Saddam used a heavy hand to keep a strained and inconsistent peace. His violent suppression of opposition groups, or groups that might become oppositional, meant that Iraq stayed united. Still, he made a major mistake: to unite through force and not through a common, lasting, Iraqi identity.  These issues of conflicting ethnic and religious identities left permanent scars on the country’s past and created problems for its future. As Daniel Byman argues, Saddam’s refusals to create any power-sharing arrangements, coupled with the violence employed by his regime to suppress dissent, might have destroyed collective memories of tolerance and power sharing (Byman 2003, 69). As a result, Iraq today has “no civil society, and few robust institutions, on which to build its democracy” and it further “lacks a Charles de Gaulle, a Nelson Mandela, or even a Corazon Aquino who can serve as a symbol of unity for a new democratic government” (2003, 69).  These scars from Iraq’s recent past are barriers to building a peaceful and cohesive Iraqi state, as is evident by looking at the conflicts arising in Iraq’s post-Saddam era.

Post-2003 Iraq

In the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, “‘the first step was not ‘legitimation’ or ‘constituency building’, it was dropping bombs” (Ismael and Ismael 2005, 619). The invasion added to the list of issues blocking the creation of a stable and sustainable Iraq.  The destruction of historical artifacts and sudden and devastating unemployment were two significant factors that contributed to the widespread anger and resentment toward the occupying coalition. The U.S. government’s favoritism towards Christian aid groups worsened the situation and enabled the sectarian violence against Christians seen today.

Immediately following the 2003 invasion, the U.S. media down-played the significance of the looting of Iraq’s museums. However, Ismael and Ismael argue that this destruction “symbolised an intentional policy of cultural cleansing” that was especially painful for Iraqis who were proud of their unique history (2005, 616). “The cultural connection to their locale extended far beyond the Baghdadi Caliphate into the very origins of ‘civilisation’ itself” explain Ismael and Ismael (2005, 616). The American forces protected the Ministry of Oil, but “watched the burning and looting of Baghdad indifferently” and did not intervene when requested to do so by the Iraqis (Ismael and Ismael 2005, 616). This lack of cultural sensitivity contributed to the ongoing idea that the U.S. wasn’t actually in Iraq to ‘help’ Iraqis.

The second issue was the resentment and desperation that was present in Iraq as a result of sky-rocketing unemployment. Paul Bremer, the U.S.’s top civil administrator in Iraq until 2004, put in place economic policies that rapidly resulted in half a million jobless people and made “resistance to U.S. occupation the only viable alternative to unemployment” (Ismael and Ismael 2005, 617). Furthering this was the involvement of U.S. corporations and foreign workers that exacerbated the position of the 67% of unemployed Iraqis and threatened small businesses, which in turn led them to fund “armed resistance for self protection”  (Ismael and Ismael 2005, 617).  In addition to these issues, the risk of death after the invasion increased to 58 times higher than it was before the war (Ismael and Ismael 2005, 616). Inglehart, Moaddel and Tessler argue that it is this existential insecurity that led to xenophobia and strong in-group solidarity (Inglehart et al. 2006), further dividing Iraqi society.

Section II: External Actors and Religious Pluralism in Iraq

The Importance of Pluralism

One of the main problems for religious pluralism in Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003 has been the confusion of tolerance with American ideas about religious freedom. In an attempt to codify principles of religious freedom, the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998 to defend groups around the world from persecution for their religious beliefs. The IRFA also created a separate commission on international religious freedom, among other things. However, there have been several concerns raised about the IRFA including the idea that having a “bureaucracy designed to promote religious freedom…suggests a hierarchy of freedoms, with religious freedom placed above others”. As a result, Philip Gordon argues, it is important to question why religious freedom is considered more important than press freedom, women’s rights, minority rights, free speech and the like (2008, 16). However, according to Gordon, a second and more disconcerting problem with the IRF policy is that it “runs the risk of reinforcing the stereotype of a hectoring, moralistic, and even imperialistic U.S., which casts itself as the arbiter of fairness around the world” (2008, 17).

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to William Galston, does not “suggest that religious freedom implies the unfettered right of foreign missionaries to cross international borders for proselytizing purposes” (2008, 23). Additionally, Galston agrees with Jose Casanova’s argument that the “uninformed enthusiasm of American missionaries has often backfired, driving indigenous religious forces into a tighter alliance with repressive regimes” (2008, 23). Galston adds that just because “every human being is guaranteed the right to change his religion does not imply that citizens of other countries enjoy an equally fundamental right to persuade him to do so” (2008, 23).  Imam Mohamed Magid argues that “international law should not allow missionary groups from any faith to take advantage of the needy” and that “conversion or proselytism should not be connected to a political agenda” (2010, 6).

Because the IRFA also emphasized the importance of respect for differences of religion, it was disconcerting to see that the 2003 U.S. invasion paid little attention to the values it had agreed to uphold in 1998. The role that external actors have played in shaping the conflicts in Iraq is significant. Aid organizations, faith-based organizations, and the U.S. government have contributed a considerable amount of time and money and have taken political risks in Iraq. However, it is important to look at the overall role of external actors in situations like these and understand the advantages and disadvantages they pose; in this case it is especially important to analyze the role of faith-based organizations in order to appreciate the importance of religious pluralism. This is why Abdolkarim Soroush advises against exporting religious freedom, explaining it has done more harm than good in the past. “Exporting democracy, religious freedom, [and] human rights” where the Middle East is concerned, argues Soroush, “must be at the abstract level” because if “you export and impose it, it will produce the opposite effect” (2008, 21).  Jennifer Bryson also suggests that the best way to promote liberal political theology is to implement the “affirmation and protection of peaceful pluralism and spreading a ‘do unto others as you would have done unto you’ culture of religious freedom” (2009, 32).

