The Assyrian Test of Pluralism in Iraq

By Jonathan Eric Lewis

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
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Although Iraq’s future remains uncertain, it can be said at least that the long Ba’athist nightmare is now over. Moderate and secular Islamic voices now have an opportunity to foster a new pluralistic political system which simultaneously acknowledges the fact that Iraq’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim and guarantees Christians the same legal and religious rights as the majority. Such a move would go a long way toward helping democratize Iraqi society and could prove to be an important turning point in Muslim-Christian relations.

A pluralistic political system is particularly important for letting flourish Iraqi minority communities, such as the 1.5 million Assyrian Christians, a Semitic, Aramaic-speaking community indigenous to Mesopotamia. As captured Iraqi intelligence documents clearly show, the Assyrians were ruthlessly suppressed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. They were subject to religious persecution, particularly during the Iran-Iraq war. Assyrians were denied the most basic of rights in Saddam’s Iraq; indeed, they were not even allowed to speak their own language, familiar to Jews as the language of the Talmud.

It was thus no surprise that many Assyrian exiles, particularly in the United States, championed the American-led effort to overthrow the Ba’ath regime and remain deeply appreciative for the opportunity to build a better Iraq. Late last year, President Bush invoked the Iraqi Liberation Act of 1998 and designated the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a political party now represented on the Iraqi Governing Council, as an officially recognized opposition movement eligible for American assistance. Ronald Michael of Chicago, president of the Assyrian-American League, remains optimistic that “the final result will have been well worth it.”

While Assyrians are pleased to have seen the fall of Saddam’s regime, they realize that there are difficulties ahead and are concerned about their status as a minority in post-war Iraq — particularly given several recent, unfortunate acts of anti-Christian violence, including the recent kidnapping and murder of an Assyrian Democratic Movement official in the southern city of Basra and a shooting attack against a bishop in Mosul. It remains difficult to ascertain whether these acts are spontaneous or part of a larger campaign, whether by former members of the regime to intimidate the Assyrian population or by fundamentalist Islamic agitators determined to stoke intercommunal violence. It is thus incumbent upon the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority, particularly in light of the legitimacy recently bestowed upon it by the United Nations Security Council, to provide for the safety of the Assyrian community.

The security concerns of the Assyrians extend beyond harassment and attacks. Assyrians face the possibility of institutionalized discrimination and persecutions should Sharia, or Islamic law, become the guiding principle of the new Iraqi polity. With a population that is perhaps 90% Muslim, it is not inconceivable that a large number of Iraqis would like to see their Islamic heritage incorporated into the basic framework of the new government, as has happened in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The task facing both the provisional authority and the Iraqi Governing Council, however, is to make sure that Iraq’s Christian minority does not needlessly feel sidelined. Such a balancing act will be delicate, but it is not impossible.

It will not be easy, of course, to draft a centralized legal framework that will be amenable to all of Iraq’s citizens. This is particularly true given the ethnic and religious cleavages within Iraqi society, not to mention the fact that the country is emerging from decades of totalitarianism. The provisional authority should do its best to guide the process of turning power over to the Iraqi people without seeming heavy-handed and unfairly critical of some aspects of the emerging political system that might seem culturally foreign to Western observers. It must also be sensitive to the concerns of the Shi’ites, who constitute a plurality of the population and were repressed by the Sunni-dominated Ba’ath regime.

The Bush administration, for its part, should now do as much as possible to make all Iraqis, regardless of ethnicity or religion, feel included in the new polity. Given that ethnic strife and persecution of Christians and Jews were hallmarks of the nominally secular Ba’ath regime, the creation of a pluralistic Iraq should be endorsed by all members of the international community who wish to see a state at peace with its neighbors. An Iraq in which Assyrian rights are not adequately protected will likely not be the democratic, pluralistic society that is needed in the region.

Jonathan Eric Lewis, author of the Middle East Quarterly policy paper “Iraqi Assyrians: Barometer of Pluralism,” is completing a forthcoming study of ethnic minorities in the Middle East.

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