Shivan Fazil: On Researching Youth Identity in the KRI
Interviewed by Dr. Hawzhin Azeez
The youth in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) remain one of the most marginalized groups within society; their voices muted, barely able to rise above a whisper among the ruckus and clamor of the older conservative generation whose views on tradition, culture, religion and politics continue to suffocate the young and the brave. Born in the shadow of the US invasion of Iraq, under the effects of the disastrous oil for food program, and during the ascent of ISIS terror – KRI youth face a range of challenges. Trapped in a struggle against domestic instability, rising poverty, illiteracy, mass unemployment, declining social conditions, and the growth of fundamentalist worldviews, the youth in the KRI – and wider Iraq for that matter – face a plethora of overwhelming struggles.
Additionally, there is an increasing visibility of class differences, between those who live in mega mansions with access to foreign passports, global vacations, and fast cars – which is casually documented via glossy social media posts; and those who struggle to support entire families, laboring unendingly in the ceaseless heat selling packets of cheap gum or boxes of Kleenex. The situation is even harder for minorities in this demography, especially the disabled, the illiterate, the homeless, hidden queer communities, those struggling with mental health or chronic illness, those in rural areas without basic services like water or electricity, and facing domestic gender-based violence – including Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and honor killings. Consequently, steady streams in the thousands choose to flee to the supposed safety of Europe, risking their lives on leaky boats operated by unscrupulous smugglers.
There is a powerful quote by the African writer Idowu Koyenikan, which says: “Show me the heroes that the youth of your country look up to, and I will tell you the future of your country.” I reflect on this a lot in this interview. Who do the youth of Southern Kurdistan (north Iraq) have to look up to? Where are their heroes, their paragons of hope and progress, the unabashed voices of democracy and equality in a society where the old men of yesterday’s wars now cling to power with iron clad fists, adamantly holding on to the bygone eras of their youth and heroic struggles for freedom – forgetting or rather refusing – in the process to allow the younger people of their nation the platforms and spaces required to prevent stagnation, nepotism, and clientelism from becoming the ideologies of the day.
Here, Shivan Fazil occupies an important space in this discussion, in being from the youth of the KRI and having lived and grown and been educated here, but also with the capacity to analyze the socio-political and economic situation from the distance of the diaspora. Fazil is also co-editor with Dr. Bahar Baser, of the recent book ‘Youth Identity, Politics and Change in Contemporary Kurdistan’, and writes and engages regularly with research institutes on the struggles facing the young people of the KRI and wider Iraq. His expertise and insights can help fill in many questions we face as Kurds, as well as other marginalized people in the KRI. Here we discuss his views on a number of issues relating to the youth and future of the young people in the KRI.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I am from Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). I have two master’s degrees from the UK: MSc in Middle East Politics from SOAS University of London and MSc in Advanced Computer Networks from the University of Derby. I am a Chevening Alumnus, a prestigious scholarship by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office awarded to potential candidates from the Global South with excellent leadership and academic records. I am also an alumni of the Asia Pacific Leadership Program, a professional development fellowship from the East-West Center in the beautiful Honolulu, Hawaii, in the United States of America. The program incorporates place-based, experiential, and transformational learning for emerging leaders from around the world. That experience in particular was the catalyst in my personal development journey.
Can you tell us what influenced your decision to become a researcher on Kurdish and Iraqi politics?
My personal and lived experience with growing up in the Kurdistan region greatly influenced my decision to embark on a career path involving research and analysis on Kurdish and Iraqi affairs. It was also the quest to help influence positive change for a more stable, democratic, inclusive, and prosperous society in both the Kurdistan region and Iraq through conducting research and sharing findings and recommendations with local and international stakeholders to inform their policies, as well as their humanitarian and development efforts.
You recently moved to Sweden. Can you tell us about your work with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and how your work there informs readers about contemporary Iraqi and Kurdish politics?
I moved to Sweden during the pandemic to take a position at SIPRI. My work focuses mainly on the drivers of conflict and pathways to peacebuilding and good governance in Iraq. The aim is to understand the popular grievances of different segments of the population such as minorities and youth and share the research findings along with policy recommendations to relevant stakeholders.
What do you think is the most pressing socio-political and economic issues affecting the Kurdistan Regional of Iraq?
The list can be long. First, the region has a rentier economy and suffers from the effects of the Dutch disease. The rapid development of the natural resources and real estate sectors at the expense of the more productive and labor-intensive sectors has weakened the region’s economy and inhibited the growth of vital sectors such as manufacturing and agriculture. The labor market growth has been unable to keep pace with the expansion of the labor force. Youth unemployment and idleness have soared as a result. The young and steadily growing population feel its needs and development priorities are neglected. Moreover, the political process is fraught with squabbling and deadlocks further compounding the economic and governance issues. Government institutions remain weak and under the influence of the ruling parties that exert an outsized influence over many aspects of life.
You recently co-edited a book with Dr. Bahar Baser, titled ‘Youth Identity, Politics and Change in Contemporary Kurdistan’. Tell us about how this important project came together and the inspiration behind it.
