Counterpoint: Religious Intolerance Serves No One

by Weam Namou

Religious Tolerance

This opinion piece was originally published by The Chaldean News a few days ago

Many of our people, like Californian artist Paul Batou and Chicago attorney Wisam Naoum, have compared the genocide of the Christian Iraqis to that of the Native Americans, who recount how an estimated 80-100 million of their people were wiped out by disease, famine or warfare imported by white men carrying crosses who came here to find gold and to own new land. Those who survived were forced to convert to Christianity and to abandon their traditions and their native language.

Yet, we don’t see Native Americans protesting against our churches in the prejudiced manner we’ve protested against mosques. They keep their ancestral memory and lessons alive through storytelling and ceremonies, not hate speech.

Native Americans mainly blame politics and greed, not religion, for what happened to them. They’re not the only ones with this viewpoint. Ariel Sabar is a Kurdish Jewish author whose father was from Zakho. Currently a professor of Hebrew at UCLA, Sabar is a native speaker of Aramaic and has published more than 90 research articles about Jewish Neo-Aramaic and the folklore of the Kurdish Jews. In his book, My Father’s Paradise, he describes the old community in Zakho:

“Muslims, Jews, and Christians, Judaism, Sufi mysticism, Bahaism, and Yezidism flourished alongside one another and extremism was rare…. Muslim, Jew, and Christian suffered alike through the region’s cruel cycles of flood, famine, and Kurdish tribal bloodshed. They prospered alike when the soil yielded bumper crops of wheat, gall nuts, and fragrant tobacco. In important ways, they were Kurds first and Muslims, Christians, or Jews second.”

Sabar also blames politics and greed, not religion, on the mass exodus of 120,000 Jews from Iraq in the 1950s. Some of Sabar’s accounts are similar to what occurred last year with ISIS’ Christian genocide. If we were to research history, we would see that political greed is at the root of most invasions, massacres and occupations.

If we choose to have a one-sided memory, we will never be able to have a dialogue with other cultures, ethnicities and religions, and yet that’s what democracy is about. It’s the reason this country has such great potential and why people risk their lives to come here.

We remember the 1933 Simele Massacre but we forget the 1991 Gulf War, the unjust UN-imposed sanctions that were enforced on Iraq for more than 12 years, and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, all which caused the deaths of millions of innocent Iraqi civilians and a refugee crisis for which the world is today paying the price. The Arab world looked upon these wars and sanctions as Christians’ war against Muslims. During that time, many in Iraq began labeling Christians “Bush’s people” and terrorists were easily able to recruit extremists.

Despite all this, Saddam did not permit Muslims to use hate speech against Christians. Batras Mansour, a refugee I once interviewed, said, “I haven’t seen a day of peace since the war. During Saddam’s regime in Iraq, we experienced much better days. Back then, no one could say a wrong word to us Christians.”

Mansour told the story of how an imam spoke against the Christians over the microphone. After he was reported to authorities, the mosque was circled by four cars. The imam was taken away and no one saw him since.

So was Saddam more intolerant of religious hate speech than we are?

Over the years, I have interviewed dozens of people from the Catholic religious order. They never blamed Islam for Iraq’s current situation. In my recent book about the lives of Iraqi American artists, most of the artists expressed nostalgia for the Iraq that was once unified.

Randa Razoky said, “I once painted a painting of mosque, churches, and Mandaean men baptizing women by the river, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flow. This painting represents an Iraq of diverse religions which no longer exists. We lost that Iraq.”

Maybe We can get that Iraq back if we open our hearts and re-learn to co-exist. Otherwise, true peace will never find a home within us.