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The Shabak are an ethnic and linguistic minority, with distinct religious practices, located in a few dozens of villages east of Mosul, in the Ninewa (or Nineveh) plains in Iraq. Before the rise of ISIS in 2014, a small group of Shabak lived in the city of Mosul as well. The name Shabak is originated from the Arabic shabaka, which is translated as ‘inter-twining’. This is an indication of the fact that the Shabak is composed of many different tribes.
About 70 percent of the group identifies as Shi’a and the rest as Sunni. However, the Shabak religious practice is a fusion of elements from various Islamic sects and local beliefs. Hence, their rituals differ from most of their orthodox Shia or Sunni neighbors: Shabaki religion includes elements of Christianity, namely the confession, which is an important feature of Catholicism. Moreover, the Shabak religion incorporates some Yazidi elements. For example, the Shabak people take a pilgrimage to Yazidi shrines, which are located in the same region.
The Shabak people live in close proximity to the Yazidis. Lalish is a small mountain valley village situated in the Shekhan district of the Nineveh Governorate in northern Iraq and it contains the holiest temple in the Yazidi faith, which is also visited by the Shabak people. But pilgrimage rituals of the Shabak people are very eclectic: they also go on pilgrimage to Shi’a holy sites, in cities like Najaf and Karbala, and also follow Shiite teachings.
In Shabakism, the laymen are called Murids and they have to take spiritual guidance from Pirs or Murshids (meaning “guide” or “teacher”), who are considered to be religiously knowledgeable. There is a clear hierarchical structure, including several ranks of Pirs, with at the top stands the Baba, or supreme head of the order.
Theoretically, individuals can choose their own Pir, but in practice, the pir families often become associated with lay families over several generations. Therefore, in terms of the overall organizational structure, Shabakism is not very different from a Sufi order.
As well as organizational structures, Shabakism also incorporates some doctrinal elements which are similar to Sufism. For example, for the Shabak, the idea of divine reality supersedes the literal interpretation of the Qu’ran, the Sharia. The Shabak comprehend divine reality through the mediation of the Pir or spiritual guide, who also performs Shabak rituals.
The primary Shabak religious text is the Kitab al-Managib (Book of Exemplary Acts), also called the Buyruk, and, interestingly, it is written in Iraqi Turkmen, a dialect of Turkish. Furthermore, the Shabak also study the poetry of Ismail I, the shah of Iran from 1501 to 1524, who established the Safavid dynasty in Iran in the 16th century and converted the country from Sunni to Shi’a Islam. Hence in their religious gatherings, they recite Shah Ismail’s poetry and celebrate the man who made Shiism the official religion of Iran.
Shabaki language has Turkish, Persian, Kurdish and Arabic influences. The Shabak have been in Iraq’s Nineveh region since 1502. Today, they are mainly farmers. Their population is estimated at approximately 300,000. In recent decades, the question over the exact ethnic roots of the Shabak people has been subject of major controversy. Most of the Shabak people see themselves as a distinct ethnic group, neither Kurdish nor Arab.
However, for political reasons, Arabs and even Turkmens have claimed the Shabak people as their own. During the Ba’athist era, the government of Saddam Hussein took measures to ‘‘Arabize’ the Shabak in order to consolidate his control of the oil-rich north of the country, which has a vast non-Arab population such as Kurds. However, the demise of the Ba’athist regime following the American-led invasion did not change this problem. The Shabak people in the Ninewa plains started to face harassment from some Kurdish activists. It is no secret that the Kurds have been aiming to extend their control into the Ninewa plains, hence they see the Kurdification of the Shabak as a political opportunity to widen the jurisdiction of Kurdish authorities in both strategic and oil-reach regions of northern Iraq. Therefore, the Shabaks find themselves in the middle of a political game between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish authorities.
However, the Shabak’s problems are not only limited to political rivalry between Arabs and Kurds, as they also subject to religious discrimination. In recent years, the majority of Shabak who are Shi’a have been persecuted by Sunni militants. For example, Shabak have been the victims of many incidents of sweeping violence after the demise of Saddam Hussein. About 1,300 Shabak are estimated to have been killed between 2003 and 2014. Those living in the disputed areas of the Ninewa governorate, and especially Mosul, are persecuted by militant groups who have actively taken measures to displace minorities, including Shabak from the area. Many Shabak who once lived in the city of Mosul were pushed to leave and take refuge in nearby villages due to intimidations and threats.
Like the Yazidis, the Shabak suffered from the IS control over Mosul and the Ninewa plains in 2014. Although there were many unreported crimes against the Shabak people, IS militants kidnapped at least 21 Shabak from Gokjali, eastern Mosul, in June 2014.
Shabak homes in the city of Mosul were marked with an ‘R’ to signify ‘Rafida‘, a term IS militants use to designate Shi’a Muslims and others who did not conform to their dogmatic religious perspectives. By August 2014, an estimated 60 Shabak villages had come under the control of IS fighters. There were reports of systematic violations of human rights as many Shabak became victims of massacres and kidnappings, with an estimated 117 families killed. Furthermore, thousands of Shabak families lost their homes and were forcefully displaced as a result of the horrific actions of the group. Many others fled their homes. The vast majority of these people fled to Shia-majority areas in central and southern Iraq.
Following the liberation of Nineveh last year, many Shabak people have begun returning to their villages and areas once more and have started to rebuild their lives and community again.