The Shabak are an obscure, heterodox community, which, like many other minority groups in Iraq, have long been the target of sectarian violence. However, unlike their compatriots, the Kurds and Christians, the Shabak have attracted very little media coverage in spite of the level of violence seen in attacks against the community. In July 2007, a Shabak MP claimed that Sunni militants had killed approximately 1,000 people from his community and displaced a further 4,000 from the Mosul area since 2003. More recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) ordered members of the minority group to leave Mosul or be killed. ISIS has since killed at least three Shabaks and attacked several of their towns and villages. The latest incident was just over a week ago, when a suicide bomber driving a truck laden with explosives targeted a predominantly Shabak area east of Mosul, killing at least 15 people and injuring many more. Last month, another suicide bomber targeted a Shabak funeral killing 26 people and injuring 46.
The UN envoy to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, condemned the attack on the Shabak community and called for an end to the violence. “The United Nations pays particular attention to the protection of minority communities who continue suffering from heinous attacks [and] economic and social barriers. . . . The recent rise in violence in Nineveh province calls for urgent action and strengthened security cooperation,” he said in a statement.
However, voices calling for the protection of the Shabaks are still few and far between, and little is being done to tackle the violence. The lack of attention paid to their plight may, in part, stem from how little is known about the Shabaks—even by the community itself.
It remains unclear precisely when the Shabak emerged as a distinct ethnic group. On the question of their identity, there appear to be two main schools of thought within the community. One claims that the Shabak are actually Kurds and that their language is a Kurdish dialect. The other claims the Shabak are a distinct ethnic group in their own right. There are further conflicting narratives on their ancestry, including assertions of Turkmen roots and claims that they are the descendants of Persian migrants, further adding to the confusion surrounding their identity.
In his report on minorities in Iraq, Sa’ad Salloum, an Iraqi academic, describes the Shabak identity as a struggle:
[blockquote]There is a struggle between a minor identity [Shabak] and a senior identity [Arabic or Kurdish]. It is very difficult today to talk about your independent Shabak identity; you will be immediately faced with presumptions saying that the Shabaks are of Arabic or Kurdish origin. Such denial and assimilation of the Shabaks into a larger identity puts a Shabak before two options: to be isolated from his environment, or to adopt one of the bigger identities in order to be accepted by others and gain psychological and social stability.[/blockquote]
As far as religion is concerned, the Shabak are predominantly Shi’ite Muslims, with a certain affinity to the Yazidis and influenced somewhat by Sufism and Christianity. Add this to their ambivalent background and their presence in the historically Sunni city of Mosul, and it is easy to see how they have become so vulnerable.
With no census statistics, it is difficult to ascertain a clear figure for the population of Shabak, but estimates range from 30,000 to 250,000. Of these numbers, community members say that many have left Mosul and returned to villages in the disputed territories, which are claimed both by Iraq’s central government and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. In the last few weeks alone, it is reported that 1,200 families have left Mosul.
The security situation for religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq today is said to be the worst in the history of the country. Some of the minorities have almost disappeared, and the populations of others are decreasing significantly. The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration estimates that approximately half of the minority communities have left the country. UNHCR estimates that 30 percent of Iraqi refugees seeking sanctuary outside of the country are from minority groups. Unbeknown to many, the Shabak community and their dwindling numbers are undoubtedly contributing to these statistics.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.