by admin on May 9, 2013
Spring is in full bloom, and this Thursday let’s pause for inspiration with a poem by Hafiz, a beloved Persian Sufi poet from the 14th century. Sufis are Muslims who emphasize the individual’s direct connection to God, often via a mystical dimension.
Sometimes complicated or complex issues need a simple dose of inspiration in order to find a solution or uncover a new approach. The mental breath of fresh air that poetry can often provide is key to developing skills such as seeing past ‘the Other’ and recognizing and celebrating our common humanity even when and where it seems impossible. Along with the spirit embodied in this poem, let us not be taken in by gloomy headlines and deathly fears, and celebrate that spring is here and can bring with it the “Sabaa wind” Hafiz mentions. One poetry blogger notes that the “Sabaa is a wind at sunrise coming from the East. Spiritual poets associate the Sabaa with the breath of the Beloved; coming from the East, it is the first whisper of daylight, of spiritual enlightenment. It carries the perfumed promise of the new day. It is a messenger of awakening, subtle, playful, revealing new beauty.”
Spring and all its flowers
Spring and all its flowers
now joyously break their vow of silence.
It is time for celebration, not for lying low;
You too — weed out those roots of sadness from your heart.
The Sabaa wind arrives;
and in deep resonance, the flower
passionately rips open its garments,
thrusting itself from itself.
The Way of Truth, learn from the clarity of water,
Learn freedom from the spreading grass.
Pay close attention to the artistry of the Sabaa wind,
that wafts in pollen from afar,
And ripples the beautiful tresses
of the fields of hyacinth flowers.
From the privacy of the harem, the virgin bud slips out,
revealing herself under the morning star,
branding your heart and your faith
And frenzied bulbul flies madly out of the House of Sadness
to unite with the flowers;
its love-crazed cry like a thousand-trumpet blast.
Hafiz says, and the experienced old ones concur:
All you really need
is to tell those Stories
of the Fair Ones and the Goblet of Wine.
English version by Homayun Taba & Marguerite Theophil
- hafiz, iran, persian, poetry, rumi, sufi
by admin on May 3, 2013
This week we return to a topic near and dear to my heart: Iraq. You’ve all probably seen the disturbing headlines regarding the mounting sectarian violence and fears of a renewed civil war in the country. In April alone, 712 Iraqis were killed “in acts of terrorism and acts of violence,” according to CNN’s reporting of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq—the highest total in five years. The Iraqi Shia-led government has responded in a way that should worry democracy advocates. Three days ago it suspended the licenses of 10 primarily Sunni media outlets, including Qatar based Al-Jazeera, accusing their coverage of “incitement” and engaging in “clear calls for disorder and launching retaliatory criminal attacks against security forces and explicit promotion of constitutionally and legally banned terrorist organizations.”
Most reports have acknowledged that neighboring Syria’s civil war is having a spillover effect on Iraq, as Sunnis in that country are violently opposing and striving to topple the Al-Assad Allawite (offshoot of Shi’ism) government.
When there’s talk of differences so great they can erupt into civil war, it is time to return to the fundamental question of a country’s identity. Does Iraq have a collective identity it can hold on to that goes deeper than sect and ethnicity? I’d been told time and again in Iraq how the people have no problem with each other. In Baghdad, for example, intermarriage between Sunni and Shia was common, and neighborhoods were intermingled. Peaceful coexistence reigned. It’s the politicians, Iraqis said, who exploited the differences for their own gains and ambitions, as did Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, social cleavages, especially if accompanied by violence, can quickly become the new reality and form the basis of unprecedented societal grievances. It seems easier to unravel an identity than to forge one.
On this question of Iraq’s identity, former Iraqi Finance Minister Ali Allawi wrote a fascinating article in 2009, entitled “The Iraq Crisis and the Future Middle East Order.” Here’s an excerpt:
What is Iraq?
I ask this question because it goes to the heart of the great crisis that we are passing through.
It is not a nation, at least not in terms of the commonly understood definitions of a nation. It lacks the essential elements of nationhood; in particular Ernest Renan’s acute comment that what holds a nation together is as much what its people have chosen to forget as what its people share in common. A nation’s memory must be selective. That is clear, notwithstanding the ultimately doomed efforts of Arab nationalists to typecast Iraq as a uniquely Arab state, a metaphorical and actual defender of Arabism.
