Abdul Salam II: the man that left a lasting legacy


Today marks the 108th annual anniversary of the execution of Sheikh Abdul Salam II and three of his companions just as First World War was to ravage the region.

The hanging in Mosul of “the Sheikh of Barzan” on December 14, 1914, was a watershed in the history of the Kurdistan that had grave repercussions on neighbourly relations the Sheikh nurtured among various peoples in that unsettled region of the world in the years followed.

Born in 1882, the eldest son of Sheikh Mohamed was not to pass away silently without leaving a lasting trace in the chapter of the Kurdish struggle for independence at the inception of the 20th century.

After his father's death in 1903, Abdul Salam assumed the Barzan Sheikhdom in whose reign it transcended its merely Sufi religious reference into a nationalist political movement open to reform and eager at the same time to retain its essence.

The Sheikh of Barzan had extensive diplomatic and political relations with all major powers of the time. Barzan became the cynosure of the Kurdish aspiration for self-determination.

Russian, Ottoman, and British sources at the time all indicate that Abdul Salam II had a great role in the early 1900s as a political leader, social reformer and a man of religion.

Kurdistan being an ethnic religious medley where substantial numbers of Jews and Christians lived with the Kurdish majority, "the Sheikh of Christians" had developed a vision for a Kurdistan based on religious tolerance, coexistence and protection of minorities.

After the Young Turk Revolution of July 1908, and when the authority of the state was shaken, and when therefore greedy notables of Mosul felt free to flex their muscles and advance in self-government the domains of the Sheikh were attractive goals for such avaricious and excessive acquisitive men. 

In late 1909, an army commanded by Vali of Mosul Mohamed Fazil Pasha launched an attack on Barzan, another was sent under Muhyaddine Pasha. The city of Mosul was denuded of troops.

Abdul Salam was forced to leave the area seeking refuge with the Assyrians of Mar Shimun in the village of Zawite. Barzan was occupied in September 1909; it was reduced to ashes.

In January 1910, Fazil Pasha had a firman issued from Sultan Mohamed Rashad to exterminate the bandits and restore peace and security to the province of Mosul.

In March 1910, putting the blame on Fazil Pasha, the Sheikh asked for peace. By this time, Nazim Pasha had appointed Commander of the Pursuit Force, Colonel Safwet Bey, a Kaymakam in Barzan to reach a settlement with the Sheikh and to assess damages caused in the recent campaign.

Safwet met the Sheikh in Mount Shirine and ordered Ottoman forces to evacuate Barzan.

It was in June 1910 when the Sheikh obtained amnesty and compensation. A report filed by Safwet Bey revealed 1329 houses and 40 mosques and monasteries were destroyed in the action.

Anglican missionary Rev. William Wigram attributes the peace attained to the intervention of the level-headed Nazim Pasha- Baghdad Vali- who was the principal factor, and who entirely exonerated the Sheikh to award him indemnity. However, the Sheikh gained nothing but prestige.

However, negotiations between Abdul Salam and the government began to give results and consequently, the Sheikh returned home.

Wigram argues that the chief sinners of the open war of 1909 were nefarious Mohamed Sabunji Pasha scion of a feudal family in the city and the corrupt gang who were running the administration at Mosul who coveted the Sheikh's villages, and the Sheikh refused to part. Accordingly, they trumped up a charge that he was conspiring against the government the one that won credence.

However, following the outbreak of the Italo-Turkish War, supported by a group of Kurdish chiefs, a meeting was held in Duhok in 1911 by Sheikh Abdul Salam Barzani and Nur Mohamed Brifkani signing the “Duhok Petition” that, among others, called for autonomy for five Kurdish-inhabited districts in the province of Mosul, demanding the adoption of Kurdish in administration and education, the appointment of Kurdish-speaking officials.

French Journalist and historian Chris Kutschera, who specialized in the Middle East and the Kurds, argues the “Duhok Manifesto” presented by Sheikh Abdul Salam was the very first of its kind.

The “Duhok Petition” seems to have laid down the foundation stone of the Kurdish nationalist movement in modern times.

However, following this, the Ottoman Empire decided to no longer recognize Sheikh Abdul Salam as a local leader accusing him of secession.

It was at this time when in May 1912, the Irshad Society was founded whose goal was to create an independent Kurdistan with Russian support. In 1913 Irshad sent Abdul Salam to Tiflis to meet Russian officials.

After the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) took power they perceived Irshad as a threat to the unity of Turkish territory. All Kurdish notables suspected of any national sentiment were targeted by the Ittihadists.

While Khayraddine Barazi was killed, a smearing campaign was embraced against the Sheikh of Barzan who was accused of suppressing the Assyrians and harbouring malice against the state.

At this time, reports of the sheikh’s contacts with the Russians went beyond being concealed. Besides, Safwet Bey took refuge with Barzan.

To bring matters into the state's hands, Sulaiman Nazif was appointed governor of Mosul at the end of 1913.

Nazif, originally a poet and himself a Kurd from Diyarbakir, was a fervent proponent of CUP. He was adamant to silence every opposing voice. In February 1914, he announced Sheikh Abdul Salam was not deserving the Ottoman eyes mercy.

In April 1914, after Ottoman forces quelled the Bitlis Uprising, Minister of the Interior, Talaat Pasha, sent a telegram to Mosul demanding an end to the “Barzan Affair." Days later Barzan was taken. By this time, Abdul Salam was spotted in the village of Rajan of Sayed Abdul Qadr Nahri.

In July, Sulaiman Nazif rendered his resignation to Talaat Pasha saying corrupt persons were pervading the body of the state. However, upon rejection, Nazif had a carte blanche to deal with opponents of the state and show his dictatorial methods.

The Ottomans adopted persuasive, deceptive and even coercive measures to keep the Kurds in their fold but the damage caused was beyond repair.

Sheikh Abdul Salam, along with the Assyrian patriarch Mar Shimun and the Armenian leader Andranik Ozanian visited Tblisi regarding an independent region that includes Kurds, Assyrians and Armenians.

However, it is widely circulated that upon the sheikh’s return from this meeting, he fell into a dirty plot.

In September 1914, declaring allegiance to the Ottomans, the Shikak tribes serving under Ismail Agha Kerdar carried out a concerted attack on Russian- backed chiefs of Qotur and Somai- Simko and Tamar Agha- in which Sheikh of Barzan was captured in the village of Gangachin of the Gawar Region. Abdul Salam was informed by the owner of the village Sofi Abdullah Jengho Ibrahim. The Sheikh and his fellows were handed over to the Ottoman frontier detachment in Bajirka.

What happened in that quadruple high-profile meeting remains a secret. However, later, in Staking our Claim, the Case of the Kurdistan Referendum, President Masoud Barzani said on his visit to the Kurdistan Region on October 7, 2019, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov revealed new evidence of a meeting held between Sheikh Abdul Salam and the Russian Tsar.

The life of Abdul Salam could have been spared had it not been for the personal grudging and malice Nazif harboured against the Sheikh, according to the Iraqi historian Sadiq Damlouji who coincidently used to be in the Mosul prison when Abdul Salam was taken to be the gibbets.

In that transient period in a turbulent region, Abdul Salam could have filled the political vacuum that ensued in a better way in the post-First World War Kurdistan, had Nazif averted his malicious act.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.