The Political Marginalisation of Ethnic and Religious Minorities in Iraq

For Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities to enjoy equal political rights and participate in decision-making, an important place to start is to address their sense of political marginalisation. Inclusion through effective and meaningful – not mere symbolic – political participation underpins their sense of belonging, and essential to preserve the country’s rich mosaic of diversity and sustain peace in the long run.

The result of Iraq’s parliamentary elections in October 2021 reinvigorated controversies over the distribution of the quota seats reserved for the country’s minorities. Despite the affirmative action utilised through the quota system, issues related to the election law and the interference from the influential mainstream parties are thought to impede the independence and effectiveness of minorities’ representation. The election was considered as largely “well managed and competitive” despite the low turnout, concerns related to the level playing field, and some aspects of the legal framework.[i] The election (the fifth since 2003) was held under a new electoral law – a key demand of the 2019 protests – that broke down the formerly 18 electoral districts into 83 in a bid to improve representation of the electorate.[ii] In addition to the quota for women, which is a quarter of the total seats, nine seats are reserved for minorities (5 for Christians and 1 each for Yazidis, Shabaks, Sabian Mandaeans and Feyli Kurds).[iii]

The Babylon movement, the political wing of the Babylon Brigades, a nominally Christian militia formed in 2014 as part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and an ally of pro-Iran Fatah, won four of the five seats reserved for Christians. The result prompted other Christian parties and figures to express their reservations about the legitimacy of the vote and Babylon’s representation of Iraq’s Christians due to the role of an outside bloc in its victory.[iv]

Minority Quota and Gaps in Political Participation

Minorities have come to see the quota system under its current form as a form of political manipulation.

For Iraq’s minorities, while the allocation of legislative quota seats means recognition of their communities through representation that is commensurate with their population size, they have strong objections about how these seats are contested. Under the current election law, as was the case in the previous ones, voters from all ethnosectarian backgrounds can vote for quota seats despite minority groups’ repeated pleas to limit the right to elect quota seats to voters from their communities only.[v] Minorities have thus come to see the quota system under its current form as a form of political manipulation that enables the powerful non-minority blocs to snatch the quota seats introduced ostensibly to give them political representation. For Yonadam Kanna, a veteran Assyrian politician, who was the only Christian member of the National Transitional Council, established following the US-led invasion in 2003, “the current mechanism is equivalent to the confiscation of the will of Christians through voting en bloc by other parties”.[vi]

Worse still is the mainstream parties’ inclusion of candidates from minority backgrounds in their electoral lists to secure the minority vote or nomination of their own members running as candidates in minority coalitions in a bid to secure quota seats. These candidates are largely seen to represent the political interests of their parties,[vii] rather than the aspirations and demands of their communities.[viii] For example, for the first time two members of the Kaka’i, also known as Ahl-e Haqq or Yarsan, a religious minority group generally considered Kurdish in ethnicity, nominated by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) for Nineveh and Kirkuk, were elected for Iraq’s parliament. While this could be interpreted as a positive development for a minority community that has for long decried its political exclusion,[ix] the reaction among the community has been more dismissive, as Rajab Kakai, a prominent Kaka’i activist stressed, albeit wistfully, to this author “They are Kaka’i representing their parties”.[x]

The sense of marginalization is even more dire among the Yazidis as large segments of the population feel unrepresented. The Yazidi activist Murad Ismael highlighted “the quota system has been a disadvantage for Yazidis and has forced many Yazidi parties to compete for just one seat, which is not in proportion with the population of our community”. Prior to the IS advance, Yazidi in Iraq numbered approximately 500,000 and concentrated in Sinjar. Following the so-called Islamic State’s (IS) atrocities against the community, many new voices have emerged, including survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. However, due to the unlevel playing field, including financial and political hurdles, these emerging leaders face difficulties to enter politics and represent their community. The Yazidi activist lamented that “the independent and emerging leaders are pitted against rigid institutions and influential parties who have far more leverage and resources to mobilize voters”.[xi]

The Yazidi community celebrates New Year’s (Idris Okuducu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images).

Whether they fall under the Government of Iraq or the Kurdistan Regional Government, minorities face exclusionary practices based on language, history and teachings of religion and citizenship.

