Gona Saed is the head of the directors board (abroad branch) for the Kurdistan Secular Centre, a locally based grassroots organization campaigning for and raising awareness of secularism in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is formed from human rights activists sick of the sectarian violence plaguing the Middle East and who decided to stand up and fight for a better future.
Gona also works with the Kurdish and Middle Eastern Womens' Organization (based in the UK), of which she is a founding member, to help women who suffer from honor violence.
She graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Research Fellow Elliot Friedland about her vision for a secular Kurdistan and why it is so important.
Clarion Project: How and why was the Kurdistan Secular Centre founded?
Gona Saed: The Kurdistan Secular Centre (KSC) was launched at a public meeting in Suleymaniya, Iraqi Kurdistan after four months of meetings by prominent intellectuals and rights activists. The meeting attended by hundreds of individual supporters, representatives of many civil society, human rights youth and women’s organisations as well as political parties. The KSC and its launch made the main headlines of national and local media in the few days followed.
There main reason behind the establishment of KSC is to give a voice to the majority of people in Iraqi Kurdistan, who wish for a secular political, educational and social system to rule their lives instead of allowing Islam to influence and interfere in every aspect of their lives.
To elaborate, In Iraqi Kurdistan you could clearly see two very contradicting faces of our society. On one side, you have religion and its institutions which interfere in every aspect of individual and societal life from how people spend their leisure time, to a huge influence of Islam on all our laws. Women are hugely discriminated against in issues of marriage, divorce, abortion, custody of children and inheritance, all depending on sharia principles of family life.
This religious interference is institutionalised by the political parties and Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) through establishing and funding a Minster of Religion, over 5000 mosques, and over 2800 religious public speakers. Most of these promote Salafism. Religious imams, teachers and lecturers who mostly belong to political Islamic parties are also given a lot of freedom over education, setting up schools and madrasas that only teach religion.
But on the other side Kurdistan society is full of people with a secularist culture. People, although been identified as Muslims, but in their daily practice they are modern, seculars and forward thinking. Religion does not play a large part in daily life and culture.
People wish for more personal freedoms, equality and human rights, freedom of speech and expression. Evidence of the way people live their lives are everywhere from home to the universities and the street, for example despite the continuous calls from religious imam to send women back home, women make up 30% of politicians and are joining education like never before.
Since 1991 the women’s emancipation movement has been very active with several organisations that struggle for full equality and especially demanding changes in personal statues law and Iraqi Penal Code to put an end to discrimination in legislation. There is a strong movement defending freedom of speech and expression, freedom of criticism and thought. Demonstrations have been held against the religious Imams encouraging violence against women and girls.
Because of this power given to religion; freedoms are limited and many freethinkers have been continually threatened and sometimes physically attacked. Several authors, political activists and journalists were assassinated in the last decade. Some are threatened with imprisonment because of expressing their views on religion in social media.
The authorities ignore evidence of direct link between pro Jihad motivational speeches at Friday Prayers and the hundreds of youth from Iraqi Kurdistan who joined ISIS in the name of loyalty to God and Jihad.
The establishment of KSC has brought courage and a united voice for secular people to make a stand against the power given to religion over their lives, for the first time in Iraqi Kurdistan creating a collective voice advocating the secular political, legislative and educational systems which people hope for.
Clarion: One of the key demands of the Kurdistan Secular Centre is a secular constitution for Kurdistan. What exists now and how do you want to change it? Why?
Saed: At present Iraqi Kurdistan has a draft constitution that is given to a committee established from representatives of the 5 majority political parties (two Islamist and three Non-Religious). They will redraft it and make it ready for a public referendum within a few months.
In Article 6 the draft constitution acknowledges that “Islam” is the religion of vast majority of people and therefore would be considered the main source of legislation. The same article also states that “No law should be established that contradict with the unchangeable rulings of Islam”, without defining those ‘unchangeable rulings’. Article 30 in the draft states all other religious minorities such as Christians, Yazidi, Shabak and Kaka’i will be allowed to have their own religious personal statues codes.
In our campaign “Yes to a Secular Constitution” we are calling to abolish Article 6, instead announcing a secular constitution that confirms separation of religion from the state, judicial and education systems. We call for a constitution that guarantees equal citizenship rights to every one regardless of their religion, ethnicity, gender, ability or sexual orientation, recognising and protecting fundamental freedoms.
We want this constitution change because as it now, it gives sectarian identities to people dividing them to different religious and ideological groups with different rights. The religion of the majority is treated as “better” and privileged to be “the ruler.”
A constitution like this could only in discrimination. The price is always paid by thousands of innocent and ordinary people who fall victims of these wars and sectarian conflicts.
Furthermore the current draft constitution will make Sharia Law a source of law. We don’t need to look far to see examples of Sharia Law implemented by different Islamic states, such as in Saudi Arabia and Iran where progressive people in general and women in particular are suffering on daily bases from the state imposing the strict ruling of Islam.
