Between Muslims
Religious Difference in Iraqi Kurdistan
J. Andrew Bush



IN CONTEMPORARY IRAQ, MANY PEOPLE CONSIDER THE VALUE OF understanding some kinds of religious difference to be self-evident. Researchers, politicians, investors, citizens, mothers, cousins, and children all seem to agree that understanding the relationship between Sunni Muslims and Shi‘i Muslims is an essential task today. So, too, is the difference between Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis in Iraq. And so might be any difference between so-called extremist and moderate Muslims. These kinds of religious difference are politicized in familiar ways.

Of course, when scholars examine the situation, they find that these differences are not what they seem. Thus, we have learned that the difference between Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims in Iraq has not precluded conviviality in the distant past or the more contentious present. When the so-called sectarian violence seemed to drag on and on in Baghdad in 2015, a social media campaign circulated an image that appeared to present a husband, wife, and their daughter. The parents held different signs that identified them, in English, as Sunni and Shia. The child held a sign with the portmanteau “Sushi.” In this example, the obvious categories of religious difference do not line up with ordinary experience in everyday life.

Yet there are other kinds of religious difference that saturate everyday life. For example, many Muslims in the Kurdistan region of Iraq regard prayer and fasting as basic requirements of being a Muslim. However, many Muslims in that region do not pray or fast. Call this a difference between those who seek piety and those who turn away from it. It is a difference between those who take up what they consider to be the duties and attitudes that God asks of all humans and those who take other attitudes to those duties—brushing them aside, not listening to them, or finding themselves averse to them. Does this kind of religious difference make a difference?

This book argues that from the perspective of everyday life, the difference between those who seek piety and those who turn away from it does make a difference. Taking up piety or turning from it is not only an individual choice but also a tendency that is palpable in many kinds of relationships. If a child learns to pray and fast from her parents but abandons these practices early in life, how does she relate to Islam or to others? When a man does not pray and does not aspire to teach prayer to his children, yet his wife does aspire to those things, how does he explain this to his children? If the man’s brother steps in to encourage the children toward prayer, how can he react to his brother? And how do individuals who are averse to prayer or fasting respond to the public invitations to piety that they encounter at public events, cafés, or family gatherings?

In responding to those questions, this book attends to small details of everyday life in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. While many studies of Kurdistan revolve around Kurds’ aspiration to separation from their neighbors, this book’s attention to small details has required greater acknowledgment of how Kurdistan is connected. These details include the words people choose, the gestures they make toward one another, and the way that relationships shift across time. An examination of those details reveals a range of ideas, practices, and social movements that links Kurdish Muslims to other Muslims, but it also reveals feelings, sensibilities, and relational dynamics that connect them to non-Muslims within or beyond the region—including the readers of this book.

In attending to everyday life and the ordinary relationships that make everyday life, this book asks for curiosity—curiosity about what Islamic traditions may be or become in everyday life and curiosity about how the less commonly acknowledged forms of religious difference become politicized. So this book does not take the obvious political stakes of sectarian identity in Iraq as its own stakes, and it does not take the obvious relevance of texts like the Quran as the measure of its relevance. Rather, it takes everyday relationships as a perspective from which to learn about Islamic traditions, and it asks for curiosity and uncertainty about how the “large” questions of divine texts and political identities appear in relationships between Kurdish Muslims.

Consequently, instead of assuming that the best knowledge offers the most certainty about the broad categories of religious difference just described, this book attends to the uncertainty that those broad categories acquire in everyday life. What does a perceived difference between Sunni and Shi‘i tendencies mean for a Muslim who does not pray? What role has “extremist” violence played in the development of their attitudes? And given that many who do not identify as pious still identify as Muslims, how do they imagine relations with Christians or Jews?

Responding to these questions, this book suggests that acknowledging the uncertainty that surrounds this form of religious difference is a valuable endeavor. It is not a form of difference that has garnered much scholarly attention, but it has preoccupied many kinds of relationships. Not only Kurdish Muslims but Muslims worldwide encounter these differences. And Christians, Jews, and others have thought about those differences in their own traditions, albeit in different ways with different stakes. The book does not say anything about how these differences might translate, or not, to non-Islamic traditions. But it does invite readers to think comparatively by assuming that, in their own everyday lives, readers relate to others across lines of religious difference.

So whether readers approach the book as Muslims with a commitment to Islam, as Muslims who are ambivalent or disappointed with Islam, or as non-Muslims who bear their own forms of certainty or ambivalence about Islam, it will open to the door to thinking about the relationship between commitment and ambivalence in Islamic traditions.