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) follows the same vein where the participation of minorities remains ineffectual due to the dominance of the ruling parties,[xii] despite an outwardly favourable environment to religious freedoms and setting eleven legislative quota seats for minority groups (five each for Christians and Turkmen and one for Armenians).[xiii] Politicians that occupy these quota seats are sometimes criticized for merely supporting the policies of the ruling KDP, which consequently deprives minorities of authentic representation. However, political participation and representation (or lack thereof) is part of the wider practices and narratives of inclusion and exclusion in Iraq (including the KRI). In the wake of the conflict with IS, the Kurdish authorities have developed political narratives appealing to different audiences – both domestic and external – stressing their tolerance as well as role as protectors of ethnic and religious minorities to distinguish the KRI from the rest of Iraq and other countries in the region.[xiv] Similarly, federal Iraqi authorities have failed time and again to deliver on their promises of justice and restoration support,[xv] and inclusion of minorities to dissuade them from emigration.[xvi] Therefore it is no wonder that minorities have lost trust in national institutions and protection measures which have failed them in the past. Nevertheless, whether they fall under the Government of Iraq (GoI) or the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), minorities face exclusionary practices based on language, history and teachings of religion and citizenship in the education curriculum that ignore Iraq’s rich mosaic of ethnic and religious diversity.[xvii] The UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues stresses that apart from inadequate political participation, minorities in Iraq also face discrimination and exclusion in the labour market including employment in government, judiciary, and public sector.[xviii]

Caught in between Baghdad-Erbil Disputes

Marginalisation is also inextricably linked to the politics of the disputed territories which includes the provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salah al-Din.

Elections are only one dimension of the plight of minorities in Iraq. Their marginalisation is also inextricably linked to the politics of the disputed territories which includes the provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salah al-Din. In 2014, IS particularly targeted minority communities living in Nineveh province in northern Iraq, such as Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and Kaka’i, among others. The Nineveh Plains has historically been home to many cultural groups living side by side, and represents an important part of Iraq as a multicultural society. However, it is also a disputed territory, where since 2003 the GoI and KRG have competed for administrative authority in the province. This competition was partly responsible for the failure to deliver on the needs of the region’s population, and gradually increasing insecurity and tension, including between the minority communities themselves.

Vying for influence, both Baghdad and Erbil have competed for the political loyalty of minorities through courting minority community leaders to support their policies in the disputed territories, thus undermining inter- and intra-communal cohesion. The two governments have also sought to co-opt and allay the security concerns of these groups by creating security units (Popular Mobilisation Forces or peshmerga) composed of minorities in the name of community self-defence.[xix] Tensions and its resulting insecurity still prevail in these areas. It is also why the scars left by the extremist group’s three-and-a-half-year rule in northern Iraq remain deep as thousands of Christians and Yazidis remain displaced.[xx] Unlike other ethnosectarian communities, the return process has been less attractive to these displaced minority groups. In addition to contextual and socioeconomic factors underpinning returns, minority groups have demanded protection and guarantees as preconditions for return that both GoI and KRG have failed to provide. In the absence of a post-IS political arrangement and the lingering competition between the two governments in the disputed territories, displaced Yazidis and Christians remain reluctant to return home.[xxi]

Christian worshippers gather around a bonfire outside the Syriac Catholic Church in Iraq’s predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh (Baghdeda), in Nineveh province, on 24th December, 2021 (Zaid Al-Obeidi / AFP/Getty).

What Needs to Change?

Lack of action to address minorities’ sense of political marginalization has reinforced a widely-held view that the ruling ethnosectarian blocs are indifferent to the pressure and suffering of minorities and only pay lip service to preserving Iraq’s rich mosaic of ethnic and religious diversity. Numerous pledges and proposals have been made to address the political marginalisation of minorities, but successive governments have failed to implement them. As Christians mark one year since the Pope’s historic visit,[xxii] Iraq’s political blocs have an opportunity to fulfil their pledges to support minorities starting with the amendment of the quota system in line with international standards to ensure effective and meaningful – not mere symbolic – political participation.[xxiii] Hussam Abdullah, from the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities, a minority rights’ advocacy group, said that ‘an appropriate mechanism to ensure effective participation is to reserve the election of minority quota seats to voters from these communities’.[xxiv] The quota will then reflect minorities’ aspirations which underpin their sense of belonging in Iraq too. Such a move will represent a litmus test for the mainstream parties’ commitment to help minority communities not only to survive but also thrive in their ancestral homeland. It is also important to reverse the emigration of these minority groups whose numbers have been in decline as targeted attacks against them escalated after 2003 but also since 2014 as a result of deeply entrenched issues including discrimination, socio-economic and political marginalization and IS atrocities against minorities.[xxv] To reverse these trends, these communities need to be shown that they truly have a place in Iraq. Introducing and enforcing legal measures to protect the minorities’ rights – including the right for effective and meaningful participation – is a clear sign of both the federal and regional governments’ commitment to pluralism and democracy. Improved political participation is essential for minorities to raise their issues and concerns, but also to sustain peace and coexistence in the long run.

