Iranian Kurds were risking their lives to protest the government's Islamic dress code. Protests that had begun over the death of a Kurdish woman in "morality police" custody turned into a nationwide uprising against the theocracy. Teenagers confronted the police while women burned their mandatory headscarves in the street.
Just across the border, some Iraqi Kurds held solidarity rallies. Iraqi Kurdish influencer Dana Nawzar Jaf, who wants to "make Kurdistan great again" (and whose Twitter account is now suspended) had other ideas.
"There is freedom to wear the hijab, but not to burn the hijab. It is disrespectful and cowardly," he tweeted. "Publish the names, photos, and addresses of those who have insulted the veil."
Reason could not reach Nawzar Jaf, who has since been banned from Twitter, for comment. His brother Yahya Nawzar Jaf declined to share his contact information, arguing that Dana Nawzar Jaf "does not talk to the media. His views are published on Twitter and YouTube."
The Nawzar Jaf brothers are part of a chorus of conservatives gaining ground on Kurdish social media. Positioning themselves as the protectors of traditional culture, they've harnessed the internet to swing their weight around Iraqi Kurdish politics. And it seems to be working.
Last month, Egyptian rapper Mohamed Ramadan had been set to perform in Erbil, the Iraqi Kurdish capital. He is known for mahraganat music, a rowdy genre full of references to sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. After a hashtag campaign, authorities shut down the concert, citing "the values and principles of society."
Earlier this fall, the Iraqi Kurdish parliament shot down a bill to strengthen protections against domestic violence. The parliament is now debating a law, which has majority support, to censor pro-LGBT publications and arrest people who "promote homosexuality." Activists believe that social media pressure influenced both moves.
Most Kurds are Muslim, but the rising Kurdish conservatives are not old-style Islamist theocrats. (Recent events, such as the war against the Islamic State, have made that brand of politics toxic.) Instead, they've focused on stirring up outrage about supposed insults to Islamic family values and Kurdish identity. And they've found social media to be their best tool for organizing their campaigns.
In other words, right-wing cancel culture has come to Kurdistan.
Islamist politics had once been all the rage in the Middle East. Beginning in the late 1970s, a wave of religion-based movements swept through the region, successfully installing an Islamic republic in Iran, forcing the Soviet presence out of Afghanistan, and seriously threatening Arab governments.
With the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, religious populists joined Arab liberals in revolutions calling for greater political freedoms. As the uprisings were crushed or turned into bloody civil wars, Arab public trust in Islamist parties dropped tremendously, polling shows.
And many Iranians soured on theocracy as their society became more educated and plugged into international media. Even government-sponsored polls, which once claimed that Islamic dress codes were overwhelmingly popular among Iranians, now find that a shrinking minority wants the police to enforce the hijab.
Following the U.S. wars with Iraq in 1991 and 2003, Kurdish parties with pro-American politics managed to carve out an autonomous zone in northern Iraq. After the 2003 war, Erbil and Sulaimani became known as some of the few Iraqi cities where Americans could party openly.
Add to that the rise of left-wing Kurdish rebellions in Turkey and Syria, with their own women's brigades. These guerrillas gained international fame by confronting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Long-haired fighters chanting the slogan "women, life, freedom" shot back at wild-eyed sectarian extremists.
In September 2022, a Kurdish woman named Mahsa Jina Amini died in Iranian police custody after her arrest for supposedly wearing an "improper" hijab. Protests against religious rule spread from her hometown in Kurdistan Province to cities across Iran, and many non-Kurdish liberals adopted the slogan "women, life, freedom" as their own.
French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has declared that the Kurds are standard-bearers of an "exceptional strain of enlightened Islam" against "every form of tyranny that the terrible 20th century spawned." But looks can be deceiving.
Even though Islamism has not caught on in the same ways, Kurdish society is still very traditional, and Iraqi Kurdish politics are rooted in the aristocratic rural clans that dominate the region. Yahya Nawzar Jaf argues that Kurds are actually more "conservative compared to Persians, Arabs, and Turks."
Edith Szanto is a professor of religious studies at the University of Alabama who taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani for eight years. She argues that Kurdistan is quite similar to the American South, as family honor and social stigma are powerful social forces.
Naren Briar, a Kurdish-American researcher who works on ethnic and religious minority issues in Kurdistan, describes those forces differently, as "violent misogyny and pseudo-intellectual nonsense."
"It is evident that this ideology permeates deeply in Kurdish society, through social media, and in everyday life," she says.
Even Erbil is more old-fashioned than it may seem. While its gated communities are happy to cater to the lifestyles of foreign patrons and jet-setting elites, the old city is quite conservative, even by Middle Eastern standards. Shop loudspeakers play Quranic recitations rather than Muzak background music, men and women alike wear traditional garb in the streets, and alcohol is not sold openly in Muslim neighborhoods.
Sulaimani has a more liberal reputation because the hijab is less common and alcohol more abundant. (Drinking is considered a sin in Islam.) Other social norms are still in play.