…….Neither has it been a nation whose identity is built around religion. Iraq is overwhelmingly Muslim, but the idea that the Muslims of Iraq should form a nation, the way that the Muslims of British India did, is entirely meaningless, unless one is speaking of an Islamic state. That is another matter entirely. It is only very recently that the Shia Muslims of Iraq have been seen as forming the core of a Shia Arab nation. This is not only a controversial construct but it is uncertain how far Iraq can be conflated with its Shia Arab majority.
Neither is it a nation built around the almost mystical attachment to a founding text or idea-such as the US constitution, Magna Carta, Democracy or the Declaration of Human Rights. Iraqi constitutions have been threadbare and utilitarian-drawn up for specific purposes and to regulate or legitimise existing arrangements. It is unlikely that Americans would have the same relationship to their founding document if it was cobbled together in a few weeks by a set of politicians under the watchful eye of a French expeditionary force. No Jefferson, no Hamilton, no Madison, no Federalist Papers here.
……The question becomes: Can one build a sense of nationhood out of the parts-a nation of disparate parts?
I believe you can. ___________
I’ll let you read the article for Allawi’s conclusions as to what Iraq needs to do in order to build the sense of nationhood, but let me conclude by bringing up a point Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya made to me several years ago. When I asked him about this question of Iraq’s identity he acknowledged that this “was the key issue.” He went on to point out the example of South Africa post-apartheid that struggled intensely with the question of national identity. How could a country possibly move beyond that history of oppression/division and that sense of itself and its people? Nelson Mandela, a truly magnaminous leader, made it possible, by emphasizing forgiveness, togetherness, and forward momentum., not recrimination for past wrongs. “What we need in Iraq is an artful leadership” who will assuage fears and bridge the many ethnic, sectarian, tribal, and class differences of the country, not exacerbate them. “We need a Mandela,” lamented Makiya. One can only hope that the democratic process lasts long enough in Iraq so that the people can vote for leaders who share these qualities rather than those who stoke the flames of sectarian tension.
- al-Jazeera, Ali Allawi, civil war, Iraq, Kurd, Qatar, sectarian, Shia, Sunni
by admin on May 3, 2013
Greetings, Euphrates community! In this week’s current, there’s a bit of everything, from more on the Boston bombings, overcoming our fear of terrorism, a shout-out to Earth Day a few days ago, and interviews with Egypt’s version of Jon Stewart, Bassem Youssef. We endeavor to continue to Inform, Inspire, and Transform!
1.) On the Boston bombings: Excellent op-ed in today’s Christian Science Monitor, entitled “Boston Bombings and a Muslim Identity,” by Faheem Younus.
Here’s an excerpt: “The Tsarnaev brothers had a jumbled identity. I know, because I also had one as a Muslim immigrant to the United States. The challenge of the Boston bombings is for Muslim communities and law enforcement to help create a generation of Muslims with an American identity. Almost two decades ago, I, too, landed in America with components of a conflicted identity. Let’s see. Where should I start? Immigrant? Check. Muslim? Check. Young male? Check. Anti-war? Check. Socially isolated? Check. But there was a key difference: I was taught from childhood that jihad in these times means a personal struggle, not a holy war. I belong to an organized and educated worldwide Muslim community that professes, “Love for all. Hatred for none.”
2.) On Terrorism: Euphrates Fellow Emily Osborne contributes this blog post,“Replacing Fear with Understanding to Defeat Terrorism”, that discusses the history of terrorism and provides resources for greater understanding this phenomenon and how to overcome it.
Here are two additional resources worth watching/reading:
3.) Earth Day 2013: Water in the Middle East. Earth Day was just a few days ago, April 22, providing a good opportunity to talk about environmental issues in the region! Read about water resources and challenges in the Middle East in this excellent post from Fellow Kynan Witters-Hicks.
4.) Follow up from a past Weekly Current on Laughtivism and the power of humor: Egyptian Bassem Youssef is in the States and was interviewed yesterday on The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. Watch this inspiring activist who continues to fearlessly satirize the Egyptian government and leadership even in the face of accusations, charges, and harrassment from the government. In Part 2 of the interview Youssef discusses Islamic extremism and the need to take back the religion from the extremist minority.
5.) Lastly, it’s your last chance to sign up for the Principia on-line learning course on Iraq, which begins next week! Be prepared to learn about the intersection of Iraqi and American interests in this course that you can take wherever you are.
- Bassem Youssef, Boston bombings, Christian Science Monitor, Earth Day, Egypt, Islam, Jon Stewart, Middle East, Muslim, Tsarnaev, water
by admin on April 18, 2013
Our prayers and love go out to Boston, joining an outpouring from individuals around the world. One poster I saw on Facebook especially struck me, (shown above), picturing two Afghan women holding a sign, “TO BOSTON FROM KABUL WITH LOVE.” It warmed my heart to see women who face routine violence and bombings reaching out to a foreign city in support and compassion. It was especially poignant because one of my dearest friends, Whitney Connor Clapper, of Side of the Road Sessions, is en route to Afghanistan today in support of an amazing project for Afghan women breaking through barriers through cycling, Afghan Cycles.
