In Iraq, reality of religion bucks stereotypes

by Jenn Buck | 4/16/04 5:00am

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a multi-part series chronicling a student reporter's time spent in Kurdistan, located in northern Iraq. The Dartmouth was one of the few news organizations in the province, covering news there over the past three weeks. Today, the reporter provides readers with a first-person account of what she witnessed.

ERBIL, Iraq -- One of the most prominent features of news coverage coming out of Iraq in recent weeks has been persistent references to religion.

Insurgent groups are identified by their religious sect before any other characteristic. The Sunnis are fighting here, the Shi'a are rallying there -- and that's the way Americans get news about Iraq.

But does reporting that a Sunni group, for example, staged a protest and five Americans were killed, somehow imply that their religious beliefs are connected to their political and military ambitions?

Is that necessarily the case? Do Islamic militants act the way they do because they are Islamic, per se?

A fellow journalist posed the question to this correspondent of why Islam instills such values of violence in its followers, and how I perceived that when I was there.

I was taken aback. I realized that one of the things I had learned in Kurdistan is that religion, however important in the lives of individuals, was largely irrelevant on a political level.

In the small town of Ainkawa, there is the steeple of a Catholic church rising above the horizon just a few blocks down from a mosque. In downtown Erbil there are religious artifact shops selling paintings of Jesus.

In one family's living room I sat down on the floor to a traditional Kurdish supper of lamb and rice, looking up at a tapestry depicting the Last Supper.

Because I have been raised on American media coverage of the Middle East, I arrived in Iraq with the predetermined notion that members of different religions or sects are necessarily in conflict with one another all the time.

But in Kurdistan, this is distinctly not the case.

I asked a local man why Muslims weren't fighting with Christians.

He looked at me and laughed.

"These people have been living side-by-side for thousands of years," he said. And it's true. Erbil is one of the oldest civilizations in the world that is still standing. And there are three main groups who live there: Kurds, Assyrians and Turkomen.

Each is a distinct ethnicity with its own language and religion. Kurdish schools have to teach lessons in shifts to accommodate different languages -- Kurdish in the morning, then Assyrian or Turkoman in the afternoon.

Even more confusing, Assyrians and Turkomen have little to do with Syria or Turkey. They are separate minority populations living within Kurdistan.

In recent decades, Kurds have fought invasion from Saddam Hussein and Iran and have clashed amongst themselves in civil war.

But I couldn't find anyone who could tell me about fighting between groups -- or religions -- within Kurdistan.

I had the privilege of staying for several days in the home of Kurdish Peshmerga army Major Helmi, a serious-faced Muslim man who had been a warrior most of his life.

When I first set foot in his home, I noticed that everything was incredibly neat and sparsely decorated. The refrigerator was near empty, and there were no pictures on the walls.

Helmi had no shortage of weaponry, however. On the living room table he had an Italian-made "grease gun," a short assault rifle that can be tucked under one arm.

Next to his bed he kept a Tariq 9-mm double-action handgun. On one side was an inscription in Arabic that read something like "this is a gift from Saddam Hussein." Many Kurdish soldiers carried them; I was told that they had been "recovered" from Hussein's former army.

But amidst all the guns, he made me feel safe by being kind and hospitable. Still, when he asked me what my religion was, I was nervous. Should I admit to being not a Muslim? Would that get me in trouble?

But Helmi went through several choices for me. "Issa?" he said in Arabic, meaning Christian. I shook my head.

"Yehudi?" I took that to mean Jewish. I shook my head again.

Traveling alone as a woman in the Muslim Middle East made me put my guard up against questions about my marital status, family and religion. I didn't want to give the "wrong" answer.

But as I talked to him, I realized he was just curious -- not threatening. Then I remembered there was a Catholic church just down the block.

I tried to explain in my limited Arabic that my church accepts all three religions. Satisfied, he nodded his head.

I realized that for him, and most of the Kurds I met, there were certain basic cultural values that were important. Family was one -- everywhere I went people shook their heads when I told them I had no children.

Another important value was religion. Religious artifacts decorated many people's homes.

But over time I began to realize that following one religion was more important than practicing the "correct" one. Or in other words, a morals-oriented family and cultural background.

This doesn't explain why some groups of people claim their religion alongside their political and military beliefs. And it doesn't explain why Sunni and Shi'a groups are fighting with one another and against Americans.

But to me, it illuminated the notion that religion and violence are not necessarily connected. And that the religious identity of any group perpetrating violence -- even if they claim their religion as the reason for the violence -- may not be any more relevant than any other aspect of their identity.

For there are places such as Erbil where ethnic and religious groups far more different from one another than the groups enacting violence in central Iraq live side by side in relative peace, and have for thousands of years.