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The Shabak - A Brief Overview

Klaas Glenewinkel
While the main focus of the media - inside Iraq and abroad - is on the "big three" ethno-sectarian groups (Sunni Arabs, Shi'ite Arabs, Kurds) the countries diverse minorities often only appear in the margins or are…

The Shabak are descendants of the Aryan tribes that came from Azerbaijan, then a part of the Persian Empire, and settled in the plains of Mosul, mingling and intermarrying with some of the Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen tribes, fighting with others. This formed a unique population, although the phenomenon of intermarrying and assimilation is common across all of Iraqi society. The Shabak are distributed across the Mosul plains in an area shaped like an inverted triangle. Their approximately 70 villages form a crescent, or belt-shape that surrounds the city of Mosul. Most Shabak inhabitants, around 400-450.000 people, inhabit these villages and also live in the center of Mosul.

The Shabak have basic rights independently of the other tribes in Iraq, and there are many documents and memos published by succeeding Iraqi governments that affirm that the Shabak are an autonomous tribe. In a special decree ordering the search of the Hamdaniyya region, which has a Shabak majority (No 541 from 1952), it was explicitly stated that the Hamdaniyya region was populated by many groups, the most numerous of which are the Shabak, then the Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and Christians. This was an outright declaration from the monarchical Iraqi government that the Shabak are separate from the others. The Shabak also have their own language, which is an Aryan Indo-European one. It is a language in its own right and not a spoken dialect of any other language, with its own vocabulary and pronunciations, despite the fact that words from many other languages have entered into it as a result of the geographical nearness to other ethnic tribes.

The social life of the Shabak is not much different from the social life of the Iraqi population in general, with the exception of the Shabaks' different beliefs, language, customs, traditions, and idiosyncrasies. Economically, the Shabak own vast tracts of agricultural land in the Niniveh valley in addition to breeding livestock and a monopoly over the red-meat trade. In the local market, they own tens of private companies that transport and trade in oil and other commodities within Iraq as well as with the outside world - the fruits of their formation of shareholding companies and corporations, which have all resulted in low unemployment levels in the Shabak community.

Shabak beliefs

The Shabak faith has not been spared distortion and doubt despite it being a part of Islam. Some have gone as far as claiming that they are khawarij (outsiders) from Islam, considering - for sectarian reasons - them to have their own religion, rites and rituals. In truth, the Shabak are all Muslim, their religious book is the Qur'an, and the majority of them (almost 70%) are Twelver Shi'ites. The Sunni Shabak are distributed across the Shabak villages, co-existing peacefully with their Shi'ite brethren in these villages. Most of them are Hanafi and Shafi'i Sunnis. It is worth noting that many Shabak families were influenced by Sufism in the past, particularly the Bektashi order, which has had a great impact upon Shabak society.


At the beginning of the 20th century, the Shabaks suffered from the Turkish Army presence in the region. The army, with the support of feudal lords, imposed heavy dues upon the people (the lords' dues were harsher than the army's). This led to a sizable migration into the city from rural areas. The Shabak suffering continued during the Regency, and most of them were discriminated against for being Shi'ites. This religious tension began to drop in mid-century as a result of growing interaction through trade and social and economic relationships in their areas, and succeeding governments took a gradual concern in their areas, mostly in order to implement policies in their own interests though. On its part, the government finally acknowledged minority rights. When the former regime took over power in 1968 the Shabak were targeted, particularly during the first Gulf War when a lot of them were accused of being Iran loyalists, which is confirmed by the internal service and secret service documents currently in our possession, despite the fact that from among the Shabak came many martyrs, MIA soldiers, hostages and war-wounded veterans during the Iraq-Iran war. Over the past decades, Shabak individuals were forbidden to continue their studies, and banned from important government posts. Even those among them who were Ba'th Party members were not given what they deserved since their loyalties were always doubted. The former regime was not content with all of this, but went beyond this to the level of identity erasure through the implementation of a policy of Arabizing the region, and forcing an Arab identity upon them. On this basis, the government forcibly evacuated over 3,000 Shabak families from their homes after demolishing them before their eyes. This led to the destruction of 30 Shabak villages and the requisition of their land.

Now the Shabak are enduring yet another form of ethnic annihilation and forced migration from Mosul as a result of the war declared by terrorist organizations against them. This has been well-documented, and the Shabak have presented surveys and records to observation groups, human rights organizations, the UN and the Iraqi government. More than 3,000 families have been forcibly exiled according to a survey conducted by the region's various administrative units, and over 500 Shabak individuals have been killed until now.

After 9 April 2003, the Shabak began a political movement in order to fill up the vacuum that had been caused by the policies of previous governments. They were optimistic about regime change in Iraq and they pinned their hopes upon their ability to prove their specificities within the Iraqi social fabric and to get their voices heard and to obtain their legitimate right to preserve their identity. They managed to achieve a number of things, including the establishment of a political entity that represents them both politically and socially within the Iraqi national authority, their representation in the Niniveh provincial council by more than one member, and the appointment of more than one administrative director in the regions where they are the majority. Their political activism has produced a member of parliament in the current national parliament, Dr. Hunein al-Qadu and has also meant that they have been included in the Iraqi constitutional debate along with the other Iraqi ethnic minorities.

The Shabak are on good terms with their Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen, Yazidi and Christian brothers in the region, and historically have had good relationships with these groups. However, this relationship should not be interpreted as one of loyalty or following, or one that would allow others to speak on the Shabak's behalf, particularly since we are talking about a democratic Iraq. Minority groups in Iraq are still suffering from the dominance of large political parties within parliament, which I believe to be the case for minorities worldwide. We hope that these obstacles are short-term ones and that the speeches given in Iraq these days are heartfelt and will be matched by action. We are in need of well-intended efforts to respect minority rights and allow minorities to express their opinions and specify their points of view in a way that will combine democratic principles with fortifying Iraq's unity.

Muhammad al-Shabaki
Director of Media in the Organization of Iraqi Minorities

3 June 2007

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