After another protest turned violent in Iraqi Kurdistan, accusations and allegations are flying. Some say it’s all a government conspiracy, some say it’s religion. And others say that the citizenry are so angry right now, they’ll protest about anything.
Critics of the government in Erbil say that the recent publication of a magazine article that sparked violent protests in the city, was actually part of a plan by local authorities to distract protestors from something far more important.
In early May two years ago, a young freelance journalist, Sardasht Othman, was kidnapped and killed and one of the leaders of the government in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, was accused of involvement in the crime. Only days before his death, Othman had written a satirical piece about the way Barzani exercised power. An investigation was promised but has come to nothing.
And now some allege that the recent magazine article, which was published on May 2, was part of plan to draw attention away from the anniversary of Othman’s death, which in the past, has caused numerous protests.
Their reason for these allegations: the article was written by a Kurdish journalist, Halmat Goran, who is resident in Norway, back in 2010. It was written in reply to a strongly worded argument he was having with Mullah Krekar, the former leader of a Sunni extremist group, Ansar al-Islam.
In March this year the BBC reported that Mullah Krekar - born Najm Faraj Ahmad – was “sentenced to five years in jail in Norway for making death threats against officials and others,” including other Kurds in Norway.
Goran’s article was entitled “Me and God” included a fictional conversation between Goran and God. The article was first published on Goran’s Facebook page in 2010. Yet it was only published by Kurdish magazine only this month and those conspiracy theorists who believe the magazine, Chirpa (or Whisper) has links to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which Barzani heads, say it was all done on purpose.
The article was described as blasphemous and resulted in the magazine’s closure, the arrest of the magazine’s editor and local authorities’ statements on how media freedom should not include blasphemy. It also resulted in protests that began outside a central Erbil mosque turning violent as well as international press freedoms monitor, Reporters Without Borders’ condemnation of the event.
And conspiracy theorists describe the aim of the whole exercise as further limiting freedom of the local press and drawing attention away from the anniversary of young journalist, Othman’s death.
Meanwhile other locals believed that the local Islamic political party, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, was behind the protests, which also saw secular businesses, such as liqueur shops and clubs attacked. Protestors also attacked a television channel – Zagros TV, which belongs to the KDP. Some say this was because the channel recently started to broadcast a show that is considered too secular – other’s think it’s because the channel is affiliated with the ruling political party.
Recently there’s been increasing conflict between the two parties that rule Iraqi Kurdistan and the Islamic parties, which make up some of their most noticeable opposition. These protests were seen as another way of allowing the Islamic politicians to criticise the ruling parties.
And finally, there is one other theory about the protests. The people in the region are simply so fed up with the corruption they see within their government that they need to vent their anger somehow. Protests planned for the anniversary of February 2011 demonstrations that turned violent were scuppered due to strong security around cities in Iraqi Kurdistan.
But as local journalist Poula Kakal says: “those security measures made people suppress their anger. But they are still eager to find a way to protest. The most important thing for the people of Erbil is that they get a chance to protest. Even if there is no specific reason – they just want to vent their anger against the authorities.”
Kakal doesn’t agree that there are religious motives behind the demonstrations. “There were people among the protestors who had never prayed in their lives,” Kakal argues. “They were just joining in to vent their anger.”
Kamran Mantak, a professor of political science at Erbil's Salahaddin University, agrees with this theory. “The security forces may have been able to disperse the demonstrators but they were not able to ease the people’s anger,” Mantak says. “People in Erbil and elsewhere are protesting to vent their feelings, under the guise of religion.”
“And sooner or later,” Kakal forecasts, “the protests will start again. Nobody knows what will set them off again.”