Preserving Religious Pluralism in the Modern Middle East

Thursday, June 25, 2015
Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
David Saperstein

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, U.S. Department of State

Andrew Doran

Special Advisor, In Defense of Christians 

Faith McDonnell

Director of the Religious Liberty Program, Institute on Religion and Democracy

Thomas Gjelten

Religion and Belief Correspondent, National Public Radio (NPR)

Andrew Doran, special advisor at In Defense of Christians, Faith McDonnell, director of the religious liberty program at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and David Saperstein, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom at the U.S. Department of State, join National Public Radio's Thomas Gjelten to discuss the state of religious pluralism in the Middle East. The panelists consider a range of topics, including the effects of political instability on religious minorities, the rise of the Islamic State group, the persecution of Christians and Muslim minority groups in the region, and the U.S. approach to preserving religious freedom.

GJELTEN: Well good evening, welcome to the Council. I'm Tom Gjelten. I'm the Religion and Belief Correspondent for NPR News and, as you know, our topic tonight is 'The Future of Religious Pluralism in the Middle East'. One of the saddest aspects of the strife in the Middle East is the damage that has been done to religious pluralism in this region in which, of course, has been the cradle of the great monotheistic religions: the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The persecution of Christians and other religious minorities is widespread in those areas under the control of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—ISIS—or Iraq and the Levant—ISIL—as the U.S. Government prefers to call it. But religious pluralism is under siege throughout the Middle East and North Africa from Iran to Egypt and beyond.

And we're gonna be discussing the situation this evening with our very distinguished panel. From my immediate left we have Andrew Doran from In Defense of Christians where he's a Senior Adviser , Faith McDonnell is Director of Religious Liberty Program at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and Rabbi David Saperstein, you probably know is the U.S. Ambassador-At -Large for International Religious Freedom and you've already been given the instructions.

This is an 'on the record' event. It is being live streamed, I hope you have all turned your phones off now because if they ring, they won't just interrupt those of us in the room, it will interrupt all the legions of people that are watching the web-cast (ph). So, Faith, I think I'd like to begin with you. Before we speculate about the future of religious pluralism in the Middle East, let's review the past. Can you give us a quick sense of the religious landscape in the Middle East over the past centuries? How much pluralism have we seen in the Middle East over these years?

MCDONNELL: Well, there's been quite a bit of pluralism. The historical significance of this area is just unmeasurable in terms of both the Abrahamic faiths and also the other cultures that are in the area. One telling fact that I have come across—to let you know what area we're talking about—came from a trip in January, to Iraq, by former Congressman Frank Wolf and the group that he's associated with now, the 21st Century Wilbur Force Initiative.

When they got there, the Christians in the area were celebrating the Feast of Niniva. Well, this goes back to the biblical story of Jonah who came to Niniva and preached to the people and after three days of walking, because it says it was a great city so it took three days for him to walk the whole length of the city, the people repented and the people in Iraq today are still commemorating that event.

So, many people—I'm Christian—and many Christians that I know don't really understand the significance of this area. But then go back to the Jewish significance of the area. Iraq, how many people know that Abraham was from Iraq? That his daughter-in-law, Rebekah (ph), was from Iraq? And that is grandson, Jacob, spent 20 years of hard labor in Iraq to get his wife because his father-in-law gave him first Lea as his bride but he really wanted Rachel so he worked in Iraq for 20 years in order to get Rachel.

So, the 12 Tribes of Israel were all born in Northwest Iraq. It's a very powerful place. When the people of Israel were in Babylonian captivity—Babylon, which is Iraq, it was where the Pentateuch (ph) was solidified. Because there they were, in captivity, in exile. The origins of synagogues, because the temple had been destroyed. That concept of synagogues was probably formed in Iraq, there's good reason to believe—in Babylon.

So, we've got the Babylonian idea there, we've got the Niniva—which is today Mosul—where so many people had to flee from for their lives. And then, in addition to that, you've also got the Yazidis community which goes back 3,000 years. The Mandeans (ph) who were followers of John the Baptist and many others. It's a rich history.

