Commentary: Iraq Must Be Secular

By Ken Joseph Jr.

WASHINGTON, D.C., Iraq, Oct. 9 (UPI) -- As an Assyrian Christian and one of the few people in Iraq before the war without a government minder and as someone originally against the war, I have a lot invested in Iraq's future.
My grandparents left Northern Iraq during the Assyrian Holocaust early in the 20th Century when we lost nearly two-thirds of our people to the nightmare of terror masquerading as religion.\

It was with those feelings and that sense of history that I spoke to Paul Bremer, Iraq's U.S. administrator, and Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, on their recent visit to Washington when they spoke before the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The question was simple, straightforward and fair.

"Ambassador Bremer, I am with the Assyrian Christians -- as you know one of our members is on the (U.S.-backed) Governing Council and we are the indigenous people of Iraq. We have a very simple question. Article 4 of the Iraqi Constitution states 'Islam is the religion of the state.' We are very concerned that the current constitution being put together under your direction will be a normal, secular constitution and there will be local autonomy so our people and others can live freely in the New Iraq the same as we have here in the United States."\

I was shocked at his response.

"That is something for the Iraqi people and the Governing Council to decide," he said.

"Ambassador Bremer, as you well know after 35 years of a police state the Iraqi people are not in any position to be able to decide things like that. I was in Iraq before the war. The people were brutalized. I live in Japan, which went through a similar situation. It was the constitution that the U.S. put together for Japan that is the major reason for Japan's success. The United States occupied Japan for seven years. My parents were one of the first to come to Japan in response to Gen. Douglas Macarthur's call for volunteers to help rebuild Japan after the war. I was in Iraq before the war."

He continued: "Like I said, that is something for the Iraqis to decide. After all the British Constitution has a state religion -- I don't see anything wrong with a similar situation in Iraq."

I was stunned. My first response was to remind Bremer the British did not, in fact, have a constitution and to compare the two was strange at best. I continued, 'Ambassador Bremer, are you aware that the majority of the Iraqis themselves do not want an Islamic constitution?"

He did not seem to be aware of the clear feeling on the ground in Iraq nor recent polls that show clearly that even Iraqi Muslims do not want an Islamic constitution.

I ended with these words. "Ambassador Bremer, with all due respect, if you are not committed to requiring that the Iraq constitution be just like ours, a normal, secular constitution the Assyrian Christians do not have a future in Iraq. We will do all we can to bring every one out of the country. We will not allow them to suffer any more."

I passed a note up to Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., to repeat the question for the record. The reply from Bremer was the same.

For those of us who understood the significance of the answer, there was stunned silence. For someone like me, who fought against the war until I actually went to Iraq, during the time of (deposed Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein and saw the terror my relatives lived, in it was unthinkable.

Would the United States fight a war against tyranny, lose precious lives and then let victory be snatched away by allowing an even-worse tyranny to replace it?

The point is very clear and easy to understand. The Iraqi people after enduring the nightmare of Saddam deserve just what we have -- a normal, secular constitution with local autonomy as we have in our constitution and in our local state governments.

The stakes are even higher, though. What I call "thug regimes" throughout the area and the world are carefully watching what we do in Iraq. They are petrified.

Will the world's one superpower stand up to tyranny and require a free and democratic system or will it cave in to the deception of "thugs" who try to stay in power by using "religion," "culture," or "tradition" to mask the fact they just want to continue to oppress the people?

A generation ago, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, listened to his people and in reply to President Reagan's call to "take down that wall" said, "Yes." The walls fell and the borders of freedom expanded more than people ever dreamed possible.

When you fight a war and win you are allowed to dictate terms. You do not liberate people only to turn them to even worse oppressors.

I will never forget the terror my relatives lived in under Saddam. They were constantly in fear. The joy and desire for freedom and the willingness to give their lives to see it for their children is what caused me to change my mind about the war.

Every Iraqi in spite of what is or is not being discovered believed Saddam had chemical weapons and more and would use them on them once a war began.

Amazingly they were not afraid of the American bombing.

In spite of what is being reported, Iraq is doing fine! Finally it is free!

Bremer must demand, just like we did in Japan 58 years ago, the constitution now being prepared in Iraq be completely secular and grant local autonomy like we enjoy.

The example of firmness we set in Iraq will domino throughout the Middle East and the world as those rulers who use religion, culture, tradition and a host of other excuses to keep their people enslaved learn their days are numbered.

The sacrifice of those who gave their lives so that Iraqis could live in freedom just like we do demands that you do so. Anything less than a secular constitution with local autonomy as we enjoy in America is a betrayal of all who gave their lives so Iraq would be free.

Ambassador Bremer, tear down that wall!

Rev. Ken Joseph Jr.

Rev. Ken Joseph Jr., directs from Baghdad and is completing a book about his experience in Iraq titled "I Was Wrong."

Copyright 2003 by United Press International.
All rights reserved.

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