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What the Lives of Iraqi Minorities Can Teach Us About the Current Conflict

10/05/2014 10:39 EDT | Updated 12/05/2014 05:59 EST

Iraq is beset with bombs, fighting, slaughter, and terrified minorities. In the international community's eye, this fight seemed suddenly to begin with terrorized Yazidis on a mountain. But to understand the current crisis, we need to consider the ongoing constitutional and legal challenges faced by Iraqi minorities.

To some peoples' surprise, minorities in Iraq officially have equal rights under the 2005 Iraqi constitution. These rights were enshrined after a very difficult process of negotiating and ratifying a constitution with 'democratic' ambitions.

"They do not use the word 'minorities' but the Iraqi constitution states that 'All components of Iraqi society are equal'," says Mazen Chouaib, Managing Director at Clic Consultants, an Ottawa firm working with Iraqi politicians and civil society to promote good governance.

In Western society, we are accustomed to secular governance and the separation of Church and State. It is therefore difficult for Westerners to understand how religious minorities could have rights guaranteed by a constitution in which Islamic Law (Sharia) is a pillar. While there are many interpretations of Sharia, in some interpretations, criticism of the Quran is punishable by death, and a Muslim who becomes a non-Muslim is to be punished by death. To borrow a Canadian constitutional expression, how can there be "peace, order and good government" under a constitution with such a starkly inherent contradiction?

"You will never find any contradiction between Islam and other doctrines of human rights," says Dr. Nabil Amin, an Iraqi who used to work as a Medical Officer for the World Health Organization. "Yes there are differences in how far those rights are allowed under Islam...but what is prohibited in Islam and allowed elsewhere as 'human rights' under various pretexts is in fact an extreme and detrimental interpretation of freedom and human rights."

While he practices a more common, more moderate Islam, unfortunately Amin does not speak for all Muslims. But Chouaib doesn't finger Sharia as the problem either. He says that while the constitution provides a framework for equality among all Iraqis, their Parliament just hasn't implemented the necessary laws.

"The political weight of minorities is a problem," says Chouaib. "Unfortunately minorities didn't come together to lobby and advocate effectively for the implementation of their rights in the constitution."

Amin points out that some minorities have fared better than others -- not because they were favoured by the regime, but because they actively participated in political and social life with other Iraqis.

"Christians for example are highly educated and have reached very high levels in government office and institutions. Mandean Sabeans are very good business men who are well known in the gold and jewellery industry. Turkmens are excellent, brave, and disciplined officers in the army. Yazidis tend to keep to themselves and hardly ever mix with the rest of the population," says Amin.

The conflicts between Sunnis and Shi'ias have put the issue of minority rights on a back burner, says Chouaib. "But ISIL attacks have re-energized the issue and demonstrated the urgency in putting the necessary protections in place," he says.

"The recent attacks on the Yazidis exposed the real evil that exists in the region, and that many Muslims have been ignoring or refusing to believe exists. I think that the new government understands its obligations and there is a new attitude of openness. I hope I am right," says Chouaib.

Iraq is turning to Canada, among other countries, for direction on how to kick-start minority rights into high gear as quickly as possible.

"Canada has dealt with minority issues -- we have good institutions that provide protections," says Chouaib. "We have a lot to offer in terms of experience in good governance. We need to engage the Parliament of Iraq, the local councils, human rights organizations and in general support the communities in advocating for legal reform. This is a long struggle."

Amin is more sceptical. "Most if not all of the chaos of today was the direct result of faulty and misguided policies," he says.

Since Iraq engaged in the democratic process a mere ten years ago, and its institutions were first created to support a dictatorship, Chouaib recognizes there is a long way to go. He has been among the few Canadians who have steadfastly helped build good governance in Iraq since the end of the last Iraq war.

"We need to be part of this process to ensure that minorities are protected and that Iraqi democracy does not fail," he says. "We have seen how a weak democracy built on sectarianism already failed Iraqis. The biggest reason that ISIL was able to gain grounds in Iraq is that the Sunni community was attacked for years and left outside of the political process. They turned to their enemy's enemy, a very evil organization to support their cause. This scenario can be repeated again and again if the political process and institutions fail to deliver to all Iraqis. The Yazidis were in the eye of the storm, but ISIL are equal opportunity haters. They see anyone who is not like them as a threat to them."

Amin is not optimistic. "The damage already done to the minorities is so huge that it may be impossible to reverse. A lot of time and change are required before they feel safe living in Iraq."

But Iraq hasn't always been like this, says Amin.

"Before the 2003 invasion, Iraq under the Baath regime respected the rights of minorities and I lived my whole life in Iraq and never felt that there was discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnic origin," he says. "Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator but not a sectarian. On the other hand, the 'new' American installed 'Iraqi government' and Constitution were sectarian in principle and in practice."

Every Iraqi minority leaving Iraq is a huge loss for the country, says Amin. But no one can fault them for fleeing.

"Iraqis do not like to immigrate, but the political reality and the discrimination has led them to leave," says Chouaib. "How can you tell an Iraqi suffering from discrimination to stay if they have the opportunity for a new life? We need to work hard to make sure that Iraqi minorities are supported to stay in their country if they choose to -- by making sure that the political and legal systems protect them."