GJELTEN: And Andrew, pick it up from there. Faith mentioned the Yazidis. Give us a little bit of, sort of a who's who of religious minorities across the Middle East from a historical and a contemporary perspective.

DORAN: There are a number of surviving—we would call them Nostic religions varying—some are very small in number. The Yazidis would be world wide, less then a million. Most of them in Northern Iraq in Niniva. There are the Mandeans (ph), as mentioned before, so there are a number of small, struggling, religious communities. As I mentioned to you earlier, there is a—on a trip to Iraq earlier this month I met with a Caldine (ph) catholic priest from Baghdad, who in 2006 was kidnapped by Shiite Militias, tortured, has his teeth knocked out and he's running—he's now living in Ankawa which is just north of Uribel (ph) in Iraq in Kurdistan (ph).

He's now running on his parish grounds a—he refuses to call them 'refugees'—he says these are relatives. Over 500 people and they are living with tremendous dignity there and he has great educational programs but he looked at me and he said, “Andrew, there is no one suffering worse in this part of the region than the Yazidis.” I've heard a number of people, Christians in particular say, “we of course need help but the Yazidis need help.” I thought that was a very profound message and it speaks to a lot of the work that the Christians do across the region in terms of social services, hospitals, education, for—not just the Christians, but the Muslims and their community.

GJELTEN: Ambassador Saperstein, the focus recently - of course - has been so much on what the so-called the Islamic State has done. But put this in a little bit of a broader context, what—and even going back to the first World War—what has been happening over the past century to these religious minorities in Iraq, Syria, and adjoining areas.

SAPERSTEIN: Well in 30 seconds in the broader sweep of history here, these were areas where these communities obviously—considering how old they are—were able to thrive and function and add to the cultural life of the countries, the borders of these countries, the names of these countries change over the centuries but they lived well there. In the last millennium, they've been under Muslim rule so the idea that there's no room in the Muslim world or in Muslim tradition for groups who—some of whom are People of the Book, Jews and Christians, some of whom are not People of the Book, but groups that they would consider heretics or pagans, that they couldn't live comfortably together is refuted by the very fact that they are there.

And this would be a far poorer area culturally, religiously, in terms of the interaction that different groups bring to a society if all of these groups now were forced out here, and there was a homogenous Iraq, a relatively homogenous Iraq, there was left just of Muslims. About two-thirds of Iraq are Shia Muslims and about one-third, including the Kurdish community, are Sunni Muslims, as they are.

Things really fell apart after—during the time that Saddam Hussein was there in terms of his oppression of the Shia majority. And then conversely, when he was overthrown, things were exacerbated by Maliki's favoring of the Shia community at the expense of the minority communities and the Sunni communities who were left out.

Over the centuries, Iraq had benefited, or the Aryans (ph) of Iraq who had benefited by the integration of these—or interaction of these groups and we've seen what's happened in the last 30 years as that began to fall apart. The question is, can we actually preserve these communities?

GJELTEN: Right. And I want to get to that, but you make an interesting point, which is that, at least from a historical perspective, there's nothing inherent about Islam that requires the persecution of the minorities. I remember from Bosnian days, ancient Bosnia days, the Millet system, where the Ottoman rulers would actually sort of provide opportunities for autonomy for non-Muslim groups.

SAPERSTEIN: Yes. You know, certainly, the Christian in me—the Jewish community, in general, thrived better under Muslim rule in the medieval times than it did under many of the Christian countries. And you think of the Golden Age of Spain as a key example, or Maimonides in Egypt during the Middle Ages.

So they were able to function, and often with a great deal of tolerance for the group. In some of the Muslim societies, they're second-class citizens. There were different degrees of harassment and oppression of the second-class citizens, but they were able to live there. And as we indicated, even those who weren't People of the Book, despite language in Muslim texts that talk about the justification to kill those who are heretics and pagans, that wasn't by any means necessarily the norm there. And in some cases they were conquered and converted, but in other cases they were able to live side by side.

