What Will Become Of Iraq's Christians?

by Hugh Fitzgerald (July 2008)

The fate of the Christians in Iraq should not have come as a complete surprise. It is true that some believed that the kind of Iraqis in exile they met, the soft-spoken thoroughly westernized chalabis and makiyas, who were Representative men, and would, with others like them, inherit Iraq. Really? Was that ever plausible?

Here was the worldly, smiling, slippery eye-always-on-the-main-chance Chalabi, a man who had lived in the West since the age of 14 (he left Iraq at the time of Qassem’s coup, and the overturning of the monarchy, back in 1958). He had become thoroughly used to London, to New York, to Chicago, and forgotten what real non-westernized Muslim Arabs in Iraq, his old countrymen, were like, and dreamed his abstract mathematical dreams of an older time, of the old elites and old families, of those who, though in the Muslim world, and nominally Muslim, had acquired ways of thought, by having money, by attending non-Muslim schools (oh, those good Boston College Jesuits, who ran Baghdad College, which everyone, who was to become anyone, attended). It's the dream that they all have, as they mislead themselves, and mislead, still more grievously, Westerners who have gone to school with them, or befriended them, and assume they know what they are talking about, forgetting that those who are Muslims are well-versed in deception, and if they are unwilling to renounce Islam, will continue to work, naturally, for their own power -- a power that they may think will help curb the "excesses" of the primitive Believers, but that is a far different goal from what should be the goal of Infidels -- to wit, to weaken the Camp of Islam, and the hold of Islam over the minds of men.

Chalabi had been out of Iraq since Qassem's coup in 1958, when the monarchy came to an end, and the real power -- "strongman" Nuri as-Said, was killed and his half-naked corpse dragged through the streets of Baghdad, so that delighted onlookers could join in the fun, hitting it with their shoes, or perhaps, here and there, adding or rather subtracting, their own two bits from the already-mutilated corpse.

So Chalabi, friend of Wolfowitz and others, who paid his respects in Princeton to Bernard Lewis and surely must have expressed his admiration, that of a knowledgeable fellow connoisseur, for  his taste in Islamic art and manuscripts and books, and Lewis must have found Chalabi, in turn, a fine and trustworthy fellow, and also must have been pleased to have had such influence in Washington, especially as, when he lived in Great Britain, the Arabists of the Foreign Office could not ignore his friend, colleague, and fellow editor, Ann Lambton (her field  was Iran, but she was consulted, she was listened to, for she – unlike Lewis – had the merit of being the right sort, even being related to Harold Macmillan’s wife), but they could, and did, pay insufficient attention to the acute Bernard Lewis for the obvious cruel and stupid reason.

There was, along with Chalabi, the influential Arab girlfriend of Wolfowitz, the one who hoped for good things to happen in Iraq and then in the larger Arab world, good things that would be brought about by the Americans, by the expenditure of American efforts, lives,  money, war matériel. One wonders if Wolfowitz has come perhaps to realize, especially after a recent display by his friend of irrational defensiveness and wild accusations about those setting forth the attitude toward Jews that is fostered by the texts of Islam, that there can be, under a Western veneer, a hard-to-eradicate mental type, and what he failed to perceive before, and is only just now beginning to comprehend, may help explain what “went wrong” in Iraq, and why.

Kanan Makiya, whose mother was apparently English, did not, like Chalabi, spend nearly fifty years outside of Iraq. But he had described himself as  genuinely puzzled as to why Arab “intellectuals” never denounced the murders of the Kurds. But he, Kanan Makiya, himself failed to realize, or did not allow himself to realize, that in the world of Islam, some Muslims are superior to others, and Arab supremacism explains the indifference to the fate of the Kurds, but the continuing complete lack of sympathy, by Arabs, for the Kurdish desire for autonomy and even an independent Kurdistan. And the same Arab supremacism, explains the indifference to the cultural and linguistic imperialism of the Arabs in Algeria, who only recently were pressured by men and events into repealing the law banning the use of the Berber language, Tamagzight, and otherwise making more rather than less, difficult the survival or renewal of Berber culture. And the war of Arab Muslims on black African Muslims in Darfur, with the Arab Muslims – especially Egypt – running diplomatic interference for the Arabs of Khartoum – can also be explained, but only if one recognizes that Islam has been, is now, and always will be a vehicle – despite its universalist pretensions – for Arab supremacism. Makiya has not permitted his brain to go there; it is all too unsettling, all too damning in a way that he, who can one minute declare himself to be an atheist, and then, on the same television show, immediately become defensive when he senses that Islam is being questioned or attacked, cannot endure.

