Home Blog Iraqi Kurdish Islamists and Erdogan’s Turkey: What configuration?

Iraqi Kurdish Islamists and Erdogan’s Turkey: What configuration?

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Momen Zellmi : The relationship between Turkey and Iraq has recently advanced to a new level of mutual understanding, highlighted by the recent visit of Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to Baghdad. During this visit, the two nations inked nineteen agreements spanning politics, security, investment, and trade. Concurrently, the Kurdistan Region, with its historical ties to both Erbil and Ankara, is redefining its relationship with Turkey. This raises an intriguing question: what influence do Kurdish Islamists wield in shaping these ties? With the Kurdistan Region strengthening its bonds with Turkey under President Erdogan’s leadership, the role of its Islamic factions gains heightened significance.

Kurdish Islamists in Kurdistan Region

In the late 1970s, Mohammad Ahmed Sawaf and Amjad Zahawi, Iraqi leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood, introduced the concept of political Islam to Kurdish cities in Iraqi Kurdistan. As a result, in 1984, the first Kurdish Islamic Association was established by Sheikh Mohammed Barznji (1945-2014), primarily with a military focus.

Kurdish Islamic parties can be divided into two categories: the first being predominantly jihadist and military groups that controlled the Hawraman region of Halabja province on the Iraq-Iran border (1993-2003). The Kurdish Islamic Association (1984) later evolved into the Islamic Movement IMK (1987), which, in 1999, merged with the Islamic Renaissance (Nahdha) to form the Islamic Union Movement IUMK. Subsequently, the party disbanded and split into the Kurdistan Islamic Group -Komal (led by Ali Bapir), the Islamic Movement (led by Ali Abdulaziz), and Jund Al-Islam/Ansar Al-Islam (led by Mulla Krekar). The military factions of Kurdish Islamists fought against the Ba’ath regime, while the educational factions actively participated in reconstructing villages and supporting impoverished families. However, some leaders, along with small groups of followers, veered towards extremism, aligning themselves with various groups such as Tawheed, Hamas, Jihad group, Jund Al-Islam, and Ansar Al-Islam. Continuously, they encouraged Kurdish youth to cross borders and join extremists from other countries. During the Arab uprisings, particularly the Syrian revolution in 2012, over 600 Kurdish youth joined Al-Nusrah and ISIS.

Conversely, the main Muslim Brotherhood-backed group in northern Iraq, primarily focused on education, established the Kurdistan Islamic Union KIU (led by Salahadin Bahadin) in February 1994.
In 2005, Kurdish Islamists from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, particularly Yakgrtu and Komal, took part in the inaugural Iraqi elections, earning multiple seats. Subsequently, in 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018, and 2022, they consistently participated in both Iraqi and Kurdistan parliamentary elections. Their representation has remained at around 12 percent in the Kurdistan parliament and nearly two percent in the Iraqi parliament. At present, they hold five seats in the Iraqi parliament and 12 seats in the Kurdistan Region.

Kurdish Islamists and AKP in Turkey

Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Recep Tayyip Erdogan assumed power in Turkey, transforming its governance into a modern and moderate Islamic regime, the discourse around the government’s relationship with Islamic Kurds has been a subject of keen interest.

Established in 1994 by Salahaddin Mohammed Bahadin, the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) stands as a moderate Kurdish Islamic party inspired by the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood. This ideological alignment has fostered a close and enduring relationship between the KIU and the AKP, with Bahadin himself maintaining robust international ties with Erdogan and the AKP leadership. Over the years, this relationship has evolved from a personal rapport to an organic partnership, with the Islamic Union actively contributing to balancing the Kurdish parties’ interactions with the Turkish government.

Presently, the Kurdistan Islamic Union operates its relations office in Turkey, fostering close ties with the AKP. Members of the KIU actively engage in Islamic conferences, forums, and gatherings, focusing on Islam and Islamic movements. Recently, dozens of Islamic scholars and politicians from the Kurdistan Region participated in an international conference on Palestine held in Turkey.

In 2008, amidst efforts by the Supreme Council of Kurdistan Political Parties, spearheaded by Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), to bolster relations with Turkey, Salahaddin Mohammed Bahadin utilized his extensive network to arrange a delegation’s audience with Erdogan and the AKP government. While the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) remains prominently associated with Turkey and the AKP through its intrinsic ties, other Kurdish Islamic factions have also nurtured personal connections with Turkish leadership. Noteworthy is the engagement of figures from various Kurdish groups, including the Islamic Movement, who have forged links with Erdogan and the AKP, capitalizing on these connections across different spheres of engagement and influence.

Conversely, Komal maintains robust connections in Turkey through various channels. One such channel is through Hudapar, a Kurdish Islamic party in Turkey, which has garnered acceptance among Islamists in the Kurdistan region due to its relations with the Turkish government. Led by Ali Bapir, Komal is among the Islamic groups that foster their ties with Turkey through both Hudapar and the Turkish consulate general in Erbil.