GJELTEN: Well, yes, but let's talk now about what's happening now. Faith, give us now sort of another overview of the phenomenon of persecution of Christian and other religions minorities, right now.

MCDONNELL: Yes. The Islamic State has made it clear that they have a plan for the area, to build the caliphate, and anyone who gets in their way is a problem. We talked about the persecution of Christians, but as Andrew said, the Yazidis have felt it even more in terms of the taking of girls and women as sex slaves, as young as nine years old, of the—and starting to do that with the Christian girls as well.

But also in terms of—ISIS doesn't want anything beautiful. We've seen the eradication of the ancient artifacts and the architecture of many towns, the burning of books of the Mosul library, and the destruction of the museum show, in addition to killing people and to taking over these towns, they're trying to actually wipe out the civilizations and even the idea that there was another civilization there before.

GJELTEN: And what are some of the numbers, Andrew? Or what have we seen happen, sort of, in quantitative terms?

DORAN: The Christian population prior to the 1991 U.N. coalition invasion, liberation of Kuwait and invasion of southern Iraq, their population may have been as high as 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. It was certainly above a million prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. And now it would be under 200,000. The numbers are difficult to calculate. In Ankawa, they say that the Christians there are leaving by dozens a day, but it is very difficult to calculate.

I mean, when you're walking—so, we're talking about an area that's about—north of Erbil, where you have perhaps as many as 100,000 Christians in that area. Many of them are from the Nineveh plain.

And after the fall of Saddam, and this was very under-reported in the West over the last 10 or 12 years, there was a great deal of investment by Iraqi Christians in those villages and towns and cities in Nineveh Province, such as Alqosh and Telassqopa, to invest into the Christian communities there, so that they could be sustainable.

And you see it in Ankawa when you travel. Every five feet there's a shop. So even the refugees start businesses almost as soon as, you know, as they arrive there. They're very industrious, hard-working, proud people, with a great deal of dignity. Many of them want to stay in that part of the world. They want to stay in Iraq.

One quick story I would share. When we went to the village of Telassqopa, which is right along the ISIS—the borders with the so-called Islamic State, and where the Kurdish Peshmerga—it's about 30 kilometers south of Dohuk, 30 kilometers north of Mosul, and you can see two ISIS villages less than two kilometers away. And a Christian militia officer told us he was from the village and he knew—in the village of 12,000 people was completely deserted. It was a ghost town, with grass overgrown for more than a year now.

They took us to the headquarters of—the former ISIS headquarters, which was a Christian home. And on the wall there was an icon of the Annunciation. It was the only thing that showed that it was a Christian home. But they said that, you know, ISIS would get there and they would phone.

They would see the numbers for the family members who had lived in that home and had fled to Erbil. And they would call them and say, "We're in your home, and we're never leaving." You know, when you're in the—just, sort of, you know, it wasn't enough to occupy. They had to terrorize.

So—but the numbers have dwindled significantly. Many who have even gone to the West have said, "We will return. We will go back once it's safe." But until Mosul—until ISIS is driven out of Mosul, it's not really practical to return to Nineveh.

GJELTEN: Well, speaking of that, I know some of you—I don't know if you do, Andrew, I know that Faith and Ambassador Saperstein have these buttons. I don't know if any of you have seen the buttons with the Arabic letter N. It's the nun. Tell us the—David, tell us the story behind that symbol and why it has come to be sort of a symbol of resistance or of protest for people who are, you know, protecting the interests of Christians in the ...

SAPERSTEIN: This has to be seen in the context of ISIL's efforts really to wipe out the presence of these diverse, indigenous communities ...


SAPERSTEIN: ... communities that go back long before Islam came to the area. And—but under Muslim rules, Jews and Christians were allowed to live in the communities.