[i] ‘European Union Election Observation Mission Iraq 2021 Preliminary Statement’, 12 Oct. 2021. https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/default/files/eu_eom_iraq_2021_preliminary_statement_2.pdf
[ii] Shivan Fazil and Dylan O’Driscoll, ‘Iraqis go to the polls on October 10. What happens next?’, Euronews, 4 Oct. 2021. https://www.euronews.com/2021/10/04/iraqis-go-to-the-polls-on-october-10-what-happens-next-view
[iii] ‘Election law of Council of Representatives. no. 9, 2020’, the official Gazette of Iraq, Issue 4603. https://moj.gov.iq/upload/pdf/4603.pdf
[iv] ‘انتخابات العراق.. المسيحيون يطالبون بتغيير “قانون الكوتا”’, Sky News Arabic, 27 Oct 2021.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Author interview conducted in November 2021 via WhatsApp.
[vii] ‘نظام الكوتا..هل يلبي طموح المسيحيين خلال انتخابات العراق؟’, Sky News Arabic, 8 Oct 2021.
[viii] Yolande Knell, ‘Iraq’s minorities fear for their future’, BBC, 23 Sep. 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-41277880
[ix] Iraq’s Constitution has not recognized Kakai as a religion and are registered as Muslims in official documents, see Saad Salloum, ‘Who are Iraq’s Kakai’, Al Monitor, 10 Feb. 2016. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2016/02/iraq-kakai-religious-minority-kurdistan-quota.html
[x] Author interview conducted in November 2021 via Skype.
[xi] Author interview conducted in November 2021 via Zoom.
[xii] Farhad Abdullah and Hawre Hasan Hama, ‘Minority Representation and Reserved Legislative Seats in Iraqi Kurdistan’, Contemporary Review of the Middle East. 2020;7(4):381-402. doi:10.1177/2347798920939821
[xiii] United Stated Commission on International Religious Freedom. ‘Wilting in the Kurdish Sun: The Hopes and Fears of Religious Minorities in Northern Iraq’, May 2017. https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Kurdistan%20report.%20Long.pdf
[xiv] Costantini I, O’Driscoll D. Practices of exclusion, narratives of inclusion: Violence, population movements and identity politics in post-2014 northern Iraq. Ethnicities. 2020;20(3):481-500. doi:10.1177/1468796819858712
[xv] Waldman, N. ‘Iraq’s reparations law for Yezidi survivors is a positive step’, Al Jazeera, 18 Jun. 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/6/28/iraqs-reparations-law-for-yezidi-survivors-is-a-positive-step
[xvi] Migration is seen by community leaders of minority groups, prone to risk due to Iraq’s political divide and breakdown of security, as the only solution to their community’s survival from extinction. See ‘From Crisis to Catastrophe: the situation of minorities in Iraq’, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CESCR/Shared%20Documents/IRQ/INT_CESCR_ICO_IRQ_19803_E.pdf
[xvii] Shanks, K (2016) The changing role of education in the Iraqi disputed territories: Assimilation, segregation and indoctrination. Globalisation, Societies and Education 14(3): 422–433.
[xviii] UN., ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues on her mission to Iraq’, 9 Jan. 2017. https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G17/002/44/PDF/G1700244.pdf?OpenElement
[xix] Erica Gaston and Andras Derzsi-Horvath, ‘Iraq After ISIL Sub-State Actors, Local Forces, and the Micro-Politics of Control’, Global Public Policy Institute, 21 Mar. 2018. https://www.gppi.net/2018/03/21/iraq-after-isil-sub-state-actors-local-forces-and-the-micro-politics-of-control
[xx] Mina Aldroubi, ‘Iraqi Christians see little prospect of returning to former homes’, The National News, 16 Aug. 2021. https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/iraq/2021/08/16/iraqi-christians-see-little-prospect-of-returning-to-former-homes/; Kristina Schlick, ‘Yazidis still displaced in their own country’, DW, 6 Nov. 2021. https://www.dw.com/en/yazidis-still-displaced-in-their-own-country/a-59725928
[xxi] Armed groups with competing political interests operate in Nineveh plains and Sinjar, which is also entangled in a geopolitical competition between Iraq and Turkey. Kittleson, S., ‘Turkey targets PKK-linked Yazidis inside Iraq’, Al Monitor, 13 Dec. 2021. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/12/turkey-targets-pkk-linked-yazidis-inside-iraq
[xxii] ‘Pope ends historic Iraq visit with messages of coexistence’, 8 Mar. 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/8/pope-ends-iraq-visit-after-mass-in-isil-ruined-city-of-mosul
[xxiii] ‘Minority Rights: International Standards and Guidelines for implementation’, United Nations, 2010. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/MinorityRights_en.pdf
[xxiv] Author interview conducted in December 2021 via zoom.
[xxv] Spencer, W. et al. ‘Crossroads: The future of Iraq’s minorities after ISIS’, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, May 2017. https://www.kas.de/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=d69ea2cc-d8b5-a321-3b27-224c92e086f0&groupId=252038; Ferris, E and Taylor, A. ‘the Past and Future of Iraq’s Minorities’, the Brookings, 8 Sept. 2014. https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-past-and-future-of-iraqs-minorities/

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2 July 2022

“Economics and Rebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa” showcases articles about the various ways of conceiving the region’s economies as well as reconstruction.