Iraq's new atheism in the shadow of Islamic State

Iraq's new atheism in the shadow of Islamic State
In-depth: Some 40 miles from IS-held territory, a group of Iraqi atheists gather to discuss secularism and philosophy, defying the militants whose shadow looms large.
6 min read
31 October, 2016
In a quiet bookshop, in a corner by the window, sit a small group hunched round a table, smoking cigarettes. They are careful not to speak loudly, communicating in hushed tones barely above whispers.

The wrong person overhearing this conversation could spell serious repercussions. It is perhaps a cliché, young intellectuals meeting secretly in bookshops, but it is obviously an environment where Iraq's young secularists feel most comfortable.

We are in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, more than 250 kilometres north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Just a few days after this conversation, the city will play host to a deadly attack by the Islamic State group. As many as 100 jihadists will unite with others already hidden undercover in the city - dubbed "sleeper cells" - and for a few haunting hours they will roam the streets openly, taking charge of the city's mosques, proclaiming from the minarets that the caliphate has arrived.

With coalition forces advancing rapidly on the Islamic State group's largest stronghold, and Mosul's fall a foregone conclusion in the eyes of many, this is just one of the group's many efforts to distract and draw resources away from the fight for Mosul - an attempt to change the narrative too.

Shaho is 29, a government employee. He hunches over some tea, chain-smoking throughout our three hours together. He is this group's founder, and his natural confidence makes him something of a spokesman, too. Several years ago, stuck between the marauding jihadism of IS and the incompetency of the Iraqi government, he set up this symposium, and named it "Logic".
The group is an intellectual refuge for young
- and not-so-young - secularists [Gareth Browne]

The group is an intellectual refuge for Iraq's atheists and secularists, a people denied any official existence by the country's government, and holders of a death sentence courtesy of the Islamic State group. A quick scout of their Facebook pages shows specific and in-depth secularist critiques of Quranic verses and Arabic and Kurdish memes featuring the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

Shaho, talks to me about his love of western secularists, "Richard Dawkins and Jean Jacques Rousseau", growls his gruff voice. I ask him who else he admires, perhaps someone from the US?

"When it comes to the US, we don't rely on them, because they are too black and white," he says between plumes of smoke. "French philosophy is far better for us, because they have a strong link with Arab people."

The French idea of secularism can be a model for Iraq in the future, he says. "We [in his group] try to replicate the French experience [of secularism]; it was built through a good relationship between ideas and authority."

France's laicite form of secularism has been dubbed "aggressive" by some, and many have suggested it causes more harm than good - doing much to malign France's significant Muslim population. That a group of people can argue and campaign for such a drastic form of secularism, in a country so plagued by religious fanaticism counters much of the mainstream Western narrative.
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The café in which we sit is barely an hour from Islamic State-held territory - the town of Hawija. Keen to press Shaho, and determine whether this admiration of the "French experience" is anything more than a convenient soundbite, I ask him about attempts to ban the burqa in France. The full veil is a common sight in many parts of Iraq, but French former Prime Minister Nicholas Sarkozy has dubbed it "not welcome in France".

Shaho defends Sarkozy. "These are new to Europe, and France had to take these steps to protect its national security. These pieces of clothing are disrespectful to women, it's not the other way round."

But this is an issue that splits the group, Zayer is the 65-year-old chain-smoking owner of the bookshop in which we meet, quiet until now, he interjects and insists that just because they admire the French system, "of course they make mistakes too".

Zayer says we shouldn't be surprised that there is such growth of secularism in places so close to towns controlled by IS: "There was always going to be an ideological reaction to Daesh."
There was always going to be an ideological reaction to Daesh

He tells me he became an atheist, and indeed a leftist, some 40 years ago - insisting that secularists are not a novelty in Iraq. "Our movement hasn't come out of nowhere; since the 1970s, different governments and different authorities have not been able to do anything for the people, it is up to the people to help themselves," he told The New Arab.

"Given the passage of time, we [the secularists] will have our chance to govern, we are trying to bring about a renaissance in our country. Our future generations can take it from there." He speaks slowly, conveying an aura of respect. He takes a drag on his cigarette. "Most of the writers and artists in Kurdistan are secularists. We are winning the cultural battle. The challenge now is carrying the victory over to the ideological and political battle."

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a difficult period for Kurds in Iraq. Caught between chemical weapons attacks and a civil war many now see as an embarrassment, a great many Kurds fled to Europe. But following decades in exile, particularly in Germany and the United Kingdom - and being educated at European universities - many of those same people have now returned, bringing with them a host of new ideas, and secularism is one of the most significant.

Singer Khander has joined the group,
despite her fears [Gareth Browne]

Zayer describes this mass movement of people as "very effective" for the secular movement in Kurdistan, and the region. I ask Zayer which country he would most like the KRG to become like in terms of its secularism. I suggest Turkey, but he complains "Turkey can't really claim to be secular, the religious establishment has to much influence, it goes far beyond just Erdogan". Again, he cites France.

Could a woman be prime minister of the KRG or Iraq in the future? "Gender doesn’t matter, qualifications matter," says Zayer. "Women in Iraq are constantly imprisoned by men, they are second class citizens."

Shaho goes further, adding this battle needs to be had "not just for women, but for homosexuals too, we respect all of them, but first they have to be liberated".

Another of those in the discussion is Khander, a 29-year-old from Kirkuk. She's a singer and wears a full face of makeup. Noticeably quiet, I ask if she's scared of what could happen to her. "Yes," she replied. "But I have to be true to my own beliefs, I won't live somebody else's beliefs."

Bullet-holes now riddle the street outside the bookshop where this meeting took place, and while the Islamic State group may be losing ground in the area, it is still a deadly threat - even (or perhaps particularly) away from the frontlines.

As we get ready to leave, Shaho says that IS might try to kill him. "But we have far better weapons when it comes to the battle of ideas; that is the only war that matters in the long term."

Editor's note: The people interviewed in this feature were asked if they would like us to change their names before publication, for their security. "No," one replied. "People need to know there are secularists in Iraq." The others agreed.

Follow Gareth Browne on Twitter: @BrowneGareth