Not so widely known, since the 2010-2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, has been the citizens’ protest movement in the Kurdish Region of north-eastern Iraq.
Starting on 17 February 2011 in Suleimaniya, it has been a mostly nonviolent one, calling for a basic restructuring of the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) ruled by two family-run parties, for ridding it of rampant corruption, and establishing [the] basic rule of law.
Even more unexpected to some, has been the prophetic voice of a religious leader, Mamosta Mullah Kamaran Ali Khwarham, who was imprisoned twice in this mostly secular movement involving artists, students, journalists, and educators, as well as common labourers.
In his speeches at the demonstrations, Mullah Kamaran called for a revolution without violence—a jihad. He urged the armed militias to put down their guns. He appealed to the demonstrators to see the soldiers as their brothers and not throw rocks or hurt them.
“The jihad I am speaking about is not a violent struggle or a struggle of believers against non-believers, but the nonviolent struggle of truth and justice against corruption and injustice.”
“I felt responsible to go to the demonstrations after the violent response of the authorities to the protesters on 17 February,” Mullah Kamaran said.
He continued: “I wanted to let the protesters know that they are not alone, that some of the religious leaders are with them. There’s a passage in the Holy Qur'an that says if you see those in power oppress the poor, but you remain silent and don’t do something about it, you are standing with the powerful. Islam teaches us that there is no justice without freedom and freedom brings justice.”
Throughout the 62 days of demonstrations and strikes, the government tried to crush the movement by kidnapping, beating, imprisoning, and torturing protesters and journalists, and burning down an independent media station. The open demonstrations in the city ended on 18 April 18 2011, when the two main ruling parties, the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) sent in security forces to brutally clear and take over the city square.
Within days, party authorities sent up to 10,000 soldiers in to occupy the central part of the city. Many protesters and protest leaders have been rounded up and arrested or beaten. Other cities in the KRG, such as Rania, Halubja, Kalar, Qaladze and Chamchamal, which also had demonstrations, experienced similar crackdowns.
Mullah Kamaran explained that the ruling leaders often sent in provocateurs to throw stones, after which security forces responded by firing into the crowd. They created violence in order to try to discredit and stop the protests.
“But the authorities took my words and twisted them to use against me. “They picked out the word, jihad and made it look like I was advocating for violence,” he explained.
“Government leaders threatened me. Anti-terrorist forces came to my house, put a mask on my head and arrested me. They took me to jail and tortured me after charging me with encouraging people to participate in illegal demonstrations.”
When he was charged under the anti-terrorism law, which could have brought the death penalty, local pro bono Kurdish lawyers, local protest leaders, and members of international human rights organisations, the Christian Peacemaker Teams and Amnesty international, helped put pressure on authorities for his release.
After listening to his whole speech recorded by KNN-TV, in which it was clear he was calling for a peaceful struggle, the judge reduced his case to a civil charge and he was fined and released.
Coming from a lower class farming family, Mullah Kamaran has long felt the pain of the poorer workers. From his youth, he was gifted as a mediator. He felt compelled to stand with those with little power and to speak out concerning social, economic, or political problems in society.
He spoke harshly about the support the powerful countries of the west gave to corrupt and dictatorial leaders here and around the world, thus allowing them to crush their people. “The US has two faces,” he said. “They promote democracy for their own people and dictatorships for the rest of us, to serve their purposes.”
“You must put pressure on your government to stop supporting the violence and corruption of our government,” he pleaded. “Please help your people see that there are many people outside your country who do not have the freedom to demonstrate as they do. Help them to want this freedom for all.”
Although the movement in Suleimaniya has now pulled back from public action, Mullah Kamaran has presented a strong voice of direction and hope in the struggle for a more just society in this area of the Middle East.
(c) Peggy Gish has worked with Christian Peaceamaker Teams on a long-term basis.