And when ISIL came in, it took a fairly harsh interpretation of the tradition, and it said to the Christians there, "You have three choices. You can convert and then stay here like everyone else," although time and again ISIL—as we talk about what it did to the minority communities, time and again it attacked Sunni communities as well, wiping out entire villages in eastern Syria and in western Iraq, of Sunni communities, killing those who didn't agree with its harsh interpretation of Muslim law.

GJELTEN: So it just ...

DORAN: Or converting may not be enough.


GJELTEN: Or convert to their variety of Islam.

SAPERSTEIN: Exactly. And the—or if they could pay the jizya tax.


SAPERSTEIN: Here, there was a tax that those communities—the Jews and the Christians historically paid. Or, they would be executed. Those were the choices.

DORAN: On the spot.

GJELTEN: (Inaudible.)

SAPERSTEIN: Let's say they would be executed. How and when remained to play out.

And during that same time as they were imposing this horrid regime on the areas that they had conquered, there were reports that the nun was appearing on houses of Christians.

GJELTEN: Of Christians.

SAPERSTEIN: Of Christians, because it's a term that refers to ...

GJELTEN: They're called Nazarenes. (Inaudible.)

SAPERSTEIN: And it is—we don't know exactly who is doing it and how it was being done, but clearly it seemed to have the stamp of approval of this. So it was a form of protest to say—just like people wore Jewish stars when the Jews were oppressed during the Holocaust, in solidarity with Jews. There are people around the world, and I think all of us have such pins by the nature of the work that we're doing. And there are times that we will probably wear these pins to identify with those who are persecuted.

But, again, it is Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims who make up the majority of the victims, but it is proportionately to their numbers of the community, the endangered indigenous communities that are being just ravaged by this. And the brutality of ISIL is simply stunning. We have incidents of torture, of crucifixion, of forced conversions, of rapes on a wide-spread scale, of women being sold, women being forced to marry ISIL soldiers.

When they get into Syria, we get very few of them back. Very few have been able to escape. Most of the women who have escaped after being brutalized, they're still in Iraq. And then they—we're able to provide services to support and to help them. But this is—when the history of this is written, this is really one of the most barbaric expression of religion right that we have seen.

GJELTEN: You mentioned the Yazidis. There are also the Druze. These are groups whose religious beliefs don't fit neatly within the, you know, Judaism, Islam, Christianity categories. Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze Militia, was recently quoted as saying that Christians and other minorities, quote, "Are on the brink of extinction in this area."

Is that an overstatement, or is—are we talking here about something that serious? Andrew?

DORAN: Well, the numbers in Egypt several million, depending on what report you want to read. But there are certainly upwards of 6 million, 8 million, 10 million Christians in Egypt at a minimum. So that's not a community that's going to be eradicated any time soon. There are ...

GJELTEN: Right. The Copts.

DORAN: The Coptic Christians of Egypt, yes. That's correct. And there are probably about 2 million Christians, roughly, still in Syria, most of them internally displaced. Those who have been displaced are mostly internally displaced. In Lebanon, you've got a couple of million Christians. In Iraq, you're down to a couple hundred thousand.

So, speaking of the Arab world, with the Christian communities in the Arab world, could they be eliminated soon? Are they on the brink of extinction? I think that's—I don't want to call it hyperbole. There are worst-case scenarios whereby, you know, one can envision the fall of Damascus which, if not imminent is certainly within the realm of possibility.

And if that were to happen, all of the minority communities would be—the Druze would be going to southwestern Syria. The Alawites and Shiites would be headed to northwest Syria, to Ladhiqiyah province.

The Christians would be going that way, and the Christians would be fleeing to Lebanon, and there would be mass slaughter along the way if this were to happen, because if Damascus would fall, you could reasonably foresee that Aleppo and Hams (ph) would fall, and Lebanon would become suddenly very vulnerable.

So is there a worst-case scenario whereby something—you know, who could have predicted a year and a half that there would be an Islamic caliphate in Mesopotamia? So, you know, on the one hand, we don't want to entertain worst-case scenarios too seriously. On the other hand, there are some—it is entirely possible that the very worst for Middle East Christianity lay ahead. And that could be in the foreseeable future.

