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/ 16 Adar I 5768
At the Scene of Reconciliation: The Iraqis come to Denmark
I'm in Denmark this week as an observer at an Iraqi "reconciliation conference" that has brought nearly two dozen political and religious leaders to Copenhagen. It's a fascinating group. The clerics range from Sunnis and Shiites to members of little-known, fascinating pre-Islamic sects like the Yezikis (who seem to be historically linked to the Zoroastrians) and the Mandaeans (the central figure of whose faith is John the Baptist), all of whom have suffered ghastly depredations in the terror war following the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Political figures include National Security Adviser Muwafaq al-Rubayie, who spent a long and intense day here on Tuesday, and remains in close contact as the participants try to hammer out a collective document.
It's probably sheer coincidence that this conference takes place at the moment General Petraeus is expressing considerable hope for reconciliation, and his statement that Iraqis need to shout instead of shoot is very much in the forefront of the discussions here. The participants believe that things in their country have improved to the point where a strong statement, containing many specific recommendations, might well have an impact on the central government. They are particularly intent on improving the treatment of some of the lesser-known religious groups in the country, who have been decimated by sectarian violence and who have yet to receive decent treatment from the government or meaningful support from the human-rights and aid communities.
As so often in the past, this ecumenical effort has been driven by the young Anglican canon of Baghdad, Andrew White, who in ten years in Iraq has won the trust and affection of an amazingly wide cross-section of politicians and clerics, and he presides over the conference, which has received impressive support from the Danish government. The foreign minister blessed the proceedings, and insisted that it produce concrete recommendations and vigorous follow-up in Baghdad. The discussions have been intense, frank, and productive. For starters, all agreed to avoid the use of the term "minorities" on the grounds that they were working for high standards for all Iraqis, and did not wish to call attention to any one group or sect. This alone would make the conference a notable event; they will also recommend that religious identification be removed from Iraqi ID cards, to make sectarian bias more difficult to implement.
There have been moments of enormous gravity, as we heard stories about the slaughter of entire communities, especially of the smaller sects. Virtually every Iraqi in the room spoke about personal losses, but they did so in tones of sadness, not vengeance, and they seemed to demonstrate a genuine desire to put an end to the violence and find a way to restore Iraq to a preeminent role in the region.
There was a fascinating discussion of church/mosque/state relations, which Canon White defined with the rhetorical question, "Should religion play an advisory or supervisory role in Iraq?" Both Luther and Tocqueville were invoked as possible guides, and Rubayie insisted that the correct answer was "both." Somewhat surprisingly, he also insisted that the Iraqi Constitution does not assert that sharia law is the country's ultimate legal authority, but rather that contemporary Iraqi practice should "rest on the pillars of Islam," thus permitting both the government and its judges rather more wiggle room than I had thought.
Wednesday's discussions were devoted to human rights, and especially to two sub-themes: the treatment of women, and the high level of violence in Iraqi society. Several participants decried the very common practice of wife-beating and child-beating, and while some insisted that this was contrary to Iraqi tradition (and explained it by the fact that this generation of Iraqis has suffered through three bloody wars, which have traumatized the whole society), all agreed that the government should take steps to stigmatize and eliminate it. Specific recommendations will probably appear in the final document. Moreover, one of the two female participants, a member of Parliament, noted that unmarried women "of a certain age" fell under the domination of their brothers, and that this situation was intolerable, to which the men agreed. I cannot count the times that participants insisted on the equality of men and women some citing the Koran, others more contemporary documents.
In short, there are signs of hope here. The very fact that so many authoritative Iraqis were willing to come here and participate in a very public event bespeaks confidence in the future of the country, and a determination to speed up the process. One of the participants noted that it wasn't enough to have a minister for human rights (who was expected to arrive in Copenhagen Wednesday evening), because it would be difficult for a minister to expose human-rights violations by her own government. I expect a call for an independent parliamentary or even private commission.
This conference in Denmark may well prove to be a significant moment in the evolution of a better Iraq. No single meeting can possibly transform the country by itself, but these are respected people with considerable clout, and they are determined that their recommendations will be taken to the highest levels of the state and the country's mosques and churches.
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JWR contributor Michael Ledeen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of, most recently, ""The War Against the Terror Masters," Comment by clicking here.
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