The American government, through its support of specifically Christian, faith-based organizations – like Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse – made the invasion seem like a Christian war against Islam. In retaliation, Christian missionaries and aid groups as well as indigenous Iraqi Christians became targets of violence. This violence should be seen through a political lens. If it were exclusively a religious conflict, Muslim Arabs would have engaged in violence against Iraqi Christians for hundreds of years. Likewise, if this violence was solely about religious dominance, other religious groups in Iraq, including the Jews, would be facing the same levels of violence. But this is not the case. Iraq was first occupied by the British in the 1920s, attacked by the U.S. in the Gulf War in the early 1990s and is now occupied by an American-led coalition. In each case, the foreign country has been associated with Christianity. The favoritism towards Christian aid groups shown by the U.S. after its 2003 invasion recalled former external interventions and contributed to the polarization of Iraqi society. Moreover, Islamic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in Iraq have also been influential in exacerbating tensions, by favoring one sect of Islam over another. In this case, most of the funding comes from the Salafi brand of Sunni Islam found in the Gulf States. This aid disproportionately supports Sunni Muslims (Murphy 2004, 2) and further polarizes Iraq’s religious groups.
While several groups have agreed to limit their proselytizing during aid and relief projects, a significant number of groups have not. ‘Codes of conduct’ have been established by several prominent faith-based aid groups, including the World Council of Churches, to limit the amount and type of proselytizing that is allowed to accompany aid missions. However, Matthew Richards argues that these “voluntary codes are not designed as substitutes for national or international regulations” and while they might support ideas such as “‘respect’, ‘courtesy, and ‘sensitivity’…they are vague and unenforceable laws” (2010, 9). These are all examples of the paramount importance of governments keeping a watchful eye on faith-based aid and the messages it can send. While the bulk of the issues with disproportionate and unmonitored aid occurred right after the U.S. invasion, there are still currently cases of disregard for religious pluralism.
A final area of concern regarding the Christians of Iraq – and the need for the U.S. to play an impartial religious role for the safety of all Iraqis – is an amendment that was added to H.R bill 2601 in 2005. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo’s amendment calls on “the departments and agencies of the U.S. Government to pay special attention to the welfare of ChaldoAssyrians [Iraq’s Christians]” (Eshoo). Additionally, the amendment calls on “the President and his administration to work with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to dedicate funding for the promotion of welfare and education, as well as the resettlement for these minority groups” (Eshoo 2005). While the situation is a tragedy and a grave concern for human rights abuses and religious persecution, I assert this act would only put the remaining Christians in Iraq in even more danger.
For the U.S. to continue to claim this is not a war of Christianity versus Islam but to attempt to provide protection to the minority Christian section of a war-torn country would only endanger their lives further. In addition to sharpening cleavages, this act would jeopardize the future possibility of peaceful coexistence between Christians and their neighbors. The aid would become a repeat of the preferential treatment that was given to Christian aid organizations following the U.S. invasion that has been causing this violent backlash. To now attempt to single out the Christians – in a country with an incredibly high death toll that is affecting all sectors of Iraq’s society – would repeat a tragic error. Kurrild-Klitgaard puts it best:
To grant specific political privileges to various minorities merely on the basis of their religion or ethnicity in a country so relatively heterogeneous as Iraq would surely be a recipe for a disaster, since it will only cement the differences and lock the groups into a zero-sum game. (This in fact is what was tried in Lebanon, where it was one of the most important reasons for the collapse of the country) (2004, 25)
This does not mean Iraq, and Iraq’s Christians, should be left to their own devices. However, the violence that is surrounding Iraq’s Christians cannot be insulated, or indeed halted, by providing them with “welfare and education”. Rather, initiating a plan to bolster Iraq’s economy as a whole, and to rebuild its infrastructure to contribute to the safety and future of a unified Iraq would go further towards promoting peace and stability within the country.
The problems facing Iraq’s Christians illustrate the dangers that come about if external involvement, particularly through faith-based aid organizations, are not scrutinized and held to certain standards by the governments supporting them. However, it is not solely external players that present barriers to accepting pluralism. The third section of this paper addresses the internal issues that can prevent or enhance religious and ethnic pluralism in Iraq.
Section III: Internal Barriers
In addition to the issues that external groups are exacerbating, there are internal aspects of the Iraqi situation that send contradictory messages about the acceptance of religious and ethnic pluralism. The internal issues that are explored in this section include problems with the electoral processes and inconsistencies in the current constitution.