With reliance on Chalabi and Makiya and those Americans who found them plausible, the Administration went to war without having learned about Islam, and identified the correct goal of the Iraq campaign, which should have been: to weaken the Camp of Islam. That goal would or should have made the Bush Administration not choose, as its consolation prize once the weaponry had not been found, the messianic sentimentalism of “bringing freedom” to “ordinary moms and dads” in Iraq and then, through this exemplary Light-Unto-the-Muslim-Nations project, to the rest of the Arabs, who had to endure despotisms, seemed remarkably prone to enduring those despotisms, though so many were so busy solemnly explaining why Islam and democracy were so compatible, and anyone who suggested otherwise didn’t know what he was talking about or was, still worse, a “racist,” that those who calmly pointed out how, in what ways, Islam and democracy of the advanced kind – that is, the kind beyond mere vote-counting, the kind that guarantees individual rights, and does not insist that the final measure of rightness be the Shari’a – were based on different ideas of what constitutes political legitimacy, and democracy in the Western sense could not be transplanted, for the good gardener could not ignore that deeply-rooted and broadly-ramified difference between the inshallah-fatalism and Obedience to the Ruler that Islam demanded, and the very different ideas that modern democracy is based on.

And then there were the Christians. Who planned, who foresaw, who thought about, the Christians of Iraq? Saddam Hussein did not intend to do them favors. What he did do is, because of that Ba’athist figleaf that covered the unseemly reality of what was essentially a despotism run largely by, of, and for Sunni Arabs, is provide a "secular" regime -- one, that is, it was theoretically open to all, Arabs and Kurds, and even non-Muslims. (The Syrian variant of Ba'athism similarly disguises an Alawite despotism, but one which admits into the ruling circles the odd Sunni or Christian.) Tariq Aziz, a Christian, played a useful part. Christians helped supply the household staff, the tasters and the cooks and the drivers, for Saddam Hussein, because they could be trusted, they would not dare turn out to be treacherous, and they had no independent base of support, they existed on the whim of the Muslim ruler in a Muslim land. Indeed, the Americans in the Green Zone inherited the same staffs of Christians, the same ones who had waited on Saddam Hussein.

But what did the Americans understand about Islam? Nothing. So they did not know, and they were not to learn, that 100,000 Assyrians had been murdered by Muslim Arabs in 1933, soon after the British left. They did not know what the word “Jizyah” meant, just as they were not told – not at Fort Jackson, not at Fort Bragg, not at Fort Benning, not anywhere at all that the troops were trained – about Islam, and about the treatment of non-Muslims that was the natural state of affairs under Islam, that arose from the texts and the tenets, and even in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein rightly recognized that the main threat to him came from the Shi’a Arabs,  those who were not what we call, with an unavoidable rough-and-readiness, “secular” – like Iyad Allawi, who had once been a member of the Ba’ath Party before going into his anti-Saddam exile – but rather devout, and the more devout they were, the more of a danger they were to Saddam Hussein, but also, of course, to the Christians.

There was no understanding of what would naturally happen when the regime of Saddam Hussein was overturned. The chalabis and makiyas and rend al-rahim francke, and those of similar Georgetown and McLean acceptability and chic and charm, were too much in evidence,and the unrepresentative un-primitives were taken to represent the masses in Iraq, just as those who played tennis with, or drank port or smoked cigars with, Prince Bandar were convinced that he represented the “real” Saudi Arabia, and all the dour Wahhabi stuff was just for show. We have fools running us, fools in the most basic sense – unclever and unschooled and unstudied in the ways of men and the force of events, and  convinced, because they fly all around the world, from capital to capital, they therefore understand the world. But really, what do the likes of Condoleezza Rice, or Madeleine Albright, understand, no matter how many world leaders they meet?

Saddam Hussein, who was called “secular” because the Ba’athist Party (which camouflaged a Sunni Arab despotism) allowed women certain freedoms (including the freedom to go to school and learn enough biology to be usefully employed in germ warfare), and allowed Christians to belong, especially since they were no threat to the regime. For Saddam Hussein the threat was always mosque-based, with the mosques being those of the Shi’a; a second perceived threat not so much to the regime as to Iraq itself was identified as coming from those Kurds unwilling to submit to the arabization of what they saw, not always accurately – the Assyrians had been there before – as Kurdish lands that should remain Kurdish.

The Christian refugees who have appeared occasionally on NPR, such people as Donny George (former head of the Baghdad Museum), have – unsurprisingly but still annoyingly – blamed America for everything. Without saying, quite, that they longed for the days of Saddam Hussein, because although bad he was not so bad for them, they talk about those they are always careful to call “the turbans.” American listeners may not realize that “the turbans” refers only to the Shi’a, because in the experience of the Christians the secular Sunnis of the Ba’ath Party were not a threat; the Shi’a, those with the turbans, were. Christian Iraqis cannot, they realize, say this openly, cannot explain fully to themselves, still less to the outside world’s Infidels, how tenuous was their position, as Christians in a Muslim society, and how Christian regret at what was wrought in Iraq, that is the removal of someone whom most of us have no trouble seeing as a monster,  and this view of Iraqi Christians, while it may seem immoral to outsiders, seems to them not immoral but born of necessity, yet they cannot quite bring themselves to explain the horrible situation in which Christians, in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, find themselves in, and therefore the kind of moral compromises they must make with this Muslim leader or group, or with that, in order to survive.

