The complexity of ensuring peaceful coexistence between the religious communities in Iraq was fully visible during a panel discussion at the Sulaimani Forum that took place on Thursday.
The complexity of ensuring peaceful coexistence between Iraq’s religious communities was fully visible Thursday (March 7) during a panel discussion at the Sulaimani Forum.
The panel took place on the second day of the Forum, which was hosted by the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani.
The subject elicited energetic discussion from the panel’s participants and the audience about how religious diversity could be maintained and the rights of all communities respected.
“If you want to change the reality, you have to believe in dialogue,” said Sayid Ziad Bahr Al Aloum of the Al Khoei Institute.
“It is not just a slogan.”
He added that he did not believe Iraq would have stability unless the rights of all Iraqis were respected.
William Warda of the Hammurabi Rights Organization echoed this point by saying that supporting and empowering women and minorities was essential to the success of democracy in Iraq.
“If women do not have stability, if the minorities do not have stability, then we don’t have stability. Period,” he said.
Warda suggested that rewriting poorly written and discriminatory laws and ending the seizure of minority property were two steps that could be taken from a practical perspective to address common problems for members of minority groups.
He went on to say, however, that there is a “sectarian sickness” in some local councils and blamed the government for its lack of progress towards building trust between religious groups.
“They cannot step outside of this [sectarian] box,” he said of some government officials. “We are doing our part as civil society and clergy. Have we achieved what we want to? Not exactly. But we’re making progress.”
Ezidi leader Hadi Baba Shaykh said that, as Iraqi citizens, the Ezidi community deserved the exact same rights as any other Iraqis.
“It is our right as Ezidis to demand the same rights as Christians, Muslims, Sunnis, and Shias,” he said.
Special Advisor for the Middle East to US Vice President Mike Pence Stephanie Dobitsch emphasized working at the local level to achieve change.
“We’re working with local communities: We’re working with not just Christians on the Nineveh Plains or Ezidis in Sinjar, but all of Iraq’s religious communities,” she said.
The lack of representation at the federal and local level for minority groups in general and Ezidis in particular was a point that was emphasized by Hadi Baba Shaykh, who said that, while Ezidis should have more representation in parliament, what mattered most was the delivery of services to the community.
Warda said that the reserved seats for minority groups were often used by larger groups like Shias or Kurds to further their own political interests.
“They care about a political agenda, not about the rights of the minorities,” he argued.
Another practical issue raised by Hadi Baba Shaykh was the treatment of religious minorities when they traveled to majority-Muslim areas to do things like attend university. He said that there were many examples of Ezidis being disrespected when they traveled.
During the question period of the panel, this point was disputed by a member of the audience who said that he had never seen or heard of such treatment and that claiming that such incidents occurred was counterproductive.
Hadi Baba Shaykh insisted that such incidents were common and that it was an important issue that needed to be talked about.
Another audience member said that many Iraqi Muslims have failed to recognize that their own community had committed grievous acts of violence against their minority neighbors and that acknowledging that harm was a necessary step towards achieving religious tolerance.
In an attempt to sum up what had been a lively panel, Dobitsch said that the passion displayed during the conversation showed the urgency of the issue.
“If we can take anything from the panel today,” she said, “it is that we should respect our neighbors.”