photo: Eddy van Wessel


Saturday, March 26, 2022

One war is no more civilized than another

The war in Ukraine leads to discord: civilized countries at war versus allegedly uncivilized ones. Civilized victims versus the supposedly less civilized. And, most of all, between asylum seekers who are welcomed and those we would rather not see. 

By Judit Neurink

Suddenly, the hashtag #uncivilized was trending on Twitter in relation to the war in Ukraine. The difference in reactions to a war close to home in Europe, compared to other wars further away, was resonating badly with the victims of the latter.

They felt hurt when an American author wrote on Twitter that “this is the first major war between civilized countries in my lifetime,” thus implying that countries such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where wars have raged in recent years, are not civilized. And he was by no means alone in expressing the notion.

Listen to CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata talking about Kiev: “This is not Iraq or Afghanistan. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city.” Or to Al-Jazeera on the refugees from Ukraine: “the way they are dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East or North Africa. They look like any European family that you'd live next door to.”

Both D'Agata and Al-Jazeera have apologized; it wasn't intended that way; they worded it carelessly; sorry. But hardly any of the other reporters and journalists who expressed themselves in much the same way acknowledged their mistake.

This time, war is wrong because the people look like us and have Instagram and Netflix accounts. It's not in a poor, remote country anymore.” (Daily Telegraph) “The unthinkable has happened... This is not a developing, third world nation; this is Europe!” (ITV) “We are in the 21st century, we are in a European city and we have cruise missile fire as though we were in Iraq or Afghanistan, can you imagine!?” (BFM TV)

Double standards

Such reportage not only reveals a set of double standards, it even implies racism. But that the news outlets’ editors-in-chief didn’t generally correct these statements or draw their correspondents’ attention to them would indicate that they aren’t perceived as being wrong.

One of the laws of journalism is at play here: the further away something happens, the less newsworthy it is seen as being for the reader/viewer/listener. Which is why the war in Ukraine has already filled more column inches and news time inits first two weeks than other wars further afield have in as many—and many more--years.

But how can there be journalists out there who believe this to be the first war dominated by social media? As if the videos out of Syria in recent years didn’t show that the Russians were bombing hospitals, residential areas and fleeing civilians there, too. As if you couldn’t have followed the battle against the Islamic terror group ISIS via Twitter and Facebook. As if, outside Europe and the US, smartphones are only used for making phone calls!


What hurts most is the prejudiced view that Kyiv is more civilized than, for example, Damascus or Baghdad. Kim Ghattas is one of very few journalists who have pointedout that Damascus is one of the world’s longest-inhabited cities, and that it had been at peace for a long time before the uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

It can only make people from Iraq and Syria wonder what civilization is and who the civilized are, given that Iraq is the cradle of civilization and that majordiscoveries have been made here, including the wheel, writing, medicine, mathematics, algebra and law. They point out that people speak several languages there, too, and follow the world news. That these places, too, are home to well-trained doctors and judges, activists, people who work at the UN, and independentwomen.

At the same time, Yazidi activist Murad Ismael notes that there’s a feeling that human rights do not apply to everyone, so that suffering in uncivilized countries is seen as somehow less serious. “I learned from the Yazidi genocide that our worth is very little on the ladder of worthiness.”

Doublestandards are being applied everywhere. Europeans who want to fight in Ukraine are welcomed; several veterans have already joined the Ukrainian army to share their knowledge and battle experience. In contrast, Europeans and Americans who went to Syria to help the Kurds in their fight against the Islamic terrorist group ISIS have been tried and imprisoned on their return home for fighting there.

Resistance is also viewed in the same dual way: that Palestinian women who resist the Israeli occupation are rounded up and labeled as terrorists doesn’t lead to a great deal of protest in Europe. But Ukrainian women who take selfies with a rifle are celebrated as freedom fighters.


