Whether known as Babylon, Mesopotamia or Iraq, the land of the Tigris and Euphrates historically had one of the most multicultural societies in the Middle East. This constantly developing land, in an area not beholden to set borders and with a fluid mix of people in and out, held a broad diversity of religions, nations, races and cultures which largely flourished in Iraq, united by common heritage, culture and traditions.
The longest Jewish exile was in this land, and while there were many dark times, it was a place where Jewish tradition and culture thrived and at many times was the focal point of learning for the entire Jewish world.
It was a place where not so long ago, the Iraqi Directory, published under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior would proudly state ‘Religious freedom is guaranteed. Mosque stands beside Church and Synagogue.’ Where Hebrew was one of six official languages. Unfortunately, this Iraq, the one in which I grew up is no more. There are no Jews left, and such synagogues and community buildings that remain, are largely empty of the living. This is a shame, but hopefully merely temporary. Its memories fill those of us who left it as one of a paradise lost.
In the recent years of the post-Saddam Hussein era, though, even while continually wracked by sectarianism and conflict, the Republic of Iraq appears to be struggling for its new identity. Iraq can and should try and learn from its history of tolerance and diversity to become a beacon of acceptance in the region. Its people breathe the air of a coexistence which permeated this land for centuries if not millennia. It is in the heart and soul of the soil.
Iraq’s commitment to diversity is learned from its topography, which remains a region of stark geographical contrasts: vast deserts rimmed by rugged mountain ranges, punctuated by lush oases. As the wellspring from which modern societies emerged, Mesopotamia is generally credited with being the first place where civilized societies truly began to take shape. Without it, perhaps countries and nations would not be the same today. The State of Israel, as the nation-state of the Jewish People, the repository of a people’s yearning while sitting “by the rivers of Babylon” is a direct result of these formative moments that introduced societal and civilised nation building.
Which is why it is so disheartening to learn that Iraq would not attend the US-led economic workshop in Bahrain, saying it was instead backing a Palestinian boycott of the US administration’s peace plan.
“We are not interested in this conference and we will not participate in it,” Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad al-Sahaf said. “Iraq is sticking by its firm and principled position regarding the Palestinian issue and the rights of the Palestinian people.”
This zero-sum binary commitment to boycott a chance, any chance however frail, for peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the wider Arab and Muslim world, would appear to be at odds with the country’s history of goodwill to its neighbors. Even Iraq’s modern national anthem, the Mawtini, declares that it does not seek a “quarrel” which is not one of “our symbols”.
Existing for so long in history with such ethnic, religious and national diversity is a legacy that has taught the people of modern-day Iraq how to live alongside each other in respect and tolerance. They have learned crisis management and how to make peace between differing views, opinions and outlooks, and this can be very handy for a region that has known far too much conflict and bloodshed.
While the Republic of Iraq, after recent wars and terrorism by groups like ISIS, has much to do internally, this land has never turned inwards but has historically been seen as a gateway to the region which would be traversed by a dizzying variety of peoples. Iraq should return to its position as a place of acceptance and tolerance and be part of regional solutions rather than remain part of the problems and challenges. Perhaps this can have a tremendous effect, not just externally, but also, importantly, internally, as this return to a past of peace and reconciliation can once again become the fabric that binds a nation.
The Iraqi people are war-weary and most seek an end to conflict. The Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Arab conflict has gone on far too long and every attempt to resolve it should be welcomed and embraced. Iraq’s refusal to be part of such events, especially those which seek to bring peace and prosperity to the Palestinians, is a shame, but it is hoped merely temporary. There are major changes taking place in the Middle East and some things that were previously thought of as impossible are now happening before our eyes.
Iraq, throughout its history, has always demonstrated that diversity and differences are to be embraced and not used to divide, but rather to unite. Arguably, more than any other nation in the region, Iraq has the right history to be an anchor for amity among peoples. The arc of history will see Iraq once again play its historic role in the region, and it can have no better starting place than being at the forefront of establishing peace, prosperity and security for Israelis, Palestinians, and the peoples of the region.