GJELTEN: Do you agree with that, Faith?

MCDONNELL: Yes, I definitely agree with that. I think that this is a situation that could be—there could be no turning back. There have been other communities throughout time that have totally disappeared, and this could be another one.

The other problem is that these children who are refugees are not getting the education that they deserve. They're not getting proper nutrition, anything like that. So you've got the future generations that are living in—in the case of Erbil and Ankawa, they're in cement slabs that were meant to be shopping malls. And they're just concrete slabs that people are living in right now, as well as the refugee tents. So it's desperate, a very desperate situation.

GJELTEN: Just for a (inaudible) distinguish, though, as we use the word eliminate.

DORAN: Right.

SAPERSTEIN: One of the reasons that President Obama made the decision to intervene, to save the Yazidis, was that in the extreme interpretation of Islam that ISIL uses, they see justification to kill and wipe out, literally wipe out, pagans and heretics.

GJELTEN: Even more than Jews and Christians.

SAPERSTEIN: Jews and Christians remain a protected ...

DORAN: Theoretically ...

SAPERSTEIN: ... category that maybe face restrictions and oppression, but they remain a protected category in this—although, as I indicated, that choice of forced conversion ...

GJELTEN: Right, right.

SAPERSTEIN: ... or being executed is really an extreme interpretation of ...


SAPERSTEIN: ... the attitude towards the Abrahamic peoples. But they were going to wipe them out. They said, "We will wipe them out," with the Yazidis ...

GJELTEN: Now, David, tell us that story, because this is a fascinating story.

You know, it's really hard for a government, a distant government like the United States to intervene on behalf of these embattled minorities. But the story of the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar is a, sort of, a singular case. And give us, kind of, the background, the back story, the behind-the-scenes story of the U.S. intervention on behalf of the Yazidis who were trapped.

SAPERSTEIN: I will try as best I can. I'm limited to some of the things that I can ...


SAPERSTEIN: ... talk about, but it is indeed a fascinating story.

So, the Yazidi community, over half a million in the community—a number—many of them were forced to flee their homes as ISIL moved in. And there was a flight to the Mount Sinjar area. There are several communities of Yazidis around that area. And many of them were just out in the open at that time. And the—ISIL made it clear that they were going to wipe them out. And the president said, "We need to intervene, to stop a potential genocide." It literally is what was intended.

The problem was that, in the beginning, it wasn't easy to get information. This is a fairly, comparatively isolated area of the country. There isn't the infrastructure that you would find in Baghdad or Erbil, in this area. And there were people at the State Department who had been—including many of my—some in my office, who had seen their job as developing extensive networks and connections with diaspora communities here.

And the diaspora communities, to (ph) every one of these groups that we vain (ph). The Sabian, and the Inza, Cacais, 200,000 Cacais, an offshoot of Zoroastrianism, that exist, there are all these communities. And all the Chaldean and the Assyrian Christian communities all have connections (ph) and small Protestant communities, all have connections here, in diaspora communities here.

So we're in touch with them, and through them had been in touch with people in all of these communities, including the Yazidi community. So for a period of time, those connections were actually invaluable in helping the United States plan what to do to try and protect ISIL from moving further, and to provide those communities with that they ...

GJELTEN: They could actually provide some direct ...

SAPERSTEIN: They did. We were in touch directly with them, and it was really helpful, bridging until the time that we could better equip our sources to be able to help CENTCOM and our military forces know exactly what to do.

Something similar happened with the attack in Northern Syria at the Khabur River, where ISIL attacked these historic Assyrian Christian communities. And, again, the connections that we had developed were—and through the diaspora community, we developed directly, was invaluable in terms of providing important information.

So there is always an interagency cooperation of the government, between the Defense Department, the White House, National Security Council, the State Department, the intelligence agencies who meet regularly in these crisis situations, to develop the plans to do that, everyone pitching in what they can contribute in order to make the American response as effective as possible.