Even more painful for many refugees from the Middle East is the sight of borders that constitute an impregnable barrier for them being opened and Ukrainian refugees welcomed in. The same Polish border guards who recently sent Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians back into the cold, snow and frostbite of the border area with Belarus are now welcoming Ukrainians. That ordinary (Polish) citizens are queuing at the border to offer refugees shelter makes them jealous and bitter.

Making matters worse still are the politicians who are declaring Ukrainians to be “intelligent, educated refugees” who are “unlikely to spread terrorism”—as if every refugee from the Middle East and beyond would do exactly that.

In just seven days, about as many Ukrainians have sought refuge in the EU as refugees entered the bloc over the whole of 2015 during the Syria crisis. Back then, this led to increasingly strict asylum policies, agreements with Turkey and Libya on stopping refugees, xenophobia, and a rise in popularity for right-wing and the extreme right-wing politics. How different the situation is now! Asylum rules are being openly flouted, strict admission interviews have been phased out, and the Ukrainians are being allowed to stay freely for the time being.

And then there is the plight of the foreign citizens and students who were living legally in Ukraine and want now to flee the bombs, just as Ukrainian nationals do. No one is helping them to get out of Ukraine, and if they do manage to get to the border on their own, the Ukrainian border guards have even been known to stop them there.

When foreign ministers from countries like Nigeria and Ecuador called on the Ukrainians to let their nationals leave, their Ukrainian counterpart said it was all simply the result of ‘chaos at the borders’. There were no official restrictions, he proclaimed. The only apologies were made by a Ukrainian journalist who took a public stand against this kind of discrimination by her fellow countrymen.


In a war, everything becomes black and white. And it is no surprise that a war in Europe should be receiving more attention than one being fought far away. Part of the reason is that this war could have direct consequences for us in Europe if it proliferates, and especially if nuclear weapons come into play.

But victims are victims, whatever their nationality, color or religion. And while we know what can happen when we treat people differently because they come from different backgrounds, with the Second World War and the victims of the Holocaust still remembered annually, it is still happening.

While Ukraine gets all the attention, the wars in Syria and Yemen are sliding ever further from the spotlight. And while Ukrainians are given shelter, refugees of wars in other countries clamber into unstable boats and drown on their way to the same safety the Ukrainians seek. No one would deny the Ukrainians that attention and assistance in these dark days. But they are not more civilized than other victims of war. Nor are they alone in their suffering, which is no better or worse than anyone else's.

The citizens of Ukraine have not asked for war, any more than any of the other victims did. And they are no less scared, cold, tired and persecuted than others in the same situation, regardless of their color or religion.

Monday, March 15, 2021

When taking a taxi becomes haram for a woman


Badly affected by the corona pandemic as well as an economic crisis, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is facing a rise in domestic violence, while conservative imams increasingly oppose women’s rights activists.

Kurdish Salafist imam at book fair in Erbil  FOTO JUDIT NEURINK

By Judit Neurink

The corona crisis has had a huge effect on the position of women in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, as it has in many Middle Eastern countries. As Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed of the United Nations recently warned: without immediate action, “the pandemic could set back women’s rights by decades”. 

All over the Middle East, violence against women has increased since the pandemic began. Women’s shelters are packed to capacity and beyond. But in Kurdistan, even shelters could not prevent disasters. A young woman divorced by her husband for perceived infidelity was collected from just such a shelter by her family, who even signed a promise for the court that they would keep her safe. Within days, three of her brothers had murdered her.

This is just one of many incidents in the autonomous region, which is known as the safest part of Iraq. And while Kurdistan was a major player in the battle against the Islamic terror group ISIS, the rise of the group rise drew attention to the attraction Islamic radicalism continues to hold for some Kurds. At the start of this century, the region brought forth Al Qaida affiliates like the Ansar al-Islam group. To fight the attraction of ISIS, the Kurdish authorities closed mosques and banned a number of radical imams from preaching. 


