Up until relatively recently it was not acceptable to criticize religion openly in Iraqi Kurdistan. But this is starting to change and being more openly questioning about Islam is something of a social trend now, in some circles.
Part of it has to do with the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. The group, which based their manifesto on a fantastical and often invented version of Sunni Islam, is usually used by critics of religion to make their point.
Hostility to religion has somehow become fashionable.
Another aspect is the expanded possibility for airing views that are other than mainstream on local social media. In Iraqi Kurdistan, those who want to criticize Islam in a Muslim-majority society do so mostly on social media sites like Facebook. Some use their real names – often they are Kurds who live outside of Iraq - and others hide their identity because of the controversial nature of the criticism.
There are dozens of pages on Facebook that publish religious criticism and there are even some that take this kind of content from other languages and translate it into Kurdish.
Of course, being critical of religion is not new in Iraqi Kurdistan. There have always been secular individuals here. But one could argue that these kinds of arguments were not expressed as openly, or as much, as they are now.
For example, in 2010, a well-known Kurdish author and poet, Qubady Jalyzada, published a book, in which one poem saw him accused of blasphemy. Sales of the book were banned after clerics protested about it and copies of the book were seized by security forces in the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Erbil.
Jalyzada told NIQASH he was summoned to court more than once about the book but was eventually pardoned. “However, my book was still banned, and the poetry never did see the light of day,” Jalyzada complains.
This year there is another writer, Sarkaw Hadi Gorani, a Kurdish playwright who lives in France, undertaking similarly allegedly-sacrilegious work. Gorani, who broadcasts live on social media, says he is not an enemy of religion, merely an analytical critic of it.
He says he just wants to raise awareness about the potential damage that religion can do. “I see religion as a social institution and because I come from a Muslim country, and because that had an impact on me, I talk about Islam – because that’s what affected me,” Gorani told NIQASH.
Having said that, it’s definitely not a mainstream opinion by any stretch of the imagination. “Those who attack religion represent only their own opinions and not society,” argues Ameer Othman Mawloud, a senior official tasked with encouraging religious coexistence in Iraqi Kurdistan, adding that his department has sought legal advice on how to prosecute dissenters.
Additionally, when an individual criticizes Islam on social media they are usually rewarded with a slew of fury, anger and indignation from other commenters.
Another young Kurd who has been critical of religion online, Fateh Mahmoud, says that some of his relatives have now blocked him on Facebook because of what he has said about Islam.
“Hostility to religion has somehow become fashionable,” says Awara Najim, a young man from Darbandikhan who often writes back to online debaters with a pro-religious argument. “I worry that if these people get any power they will kill Muslims and burn mosques.”