Up in Northern Syria, where the invasion of ISIL happened about three months ago, or so, because of the coalition's intervention, which the Christian leaders there directly credit the intervention, the Christian militias and the Syrian Kurdish militias have been able to push ISIL out of the village that they had taken, north of the Khabur River, across the Khabur River, retake areas south of the Khabur River, that they've had. And they credit the coalition forces, and being invaluable in making that happen.

So all this happens with the interagencies sharing all of the connections, sources of information, resources they have and to—in order to make this possible. And one piece that I would just add, that is an extraordinary contribution we forget about, is the humanitarian piece of it.

The United States has put in over $3.5 billion in helping Syrian refugees, over $407 million just in the last year, since ISIL began the attacks in July last year, and the displacements happened. Four hundred seven million dollars in terms of direct assistance to be used in a humanitarian concern.

And then a wide range of government programs that are supported—to help civil society and support their efforts to do work and to build democracy and a more open and tolerant society, that it will be indispensable to the long-term future of the country.

GJELTEN: Well, let's talk about what hope there is for protecting these communities, for defending these communities, for restoring these communities. What hope is there, both from a military point of view and from sort of a civic affairs point of view, in terms of a humanitarian action that—as Ambassador Saperstein is talking about? Faith?

MCDONNELL: Well, for a number of years I was part of an NGO task force to try to help the religious minorities in Iraq. And even back then, which I would think is about 2006, 2007, we were talking about the fact that a lot of these communities need a protected area where they can take responsibility for themselves. If they have militias that they want to be trained, they could do their own policing.

But this is what they asked for. Whether it's the best response or not, and whether it can even happen, we don't know. But that was always to be the Nineveh plain because of the historic significant of that area. And now that that's not an option, I'm not sure what they're going to do. But Andrew's people are working on the ground in there (inaudible) now.

GJELTEN: Yes, Andrew. Going—and also talk about, you know, what sort of militarily is possible? Because, you know, as Ambassador Saperstein said, you've got a lot of different militia groups, some of which have to intervene on behalf of perhaps rival faith communities, right? How easy is that?

DORAN: Well, it varies from region to region. So in northeastern Syria, Hasakah province, where as Ambassador Saperstein mentioned, the—small, but very engaged Christian militias are fighting alongside the Kurds, you have a much more fluid military situation.

Whereas in northern Iraq for—and in Iraq, for about 1,000 kilometer front, which approximates roughly to the Western Front in World War I, you have trench warfare. You have fixed positions where you have the Kurdish Peshmerga defending in the north fixed positions. But they're not able—they're simply not equipped to advance.

And so they're—you see very often talk about liberating Mosul. Well, the Iraqi military has not demonstrated a competence or willingness to do it. The Kurdish ...

GJELTEN: Do you think that that reflects sort of a lack of sympathy for ...

DORAN: I do think part of it is, Mosul made its choice.


DORAN: Mosul has become—it felt alienated for many years. They felt particularly alienated under the Maliki government, and there were sizable numbers of Sunni Arabs in Mosul who viewed ISIS, for lack of a better term, as a kind of liberating force. And I don't think we can underestimate—ISIS simply has something of a romantic appeal among more, perhaps, extreme minorities of Muslims. And I know that that sounds shocking and appalling, but I do think that's the case.

So, in Mosul there was popular support. You know, it would be difficult to gauge how much exactly, but there was some for ISIS. And so I don't think the Iraqi military is in any big hurry to get back there. I don't think—frankly, I don't think the idea of Iraq is really an idea that exists in—among the Iraqi people. I think it's so sectarian. There is not a highly developed sense of the common good. There is not a highly developed sense of common interest. There is—sectarianism pervades.

Certainly in Kurdistan—when you go to Kurdistan, you think, "I am not in Iraq. I am in Kurdistan." And aside from the currency and the area code, everything else screams, "This is not Iraq. This is Kurdish."

GJELTEN: Ambassador Saperstein, how can this be, given that Iraq has this—as we've been talking, this long tradition of coexistence? How can it be that this government is so ...