Since the group was largely expelled from Iraq in 2017, these measures have slackened off once again, and imams are back preaching their radical messages. Corona, together with an economic crisis in Kurdistan, has had a big impact on women as well as on the work being done to improve their rights, says Bahar Ali (52), director of the Emma Foundation for Human Development. “The mollahs make my work very difficult,” she complains over Whatsapp from the Kurdistan capital of Erbil. “Because of the economic crisis and the ongoing political conflict, they are even more active. For now less attention is being paid to women’s issues.”

Kurdistan has not been able to pay salaries to government employees and pensioners for months now. Because everyone is focused on surviving and mostly remain inside the home, domestic violence is on the rise again. “Politically, women’s issues are not a priority. There is also less money for our organizations and our activities.”

At the same time, conservative imams have started attacking women activists. Feminists have been painted as a key enemy, seen as being against Islam and its values. “They say we import strange ideas from the West. That we want the number of divorces to go up. That it is us behind the dwindling respect for fathers and brothers,” Ali sums up. “The problem is that our patriarchal society listens to the imams.” Their reach is huge, through their 5000 mosques in Kurdistan. “Plus, almost every imam has his own TV channel, and many followers on social media. There are personal attacks on us, too, by the same media and in personal messages.” 


Just how influential they are was made clear in Kurdistan’s cultural capital, Sulaymaniya, where an artwork treating violence against women was destroyed within a day of its installation. Artist Tara Abdulla (24) had collected the clothes of 100,000 victims of domestic violence and sewn their dresses, shirts, scarves, bras and panties into a 5-kilometer-long washing line hung along the city’s main street. Her intention of spotlighting bad practices in a conservative society received support, but the artwork also came under fire for tarnishing the city’s image.  Abdulla: “Is the city tarnished by pain and violence, or by this piece of art?” Hours after the washing line was officially installed, a teenager on a motorbike set the clothes on fire. The whole line was then taken down.

Addressing violence against women directly touches upon the power over women that conservative men feel is theirs, says Xelan Nawzad (23). “It angers our religious men, and their influence in Kurdistan is huge.”

From a conservative family herself, she divorced and moved away to escape the wrath of her brothers. As a sociology student at the University of Sulaymaniya, her research into the Quran made it clear to her how religion impacts on culture and on women’s lives. To her, religion is “the first subject feminists should address, as it is the main reason we do not have freedom.” She wants to fight the mollahs with the same tools they use to maintain their hold on women’s lives: texts from the Quran.

She cites a recent example. An Iraqi bank is offering loans for second marriages, and is supported by one of the most conservative and vocal Kurdish imams, Mollah Mazhar Khorasani. He propagates polygamy, even though a Kurdish law placed tight restrictions on the practice. He has stated that the measure would be good for widows and single women, because men are numerically a minority in Kurdistan. “I could not find that particular argument anywhere in the Quran. Only that, after a military victory, women could be taken as wives and slaves.” 


With this practice employed recently by ISIS against Yezidis, the mollah had to find another, more acceptable, excuse, she says. Yet when Nawzad wrote an article on this subject, a feminist website refused to publish it. “Their argument is that the Quran is not our subject. So who should tell our women about it, then? Our women, who are scared of men and society?”

How big an influence religion is was also made clear when the Fatwa Council of Islamic Scholars in Kurdistan issued a fatwa on women travelling alone by taxi. In conservative thought, it is damaging for a woman’s honor to be alone in a car with a man she does not know. Although there have been incidents where drivers took advantage of such situations, declaring a taxi ride haram (forbidden) for women not only puts the responsibility on her, it also makes traveling difficult for women in a country where public transport hardly exists. After protests by Bahar Ali’s organization among others, and with many women ignoring the fatwa, it was finally withdrawn.

Bahar Ali is frustrated most of all by how hard it is proving to reach out to conservative women. “We don’t have enough platforms, especially compared to the imams. Also, it is not easy for uneducated women to understand the issue. Many think it is all in the Quran. We tell them not to be misled by the imams, as this concerns their own personal freedom.”