Another propagandist may bring out the old chestnut about there being "no compulsion in religion." Perhaps he is unaware that in the lands conquered by Muslims they offered, as Qur'an and Sunnah tell them to offer, only three possibilities to non-Muslims: death, conversion, or (if they happen to be ahl al-kitab, People of the Book, that is Christians or Jews, or treated as such at some point, as happened to Zoroastrians and, after some 60-70 million of them had been killed, even the Hindus -- so as to keep the Jizyah flowing) the status of humiliation, degradation, and physical insecurity known as that of the "dhimmi." Isn't that a form of "compulsion" in religion? If one is forced to pay a burdensome tax, forbidden from suing Muslims at law, forbidden from repairing or building new houses of worship, forbidden from marrying a Muslim woman without converting to Islam first, forbidden from all kinds of things which add up to a condition that in many cases was nearly unendurable, so that, over time, those Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians who constituted outside of Arabia proper, the original population of the Middle East and North Africa, over time steadily became more and more islamized. That certainly constitutes "compulsion in religion." And in any case, the meaning traditionally given that over-quoted line (a favorite of apologists who assume that Infidel audiences will simply take it at face value) does not mean what it appears to say. It means merely that you cannot compel deep inner belief, but you can certainly can compel outward conformity with it (i.e. outwardly showing belief in Islam, whatever one inwardly might feel).

The history of Islamic conquest shows that there has been, from Spain to the East Indies in space, and from the seventh century until now, a great deal of "compulsion in religion" by Muslim rulers on the non-Muslims they conquered. And there is to this day, with the intolerable pressures put on the most helpless, such as the Mandeans in Iraq, or to a lesser extent, the Copts in Egypt, the Christians in Lebanon and in the "West Bank" and the Chaldeans and Assyrians of Iraq.

Of course in Islam there is "compulsion in Islam." It's all over the place, and not only in the Middle East. When Christian schoolgirls are decapitated in Indonesia, and thousands of churches burned, or Buddhist villagers decapitated all over southern Thailand, or Hindus beaten to death in Bangladesh, or attacked in Pakistan or driven out by the hundreds of thousands from Kashmir, when if they converted to Islam they would be left alone, surely over time that has its effect. Not everyone can heroically withstand such persecution and threat of murder and actual murder.

That may be defined as "compulsion in religion."

The Christians of Iraq made the best of it and have survived, but now, with Saddam Hussein gone, it is difficult to see who will protect them. About half of them have left, and since Christians made up a large disproportionate percentage of the doctors, engineers, and other professionals whom the Iraqi state needs, but will doubtless never be induced to return, one can assume that Iraq will be the loser. What about those who remain? Will the Muslim Shi’a who run the country decide to protect the Christians, if only to guarantee that they are seen by their American benefactors to seem to practice “tolerance”? Or possibly to make sure that the remaining Christian professionals remain, because they are so needed?

And if the American forces withdraw, should they not be making plans to protect those Christians, to establish some kind of sanctuary, perhaps in northern Iraq, close to or within Kurdistan, and to arm the Christians, and leave an expeditionary force there to protect them, a force that can call on airpower from the Gulf carriers, and from bases in Bulgaria (and perhaps even Turkey) at quick notice. Such planning, however, can take place only if the Administration, or the Pentagon, recognizes that the threat to the Christians, from the now-unchained Muslims, is real, is permanent, and must be taken as a grim fact of Dar-al-Islam life.

And if any Iraqi “refugees” are to be admitted to this country, it should only be Christians. They, after all, are indeed threatened. But Sunni Arab Iraqis have all kinds of places under Sunni Arab control. Shi’a Arab Iraqis have most of Baghdad and the entire south. The Kurds now have the north. It is the Assyrians, and the Chaldeans, and the Mandeans (a tiny sect, whose ancient libraries have been pillaged by Muslims) who, if anyone needs to be considered a refugee from Iraq, can be so considered. Keep that in mind, the next time someone says we must admit all kinds of Iraqis. No, we should not. And furthermore, too many of those Muslim Iraqis who came here, as “refugees” from Saddam Hussein, and who can now go back to Iraq without fear of persecution, have not done so. They should be made to do so. They no longer have an excuse, fall into the category, of those who need to remain.


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