Whitney wrote this blog post about their trip, which she gave me permission to share:
As some of you may know, I have the chance to be involved with a film project that will help tell the story of the Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team. Being a long time admirerer of the most beautiful human creation involving two wheels, a cyclist and a student of women’s studies during my college days, this trip tugs on my heart strings as I imagine what it will be like to sit and ride with these teammates.
I grew up hearing the mantra, “You’ve got a bike, use it” from my parents, and often peddled 8 to 10 miles a day to tennis lessons, to the local swimming pool, over to friend’s houses and back home again each night – only to eat, sleep and repeat, especially during the summer. As a child growing up amidst the corn fields and open country roads in the mid-west, I found my freedom on the bike. I learned how to be self-sufficient on the bike, and I came to deeply respect the bike as a viable mode of transportation. Except for the occasional small town driver who wasn’t ready to share the road with a cyclist – rarely did I ever encounter any resistance to the countless miles that I racked up every year on my bike.
It’s hard to even conceive of the fact that biking is a taboo subject for women in Afghanistan. The bike is a worldly vehicle, allowing people the chance of survival, fitness and competition. Riding a bike seems harmless and peaceful. Yet in order to ride their bikes, the teammates on the National team must ride in secret. They must ride completely covered, despite the heat, and they often leave their own country to compete in smaller races. Guarding themselves from jeering comments from passing vehicles while out on training rides, the women’s Afghan cycling team not only grows stronger mentally and physically with each peddle stroke, they also have their heart set on the 2016 Olympics.
This Spring a small crew of us will head over to Afghanistan to meet the team. We will spend time listening to their stories, interviewing these women in their homes and hearing more about their Olympic goals. I say all of this under the assumption that this will happen – however as any international journey goes to a 3rd world country, where the unknowns greatly outnumber the knowns – the only thing that we can guarantee is we will be able to practice patience.
- Afghan, Afghan Cycles, Afghanistan, bike, Boston bombings, cycling, Kabul, Mountain2Mountain, Side of the road sessions, Whitney Connor Clapper
by admin on April 12, 2013
“Super Morsi”, an Egyptian youtube hit
You may have heard news of the recent arrest warrant issued for Egyptian comedian and TV show host, Bassem Youssef. Egyptian authorities held and questioned the popular media figure, finally releasing him on bail after forcing him to pay a fine of $2,200. His crime? Making people laugh.
Bassem’s comedy show, called “El Barnamag” (The Program), takes a satirical spin on current events and the government, and his recent run-in with the law was based on the charge that he had “insulted President Morsi and Islam”. Bassem has criticized Morsi for abusing power, calling him “pharaoh” and “Super Morsi”, as well as attracting attention to the activists who have been arrested under the Muslim Brotherhood government. Often called “Egypt’s Jon Stewart”, Bassem’s Youtube channel is the most popular in Egypt. The popularity of his satire and his ability to poke fun at the government have clearly made the ruling authorities feel threatened, and their crackdown in response only makes them look all the more insecure. This is the beauty of comedy as a force against oppression: if rulers ignore it, it gains popularity, and if they try to shut it down, they look even more ridiculous. Humour has been used as a tool in social movements for centuries, but only recently gained an official terminology: Laughtivism.
Laughtivism as a concept was first defined by an organization called CANVAS, the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies. CANVAS is an educational institution that provides teaching, training, free online literature and advice, and workshops to support and educate nonviolent pro-democracy activists around the world. Its mission is to spread the word of ‘people power’ and “to explain to the world what a powerful tool nonviolent struggle is when it comes to achieving freedom, democracy, and human rights.” In recent years, the organization has worked with pro-democracy activists in a huge range of countries, including Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon, the Maldives, and Egypt, as well as forming teaching partnerships with Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown, and other universities.
It turns out that some of the protestors instrumental in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution had received training from CANVAS. Egyptian activist Mohammed Adel said in an interview with Al Jazeera that he had learned from CANVAS ”how to conduct peaceful demonstrations, how to avoid violence, and how to face violence from the security forces, and then how to train others in how to demonstrate peacefully and how to organise and get people to the streets.” One of the pillars of CANVAS’s strategy is to “brand” nonviolent struggle in order to help break down fear and bring people together. Essential in this branding is laughtivism—using comedy and humour to get people involved, to make the oppressors look silly, and, most importantly, to break down the barriers of fear.