From |Religious Brotherhood to Common Interests

The foundation of the relationship between the AKP in Turkey and Kurdish Islamists in the Kurdistan region of Iraq rests on an Islamic principle, as espoused by Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him: “The Muslim is the brother of the Muslim; he does not wrong him nor does he forsake him.” Hence, the AKP and Kurdish Islamists share fraternal ties, which extend across various domains, encompassing politics, security, culture, education, and financial interests.

On one hand, Kurdish Islamists in Iraq play a crucial role in facilitating authentic relations between the AKP and Kurds in Turkey, including Islamic groups, influential figures, and Muslim communities in Kurdish-speaking regions of the country. While, the overarching question revolves around the role Kurdistan’s Islamic parties play in shaping the region’s relationship with Turkey. Fatih Sangawi, a member of the KIU leadership, highlighted the longstanding relations the Islamic Union has maintained with Islamic entities in Turkey, dating back to the era of Necmettin Erbakan. For instance, following the 2017 referendum and the subsequent trade embargo, the secretary of the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) visited Turkey to mitigate further restrictions on trade routes between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey.

Over the past 15 years, the predominant facet of the Kurdistan Region’s relationship with Turkey has been economic. Wrya Hussein, head of the Dor Organization for Oil Information, suggests that Islamist groups, particularly the Islamic Union, wield some economic influence under Turkish governance. However, their economic clout remains overshadowed by the PUK and KDP due to the controlled labor market in Kurdistan and the absence of a comprehensive economic strategy from Islamic factions.

Beyond economics, cultural and educational exchanges have played a crucial role in strengthening ties between Turkey and the Kurdistan Region. The proliferation of Turkish educational institutions and the popularity of Turkish media and dramas in Kurdistan underscore Turkey’s soft power and cultural influence. Koshan Ali Zaman, a Kurdish researcher and writer, highlighted the role of Kurdistan Islamists in publishing intellectual and cultural works due to shared perspectives found in many Turkish dramas, writings, and publications. This shared understanding has fostered a deeper appreciation for Turkish cultural products among Kurdish Islamists.

“These cultural connections have expanded to include scientific trips and collaborative efforts between Turkish institutions and Islamic organizations, particularly the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU),” Koshan noted. Furthermore, Zaman pointed out that KIU members have significantly contributed to supporting schools and universities in Turkey, facilitating educational opportunities for both their members and the broader public. Interestingly, KIU cadres have also overseen several Turkish scholarships in the Kurdistan Region, benefiting many individuals and further solidifying Turkey’s influence in the region.

Despite occasional tensions, the relations between Turkey and the Kurdistan Region have largely remained stable over the past two decades, encompassing political, economic, security, educational, and cultural spheres. Regarding security dynamics, the question arises whether the Kurdistan Region can mediate, particularly amid the tensions between the PUK and Ankara.

In 2012, the then-secretary of the Islamic Union, Mohammed Faraj, continued Bahadin’s efforts, visiting Ankara and Qandil to contribute to peace initiatives between the two sides. Despite escalating conflicts and increased Turkish drone attacks on Sulaymaniyah province in 2023, and strained relations between Turkey and the PUK in recent years, the Islamic Union and its leadership have been instrumental in mitigating Turkish airstrikes on PUK-controlled areas in Sulaimani and Halabja provinces, as asserted by Fatih Sangawi.

In reflection, the evolving alliance between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey, anchored in their shared Islamic affiliations, has matured into a multifaceted partnership over time. Spearheaded by the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), this relationship has flourished through political, economic, and diplomatic collaboration, bolstered by ideological alignment with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). While economic ties have been prominent, cultural and educational exchanges have deepened the connection, illustrating Turkey’s burgeoning soft power in Kurdistan. Despite occasional tensions stemming from political disputes or security concerns, mutual interests have largely fostered stability and dialogue.

Looking forward, the interplay between Kurdish Islamic parties and Turkey will continue to shape the region’s geopolitical landscape. As both entities navigate regional complexities and pursue mutual prosperity, the mediation and cooperation facilitated by Islamic parties will remain crucial. The enduring partnership between the KIU and the AKP underscores the potential of shared ideologies in bridging borders. Challenges persist, yet the groundwork laid by years of collaboration offers optimism for increased cooperation and stronger ties.

Envisioning the future, scenarios emerge where Kurdish Islamists act as mediators between Turkey and Kurdish factions, easing tensions and advancing peace initiatives. Their economic influence hints at potential shifts in power dynamics amidst evolving geopolitics. Cultural and educational exchanges, propelled by Turkish soft power and Kurdish Islamist engagement, deepen integration. However, navigating security dynamics remains a challenge. The evolving influence of Kurdish Islamists on Turkey’s relationship with the Kurdistan Region warrants further study, poised to shape regional dynamics in the years ahead.

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