SAPERSTEIN: Well, you actually alluded to the problem the way you framed the question, the very first question to me, "What happened after World War I?"


SAPERSTEIN: The entire region was divvied up on borders that are fairly artificial borders. And this is a problem in so many of the countries that contain this vast variety of different kinds of ethnic and religious, cultural groups. And they don't always naturally hang together. These weren't countries that evolved out of centuries of the natural evolution of the country-states, where boundaries would be fought over here, but not the concept of the countries here. This wasn't Europe in the same way that Europe evolved.

So, it is hard to hold some of these countries together. And of course it is hard to build an identity if you are part of a group that might be Shias, at one point, who are left out of governance of the society, and participation in it. So—or might be Sunnis, at another point, who are then left out of the governance of the country and the economy of the country, and the opportunities of the country, let alone the minority group.

So it is shaky. Let me just mention here, though, if we're going to bring these communities back, what would be necessary to do it? And then you can figure out, does it sound realistic? So there are five things that would be necessary.

One, the displaced communities need to have greater support than they currently have.

GJELTEN: The displaced communities.

SAPERSTEIN: Displaced communities. All of these endangered indigenous communities have been forced out of their homes. They—the Sunni Muslims who have been forced out. The majority of people displaced are actually Sunnis, here, from Anbar province, here, in actual numbers.

So you have this enormous mix of people who are displaced, here. They're not going to stay, and particularly the minority groups. They're not going to stay if they don't have schools for their kids. And right now, in some areas of Kurdistan, they've added a third session at the end of the day for the kids in the camps.

But Kurds—they don't speak the same languages, some of the people that have come. They don't know the curriculum here. It's really hard to make this happen. And in many places there are no schools. And medical care is not at a level that you would want your family to stay in.

If—this is going to take a while, as indicated by lack of success of the Iraqi soldiers, there really needs to be an international effort to improve the status of living, of the displaced population. Some will leave, and they have a right to do that, as refugees. Some will want to remain in Kurdistan, and some will want to come home.

So secondly, you need to have the security piece of it. That means you have to have all of the groups who want their own militias. These are small groups, 2,000 Baha'is, well, they're not going to have their own defense forces, or local defense forces, but some of the others will.

They can't have large enough to actually give them protection against the different militias that might attack them, or is ISIL comes back or al-Qaeda comes back in some form. So they have to be integrated with the Peshmerga and the Iraqi forces. And they have to have some governance to know that they're not going to flee and leave them in the lurch again.


SAPERSTEIN: But if you don't have the rest of this together, arming those little groups will just end with more sectarian violence.

Third, you need to have a transitional governance system, a trusted system here. All of those people fled. What happened to their homes and their businesses? They were taken over by their former neighbors. In some cases, these are Kurds. In most cases, these are Sunni Muslims, some of whom were complicit with ISIL and some of whom just stood by and then took advantage of taking over these.

That needs to be all sorted out. The court system can't do that. There needs to be a transitional justice system that will work out this piece of it.

Fourth, they have to have governance in which—now, and Prime Minister Abadi has said, "I want to change this. I want to have a multi society in which all these groups will really participant." He needs hiring practices to indicate he's serious about this. Whether he can carry his own community, the Shia community, to actually bring about that country, remains to be seen. But those people have to believe they can participate, have governance roles in shaping the new Iraq.

And finally there has to be an economic program to rebuild those communities. Many of these people were middle-class or lower-middle-class people, particularly in the Christian communities. It's not just what you talk about, the businesses and stuff, but this enormous network of charities and social efforts that they were doing, hospitals and feeding programs, education programs. All of that needs to be rebuilt. And you can't wait until ISIL is out.

There needs to be an effort, led by the U.N. now, to begin to put all the pieces of this in play, with different civil society groups in—both within Iraq and outside Iraq, and different governmental entities, from the international community working together to set up the structures to move all of this. So as ISIL begins to move out, it will actually be filled with something, and won't be a vacuum that will descend into sectarian violence.