Who would not want to reject a constitution that would bring such future?
Clarion: Why do you see complete separation between religion and state as the only way to achieve full equality and freedom under the law?
Saed: Simply, as religion is the number one tool used to justify state discrimination in the Middle East, it is also the number one burden in front of the society’s progress towards full equality and the struggle of progressive, freethinkers and those who struggle for full equality and freedom under law.
We have to understand that in the Middle East including Iraqi Kurdistan, Islam has power as the religion of the states and it is considered the religion of majority of people without ever asking people or giving them any choice. Even those political regimes that considered themselves secular systems in the past, none of them have ever separated religion from the state, they always kept religion on the side to use when needed since it is the best powerful tool to justify oppression, discrimination and inequalities that are committed against people by different political systems.
Here is a very simple question we need to dare to ask, what is the ideology being used to justify inequality before the law? To justify abuse of power by the state, discrimination against women, punishment of blasphemy, lashing of freethinkers, policing of women’s freedom and unequal treatment of other minority religious groups?
It is all in the doctrine of the different sects of Islam used as the state religion.
One more point is that in the Middle East the debate is not yet about achieving full equality before the law, it is still about daring to pinpoint the causes of inequalities. It is still about the right of those who don’t agree with Islam to speak without being prosecuted. It is like the debate hasn’t started yet, and only separation of religion from the state could allow for this debate of equality to start.
Separation of Religion from the state will not bring full equality, but it will grantee equality for all before the Law regardless of their grouping identity.
This will create the basic conditions in which the society could debate full equality in a healthy way without fear of state or religious prosecution.
Clarion: Is secularism in Kurdistan supported predominantly by atheists or are there practicing Muslims aligned with your cause?
Saed: It is been supported by different parts of the society including many Muslim intellectuals and many practicing Muslim people.
What is happening is that only religious institutions, and Islamist organisations are arguing for an Islamic constitution, but the majority of people are with a system that brings equality before the law.
People were a bit reluctant to support KSC before we started our campaign for a secular constitution, but within a few weeks hundreds of people started to join the campaign from eight different cities and towns in Iraqi Kurdistan and the amount of support we started getting was beyond our imagination.
Clarion: The KSC has held seminars and panel discussions about secularism in towns and cities across Kurdistan. What are some of the points that are raised? What is the typical reaction from participants?
Saed: One of the main points was fear of aggressive reactions from the Islamists. Some thought it was too late as religious fundamentalism already has so much influence over people’s thoughts and beliefs. Secularism is a new concept and people don’t understand it easily since they have been misled by Islamists.
Secularism is almost never talked about by its representatives, but by the institutions of political Islam who oppose it. They introduce it to people as an “ anti-religion” movement, so one of the points our speakers needed to explain over and over again was that secularism is not an anti- religion movement.
There were other points of misunderstanding secularism, again concepts that have been propagated by Islamists: saying secularism is about lack of order, the absence of social morals, anarchy, uncontrollable individual freedoms, and women walking naked on the street causing family breakdown etc.
So people in the seminars were calling for more literature and awareness-raising of secularism itself.
Clarion: Another organization you are involved with, the Kurdish and Middle Eastern Women’s Organization, provides front line services to women in the UK from these communities who suffer from abuse and honour based violence.
Based on that experience what do you feel is missing in the responses of UK police and social workers to the problems associated with honour based violence and how can those gaps be addressed?
Saed: KMEWO is a women’s organisation that provides practical and emotional support for women from Kurdistan, the Middle East and North African countries, which means mainly Muslim women who might be suffering from domestic violence, honour based violence (HBV) such as forced marriages and FGM and threats of honour killing. We also support women to become independent and confident enough to overcome barriers and pressures from culture and religion and family to lead a progressive and fulfilling life.
UK police and social workers responses to the problems associated with honour based violence have improved over time, but it is not yet what we would hope for. We still need a united national response to HBV, specialist police officers and prosecutors, much training for front line staff from police, social services, education and health staff on HBV.
Our organisation have witnessed how UK Police and CPS refused to investigate the honour killing case of Subhiya Abdulla Nadir in 1997 who was Kurdish but a British citizen, just because the murder happened in another country. A few years later in 2002 the UK Justice system considered the ‘Cultural background’ of the murderer of Hehsu Abdulla, a Kurdish young girl murdered by her father in London, the murderer was given a sentence of only 14 years in prison, a reduced sentence because of his ‘cultural background.’
This has prompted mass campaigning by organisations like KMEWO for more training and awareness amongst police, the justice system and those who provided services for women victims of domestic violence and HBV.
Today day we have come a long way from 1997, but as I said our organisations still have to struggle and campaign for better understandings and awareness of the threats and risk of HBV to women and young girls.