Example: Iraq’s Christians and the Lack of Oversight

The case of the Christians in Iraq is an example of the violence that occurs when religious and ethnic pluralism are not respected. Since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, violence against the minority Christian population has been escalating. There were approximately 1.4 million Christians before the U.S. invasion, and now only about half remain in Iraq. Most have been leaving for neighboring countries like Syria and Jordan to find safety. The violence has come from non-state actors, roving bands of Shi’ias and Sunnis that are not only fighting each other for power in Iraq but have been persecuting the Christian minority as well. However, looking at Iraq’s history of tolerance and the literature on religious freedom and pluralism, I assert that this violence against Christians is not an inherent part of Iraq’s history; rather, it is a backlash against particular mistakes associated with foreign intervention.

Iraq is an especially complex situation because it has had significant outside influence from, first, the British and then the Americans, since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. As mentioned earlier, Saddam called on Iraq’s Islamic identity during the Gulf War as a reaction to the Christian ‘other’ that was attacking Iraq. This issue is just as relevant today as it was in the early 1990s because it is again a Christian country that dropped bombs on Iraq, destroyed its infrastructure and economy, and allowed its artifacts and museums to be looted. While preferential treatment for faith-based aid organizations is not the only factor contributing to the violence against Iraq’s Christians, it is an example of the consequences of rejecting pluralism. Faith-based organizations have several benefits including their often immense range, the wide array of issues they cover, and because they tend to have special relationships with local societies (“Decent Shelter for All” 2009, 7). Yet, according to Salam Al-Marayati, Christian missionaries were given “preferential access” to Iraq by the U.S. after the 2003 invasion (2010, 9). Although religious institutions, historically, have provided valuable responses to emergencies like natural disasters, Al-Marayati explains that “perceptions of those Christian groups became a negative, adding tension to Christian-Muslim relations” (2010, 9) after the 2003 invasion.

It is precisely because of situations like these that governments like the U.S. must defend the principle of religious freedom but “must avoid the perception of preferential treatment for Christianity” (Al-Marayati 2010, 10). Gerald Hyman agrees with Al-Marayati that it is “risky and possibly counterproductive to engage on a theological or explicitly religious basis with U.S. government support” precisely because “the U.S. democracy promoters could easily look like official missionaries, and the efforts could easily look like a U.S. government effort at religious conversion” (Hyman 2009, 23). Unfortunately, this is almost exactly what happened immediately following the U.S. invasion.

ABC News reported, shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003, that faith-based aid groups like Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse were “‘poised and ready’ to roll into Iraq to provide for the population’s post-war physical and spiritual needs” (Caldwell 1). In Graham’s own words he and his organization were there to “reach out to love them and to save them, and as a Christian [to do] this in the name of Jesus Christ” (Caldwell 1). According to the ABC article, since 1990 the number of missionaries in Islamic countries has quadrupled (Caldwell). Caldwell interviewed Donna Derr, an official for Church World Service, about her disapproval for the work of aid groups like Graham’s. Caldwell, paraphrasing Derr, explains that “the 2,000 year-old Christian churches in Iraq – whose members are a tiny minority in a vast Muslim population – have worked extraordinarily hard in the last decade to ‘develop their place’ in the community” and that Muslims and Christians were getting along (Caldwell 2). Derr told Caldwell, “I would hate to see the tenuous balance that has been created made unbalanced by the entry into Iraq by peoples who may have less sensitivity” (Caldwell 2). Caldwell pointedly adds that, “our military has created one chasm. We don’t want to see our humanitarian assistance create another” (Caldwell 2). In May 2004, Ariana Eunjung Cha, of the Washington Post, reported that these Christian missionary groups were drawing criticism for “endanger[ing] the lives of secular aid workers and the military because insurgents may associate Christianity with Western domination, or because they disguise their intentions” (Cha 2004, 1). The latter point was an accusation frequently leveled against the aid groups. Missionary work, in places like the Middle East, is closely associated with colonialism and therefore understandably resented.

Aware of the repercussions, it is also clear that Iraqi Christians themselves did not seek preferential treatment. CBS’s “60 Minutes”, in a report on Iraq in 2007 titled “Iraq’s Christians in Peril”, interviewed Reverend Andrew White and a member of the U.S. military discussing what life was like for the Christians in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Rev. White, who had been in Iraq before the U.S. invasion during the rule of Saddam, said “Iraq is clearly worse now [than it was under Saddam]. There is no comparison between Iraq now and then. It’s the most difficult it’s ever been for Christians probably ever in history [in Iraq]” (“Vicar: Dire Times for Iraq’s Christians” 2007). The member of the U.S. military explained that the U.S. was not allowed to protect churches, as part of a ‘hands off’ policy on religion. In addition, he pointed out that Iraqi Christains were aware of the dangers associated with U.S. military protection: “Christians don’t want [the military] to guard the churches openly. They feel if [the military is] overtly protecting the churches, someone underground covertly will come in and murder the Christians because they’re collaborating with the U.S. soldiers” (“Vicar: Dire Times for Iraq’s Christians” 2007). Thus, the U.S. military was apparently not allowed to protect religious sites but the Iraqi Christian community was still afraid of receiving preferential treatment. As a result, the entry of outside Christian groups made the situation more difficult for Iraqi Christians.