"There are families who have money to send their daughters to school, who might dress a certain way, but that doesn't mean they're letting their daughters go out into the bazaar, because that's eyb," argues Szanto, using a Kurdish word for social stigma.
The internet was originally a liberating force in Kurdistan, according to Kurdish writer Kamal Chomani.
"It was very revolutionary. For the first time, uncensored criticism appeared in the Kurdistan region," he says. "All of a sudden, I was connected with everyone. Every single [non-Kurdish] activist, Kurdish activist, journalist, academic from any part of the world. That gave me and many other people like me a chance to discuss issues, to debate, to strategize, to mobilize."
But conservatives and religious extremists also took advantage of it "from the beginning," according to Chomani, who is a non-resident fellow at the Kurdish Peace Institute, a nonprofit research organization where I am also a non-resident fellow.
In general, social media has become another place for enforcing social conformity. In some cases, Kurdish women who "marry someone of status will put on the hijab and delete everything from before" in order to preserve their reputations as loyal wives, Szanto notes.
Kurdish conservatism isn't always the drab, by-the-book puritanism that militant Islamists favor. Many conservatives are more drawn to Sufism, a current of Islam focused on mystical experiences and charismatic preachers.
"They go to zikr on their phones," Szanto says, using a term for Sufi meditation circles. "They're the equivalent of evangelicals."
In addition to families policing their own, Chomani and Briar say that a major force behind conservatism online is unemployed young men with nothing better to do.
On the flip side, Yahya Nawzar Jaf argues that the liberal elite has been pushing foreign values on the humble masses of Kurds.
"Those who have ruled [Iraqi] Kurdistan for the last 30 years," he says, "do not feel attached to Kurdish values, but rather to the [foreign] countries where they studied and grew up."
The picture is a bit more complicated than that, Szanto argues.
Many liberal Kurds were indeed educated abroad, the sons and daughters of Kurdish exile families who returned to Kurdistan after a long stay in wealthier and more secular places like Berlin, Oslo, and Nashville. Yet many conservative voices also come from elite backgrounds. Although they often enjoy foreign luxury goods, they do not feel attracted to a fully cosmopolitan lifestyle.
"'Conservative' in Iraqi Kurdistan does not mean 'poor people,' by the way. It means middle- and upper-middle-class," Szanto says. "It's self-policing within the same social class."
That may help explain why Mohamed Ramadan's concert was canceled last month.
In its homeland, Egypt, mahraganat music is known as a working-class genre that aggressively flouts social taboos. At underground street concerts and on SoundCloud pages, mahraganat musicians rap about gangster adventures, messy breakups, and smoking weed. Egyptian authorities have repeatedly tried to ban the genre.
The planned concert in Erbil was a different story. It would be held at the Ankawa Royal Hotel, a posh venue down the street from the U.S. Consulate. (Ankawa, the old Assyrian Christian quarter, has become the favorite neighborhood of foreigners from rich countries.) Basic tickets sold for $100 apiece (in American dollars) or $500 for the VIP section.
"Who's going to buy tickets to the Mohamed Ramadan concert? The kids of the conservative elite," Szanto says. "When your own children might go, that's when it becomes threatening."
Iraq had already hosted a Ramadan concert in December 2021. His concert in Baghdad was a public relations fiasco. Images of the rapper wearing a skimpy shirt and kissing a woman's hand scandalized Iraqi social media. To make matters worse, conservatives were angry that the concert coincided with the Martyrdom of Lady Fatima, a Shiite Muslim day of mourning.
Islamic cleric Jaafar al-Ibrahimi condemned the concert, complaining in a sermon that Baghdadis had spent millions of dollars to see an "ugly, filthy, gay, black prostitute." Protesters held up placards and prayed outside the venue. Officials distanced themselves from the performance. Politicians condemned it.
"The main issue wasn't political or religious for me, but preserving public decency," says Erbil-based journalist Othman Alshalash, who opposed both the Baghdad and Erbil concerts. He says society is "under pressure from groups that want to spread this trashy art."
In late September 2022, Ramadan announced a new Middle Eastern tour, including one stop in Erbil.
Arab conservatives demanded the cancellation of the concerts. Governments quickly caved. Within a few days, Egyptian authorities shut down a planned concert in Alexandria, while the Syrian artists' guild and the Qatari Ministry of Culture denied that they had given approval to the performances to begin with.
The rapper responded by holding an impromptu parade in the streets of Alexandria. Surrounded by cheering fans, he posted a video to Facebook with the caption, "You have the power to cancel my concert, you have the power to destroy, but you're not popular like I am."
The controversy was a bit slower in reaching Kurdistan. In mid-October, word of the tour spread through Kurdish conservative circles.
While the concert in Baghdad had been tame by American standards, the internet allowed Kurds to see Ramadan's more wild exploits in other countries.
Influencers dug up images of the Egyptian rapper thrusting his hips without a shirt on and dancing with women in bikinis. Some of the images were taken from "BUM BUM," a satirical music video in which Ramadan gets blackout drunk and then realizes he had tried to seduce another man.
