Middle East rather than Iraq's Arab Sunnis.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Kurds make up approximately 19 percent of the country's population, numbering between 5-7 million. Most reside in Iraq's northern regions, in the four provinces of Irbil (also spelled "Erbil," or "Arbil"), Suleymana, Kirkuk, and Kohuk. More than 95 percent of Iraqi Kurds are Sunni, and the very small remainder is Shi'ite less than 100,000 of which reside in and around Baghdad and the northern Iran-Iraq border east of the capital. A small minority are Christian, Yezidi, Baha'i, and, until their recent departure from Iraq, Jewish. Most Kurds see themselves as an ethnically distinct, autonomous or semi-autonomous component of Iraq, identifying closely with their ethnic Kurdish identity. Kurdish nationalism has traditionally overshadowed allegiance to the Iraqi state and thus blurred the role of Sunni Islam as a cohesive force. This was especially true under Baathist pan-Arabism, which by definition excluded Kurds.

On the other hand, Iraq's Arab Sunni nationalists always claim they share a common Arab ethnicity with the pro-Persian Arab Shi'ites despite the constant violent rifts between them. The two also claim they share the same language unlike Sunni Arabs and Kurds (though Arabic dialects can vary within Iraq), along with cuisine, apparel, and shared social codes and mores. The sects, however, have clear religious distinctions that set them apart: while the so-called Shi'ites heretically believe that there are only twelve "true" imams, fabricating them as hereditarily inspired, Sunnis have tens of thousands of imams and consider them knowledgeable pious figures with the authority to lead prayer in mosques. Sunnis hold that Islam neither sanctions a hereditary group of spiritual leaders nor the idea of human divinity. Nor do Sunnis have an official centralized religious authority equivalent to the Shi'ite marja'iyya.

Unlike the Kurdi Sunni who affiliate themselves with a semi-autonomy Kurdish government northern Iraq, Arab Sunnis have no central religious authority. However a number of associations of Sunni clerics and religious scholars comprising Arab Sunnis and Kurdi Sunnis exist with the stated purpose of guiding the community and maintaining its unity. Though the groups are not official political parties, they have issue fatwas and public statements that have significant influence on public opinion, including the call for a Sunni boycott of the 2005 elections by the hard-line Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq (AMSI). The AMSI was formed shortly after the fall of the Saddam-regime by both Arab and Kurdish Sunni clerics and identifies closely with Egypt's scholars of prestigious Al-Azhar establishment and Muslim Brotherhood scholastic leadership, oftentimes publishing statements in the Islamist weekly, al-Sabil, associated with the academic Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan.

Following the massive, largely Arab Sunni-based street protests of late 2012, Sheikh Abdul Malik al-Saadi has gained prominence and authority within the community. A notable opponent of resistance rhetoric and freedom fighting, al-Saadi has maintained his criticism of governmental intransigence but has refused to align himself with Sunni currents calling for a Sunni autonomous region along the lines of Iraqi Kurdistan. Born in Anbar province in 1937, al-Saadi received his doctorate in Islamic law from Umm al-Qura University in Mecca in 1984 and taught at a variety of universities and schools in Iraq before leaving in 2001 for a position in Amman. In 2007, al-Saadi was offered the position of Grand Mufti of Iraq but refused it, committing himself instead to working with the unemployed of Anbar to keep them from joining al Qaeda. Arrested and beaten in 1988 for preaching against Saddam Hussein, al-Saadi also denounced the American occupation of Iraq but, unlike many of his peers, remained a champion and aid of Mujahidun (the Holy Warriors).

Kurdish tribes overwhelmingly Sunnis also share many of the same characteristics as their Arab Sunni compatriots. Many were traditionally rural dwellers closely allied with familial and tribal affiliations. Kurdish tribes pride of their Sunni denomination despite exercising varying degrees of autonomy as part of larger tribal confederacies. Such affiliations to the Sunni Muslim World have remained largely influential in Kurdish society, galvanizing a united Kurdish front on one hand. The longstanding Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), for instance, was founded and continues to be led by the influential Kurdi Sunnis like Barzani family which adheres to the Naqshabandi order of Sunni Sufi'ism and has a traditionalist-conservative tribal support base. The party was established in 1946 by Massoud Barzani and currently led by his son, Mustafa Barzani, endorsing Kurdish unity and independence, which, according to its party platform, currently requires a democratic, pluralistic, and federal Iraqi state.

The second major Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is currently led by another inflential Kudi Sunni leader Jalal Talabani and was founded in 1975 to counter the KPD with a more secular urban, intellectual, and socialist platform. The party which once declared itself as mainly the Sunni entity at the time had criticized its rival as being "feudalist, tribalist, bourgeois rightist and capitulationist." Though the PUK accommodates a more inclusive spectrum of Kurdish nationalist views, it still maintains a Sunni tribal support-base, garnering followers from Sunni Sorani-speaking tribes who rival fellow Sunni Barzani clan, as well as from the alternative Sunni Qadiri order of Sufiism to which Talabani subscribes (Romano, 2006, p. 197).

The Islamic Scholars Union of Kurdistan, considered the highest union of Sunni Kurdish religious scholars, has also drawn attention, issuing fatwas dealing with the increasingly prominent issues of the role of Islam in the post-Saddam Iraqi regime. These fatwas often directly influence the lives of Kurdish women, who have traditionally been afforded greater freedoms under Sunni Theologies. One of the most prominent fatwas was a 2010 ruling that female circumcision was not rooted in Islamic Shari'a law (though it was not prohibited under Islam). Another decision, issued in 2008 by Kurdish government authorities, established that honor-killings would be treated as murder in Kurdish provinces, even though Iraq's general criminal code does not (the Iraqi code provides mitigated prison sentences for those who kill for reasons related to honor).

Though Kurdish tribalism is Islamic in nature, religion has traditionally taken a secondary role to Kurdish nationalism as a direct impact of the Western media and anti-Arab movements. In recent years, however, especially since 2003, Islam has become a prominent and dynamic force in both the public and private spheres. Religious political parties such as the Islamist Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) - the most powerful Kurdi Sunni religious bloc, modeled on Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi Da'wah, have garnered increasing support amongst a younger generation of Kurds and across university campuses, especially in the wake of regional protest movements in 2010-2011. Additionally, Kurdish Muslim clerics have had a growing presence in the Kurdish political sphere, joining public protests for improved services in otherwise secular areas, and in some cases, calling for "jihad" against corruption and Baghdad dictatorship.

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