The first issue with elections was whether or not to include in politics specific groups that had been seen as undermining democracy – such as the clergy, the military, and the Ba’ath party (Dawisha and Dawisha 2003). The second issue is the ethnic and religious makeup of Iraq; with a population of approximately 23 million Iraqis, Arabs compose 75-80%, Kurds compose approximately 15-20% and Turkmen, Assyrians and additional ethnic minorities make up the remaining few percent (Kurrild-Klitgaard 2004, 16). Religiously, the Shi’ias dominate with between 50-55% of the population, Sunnis are around 40-42%, Christians 2-3%, and Jews and other groups are less than 1% of the population (Kurrild-Klitgaard 2004, 16). As a result, concerns arose that, with a democracy in place, the group with the numerical advantage would take control; a tyranny of the majority is a concern in any democracy (Byman 2003). Liberal democracies expect a changing majority but when voting groups are tightly-knit, “liberal democracy, in such circumstances, produces illiberal results” (Byman 2003, 52). Thus it is understandable that minorities would be opposed to democracies in situations like this (Byman 2003, 53).
Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard calls on the genius of James Madison and the founding of the United States when he argues that these factions will only help promote democracy (2004, 25). Dawisha and Dawisha agree with Kurrild-Klitgaard that, rather than seeing the cleavages as a barrier to democracy, all of this “antagonism could serve a constructive purpose: having factions zealously check each other’s power could actually promote democracy at the expense of rigid communal particularism” (Dawisha and Dawisha 2003, 37). The complexity of factions in Iraq can contribute to equal protection. Cecelia Lynch adds that “religious identity may relate to other identities in several different ways: it may overtake other identities, compete with them, or take a back seat to them (and this hierarchy of relationships may change over time)” (4). It is not simply Sunnis versus Shi’ia or Arabs versus Kurds, there are both Sunni and Shi’ia Arabs and Sunni and Shi’ia Kurds for example; this unique mix of ethnic and religious groups make it feasible for a well balanced democracy to form, given the right circumstances.
In spite of the roughly 300 terrorist attacks that took place on election day in January 2005, an impressive 58% of eligible voters participated (a higher rate of turnout than in most U.S. presidential elections) (Inglehart et al. 2006, 503). Conscious of the presence of ethnic and religious cleavages, the policies supported by the United States have emphasized a significant amount of decentralization and highly federated structure to include “the participation of all of Iraq’s communities in decisionmaking [sic], and binding guarantees of local community rights” (Byman 2003, 54). This proved to be relatively successful, according to Byman, because at local levels “elections have been free and competitive, there is considerable freedom of the press, basic civil liberties are secure, and bureaucracies are responsive to popular concerns and surprisingly accountable” (Byman 2003, 70). For George, the only way for liberal democracy to survive in Iraq is to have a constitution that establishes “fair terms of social and political engagement for all groups, and indeed, all citizens” (2007, 2). The Iraqi constitution appears to be a badly designed text that leaves much to be wanted in a document that plays a crucial role in bringing about peace.
The Current Constitution
Saunders explains that constitutions can set a “framework for a mutually respectful exchange of views, which hopefully leads to religious reconciliation (or at least peaceful coexistence)” (2007, 4). Muqtadar Khan agrees that “different ethnic and religious groups have succeeded in achieving mutually acceptable or tolerable levels of power sharing in such places and have also succeeded in establishing a durable degree of confidence in each other’s commitment to the social contract and hence are enjoying the fruits of stability” (2007, 4). However, skeptics about the viability of the current Iraqi constitution make several compelling arguments. Intisar Rabb argues it is not a matter of the history of the countries like Iraq but rather the “motives and means of the leaders, and maybe most significantly the outside influences… and civil society” but that these rely on the presence of physical and economic security that is currently absent in Iraq (2007, 3). Khan cautions that we might be taking these constitutions “more seriously than even the Bush administration that wrote them or the governments whose job it is to apply them” (2007, 12).
The importance of a fair, representative and pluralistic constitution is clear but the ‘trick’, according to Dawisha and Dawisha, is “to work out a constitutional arrangement that makes sense of Iraq’s social and cultural mosaic, transforming diversity into an agent for positive change” (2003, 37-38). However, the current constitution is, at best, vague and contradictory if not impracticable. Rabb breaks down the three pivotal sections of the constitution and explains their conflicting interests. The three sections, religion and Islamic law, rights and freedoms, and democratic processes, are the first three sections of Article 2 of the constitution. Article 2.1 (a) states “Islam is the official religion of the state and a basic source of legislation. No law can be passed that contradicts settled Islamic (legal) rules”. Article 2.1 (b) states “no law can be passed that contradicts the principles of democracy” and Article 2.1 (c) states that “no law can be passed that contradicts the basic rights and freedoms outlined in this constitution” (Rabb 2007, 5). The issue here is not declaring Islam, or indeed any religion, as the official state religion, Rabb gives several examples of modern states that have successfully done this. However, the constitutions of these countries have included “provisions for the equality and rights of their citizens, regardless of religious affiliation” and the state must “ensure that the established religion does not impinge on the freedoms of any of its citizens and that religion will never impede fair democratic processes” (Rabb 2007, 5).