"Kurds and even many [Arab] Iraqis still adhere to their traditions and social norms. Mohamed Ramadan, who broke them in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and even in Baghdad, may not know the nature of Iraqi society in provinces outside of Baghdad," says Alshalash.
Thousands of Facebook accounts posted under the hashtag "Erbil doesn't welcome immorality," and videos with that hashtag received tens of thousands of views on TikTok. It got the attention of political authorities.
Two days after the hashtag campaign began, the Kurdish regional government brought the hammer down. Omid Khoshnaw, governor of Erbil, canceled the concert. Ali Hama Saleh Taha, a member of parliament from the anti-establishment party Movement for Change, took credit for inspiring the decision.
"We did this for the sake of our community. I hope it won't be mistaken for opposing freedom," Saleh Taha wrote in a Facebook post. "In every society, there are lines that must be defended. Some things do a lot of damage to social values."
Calling the Egyptian rapper an outcast in his own society, Saleh Taha accused Ramadan of promoting "drug abuse, sexual abuse, and homosexuality."
Social media activism was "the first and last [cause] in the concert's cancellation," Yahya Nawzar Jaf claims.
The concert's organizers seem to agree. In a statement after the cancellation, organizer Ammar Selo complained about the "systematic campaigns against the Egyptian legend, Mohammad Ramadan, whether through social media or otherwise."
The cancellation campaigns on social media are just one part of a broader swing toward the right in Kurdish politics. In the past few months, the Iraqi Kurdish parliament has rejected a proposal to increase protections against domestic violence and introduced a new law against LGBT activism.
This summer, Kurdish women's rights organizations had been sounding the alarm about a disturbing increase in beatings and murders by family members. And brutal crimes against women in Jordan and Egypt—in both countries, a young man killed a female college student for rejecting him—had sent shockwaves across the Middle East.
"Every month we are plagued with another news headline that offers the story of a woman seeking freedom from her abusive husband, only to fall victim to an honor killing—if not perpetrated by her husband, then her own brother," says Briar.
In September, lawmakers introduced amendments to the Kurdish criminal code to punish domestic violence. Among other things, the draft law would criminalize marital rape and allow bystanders outside the family to press charges for domestic abuse.
Muslim preachers and members of parliament, however, argued that the bill was a ploy to weaken religion and the Kurdish family. Jalal Pareshan, a member of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), claimed that Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even the Yezidi religious minority all "condemn" wives who "refuse to fulfill their husbands' rights."
The draft was eventually withdrawn.
"Nothing in the law was against Islam, nothing in the law was against religion," Chomani says. "You know why they were able [to stop it]? Because of social media, especially Facebook."
Conservative activists succeeded there, he says, by painting the law as a conspiracy by "feminists," especially Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani's American wife Sherri Kraham.
Yahya Nawzar Jaf also credits social media campaigns for stopping the amendments, which he calls a foreign import that "contradicts our values." He argues that the Kurdish law on domestic violence did not have any "legal gap" that required fixing.
And then there's the bill against LGBT activism, which 76 members of parliament proposed in September. (The Iraqi Kurdish parliament has 111 members in total.) The law would punish "promoting homosexuality" with a year's imprisonment or a 5 million dinar ($3,430) fine. Media outlets and nonprofit organizations guilty of the same could be shut down for a month. Human Rights Watch called it an "odious" proposal that "comes amid a heightened crackdown on free assembly and expression."
Chomani attributes this bill to pressure from social media as well.
The ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), according to Chomani, have "completely cracked down on dissent." (That includes sympathizers with the women's guerrilla movement in Turkey and Syria.) Online religious and social campaigns are some of the few ways people can organize outside the two parties.
"The more you get attention, the more you get likes, the more you get shares, the more you get followers—you also become more relevant for the KDP and PUK to want to deal with you," he says.
Despite the success that online activists have had at pushing back against so-called immorality, Yahya Nawzar Jaf takes an ambivalent view toward the internet.
"It plays a negative role, weakening social values, because social media sites are not of our making, and we do not administer them," he says. "For example, Facebook has harsh penalties for those who say even one bad word about homosexuals!"
He argues that social networks allow some freedom "on the margins" for conservatives to raise awareness of their cause.
Yet the modern internet may give conservatives some distinct advantages.
Social media has lowered the barrier to entry for political activism. While street protests are the realm of desperate youth and committed left-wing ideologues, online campaigns are open to anyone—like, say, bourgeois parents.
Szanto compares older Kurdish conservatives to the "Parent-Teacher-Association crowd" in America. Older people, she says, are "just as screen-addicted as the rest of us."
"Because they are middle class, and because they tend to be a more cohesive group, they tend to be better organized," Szanto argues. "In many ways, they have more practical demands that can be addressed."
In other words, politicians find it easier to shut down a concert or table a specific bill than to satisfy a leaderless movement for systemic change.
Identity politics, cancel culture, and extremely online old people have become a force to be reckoned with all around the world. That's as true in America as it is in Kurdistan.
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