Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Christians Are Not Holidaymakers In Iraq Destined To Go Home

By Hamid Alkifaey*
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 27/01/2011
We often hear ‘Islamic’ appeals for the Iraqi Christians to ‘stay’ in Iraq and not leave. Such calls, whether in good faith or bad, treat Christians as though they were guests whose stay was long overdue and they were about to depart. These calls come from precisely those high officials whose policies, statements and lack of experience have caused the current deterioration of security and weakening of social cohesion, and led to what we see today of religious and sectarian tension. Are the Christians on holiday in Iraq to be called upon to stay longer? Have these people forgotten that the Christian presence in Iraq preceded the Arab and Islamic by centuries? The first ever eastern church was built in Iraq, and some of Baghdad’s historical mosques were once churches, as the Assyrian name of the famous Buratha Mosque indicates.

At a time when the whole world is moving towards integration and co-existence, Iraqis are being subjected to a vicious campaign of religious ‘cleansing’ at the hands of Iraqi and foreign ‘Islamic’ extremists. They keep threatening, kidnapping and killing people, while the Iraqi government, with all its billions, its numerous parties, international relations, parliamentarians and politicians great and modest, seems unable to arrest the savage trend, the likes of which Iraq has not seen in its recent history. But isn’t it a strange coincidence that Al-Qaeda’s campaign against the Christians coincides with the campaign by Baghdad’s local government to close their shops and businesses and crack down on their clubs and cultural associations? Is it not shameful that the Christians felt safe and secure in Saddam’s Iraq while now, under an ‘elected’ government that enjoys the support of both the US and Iran, they feel anxious and fearful?

It has been the Christians in Iraq – and the wider Arab world – who have made it larger-scale and diverse, who connected it to the developed world. The onslaught on them is therefore plainly an assault on freedom, diversity and development. It’s an onslaught against difference, against the contrary opinion. This vicious attack on the Christians doesn’t actually target the Christians alone, it also seeks to target Muslims who do not belong to the Islamic parties and who do not believe in political Islam. It aims to tighten the Islamic parties’ grip on power in Iraq. Secular and enlightened people always cite religious diversity as a reason for keeping our societies open to the world and not imposing extreme religious laws on them. Thus do extremists seek to nullify this by removing diversity altogether – an objective to which the Christians obviously form an impediment. Yes, the primary targets are not the Christians themselves, it’s the Muslims – and the motive is the removal of any obstacle that stands in the way of establishing a radical religious government.

I don’t believe the present Iraqi government is really serious about securing the Christian presence in Iraq. I believe there are Islamists who do not wish to see one Christian remaining in the country, so that there is no obstruction to them forcing their ideas on the rest of society. Sudanese Islamists have lately expressed this very clearly, with the holding of the referendum on the self-determination of the South. If the government was serious, then it should seek not only to protect steadfast Christians who are still in Iraq, but also to give incentives for return to those who have left, and for those who are staying to enhance their presence. It should also seek to attract Christian businessmen to invest in Iraq. It is not difficult to create safe districts, at least temporarily, as is the case with the Green Zone where members of the government live, so that Christians may establish their businesses and practise their cultural and religious activities in safety. It is not difficult for the government to appoint Christian security chiefs so that they can get involved in protecting themselves from terrorism. But this hasn’t happened, and it won’t.

The reasons are not very difficult to guess. Iraqi Jews left or were forced to leave Iraq in the middle of the last century, but no Iraqi official, past or present, has sought to encourage them to return to their country. No one spoke of them or their plight. They were not even included in the laws introduced to reclaim confiscated property or re-instate stripped citizenship – as though they were responsible for the crimes committed in Palestine, and even though they were victims of terrorism and forced migration themselves. Nevertheless, Iraqi Jews remained loyal to Iraq, fond of its culture, language and art despite the distance that separates them from it, and the huge injustice that has befallen them. The Christians are now following in their footsteps, or are ‘induced’ to follow. Is it not shameful that the persecution of religious minorities is now indissolubly associated with those who today call themselves ‘Islamists’?

The democracy that Islamists are paying lip service to these days has become meaningless, especially with their pursuit of depriving Iraq of any feature of openness and freedom which the free world enjoys. The government’s recent moves to shut down those social clubs, shops, restaurants and hotels which are licensed to sell alcohol, to ban art and songs fairs and shows, and close faculties of music and drama in fine arts institutes, as well as the imposition of Islamic dress (hijab) in some institutions, are striking proof that there is a concerted campaign conducted by parties of political Islam to strip Iraq of any civil feature that doesn’t conform with its narrow religious disciplines. This campaign is adopted by the leaderships of these parties, who have chosen a ‘pilot’ method to apply it: Instead of announcing these measures in their election manifestos, they have opted to delegate this responsibility to their junior members in the local government of Baghdad and the provinces, so that leaders can deny any involvement. It’s very clear to everyone, the disguise no longer works.

But the puzzling question is why the secular parties participating in the coalition have kept silent about these violations! Why does the secular Parliamentary Speaker, Usama Al Nujaifi, try to justify these actions as a ‘reaction to complaints by Baghdad residents’, that they have been taken due to ‘violations of traditions and social norms’? Why does the government respond to some residents’ complaints while neglecting those of others, such as the literate and educated classes? Why does the secular and left-wing president of the republic, the protector of the constitution and the symbol of the country’s unity, keep silent about these excessive violations of the law, and not condemn them or seek to abolish them? Is it because they do not extend to Kurdistan? Aren’t these measures a prelude to transforming Iraq into a religious state that will be distant from the free world and all its features of civility and freedom? Don’t these measures violate the principles of democracy and freedom which the constitution stipulates? Don’t these measures harm the economy, Iraq’s relations with other countries of the world, its institutions and companies? How can government promises of protecting Christians and its ‘determination’ to keep them in Iraq and prevent their desertion of the country be reconciled with the measures of provincial governments which have targeted Christians’ businesses and their source of incomes? If religious parties feel strong because of their access to arms and power, they must know that others can also resort to carrying arms in order to defend themselves, and that in this they will be within their rights. But where will this kind of polarization lead us?

Christians are not like picnickers in Iraq who must now pack up and leave. They are homogeneous with the other peoples of Iraq, and may perhaps be called the most tolerant among them. Their protection is an urgent duty of the government and all other political parties. But the Christians themselves, and other endangered social groups, must also organize their affairs better, and take up the task of protecting themselves. They must be forceful in their demands for full rights, and cease showing the flattery and weakness which their leaders often exhibit. They must know that there is a vicious campaign to force them to flee the country. Extremists believe that if they succeed in forcing the Christians out, they will be able to impose their outdated values on the rest of society, which in their view will then be ‘religiously homogeneous’. At the same time, it’s the duty of other civil and secular forces to stand together to protect civil rights, freedoms, and the principles of democracy. Otherwise, everyone will soon feel that they ‘have been eaten on the day the white sheep was eaten’**
* Iraqi writer
** Arab proverb that emphasizes solidarity, referring to a story about the lack of solidarity among sheep which led them all to be slaughtered in the end.

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