Iraqi Champion of Diversity, in a Discouraging Time

Cultural and ethnic diversity in the Arab world would seem to have few champions at the moment, especially in Iraq.

A year ago, Mosul fell to the Islamic State. Many historical and religious sites in northwestern Iraq have been destroyed. Thousands of individuals from Iraqi ethnic and religious groups, including the Yazidi, have fled their historical homes.

But Saad Salloum, an Iraqi academic who teaches political science at Al-Mustansiriyh University, in Baghdad, is an advocate for tolerance, cultural heritage, and the rights of minorities.

Salloum is the head of the Masarat Institute for Cultural and Media Development, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the study of minorities, collective memory and cultural dialogue. He is also a member of the Society for the Defense of Press Freedom in Iraq, which was awarded the French Republic’s Human Rights Prize in 2009. He has published many works including “The Future of Civil Society in Iraq,” “Reconciliation in Torn Iraq,” and “Women in the New Iraq.” He was a co-founder of the Iraqi Council on Interfaith Dialogue.

Al-Fanar Media caught Salloum, an internationally active scholar, by telephone this summer. He is welcoming if worried about the future. His laugh stays afloat, even on the steady river of bitter news from Iraq these days.

How do you see diversity in Iraq?

Diversity in Iraq and the region in general, as I see it, is its cultural capital. It feeds the region culturally. Iraq is known by its historical name, Mesopotamia, or the land between the two rivers. But I think we have two other rivers in addition, the oil and the cultural diversity. The latter, unlike rivers and oil fields, will not dry or drain.  This diversity is our mutual cultural capital that can help us to build a common national identity.

Tell us about “the end of diversity in Iraq.”

What has happened is a cultural cleansing. People who lived together for tens of centuries were forced to leave, historical sites and holy shrines were destroyed, and ancient manuscripts burned.  .  . ISIS is the last closing episode. The Shabaks lived for more than 500 years in Nineveh plain and all their identity is attached to the land and environment there. They have been uprooted now. It is a cultural uprooting that equals the cruelty of the Armenian genocide.  Nineveh plain was such a wonderful model of diversity, where Christians, Muslims, Yazidis, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Shabaks, Kaka’is, Kurds, and Arabs lived together for more than 10 centuries. All these have gone with the wind following the tsunami of ISIS.

How did the topic of diversity get your interest?

I have the background of a novelist. I have formed my tools through writing novels and short stories. I was fond of discovering “the other” socially and psychologically. Iraq was an undiscovered universe. I found myself curious to discover more about Baha’is—who lived in peace before 1970s. Where have they gone? And to know more about Yazidis in Iraq for example, this made me eager to discover them in the field as many of the books written on them emphasized lots of false information. Gradually, this eagerness of discovering changed into a belief in the importance of maintaining this diversity as a safety valve for the unity of Iraq.

What are the causes of the retreat from tolerance?

We cannot answer this question without the international context—the collapse of the socialist bloc, the fall of the dream in social justice, and the failure of the nation-state model with all its vows to provide development and equality. All these led to the rise of new forms of religious commitments, as alternative solutions. Unfortunately, the Islamic version is different from the moderate one we knew in the 1950s, when all people lived in peace together, because of oil money. Even for Sunni Islam, we can see how Sufism and the moderate doctrines of Abu Hanifa are being replaced by radical Salafism. It is something Olivier Roy wrote about in his book “Holy Ignorance” in 2010, when he described a religion with no cultural content. The media is forming the hearts and minds anew. . .reducing the region into this Sunni-Shiite conflict, ignoring all its cultural diversity.

Was your book, Christians in Iraq, burned by ISIS terrorists?

We usually print our books in Syria, and transfer them by trucks through Anbar province to reach Baghdad. ISIS imposes a payment of $300 on each truck. I had printed 2000 copies of that book, and I was worried because of the security issues in June 2014. By that time, I had a conference on “freedom of religion and belief” held in the “place of worship” of Mandaeans in Baghdad and attended by Dr. Salim Al-Jabouri, the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament. I decided to send 1,000 copies by ship and 1,000 by truck. ISIS rarely cares about books, and we usually cover them with copies of the Koran on the top. We call it the “Koran trick.” Unfortunately, they checked the truck and found the books with their cover depicting a crucifix and a Star of David, and confiscated them.

What does your organization, Masarat, do to promote tolerance?

Masarat is a 10-year-old nonprofit organization focused on minorities, collective memory studies and interfaith dialogue.  .  . We have a magazine, with its first issue published in 2005. But we have realized that cinema might be more effective to spread our message, and thus we worked on producing documentaries on diversity, and now we have nine movies to discuss the neglected issues in the goal of establishing a “cinema of civil society”.

Is the public aware of the danger of losing the many ethnic and religious groups in Iraq?

The problem is the idea of being oppressed in Iraq. Whenever you talk about the rights of minorities, people say, “what about us?” Okay, I am talking about the importance of diversity and not about a certain sect in particular. The majority of people work as extras on the stage. There is a submission to fatalism, and many are passive. There is a public awareness, but it is not strong enough to act. It is a crisis of the elite. This is why I have moved to work in the field, and to change my tactics. I have lobbied influential religious leaders to help spread our ideas on tolerance. If I can affect 100-3,000 persons at maximum, an influential clergyman can affect millions. I worked with great young civil activists full of hope and energy. We have formed what we call Citizenship Ambassadors to promote coexistence.

Do you have a vision to save diversity?

Yes, my book The Creative Diversity that I published in 2013 is a road map to promote pluralism in Iraq. It is not a theoretical but rather a practical work. [There are four ways to preserve diversity.] First, legislation: it is a tool to speed up change towards a tolerant society. I always give the United States as an example. In the 1960s, the discrimination against black people was obvious, and now they have a Barack Obama as president. This is not a miracle, but the fruit of years of struggle by civil-rights activists and clergymen, such as Martin Luther King. Legislation can shorten the road, and achieve what might otherwise be achieved through a 100-year struggle. Second, the role of interfaith dialogue. Clerics might be part of the problem, but they could also be part of the solution. Third, creating educational curricula that suit a multicultural society.

In the Dar Al-Ilm at Al-Khoei Institute in Najaf, we suggested to teach the Christian theology through a Christian theologian and not through a Muslim cleric as had been done in the past. This institute to teach comparative religion is a big one composed of a 14-story building and will open its doors within few months.

Fourth, the youth are the bridges between the parts of our society. I started the citizenship ambassadors, where I chose 20 youths from different religions and ethnic groups, and let them live together to discover about each other. We bring people from Anbar to live in Kut, and let Muslims visit a church and a Mandi, and take Muslims and Christians to visit the Yazidi temple at Lalish, and even to live with the Black people in Zubairin Basra. Each of those 20 youths will then chose 20 others, and do their own experience together. This way, we can spread tolerance and better understanding throughout the society.

With the first anniversary of the tragedy of the displacement of people from Sinjar and Nineveh plain, are you an optimist about the future of diversity in Iraq?

I am not an optimist at all, but neither am I a pessimist. I do not think according to this dualism. We cannot live without hope, and we should preserve it even if it is a little candle. I am fighting with swords of glass. We are doing what the government is not doing as it lacks the vision to do so. We are fighting against the interests of super-regional and international states. We are just like a doll fighting against monsters who want to dominate the stage. I always say, “In Iraq, hope is not a choice, but a lifestyle.”
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