Laughtivism is picking up speed, especially in the Middle East. For example, in Egypt, aYoutube video called “Super Morsi” has gone viral, depicting President Morsi as Super Mario squashing all his opponents.
In Tunisia, a comic superhero called Captain Khobza (Captain Bread) has come to life to “give the bread riots a modern meaning” and strike down oppression wherever he goes, wielding a baguette as his weapon. The cartoon character’s facebook page has already attracted over 250,000 ‘likes’. Captain Khobza was created, according to one of his founders, to portray “an image of a Tunisian who is not afraid”, using the universal language of comedy. Visit the facebook page for regularly updated cartoon clips and memes (mostly in Arabic or French) on the adventures of the justice-pursuing, cape-wearing, baguette-wielding hero.
And in Syria—despite ever-mounting casualties and deadly violence from both the government and opposition groups—satirical graffiti and witty slogans and songs still find outlets in the streets. Another Youtube sensation is Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, a series of puppet shows mocking Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Check out this clever episode called Who wants to kill a million? fashioned after the American game show Who wants to be a millionaire? The description under the video says, “To our great Syrian people and all the free citizens around the world who won’t be humiliated anymore”. You can find out more about the producers of the series here on Facebook and and on Twitter.
Over the last few days, US government officials have voiced concern over the Egyptian government’s dramatic extension of control over free speech. State Department spokepeople have noted a “disturbing trend” in Egyptian censorship attempts andSecretary of State John Kerry expressed “real concerns about the direction Egypt appears to be moving in.” American comedian Jon Stewart, a personal friend of Bassem Youssef’s, who has hosted him on his show, criticized Morsi for the arrest in a recent episode of The Daily Show.
All is not lost, however—Bassem emerged from his five-hour long interrogation with Egypt’s top judges only to continue cracking jokes about the entire situation. A Muslim Brotherhood lawyer, acting independently from the organization as a whole, filed a lawsuit to ban Bassem’s comedy show from the airwaves. The Egyptian courts rejected the lawsuit last week, enabling a sigh of relief for supporters of comedy and free speech across the country. Egyptians are in a precarious position as their government looks to consolidate authority, but laughtivism helps them push through tougher times and truly test the colors of their leaders.
Laughtivism not only attracts people to the cause of nonviolent struggle; it also gives movements legitimacy and international respect they would not achieve through violent means. It brings people together, gives them courage in desperate times, and provides inspiration and an outlet for incredible creativity. When rulers react negatively to jokes, they reveal their weakness to the world, which in turn empowers their opponents. By revealing these regimes’ latent fears, humor in turn inspires the bravery and ingenuity of all those fighting for their human rights. Laughter, combined with the amplifying power of social media, is making history as a secret weapon in the fight for freedom.
For more information:
This Weekly Current was written by Natasha Turak.
- Bassem Youssef, comedy, Egypt, Euphrates, Jon Stewart, laughtivism, Morsi, peace, Syria, The Daily Show, Tunisia
by admin on April 10, 2013
Nowruz pîroz be! (Happy New Year!)
Two weeks ago the traditional Persian and Kurdish Nowruz, or New Year, holiday was celebrated in cities across the Middle East. For Kurds, the usual foods, songs, dances, traditional fire-jumping games and brightly-colored clothes and flags of green, red, and yellow were everywhere to be tasted, heard and seen. But this year’s Nowruz had an added significance for Kurds in Turkey and beyond.
This Nowruz was marked with the possibility – even the promise – of a future peace, and a greater recognition of Kurdish rights.
On March 21st, Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdish armed resistance movement in Turkey known as the PKK, declared a ceasefire from his prison cell on the island of Imrali. His words were read aloud to a crowd of over a million people in the Kurdish-dominated city of Diyarbakır (known by Kurds as Amed) in southeastern Turkey. “This is a new period,” Öcalan declared, “Instead of arms we have ideas.”
Öcalan’s call to halt armed opposition reverberated across Kurdish communities and was echoed by Kurdish politicians and the acting leadership of the PKK. And in Diyarbakır, Öcalan’s message found overwhelming support. For the past 29 years, the coming of Spring has been marked with a surge in violent clashes between the Turkish military and PKK militants, but on this Nowruz day the estimated 2 million Kurds who gathered to celebrate raised their voices in support of Öcalan’s proclamation that “from a period of armed resistance, a door has been opened to democratic struggle.”
