New Technology, Old Prejudices

Arabs and Kurds are trading insults online as the election debate moves into cyberspace.

New Technology, Old Prejudices

Arabs and Kurds are trading insults online as the election debate moves into cyberspace.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

Tempers are flaring in cyberspace as the young people of Iraq express their opinions in hundreds of online “chat rooms” accessed from internet cafes across the country.

The chat rooms – a virtual discussion space where internet users can engage in usually unmoderated debates on any subject they choose – are gaining in popularity as young Iraqis embrace technology that was banned under the Saddam regime.

But many discussions about the January 30 elections and the implications for the war-torn nation are spilling over into threats and insults as Arabs and Kurds clash online.

In the La Ilaha Ila Allah (There is no god but Allah) chat room, an Arab using the screen name ahmed_basry, told a Kurdish internet user, ary_2004, that his people were “agents of the Americans and Israelis”.

An angry ary_2004 defended the Kurds by telling ahmed_basry that all Arabs were “agents of Iran and Syria”.

“We are all Islamists, you dogs!” replied ahmed_basry.

“You idiot - shut up!” said ary_2004.

These online rows reflect the tensions on streets and cafes across Iraq as the population gears up for the republic’s first democratic elections for decades.

The anonymity of the internet allows Arabs and Kurds to confront each behind pseudonyms, with the result that the exchanges are far more heated than they would be face to face, and debates often get out of hand.

In the “Ahali Kirkuk” (People of Kirkuk) chat room, kurdish_sarbast and hasan_sidqy quarreled bitterly over the future of the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk. The latter fled the online forum when kurdish_sarbast warned him, “If you don’t return to your original home, we will kill you.”

The issue of oil-rich Kirkuk, which is claimed by both Arabs and Kurds, is a major point of discussion both online and offline and the Kurdish desire for a federal state has made them the target of much anger.

Hemn Omed, head of Sara Internet Café in Sulimaniyah, said he does not monitor what customers say in the chat rooms. But he said he is aware that his Kurdish customers are often insulted when they go online.

“When they know you are a Kurd, they reply to you in a very indecent way,” Omed said. “You cannot chat with them about politics.”

But he told IWPR that he had not been asked by any political or cultural body to prevent such conversations taking place in his café.

Analysts believe that the internet is merely highlighting the serious divisions that already exist between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds.

Jawad Hamza, a young Arab from Baghdad, described the Kurds as “separatists” and denounced their attitude towards the occupying Americans.

“They caught the hands of the Americans, and brought them to Iraq to steal the oil of Kirkuk,” he claimed. “Whenever I find a Kurd in the chat room I enter, I call him names until he leaves.”

But Kurdish youngster Ako Jalal in Sulimaniyah said it’s the Arabs who think in a nationalist way. “They don’t listen to anyone, they are idiots,” he said.

“They think Kirkuk is an Arab city and that is why I call them bad names. They don’t care about Iraq’s future.”

Others believe that chat rooms could give Arabs and Kurds a place to air grievances and eventually work out peaceful solutions to their problems.

Soran Muhamad Ra’uf, a student at the University of Sulimaniyah, has chatted online with Syrians and Palestinian Arabs for a long time and has been able to persuade some of them to listen to the Kurdish perspective.

Ra’uf said that Arabs in other countries simply do not have any background about the atrocities perpetrated against the Kurds in Iraq, and they see Saddam Hussein as the leader of Islam.

Dr Arsalan Baiyz, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s political bureau, said it is only natural for Kurdish youth to lash out against Arabs after years of oppression under successive Iraqi regimes. He added that it is necessary for Arabs to understand the reality of the Kurdish situation at this critical time.

“If the Arabs don’t listen to Kurdish views and are rude, it may create a gap between us which will be difficult to bridge,” he said.

Baiyz said he does not believe any of Iraq’s problems will be solved in chat rooms.

Instead, he said Iraqis should engage in intellectual discussions in which each group listens to each other and seeks just solutions to their problems. A failure to hold frank debates about the real issues that divide Kurds and Arabs will only hurt both groups, he warned.

Wriya Hama Tahir is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.

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