The Nation – 7 Apr 2015 – Omar is only 23, but there are already large portions of his life he wants to keep secret. I can write that he was studying chemistry in Erbil and that he was blocked from graduating, he says, as punishment for belonging to a Kurdish Islamist party based in Halabja, where Omar is from. I can write that, because of this, in 2013 he went to Syria to join the Nusra Front, militant jihadists who were a precursor to (and now enemies of) ISIS, but I cannot say exactly when, or for how long, or why he left.
Omar does insist that I write why he went. “Muslims in Syria were being persecuted by [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad,” he said, his hands wrapped around a mug of tea. “Western countries wouldn’t do anything for Syrians except talk about them in the media. I thought that if the people there were not Muslim, if they were Christian, then all the countries would go and support them, and stop Assad from killing them.”
We met in an Erbil restaurant specializing in pizza with exotic toppings. Omar refused to eat; it went against his political beliefs, he said. He hates the new Erbil—the wealth and what he considers only a pretense of tolerance. He wore a drab Kurdish suit, his pants ballooning around his legs. “It’s really hard to be a devout Muslim here,” he said. Since he returned from Syria, the Kurdish internal security forces, called asayish, have followed him everywhere.
It’s an old story. In the early 2000s, Ansar al-Islam, a militant Islamist group, had its stronghold near Halabja, and the town remains tainted by the group’s history of extremism. PUK and American forces drove them out in 2003, but opposition still took the form of Islamist parties, even if more moderate in their approach.
Because of their reputation, Halabjans felt ignored. The beautifully paved road that took politicians from monument to cemetery did not run through the town, and visitors easily bypassed it. When the student-led protest burned down the monument in 2006, they listed their demands.
In response to the protest, the KRG paved the road, started construction on a university and improved basic infrastructure. Halabjans also wanted some control over the ceremony marking the attacks, demanding back some of what San Francisco State University scholar Nicole Watts calls their “symbolic capital” from the state. In doing so, they hoped to “reshape both the distribution of resources and the production of historical memory,” she writes in a 2012 essay on the Halabja protests.
In many ways, the protesters achieved what they set out to do: they got the attention of politicians, who then compromised on important demands. But the KRG, which presents itself as secular, has been less tolerant of Halabja’s religious conservatism. Reportedly, a large percentage of Iraqi Kurds who joined jihadist forces in Syria came from Halabja. Locals remember being interrogated and detained during the days of Ansar al-Islam, and they worry that this time it could be worse.
Kurdistan’s anti-terror law allows for extended periods of detention without charges, and officials, concerned about national security, monitor Halabja for people with sympathies for ISIS. Families complain privately that young men from Halabja have been detained indefinitely for suspected ties to extremism. Security officials told one family with a son in detention that he will be released “when things calm down.”
Omar was told that if he returned from Syria and turned himself in, he wouldn’t be prosecuted under the terror law, and so in 2013, he returned home. He was interrogated by PUK security four times in Sulaymaniyah, each time for five hours. His interrogators made him feel helpless. “I went to Syria to help Muslims get their sense of dignity,” he told me. “And now they take away mine.”
When his ordeal was over, Omar returned to his school in Erbil, determined to finish his studies. Almost immediately, he was arrested again, this time by KDP security. Omar tried to explain that he had already gone through interrogation. “I said, I finished everything in Sulaymaniyah! The court released me!” He spent six months in an Erbil prison on terrorism charges. Omar was angry, but more than that, he was confused. He knew why he was arrested—he defends his actions, but he knows that what he did was illegal—but not why he was imprisoned twice. “If we have two Kurdistans,” he said, “then deport me to my Kurdistan.”
Outside the airy restaurant, Omar was more relaxed. Inside, he felt sure he was being watched, that the teenage waiter was also a spy for the asayish. He felt persecuted for his religious beliefs, and driven to Syria because of that persecution. By the time we met, almost two years after he returned from Syria, he was hardened, convinced by ISIS propaganda. “I don’t believe in moderate Muslims anymore,” he said.
“The Kurdish system exploits the poor and serves the rich,” he said, as we drove past the hotels and malls that have come to define Erbil. Omar grimaced, gesturing out the car window. “This is the fake Erbil,” he said. “What is the real Erbil?” I asked. He laughed. “The villages and towns outside,” he replied. “Everything outside of Erbil is the real Erbil.”