As I follow the developments of the peace process that was reignited just four months ago, I am hopeful. A sustainable peace cannot be achieved over night, and this is just the beginning for the Turks and Kurds. Yet this most recent opening up to the possibilities of a more inclusive, democratic state in Turkey – one that recognizes the cultural and political rights of Kurds – is no coincidence. The Middle East is in transformation, and rights, freedom and self-determination are on the docket. Whether and how the borders of the current states of the region might shift or be redrawn is, to me, not as critical as the values and demands that are inspiring these shifts.
The ten-year anniversary of the Iraq war just passed, and though the slogan “mission accomplished” has now become fodder for political satirists, the Kurds of Iraq have a different story to tell. The U.S. invasion of Iraq resulted in the first autonomous homeland the Kurds have known, and although Iraq’s troubles are far from over, Kurds across the Middle East view Iraqi Kurdistan as an inspiration and a model for greater Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, Syria, and even Iran. As Janessa Gans Wilder’s recent article, “I’m Glad We Invaded Iraq” reminds us: the removal of Saddam Hussein kindled the democratic dreams of the region’s repressed citizens.
Next door in Syria, the two-year-old uprising that has sought to remove President Assad from power has brought greater freedom and self-determination to the country’s long-oppressed Kurds. For the first time in Syria’s Kurdish communities, the Kurdish flag flies above Kurdish-administered local government buildings. Having gotten a small taste of autonomy, there is no going back.
This doesn’t mean that the road to Kurdish rights and recognition is wide open. There will be no “full speed ahead.” Democratization is a process, and it is neither an easy nor a clean one.
Challenges abound on both sides. Turkey’s nationalists fear that greater rights for Kurds and their recognition in the constitution could wear away Turkey’s status as a sovereign state for the Turkish people. The PKK is still branded a terrorist organization by Turkey, the E.U. and the U.S. Old habits die hard, yet the fact that the government is even willing to publicly engage with the PKK – recognized by many Kurds in Turkey as the only true representative of their interests – indicates a shift in the status quo of the past. This shift toward recognition and away from repression is a step forward in and of itself.
For his part, Öcalan has been in prison since 1999, and although he still holds immense sway over the hearts and minds of many Kurds who view him as the greatest champion for Kurdish rights, some question his motives and whether he has the Kurds’ best interests at heart.
A peace agreement is still far from signed and stamped. But, insofar as this process mirrors the greater demands for liberation and hopes for democratization across the region, I am enthusiastic. Public sentiment, while far from “sold” on the peace process, also reflects this.
One Kurdish activist I have spoken with frequently references Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He sees this process not only as an awakening for the Kurds but for Turks and all peoples of the Middle East. “Most people just want peace. They are tired of war,” another advocate for Kurdish rights told me. “The democratization of the region is inevitable,” a scholar of the Kurdish struggle explained, “and the Kurds have the chance to lead the way.”
May this New Year be full of blessings!
This Weekly Current was written by Kristin Lauria.
- Kurdish, Kurdistan, Kurds, New Year, Newroz, Nowruz, peace, Turkey
by admin on March 28, 2013
I can honestly say I saw history being made last night. We have been hosting IsraeliRonny Edry, the founder of the Israel Loves Iran movement, and his family, here at Principia College as part of the Public Affairs Conference. Just a few days ago, I was contacted by Iranian Majid Nowrouzi, the founder of the Iran Loves Israel campaign, that he launched as a response to Ronny’s incredible message. It just so happens that Majid and his family were visiting the U.S. and located a few hours away. Could Euphrates arrange a meeting for these two individuals and their families to meet face to face for the first time ever?
Are you kidding me? YES!!
The meeting was electric—both individuals had talked to each other for the past year over Facebook and here they were meeting in person in the U.S. Most amazingly, their kids, who do not speak a word of the same language, were fast friends within two minutes, playing, laughing, giggling incessantly. They didn’t need to be told to like each other. Ronny’s wife, Michal, stared at them in amazement. “Look at this. This is obviously our natural state—to love one another. When does the switch happen where we turn into “adults” and learn to hate and want to be prime ministers and bomb each other?”
To those of us listening to their story, it was amazing to hear Ronny talk about how simple the idea was to post a message of love for Iran, Israel’s arch enemy. “I don’t want to go to war with these people. To kill them, you have to dehumanize them, to hate them, and why would I hate them? I don’t even know them. I can love anyone as a human being.” And Majid recounted how incredulous he was when he first heard of this Israeli guy “who doesn’t hate us, but says he loves us! I had always pictured Israelis as this big soldiers with guns. But here was a very different picture.” He told his wife, “Love must be echoed. We must respond to this message, and so they started the Iran-Loves-Israel campaign. Majid continued that “We don’t need a reason to love each other, but we do need a reason to hate.”
