Baghdad Despatch # 22
Baghdad — December 26, 2004
Religion and the Iraqi Elections
It is the day after Christmas, this being the second Christmas since Iraq was liberated. Tragically, many Iraqi Christians were afraid to celebrate openly. Almost two years after the US occupation and they are more afraid to celebrate their religion openly then they were under Saddam Hussein.
In fact, one of my friends at work, also an Iraqi Christian, is leaving for Jordan with his family. He is one of many. Clearly, our hopes of a stable country tolerant of all faiths are currently not coming to fruition.
As I stated in my previous dispatch, religion and politics are almost totally intertwined in this part of the world. Probably one of our larger mistakes to date is to push too much for the development of a secular regime in Iraq. The religious leaders, especially in the Shia camp, are accorded such a high degree of political power by the Shiite population that to exclude them from politics would be a futile effort. We must incorporate them into the political process but we must also try to inculcate a sense of religious tolerance. From an American perspective, Iraq is an inherently conservative society. Some basic degree of Koranic inspired law that respects all faiths but maintains the essential conservative elements common to all sects and faiths would probably be amenable to the bulk of the population. It will be interesting to see how Islam is referenced in the final constitution. It will be even more interesting to see how the US copes with the election outcome if it does not turn out as desired.
A Grim Reminder
The bombing of the mess hall in Mosul served as a grim reminder to our ongoing danger. In response to this incident, all civilians must be frisked when entering the military dining facility. Eating lunch is now like boarding an airplane. Convenience is sacrificed for security. Of course, this in itself is a victory for the insurgency since additional resources and manpower are now required to feed the military and contractors.
Struck by this incident so close to Christmas, I decided to go to the hospital on Christmas Eve to lend my support to the injured troops. After giving away some magazines, I came back down to the lobby to run into a crowd awaiting the arrival of a VIP. It turned out to be Donald Rumsfeld. Upon arrival, he promptly wished us all a Merry Christmas. He was actually kind of short and looked tired from his day spent traversing the country.
Back to wrapping up my adventures traversing the Middle East . . .
My Endorsement of Lebanon
In finishing up my adventures in Lebanon from my [previous] dispatch, I wanted to reiterate my great fondness for the country and its people. Despite the shadow of possible war in the future, I think the place has enormous potential, especially to be the next party capital and music scene. I found the Lebanese to be extremely interested in all forms of music from Yugoslavian gypsy bands and classical Lebanese Arabic singing to Trance, House, and Rock’n’Roll. Its anarchic, materialistic, and European flavor lends itself well to weekend getaways from the Continent. Granted, in many respects, it would simply be reclaiming its lost glory from before the war, but it could also serve as an alternate window into the Middle East, especially if Syria experiences “Regime Change” or opens up politically and economically.
A simple analogy might be that if Dubai is the Las Vegas of the Middle East, then Beirut is the New Orleans.
Lessons from the West Bank
Our travels next took us to the Holy Land. Ryan and I flew from Amman, Jordan to Tel Aviv. This had to be one of the shortest but most interesting flights I have ever taken. We flew right over the Jordan River Valley and the West Bank. From that height, one could pick out the numerous Jewish settlements and Palestinian villages. The settlements tended to top the hills and looked extremely orderly while the Palestinian villages tended to reside in the valleys and looked more haphazard. A few days later, we traveled into the West Bank to go to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. There were no tourists. The Intifada had driven them all away. The locals were clearly hurting. The Church of the Nativity itself was very pretty and they have marked the spot where Christ came into the world and where he lay in the manger.
The following day, we traveled to Ramallah to see Arafat’s compound and tomb (he had died just two weeks previously). The compound was half in ruins and there was a large heap of destroyed cars. Guards stood at his tomb just outside the compound. There were many photographs of the former president. There were also many wreathes. There was even a wreath from UNICEF. We thanked the guards as we left and they seemed happy that we made it to pay our respects. Despite his obvious failings, one must certainly give him credit for instilling a sense of nationhood and unity among the Palestinians. One of the more interesting rumors we heard about his death is that he may have converted to Christianity before the end. Imagine the monkey wrench that would throw into regional politics should it turn out to be true and publicized!
The general feeling now, at least among the Palestinians that we spoke to, is that peace with the Israelis is now more possible since his death. It seems that perhaps a degree of optimism is present.
Our guide during these travels was a Christian Palestinian. He was quite proud to take us to Ramallah and even treated us to tea and baklava at one of the nicest restaurants in town. Ramallah is actually pretty pleasant for it is apparently the wealthiest Palestinian town. We were told the poorest Palestinian areas are in Gaza. One of the more interesting sights occurred at night as we drove back through the West Bank toward Jerusalem. The Jewish settlements were all extremely well lit and with ample sources of power. The Palestinian villages, on the other hand, were barely any lit at all.
I also want to point out that despite the obvious failings of the peace process to date, there is an ongoing drive on the part of religious leaders from both sides to bridge the gap. They are trying to succeed where the politicians have failed. We had the opportunity to meet one of the prominent Palestinian politicians involved in this process. However, one of the problems is finding the necessary funding. The Great Powers who proclaim to have an interest in solving this conflict should take note and perhaps diversify their strategies. Despite the challenges, I think this informal religious approach can also be used in Iraq.
Where the secular Iraqi politicians fail, we must succeed elsewhere. This is especially important considering that the Iraqi elections may not prove decisive in legitimizing the government and restoring stability.
Friday, July 28, 2006
To the West Bank
At Christmastime a year and a half ago, Christian Isely used his Baghdad dispatch series to meditate about the Middle East from Baghdad to the West Bank.