As I write this from Baghdad International Airport my thoughts drift to the 4th of July. A time when American Muslims feel that sense of duality a little stronger than usual. An appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy coupled with a longing for the lands of our heritage. Proud of our advancements on these shores and bemoaning the inability of our homelands to re-visit the more glorious days of our past.
It’s easy in our skepticism to look at cursory reports from the media and dismiss the events now unfolding in Iraq as either just another example of American imperialism or a catastrophic mess in the making. Yet doing so does no justice to the nation being re-born before my eyes. Every day more and more decent and hardworking Iraqis are standing up for themselves. Learning through tumultuous and exhaustive formations of neighborhood advisory councils that as one Iraqi teacher lamented, “for every 6 steps forward we take 5 more back”.
Now is the time for the American Muslim community to build bridges and tell the Iraqis that they will not be forgotten. You can help build a nation at a time where formative voices are being nurtured and listened to by Iraqis, Muslims, Arabs, and Americans. You can help nurture a sense of ownership that the Iraqis have lost after years of being degraded. So that the next time a traffic jam occurs a soldier doesn’t have to lead an Iraqi police officer by the arm to take action and get things moving. So the next time a new procedure is required during surgery on a child an Iraqi doctor will not worry if he has written permission to cover him. American Muslims are in a unique position to couple their education and knowledge to help Iraqis help themselves. You can act as liaisons between groups, advocates for rights, and fundraisers for needs no one else has yet to identify. For every one American NGO there should be ten more American Muslim NGO’s here working with Iraqis.
If I could think of one force that has ruined and stagnated the Muslim and Arab world it would have to be fear. Fear that some new revolution will come through keeps people from investing in themselves and their communities. Fear that superpowers will use their leaders as pawns keeps many Muslims from demanding even the most basic of rights, resigning themselves to a sense of fatalism and taking the most outlandish of rumors as fact. This does no justice to the legacies and advances of our past. For the first time Iraqis are awakening to the possibility they no longer have to live in fear.
While your skepticism given America’s foreign policy record in this part of the world may be warranted, on the one to one inter-personal level over and over again I see the US military treating Iraqis with respect. I see commanders ask myself and other American Muslims for advice on how to deal with religious and cultural sensitivities and taking very seriously any real or perceived abuses by troops that conduct themselves professionally. I see Iraqis risk their safety and the safety of their families to inform on rogue elements, many of who “have blood on their hands”. I see soldiers who’ve never left places like Kansas City understand and use the word “inshallah”. I’ve seen a food distribution that was slow and methodical take time because the soldiers there wanted to make sure the older mothers got what they needed first. Afterwards community leaders and elders who normally would have cursed these foreigners thank them for treating their people with dignity. While stories of imams issuing illegitimate fatwas gobble up the headlines, countless more imams and pastors are working to organize communities both with and without coalition help. In one case an imam who previously voiced his objection to Coalition assistance instructed those in his town to sign de-Baathification statements and work with the Coalition with the only caveat being that all those signing should add next to their name “I sign for the good of Iraq”.
Recently 3 US soldiers lost their lives when their chopper crashed as they rescued a little Iraqi girl. A mother of one of the surviving soldiers said “I hope she turns out to be an outstanding woman. The cost of her life was high. Three men died to save her.”
There is an Arab proverb that says a thousand days of tyranny is better than one day of anarchy. Its time we kick that proverb to the curb. I ask how tyranny is acceptable when it fosters some of the same negative consequences and destructiveness that Arabs and Muslims fear from Western intervention.
So this 4th of July when you see rockets illuminate the night sky ponder the possibility that Iraqis will build a strong and just society that will radiate not in cannon fire but competition. Thunder not with the impact of rounds but chant of a peaceful protest and the term collateral damage will be used to describe fair and free election results.
“Inspirations of all kind flood the mind. Seize the time.” -Rumi
Sargeant, U.S. Army
Baghdad, Republic of Iraq