This is exactly why Xelan Nawzad prefers to improve women’s knowledge of the Quran than to make texts by western feminists available to Kurdish women by translating them, as other feminists in Sulaymaniya are doing. “The sexuality of western women is not our business. Much more important are the barriers we keep finding in our way: those conservative ideas about virginity and honor.”

Her message might find a bigger audience soon. Because of the worsening situation, more women are coming forward to fight for women’s rights in Kurdistan. A new generation, bringing its own experiences and ideas with it. “Five years ago, we were all about my age,” says Bahar Ali. “Now we are seeing more and more young women with critical minds coming to gain information. Those we train. For they are our future.”

Sunday, March 14, 2021

A trial sparks a wave of desperation and distrust in Iraq's Kurdistan

The trial of five Kurdish activists and journalists for 'spying' has left Kurds furious with their leaders. As hardship increases, they recoil against growing authoritarianism, writes Judit Neurink.

One of the journalists being led away after the trial.   FOTO TWITTER

by Judit Neurink 
"But Your Honour, they threatened to rape my wife!"

This exclamation, by a Kurdish journalist to the judge who would go on to sentence him to six years in jail for spying, may have made an even greater impression than the verdict itself.

Based on notes and pictures on the journalists' phones, plus confessions they refute or say were made under duress, five Kurdish journalists and activists had been convicted before the trial in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil even began.

At a press conference days earlier, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq denied that the 70 or so Kurds imprisoned during anti-government protests were journalists and activists.

He said they were "spies" working for "foreign powers" and provoking conflict, and "armed vandals who tried to bomb foreign missions". The prime minister, who headed his party's secret service before taking office, offered no proof to back up his allegations.

Given the number of judges Barzani's ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has appointed in recent years in those parts of the Kurdistan Region it administers, the verdict was seen as a foregone conclusion. At least one of the trial judges was also a prominent member of the KDP, and court documents circulating on social media indicate that Barzani ordered the verdict personally. Even if these claims are not true, the independence of Kurdish justice is clearly in jeopardy.

Read the whole story here

Gulf states embrace Israel — and the language, too

Hebrew lessons are in demand in the Gulf. Since the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed the rapprochement deals with Israel last year, "Shalom" is now often heard on the streets of Dubai.

Students in a classroom in Dubai
Hebrew language courses are experiencing a boom in Gulf states   FOTO EHI

By Judit Neurink

Curiosity, that's why May al-Badi wanted to learn Hebrew. "Wanting to know more about something we don't have here," says the young Emirati woman who lives in Dubai. Until recently, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had no formal ties with Israel. "I've been fascinated by the language since I made Jewish friends in the United States."

But the main reason she is finally starting an online course is her Jewish friends she'd met in Dubai; expats who invited her to eat with them in their homes for the Shabbat, the start of the Jewish weekend on Friday night.

That was a year ago, after the Emirates officially declared 2019 its Year of Tolerance. This led to the small Jewish expat community in the UAE coming out into the open with plans to build a synagogue. Since the UAE signed the Abraham Accords [Normalization agreements - the ed.] with Israel last September, thousands of Israeli businesspeople and tourists have flocked to Dubai. Hotels have adapted to their specific needs, offering kosher food but also pre-Shabbat meals for as many as 200 people at a time.

Read the whole story here

Friday, October 2, 2020

Are Iraqi youths losing their religion?

Despite the influence of religion in Iraqi politics, recent studies show that young people in Iraq are increasingly identifying as secularist. 

by Judit Neurink

“It’s about my identity,” Yara Ali said with confidence. Ali is an Arab-Iraqi lawyer and prominent activist living in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq; for security reasons, she uses a pseudonym.

“I was forced to wear it. It was to protect me, but it wasn’t me.” Yara, 29, told Al-Monitor. A couple of years ago, the modern, educated woman who had become a professional and loved her job decided to take off her headscarf.

Her internal conflict was caused by her upbringing by a pious mother and a secular father. “I was raised to be independent and strong, with my mother setting limits,” she said. The emancipation process gained speed when she traveled for her work and studies and was introduced to people with different backgrounds from her own.

