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We're All Living in America: Kurdish Muslim Cancel Culture Edition
While Islamist theocracy never caught on in Kurdistan, online conservative outrage culture has.
One of the axioms I live by is from the Roman playwright Terence: “I consider nothing human alien to me.” Every culture is certainly unique, but you can recognize patterns, and people around the world react similarly to similar forces.
Recently, Kurdish friends have been complaining about “Islamists” and “extremists” policing other people’s behavior through social media. The latest examples include shutting down a rap concert in Erbil, killing an Iraqi Kurdish bill to protect against domestic violence, and moving to criminalize LGBT activism in Iraqi Kurdistan.
But when I dug into it, the activists behind these moves were not using the language of Islamist theocracy. Their worldview was really just Kurdish nationalism with a heavier emphasis on the Sunni Muslim angle. (A lot of them threw out references to Saladin.) And their idea of the threats facing Kurdish Muslim identity was very much driven by media outrage.
In other words, it’s the same kind of right-wing social media activism that have caught on in other parts of the world. Or, as my piece for Reason Magazine today was titled, “Conservative Cancel Culture Comes to Kurdistan.”
Here’s the most important insight, in my opinion:
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."
Rich people have always been doing things that traditionalists might find weird and offensive. And conservative aristocrats have long tried to defend the honor of their class from libertine upstarts. Terence, the Roman playwright I quoted at the beginning of this piece, ruthlessly satirized these kinds of scandals.
A lot of these intra-elite fights were far from the minds from ordinary people, except when someone was purposely trying to stir up popular outrage. Mass media, particular social media, have made it so that elite business is everyone’s business. A provocative work of art or soundbite from a fringe liberal activist can get beamed directly into the living room of every middle class family at once.
Anyways, that’s enough theorizing. Go read the article on Reason.com and see my reporting about how it all unfolds on the ground.
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