About a thousand years ago, a group of Iraqi philosophers in Basra wrote a dialogue between a Muslim in hell and a Muslim in heaven. The Muslim in heaven asked the Muslim in hell what he had done that led him to hell. The Muslim in hell responded that he tried to convert people who did not believe in what he believed, and if they did not agree, he used force against them, killing those who did not yield.
It was the Muslim in hell who waged war against those who didn’t follow his creed, not the Muslim in heaven. The story shows that even a thousand years ago, tolerance and peace were valued by Muslims, even though there were always those who chose violence. The philosophical encyclopedia in which this story appears, Rasa’il Ikhwan Al-Safa, or the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, was read by Muslims, Christians, and Jews not only in Iraq but throughout the medieval Muslim world, valued especially by the Arab-speaking Jews of Muslim Spain.
But the Iraq of the tenth century is not the Iraq of 2010, a country that is overruled by violent militias, where more than 1,200 suicide bombings have taken place since 2003. Despite the tyranny of Saddam Hussein’s rule and the violence following the 2003 US invasion, Iraq still remains a cradle of many religions, but a rather dangerous one. Besides Sunni and Shia Muslims, today’s Iraq boasts at least six denominations of Christianity, a small Jewish population, and several less-known religious groups such as the Yazidis, Shabaks, and Sabean-Mandeans.
After the Coalition Provisional Authority dissolved the Iraqi military and police force in 2003, militias took over the streets of Iraq, persecuting minorities. With the withdrawal of the US military from Iraqi cities last June, violence intensified in some regions, such as the Nineveh province. Suicide bombings targeted Shabaks and Yazidis, whose religion is influenced by Sufism and Christianity and who are considered heretics by some Muslims.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, the Chaldean Archbishop Paulus Faraj Rahho was kidnapped and later killed in Mosul in 2008. A year earlier Friar Ragheed Ganni and three deacons were shot, and Friar Mundhir Al-Dayr of the Protestant Church was killed in 2006.
But it is not only religious leaders who are targeted. Graffiti on walls tells Christians to leave, loudspeakers from cars spout death threats, and individuals are approached on the street or in their homes, asked what their religion is, and then shot if they give the “wrong” answer. Christians have been fleeing Iraq ever since, their numbers decreasing from one million in 2003 to about half a million now.
What could be causing this violence? Surely there are many factors, including a lack of transparency on the part of the Iraqi government that allows vigilante crimes to take place without consequence; corruption in the same government; as well as abject poverty and a lack of jobs, causing young, unemployed men to be lured by extremists.
With a new government forming in Iraq, new leaders must take steps to protect religious minorities. In addition to addressing the circumstances above, they can stop printing religious affiliation on identity cards, disarm militias, investigate the murders and kidnappings of religious minorities, and do more to bring perpetrators to justice, for the safety and dignity of all citizens.
Human Rights Watch. “On Vulnerable Ground: Violence Against Minority Community in Nineveh Province’s Disputed Territories.” November 10, 2009. http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2009/11/10/vulnerable-ground
Robert Fisk. “The Cult of the Suicide Bomber.” The Independent. 14 March 2008. http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-the-cult-of-the-suicide-bomber-795649.html
Debbie Elliott and Corey Flintoff. “Report Reveals Corruption in Iraqi Government.” NPR. September 1, 2007. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14117853
David Corn. “Secret Report: Corruption is ‘Norm’ Within Iraqi Government.” The Nation. August 30, 2007. http://www.thenation.com/blogs/capitalgames/228339
“Iraq Corruption ‘Costs Billions.’” BBC News. November 9, 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6131290.stm
“Iraq: Civilians Under Fire.” Amnesty International. 2010. http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE14/002/2010/en/c9dc5d8d-95fa-46e4-8671-cd9b99d0378c/mde140022010en.pdf
Shatha Almutawa is Iraq Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where she studies Muslim and Jewish intellectual history.