Kurdistan is not only one of the only islands of stability in the Middle East, it is also one of the last safe havens for secularism in a region rife with religious extremism. While the spread of radical Islamist groups such as the so-called Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, and assorted Shia militias has led some to publicly reject religion, Kurdistan boasts a long history of tolerance that continues to the present day.
In 2012, the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) took a major step towards religious neutrality, which was a departure from the rest of Iraq and neighboring countries. Its independent parliament declared that public schools were to be religiously neutral and that all major religions of the world are taught on an equal basis and without partiality. This was particularly striking as the majority of the population are Sunni Muslims. Incredibly, today the KRG and the Kurdish administration in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), are the only administrations in the entire region that do not openly endorse a single religion in public schools.
However, this law may seem less surprising when viewed in the context of Kurdistan’s strong national identity, which spans several millennia. Kurds have always identified themselves primarily by their ethnicity and then by their religious affiliation. First one is Kurdish, then Muslim, Yezidi, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and so on.
One of the most famous Kurdish writers, poets, and philosophers, Ahmede Khani (1650-1707), published a book about the necessity of Kurdish self-determination in a time where Kurdish principalities were serving as buffer zones straddling the Ottoman and Persian Empires. In his epic poem Mem u Zin (1692), he refers to Kurds as a “nation” and praised his ancestors who had epitomized the Kurdish spirit one thousand years before him.
In a time where most people in the Middle East defined themselves more by religion than by ethnicity, Ahmede Khani articulated the ideology behind Kurdish identity which supersedes religion.
Secularism may also be seen as the natural byproduct of diverse cohabitation in Kurdish areas for over two thousand years. But it also draws from an awareness of several mass conversions of Kurds. Aryan religions such as Zoroastrianism and Yezidism dominated the area before various conversions to Judaism, Christianity, Manichaeism, Islam, Ahl-i Haq and Baha’ism.
During the neo-Assyrian Empire (740 BCE), 26,000 Jews were exiled to the Kurdish regions and succeeded in converting many in southern-central Kurdistan to Judaism. A remnant still live in Kurdistan while most were forced to emigrate to the fledgling Israeli state in the early 1950s. Several hundred years later, large numbers of Kurds in far western and central Kurdistan converted to Christianity, and sizable communities of Nestorians, Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs are still found in and around Akre, Amadia, Erbil, Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniah.
The introduction of Islam added a significant and lasting effect on the religious diversity of Kurdistan. Crucially, it took a rather long time for the Kurds to convert to Islam. According to the historical author of the Sharafnameh, Idris Bitlisi (1455-1520), many Kurdish tribes still did not adhere to any specific religious school by the late 15th century. And it was only after the introduction of Islamic tax systems dividing believers and non-believers that large numbers of Kurds converted to Islam in order to maintain ownership over their lands. The majority integrated into the Shafi'i rite, considered the most liberal school of Islamic jurisprudence.
Kurds are indeed very spiritual and have been devout practitioners of their respective faiths throughout history. Intriguingly, renown Kurdologists Nicolas Minorsky and Wadieh Jwaidieh went so far as to say that due to their history and exposure to other cultures Kurds were disposed to religious tolerance by 'nature.’
Confronted by an incredible number of religious schools, beliefs, and subsequent conversions, there is ample evidence to suggest that Kurds are more prone to secularism and religious tolerance than extremism and intolerance.
This tendency has been accentuated in past centuries and reached its zenith when Kurds were labeled infidels during the genocidal campaign (named after the eighth chapter of the Qur'an—Surat Al-Anfal), which was spearheaded by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. This resulted in the wholesale slaughter of over 180,000 thousand Kurds in the 1980s at the hands of their so-called Muslim brothers. How could Kurds not gravitate towards their secular nationalist identity, rather than their religious one, in the wake of such a horror?
Kurdistan remains a society of many religions and beliefs, but it has held together as a nation because of its strong secular identity. This outlook is abhorrent to the Islamic State, which has pronounced Kurds as apostates. Most Kurds are indeed self-identifying Muslims, but they will fight for their secular society—which protects people of all beliefs (or non-belief) equally under the law—until the bitter end.