The book came together as part of our shared focus and intertest in Kurdish affairs, and Dr. Baser’s contributions to the field of Kurdish studies. The quest to study youth and the dynamics shaping their formative experiences gave us the inspiration. The Kurdistan region’s history is marked by war and ethnic cleansing campaigns under Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime. That is why most of the recent academic literature has focused on the macro politics of the Kurdish conundrum in Iraq and beyond and tends to ignore the sociological issues concerning the everyday lives and the future. There is little scholarship about the predicaments, outlooks, and experiences of the younger generation that grew up and came of age under the Kurdish self-rule following the inception of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region with little to no memory of life under the previous regime. We strive to fill this gap by bringing together various perspectives from local and foreign contributors focusing on different themes in relation to youth such as politics, identity, gender, and sexuality as well as their attraction and aversion to nationalism, religion, and extremism. Altogether, the book provides an introduction to youth identity and politics in the Kurdistan region and is a serious attempt to start the debate on an important but neglected topic, especially when protests about issues youth care about are becoming a more prevalent method of political engagement.
What were some of the most important findings of the research that emerged from the book?
Overall, there is a growing sense of disillusionment and disaffection among the younger generation from the Kurdistan region due to lack of opportunities for economic, social, and political participation. There is also a growing aversion to politics, nationalism, and loss of faith in bringing about change in the status quo through conventional means. The current system is seen to primarily cater to the old and established elite, which creates hurdles for youth who lack connections or privileged status. Youth are also searching for alternative means of self and political expression through reimagining identity, politics, as well as social and cultural norms since they are largely excluded from political participation and representation. Social media seems to have opened new spaces for communication and mobilization politically especially when civil society and social organization is controlled and contained by the clientelist practices of the ruling political parties.
The feeling of disaffection among youth is compounded by lack of freedoms and opportunities, while also being trapped between the struggle against repression and the glorious rebellions of the past and the shadow of the traumatic experiences that the older generation cast on them. The ruling and established elite, who dedicated their life to a struggle for autonomy and recognition, see what has been gained so far as precious and hence should not be taken for granted or underestimated. The younger generation, however, view the hard-fought gains as the beginning and neither the status quo nor the future look as bright.
As part of your research, you have analyzed the increasing phenomena of large number of youths fleeing the Southern Kurdistan. Can you tell us more about this issue and the factors affecting the decision of so many youths to leave the KRI?
The main factors are unemployment and loss of hope, despite the region’s oil riches. There is also a sense of uncertainty about the future due to the longstanding disputes between Erbil and Baghdad as well as the persistent internal political infighting and haggling over positions and resources, often at the expense of addressing the governance issues underpinning the grievances of the public. In addition, several years of economic austerity have produced an increasing sense of social inequality and injustice, which is acutely felt by young people who bear the brunt of its consequences. It has also contributed to rising public dissatisfaction and disenchantment with politics, which is evident in the low turnout rates of recent elections as well as in protests led by youth and students.
Is there a similar trend occurring in the rest of Iraq with the mass migration of youth, or is the above phenomenal present only in the KRI?
Young people across Iraq struggle to see a promising future. Soaring unemployment has been the main driver of youth political discontent across Iraq, including the Kurdistan region, most evident in the strong presence of young people in the protest movements gripping different parts of the country. However, outward migration from Iraq is mostly limited to the Kurdistan region, especially from the far-flung, mid-sized towns where the impacts of economic austerity has been particularly severe. Moreover, in the rest of Iraq youth seem to have found an outlet in social organization in the wake of the 2019 October Protest Movement to reimagine politics and society. The absence of such outlets in the Kurdistan region due to the nature of social organization, lack of freedoms, and the rising cost of dissent has produced more political apathy and emigration over the past few years.
Can you tell us about your predictions for the situation of the KRI, especially in regard to trends relating to youth movements and organization?
Following 2003, the unspoken deal at the heart of Kurdish politics in Iraq has been that the ruling parties control the political space, but in return they deliver a better life. However, the economic recession since 2014 and the austerity policies pursued to contain the fallout from it have reversed the improvements in living standards. The economic slump has disproportionately affected youth that form almost half of the region’s population. Absorbing youth into the job market will remain the most significant challenge to the government, its future legitimacy, as well as peace and stability in the region. Indifference to the needs and demands of youth breeds more resentment that could bring the kind of unrest that other parts of Iraq have faced in recent years.
As I reflect on Shivan’s answers, I am reminded of another quote by the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once wrote that “Youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.” The youth and the young in the KRI remain one of the most untapped and undervalued resources of a society in a state of flux and change. Their passion, courage, and desires for change, progress, democracy, and development, are only matched by their artistic brilliance and insightful critical analysis of the geopolitical terrain that they occupy. These attributes should be viewed as a source of strength and optimism. The youth should have the freedom of madness, dreaming, experimentation, exploration, travel, education, self-discovery, enchantment, and most importantly the courage to achieve and work towards attaining these worthy goals. Undoubtedly, the youth of the KRI face many struggles, but they also occupy an important place in this era of Kurdish struggle – and I am certain that they are the only solution to a better, more just and equal society for all.
- Shivan Fazil. Understanding the Roots of the Younger Generations’ Despair in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (commentary)
- Bahar Baser and Shivan Fazil. “They Hear Us But They Do Not Listen to Us”: Youth Narratives on Hope and Despair in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (academic article)
- Shivan Fazil and Bahar Baser: Youth Identity, Politics and Change in Contemporary Kurdistan, The Association of Middle East Children’s and Youth Studies (book talk).