Muharram rituals being conducted in Khanaquin, "the city of love and peace". (photo: دشتي علي)
Any casual visitors recently entering the northern Iraqi city of Khanaquin would probably have thought that the city was one populated mainly by Shiite Muslims. October was the month of Muharram, during which Muslims remember the death of the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed in the year 680AD. Shiite Muslims tend to commemorate the month with more activities than Sunni Muslims and one of the things many do is wear black during the month.
And in Khanaquin last month, it seemed as though most of the people there were wearing black and had black flags. Some of the stores in Khanaquin even had their names covered with pieces of plain cloth, in a gesture of mourning. So presumably they must all be Shiite Muslims.
However, the casual visitor making this assumption would be wrong. Khanaquin is home to a mostly Kurdish population of around 200,000 people with around 10 percent of the inhabitants Arab or of the Turkmen ethnicity. Almost everyone living here is Muslim and, according to the local council, the population is actually evenly split along sectarian lines, with about half Sunni and half Shiite.
Yet the two sects coexist peacefully here in Khanaquin. After the 2003 toppling of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who had used sectarian divisions to control the country for decades, Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis engaged in bloodletting and violence that many say was akin to civil war. But this never happened in Khanaquin.
“We and the Shiites are so much alike, there are no differences,” says Imad Qadir, a Sunni man in his 50s who sells food on the sidewalk outside Khanaquin’s main marketplace.
“We all have one holy book and one prophet so why should we fight?” asks Jabbar Ibrahim, a 64-year-old local. “In this city, we always intermarry. That has never stopped. I have visited Sunni shrines and I have no problem with that. It is the politicians who create the disputes between us,” he concluded.
In Khanaquin the two sects even celebrate each other’s rituals. The Sunni Muslims of Khanaquin may not engage in all of the Shiite ceremonies during the month of Muharram but they will avoid arranging wedding parties or celebrating other occasions too exuberantly in order to respect the Shiite tradition of more overt mourning during the month. Some of Khanaquin’s Sunnis even try to avoid wearing clothing that is too colourful during this time, lest it seem offensive.
"I am a Sunni and my daughter married a Shiite,” says Samir Mohammed, head of the Khanaquin district council. “These mixed marriages are the main reason for the friendly coexistence in the city."
In fact, to ensure that everyone understands this, the district council have decided that all of their official stationery in Khanaquin should bear this motto: Khanaquin, the city of love and peace.
The cleric at a large Shiite place of worship in Khanaquin agrees that it is intermarriage that has been most helpful in keeping sectarian peace in the town. “It is also because we have enlightened Sunni clerics here who don’t create conflict and who encourage the people from both sects to mix,” adds Abbas al-Najafi, the cleric at the mosque.
Most recently though, some of the locals have criticised members of the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias, who are engaged in fighting the IS group but who have also been criticized for committing retaliatory attacks against Sunni Muslims.
“Some parties did recently try to enter the city and create divisions between local people,” says the council’s Mohammed. “But we stopped them from coming in because we were sure their arrival would create tensions.”
The peaceful coexistence is not limited to the Sunni and Shiite Muslims living in Khanaquin. There are also many members of the Kakai ethno-religious group in town; generally the Kakais associate ethnically with the Kurdish people but also have their own distinctive, and secretive, religion, similar to the Yazidis in northern Iraq. They are most certainly not Muslims.
Haval Nawkas, a young Kakai man in Khanaquin, told NIQASH that during the Shiite Muslim festival of Ashura – a day during the Muharram month – his mother prepares the sweets that are traditionally served on the occasion and his family slaughters a sheep on the important Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.
And Nawkas has yet another, convincing reason for the unity in Khanaquin. Even if the people disagree on other things, they can agree on their Kurdish origin, he explained. Ethnicity trumps sectarian allegiance in this town. “And this is probably one of the main reasons why Khanaquin is so peaceful,” the young man told NIQASH.