What I loved about yesterday’s encounter is that it shows what’s possible when you get politics out of the way, and just let people meet each other face-to-face, human being to human being. These were two families, Iranians and Israelis, who, according to conventional wisdom, should not only hate each other, but should be prepared to go to war any moment and bomb each other. Yet, as these two families showed, what purpose does that serve? What is our reason for hating each other? What if instead we just met and got to know each other? Isn’t it more fun to laugh and play together and learn together and share messages of love? Ronny pointed out that ordinary citizens have the power and opportunity, especially with today’s social media, to make these connections that our governments are unable to make. His main goal is to see each person in the world making one connection to the so-called “enemy”, and then we might think twice when our governments want to bomb that country. “Wait a second, but I know someone there, and he’s a nice guy. Why are we doing this again?”
Majid said last night, “We’ve had a lot of hate. We know that way. What we need now is love. LOVE is the only answer.”
Listen in today to Ronny’s and Majid’s interview on St. Louis public radio at 11:30 am central time.
Or tune in to Ronny Edry’s keynote speech on Principia Internet Radio at the Public Affairs Conference, where he will also be accepting the Euphates Visionary of the Year 2012 award. If you live in the area, you are most welcome to attend in person! Click here for more information.
Also, check out Ronny’s inspiring TED talk, “Israel and Iran: A Love Story.
- Israel loves Iran, peace, Ronny Edry, visionary of the year
by admin on March 21, 2013
This week marked the ten-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003. As part of its “Iraq War Special Series”, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs published an article by Euphrates’ Founder, Janessa Gans Wilder, entitled “I’m Glad We Invaded Iraq,” which looks at the positives and negatives of the American takeover in 2003. You can view it at the Fletcher Forum here or read it below. As always, we welcome your comments and feedback.
Ten years ago, we invaded Iraq. And I’m glad we did. Despite the many justified and enumerated points about our ignorance of the country, our lack of a plan, and the severe mistakes made during our occupation, we rid the country of a brutal dictator and started the process of change in a region that sorely needed it. I just wish we had installed an American, rather than a sectarian model of government, when we had the chance.
During my time there from 2003 to 2005, I never met an Iraqi—Shia, Sunni, Kurd, or Christian—who wasn’t grateful Saddam was gone, and who didn’t agree that only America could have done the deed. Toppling Saddam was just one aspect of change. A former Iraqi parliamentarian told me recently he credits America for igniting the Arab Spring. “Your experiment worked. You brought the winds of change by overthrowing a dictatorship and planting the seeds of democracy in the heart of the Middle East. The image of seeing people wave their purple fingers having just cast their first vote was too powerful to ignore.” Perhaps this vindicates George Bush somewhat, as it echoes the speech he gave on February 26, 2003. “A liberated Iraq,” he said, “can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region” and serve “as a dramatic and inspiring example … for other nations in the region.”
Maybe there is a correlation between seeing Iraqis free to speak their mind, cast their votes, and start their businesses, and the later uprisings all over the region as the people protested against authoritarian regimes and demanded equality, liberty, and justice. They weren’t calling for more jihad nor the destruction of Israel, in any case.
But a demon that has been unleashed in the region is sectarianism, and America is partly responsible, say the Iraqi colleagues with whom I worked. Former Iraqi parliamentarian and Shia cleric, Ayad Jamal-al-din once described it to me this way: “Iraq is like a radiator, and Saddam was the radiator cap that kept pressure on the fractious contents and stabilized them. You [America] came and removed the radiator cap and the contents exploded. Now they’re sorting themselves out.”
Bashar al-Naher, a former advisor to Iraq’s first democratically elected prime minister, Ibrahim al-Ja’fari, added, “You released the genie from the bottle in Iraq, and the genie is sectarianism.”
If anything, the biggest failing of America in Iraq is not that we came at all, according to these Iraqis. It’s that we set up a system that exacerbated the forces of sectarianism, rather than abating them. In Iraq, unlike in modern day Egypt, Syria, and other Arab countries where we are nail-biting in the stands wondering which direction their governments will head, we had a clean slate and ultimate power to put into place the model of government of our choosing. Mustafa al-Khadimy, an Iraqi commentator and NGO leader told me, “I still don’t understand why America started with a sectarian model after Saddam Hussein, instead of bringing in competent leaders who wanted to serve…all Iraqis.”