“Extremist groups were another layer,” she said of the process that ended with her eventually taking off the headscarf. The policies that the Islamic State (IS) promoted in captured areas inside Iraq and Syria, and the atrocities they committed there, shocked the world. “It made me worry how people saw me — because of IS many people now view Muslims as bad people.”

Although Arab Barometer, a research network at Princeton University and the University of Michigan, suggests that the political system in countries like Iraq and Lebanon reinforces religious identities, which serves to maintain the religious influence in daily life, the same body concluded its 2019 polling surveys by writing, "There has been a decline in religious faith and trust in religious parties across the Middle East and North Africa."

Friday, June 12, 2020

Bankrupt Kurdistan is no longer 'the other Iraq'

The Kurdistan region of Iraq has hit rock bottom. What was once a promising 'other Iraq' is now a politically and financially bankrupt disappointment, writes Judit Neurink. 

"Welcome to 'the other Iraq'," tourists would be told when holidaying in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The three Iraqi provinces the Kurds have governed since 1992 were not only lush, green and mountain cool, but also more liberal, democratic and safer than the rest of Iraq.

It was the promise of democratic development that brought me to Kurdistan's cultural capital, Sulaymaniyah in 2008. After years of regularly visiting Iraq to train journalists, I had come to set up a media centre focused on developing the role of media, politicians and police in their new democracy.

Here, intellectual freedom - struggling in the region as a whole - finally seemed a given. Independent media started up, we organised debates, people dared to speak out. It was a completely different situation from the rest of Iraq and would only get better with time.

Twelve years later, that promise seems to have vanished behind the mountains. Soon after I settled in Kurdistan, one of my students was murdered for exposing ties between politicians and prostitution. More colleagues have been killed since. Tribal loyalties and overeager party members were usually blamed, in order to hide the darker and still less palatable truth.

A press law was now in place, but most courts still tried journalists using older laws that allowed them to impose punishments for reporting on taboo subjects like fraud, self-enrichment and abuses of powers.

I have seen TV studios set on fire and journalists beaten, harassed and arrested. Independent papers have now disappeared from the streets, and are now fighting for survival online. The freedoms the Kurds had worked so hard to prioritise, have been taken away by politicians who always put their own survival first.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Jewish heritage survived 'Islamic State' in Iraq

Mosul's Jewish quarter miraculously survived three years of occupation by the "Islamic State" terror group and the battle to evict it. Reporter Judit Neurink and photographer Eddy van Wessel went there to find out how.

Jewish heritage in Mosul (FOTO JUDIT NEURINK)

Judit Neurink, Mosul

When the Islamic militants of IS were finally routed from the city, most of western Mosul was left in ruins. But not the Jewish quarter. Here too, people are working to restore their houses. However, these are mostly still standing and mainly need repairs and a coat of paint to erase the traces of three years of occupation. While most residents fled the battle to free their neighborhoods of IS, they are now back.

Seventy-two-year-old Imad Fetah, who stands in front of his freshly painted gate, wearing a spotless white dishdasha, a scarf draped over his head, never left..

As he recounts the events of the years of occupation, he points to the blackened remains of a building across the narrow street. The fire was started by IS, he says, after the inhabitants had been ordered to leave. The house, which was built around a covered courtyard in the traditional Mosul style, is badly damaged but can still be restored.

When people realized what IS intended to do to their homes, they started refusing to leave. Fetah stayed put, too. "Daesh destroys old things," he says sadly, using the local name for IS. It wasn't only this neighborhood — every monument that did not fit with their strict version of Islam had to go: statues of poets and writers, Sufi places of worship, libraries with unique book collections.

The Islamic militants would only tolerate the things they had a use for, Fetah states. "Like the tunnels in our quarter which the Jews had dug." The tunnels were built to give the residents an escape route in case of danger. Until the IS takeover, they were likely last used when anti-Jewish riots erupted after the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948.

Read the whole story here