The first post-Saddam structure we helped implement, the Iraq Governing Council, was created along sectarian lines, and not based on qualifications or professionalism. Our key questions should have been, “Are you qualified to serve Iraq? Do you place allegiance to your country above sectarian and ethnic considerations?” But instead we asked, “Are you Sunni or Shia?” Before 2003, this was not a question people ever asked each other, lamented Mustafa al-Khadimy as thousands of Iraqis were intermarried and neighborhoods were integrated.
“Sectarianism is a kind of sickness, and this government is completely under the control of sectarianism,” Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, told me. And the disease is spreading. Just look at Syria.
If we’re going to conduct an experiment in another part of the world, spilling our blood and spending our treasure in the process, then we should at least “do it right.” We squandered an opportunity to see if it were possible to remake a country, to take a repressive regime and turn it into an ideal of equality before the law, with freedom of religious practice, tolerance, and justice. Instead, Iraq is fanning sectarian flames across the region. A young Iraqi friend, Haidar Hadi, who was forced to flee Iraq after he was threatened and now works at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, says he only understood the aforementioned concepts when he came to America and saw them in action. He wishes we had practiced what we preached, created systems of freedom and tolerance, and focused on educating young Iraqi minds about these ideals.
The time of a clean slate and unbridled U.S. power in the region is past. But we can learn the lessons from our steps and missteps in Iraq—however costly they may have been— primarily, that religion is a powerful force and we should try to mitigate its influence rather than emphasize it. If we do not, then I agree with Bashar al-Naher’s comment to me: “from a purely American interest, I wouldn’t blame you for seeing Iraq as a totally futile exercise.”
- 10-year anniversary, Euphrates, fletcher forum, Iraq, Janessa Gans Wilder, US invasion
by admin on March 8, 2013
It began with a visit to the Vatican in November 2007 and it would be the first time a Saudi monarch had visited a Pope. King Abdullah was on a mission to show his earnestness to engage Pope Benedict XVI after the Vatican had repeatedly ignored Muslim imams and scholars’ requests for broader dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
Just the year before, Pope Benedict in a speech had quoted a Byzantine emperor, saying the Prophet Muhammad had brought only “evil and inhuman” things. Protests erupted across the Muslim world and some Muslim countries even recalled their ambassadors to the Vatican. Firebombers attacked churches in the West Bank and Gaza, gunmen killed an Italian nun in Somalia, and the pope himself was threatened. The Vatican expressed “deepest regrets” but said the remark had been misinterpreted in a way that “absolutely did not correspond” to the Pope’s intentions.
The Pope had stressed that these had not been his own words and expressed regret for any offence they had caused, but the words were cast out into international community and could not remain ignored.
While on a tour of Europe, King Abdullah requested an audience with the Pontiff and spoke of the “value of collaboration between Christians, Muslims, and Jews.” Their talks allowed for a wide discussion on the need for religious and cultural dialogue, “for the promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values, especially in support of the family.” Both sides also emphasized the need for a “just solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A short time after their fruitful encounter King Abdullah made the formal call that he would convene a meeting of the Abrahamic faiths in Madrid. The choice of Spain as a host was officially meant to recall the golden era from the eighth to the 13th centuries when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in relative peace under Islamic rule.
In Israel, Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger remarked enthusiastically, “I give my blessing to every initiative that can prevent bloodshed and terror, especially in our area of the world,” adding that most terror in the twenty-first century was religiously motivated and therefore religious engagement and interfaith dialogue was crucial to solving the problem of terrorism. Michael Cromartie, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which monitors religious freedom globally and makes policy recommendations, called the proposed dialogue long overdue. “I don’t care who you put in the room — the fact they’re having the conversation can only help,” he said. “It’s a courageous thing for the king to do. One should not expect utopia, but it’s a start to have an open and free dialogue in a country with a reputation for religious oppression.”
Months later at the invitation of King Juan Carlos of Spain, a successful three days of dialogues were held in June 2008 and nearly 300 representatives which included Jews, Muslims Christians Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and a host of other spiritual traditions—and included Rabbi David Rosen from Israel.
The conference led to a declaration of cooperation which called for enhancing common human values and for their dissemination within societies. “It emphasized the need to promote a culture of tolerance and understanding through dialogue by holding conferences and developing relevant cultural, educational and media programs.” The participants agreed on “international guidelines for dialogue among the followers of religions and cultures.” They said the deepening of moral values and ethical principles, which are common denominators among such followers, would help strengthen stability and achieve prosperity for all humans.
At the conclusion of the Madrid meeting participants urged the United Nations to take a lead role in future interfaith dialogues. A high-level meeting was set at the General Assembly in November 2008 which included former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Israeli President Shimon Peres, US President George W. Bush and King Abdullah II of Jordan. Meeting members were urged to “promote dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, as well as activities related to a culture of peace, and welcome its focus on concrete action at the global, regional and subregional levels.” This was a powerful call to action and its momentum quickly grew.
In response, H.M. King Abdullah of Jordan took a decisive lead to formally propose the observance of World Interfaith Harmony Week to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 23, 2010 citing: “It is … essential to resist forces of division that spread misunderstanding and mistrust, especially among peoples of different religions. The fact is, humanity everywhere is bound together, not only by mutual interests, but by shared commandments to love God and neighbour, to love the good…What we are proposing is a special week during which the world’s people, in their own places of worship, could express the teachings of their own faith about tolerance, respect for the other and peace.” Jordan’s leaders were also instrumental in creating A Common Word, a declaration of common ground between Muslims and Christians now signed by over 300 leading Muslim clerics and imams.
Just under a month later, on October 20, 2010, World Interfaith Harmony Week was unanimously adopted by the UN as the first week of February set aside each year for interreligious observances, the study of sacred texts, poetry readings, prayer breakfasts and interfaith film festivals, meditation groups and afternoons of community service.
In its inaugural year Euphrates Institute took part in interfaith exchanges in the Holy Land with a host of peace building organizations in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories. This year, the Euphrates Fellows took part in UN World Interfaith Harmony Week by speaking via Skype with an Iraqi Muslim in London to learn more about Islam.
This year, the World Interfaith Harmony Week website lists nearly 400 events which took place in 53 countries. The UN General Assembly hosted an interfaith prayer service represented by delegates and religious leaders from around the world. United Religions Initiative Executive Director Charles Gibbs (a key speaker at our 2011Euphrates Summit: “Our World Beyond 9/11”) attended the program and wrote about the sense of unity all felt in seeing each of the 193 UN flags called out and added to the ceremony one by one. Newly counted among the family of nations was the flag of Palestine, whose bid for statehood was recognized by UNESCO this past fall. A welcome milestone for Christian, Muslim and Druze clergy in the region, encouraged for the future of dialogue and community partnership.
Never underestimate the power and goodliness of a well intentioned conversation; it just may change the world.
This weekly current was written by Rebecca Tobias, Vice-President, Board of Directors.
- dialogue, interfaith, pope, Vatican
by admin on February 28, 2013
“Best Picture” winner, Argo, directed by Ben Affleck
I loved watching the Oscars this year with all the Middle East-related movies. Not only does the region lead our headlines, but it seems to dominate our pastimes as well. Several films and documentaries on Middle East themes garnered attention at this year’s Academy Awards. Read on and enjoy the shows!
- Argo, Academy Award Winner for “Best Picture”, is an absolute MUST-SEE! Riveting from beginning to end, it tells the incredible true story of the rescue of six U.S. hostages in Iran in 1979 after the takeover of the U.S. Embassy. The Americans were taken in by the Canadian ambassador and fled the country in an incredulous plot to disguise the group as Hollywood filmmakers making a movie in Iran. President Jimmy Carter in a recent CNN interview lauded the film but took issue with its emphasis on the CIA’s role in the plan/operation, which he says in reality was 90 percent Canadian.
- Zero Dark Thirty, Academy Award nominee for “Best Picture,” features a CIA analyst’s obsession with finding Osama Bin Ladin, and the hurdles she must overcome in doing so, such as tracking an elusive target, acquiring information from reluctant detainees, bureacratic intransigence and lack of support, and operating in a hostile environment. Despite the reviews, I found the movie’s portrayal very realistic of targeting challenges and reminiscent of many of my experiences in Iraq.
- 5 Broken Cameras, Academy Award Nominee for “Best Documentary,” records five years (and five broken cameras) in a village in Palestinian West Bank, focusing on the non-violent protests and realities of Israeli occupation, as seen largely through the eyes and the effect on the filmmaker’s son and the next generation.
- The Gatekeepers, Academy Award Nominee for “Best Documentary”, centers on the Israeli internal security service, Shin Bet, as told through interviews with its six former leaders. A New York Times film critic called it “essential, eye-opening viewing if you think you understand the Middle East.” And I would wager it’s even more eye-opening if you don’t understand the region! Find Al Jazeera stories and interviews on the two documentaries here.
- 5 broken cameras, academy awards, Argo, gatekeepers, Israel, Middle East, oscars, Palestine, Zero Dark Thirty