Pretty daunting challenge, if it's going to happen. But what's necessary for it to happen I think is clear. And moving assertively now to begin to address this is indispensable to having the kind of Iraq that I think that, when Saddam Hussein was forced out, was hoped for and envisioned by the international community, and I think the majority of people in Iraq.

GJELTEN: Well, we've given you an overview of the problem and, as Ambassador Saperstein eloquently just laid out, sort of what components of an effort to preserve and restore these communities would involve.

I want to, at this point, open the conversation to you as council members, so you can pose your own questions.

Remember we are on the record, so this is all being streamed so anything you say is quotable and it's on the record. Wait for the microphone. We've got three mikes, I think, here. I'll call on you. Speak directly into the mike and if you could begin by stating your name and your affiliation.

Yes, sir. You're first.

RAPPAPORT: Hi. Alan Rappaport, Roundtable.

Ambassador, how do you assess ISIL's ability, capacity, to govern the geography that is has now claimed to be responsible for?

SAPERSTEIN: We don't know the answer to that. We just don't know at this point. We don't know that much about the areas that are under its control.

You asked earlier, Tom, about what we knew. You know, and it's hard to get really solid information about that. And everything is so fluid. All we know is that the way that they rule is marked by the kind of brutality that all of us have talked about. But we don't know quite what it's like, let's say, for the Sunnis who do stay there, or even the minority of the Christians. There still are a handful of Christians, you know, in the Mosul area who decided to pay the tax and remain.

We know comparatively little. It's not that we're devoid of all communication, but seeing the actual pattern of it when so much is in flux, it's really impossible to judge at this point.

Either of you have any information about what we might know here?

DORAN: I would say one point that has been written about in various places, and I think it's an important point. There is the—there isn't a single unified code, or code of conduct, so to speak, for ISIS and for their soldiers.

You have—part of the success can likely be attributed to the fact you have a number of former Baathists who are not particularly devout religious believers, who brought a very pragmatic element to ISIS and helped formulate what was a group of young, idealistic, if, you know, people had fallen under—into pathologies of religion, so to speak, or religious ideology and violence, and really tempered them into—and gave them the tools to be successful not just militarily but organizationally.

And they've demonstrated more competence than I think anyone would have expected. They've not made the mistakes, from their perspective, that Zarqawi made years ago when he was much more ruthless. They—you see, for instance, you can see this on YouTube where they have these open town hall meetings where they bring in repentant Sunni Muslims and embrace them, and then send them back on their way.

And that's—now that doesn't necessarily speak to their capacity to govern. I don't think there's an Islamic State website up. I could be mistaken about that. You know, I don't think that they're giving tourist visas. I don't think they're really governing the way that we might expect, but what's their expectation? And I don't know ...

GJELTEN: It's interesting that you say that ISIS has learned a lesson of al-Qaeda in Iraq, where they alienated so many of the local people with their extreme beliefs. I mean, I don't think of ISIS as being all that moderate, but I take ...

DORAN: No, no. And I didn't mean to convey that at all. I think there's a bit—I think there's a level of shrewdness ...


DORAN: ... that I think Zarqawi was blinded by that radical ideology. And they have the radical ideology, but they seem to be taking more measured, pragmatic steps. And that frightens me, and I think it should frighten all of us.

GJELTEN: (Inaudible.) You, sir.

MANLEY: Yes. Bob Manley ...

GJELTEN: Just one second.

MANLEY: Sorry. OK. Thank you. Bob Manley, Seton Hall University and Center for Global Responsibility.

I wonder if anybody would like to say anything among and in relation to the following question. We have ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, all one outfit. And then, of course, not in the Middle East, but over in Nigeria and all around there, northern, we have Boko Haram, a dandy outfit, just as nice as the folks you've described before.

Is there anything whatsoever that can be said with regard to ethical orientation or constraints of either these folks under those names in the Middle East or Boko Haram?

GJELTEN: Well, Faith, do these groups have their own sense of ethical constraints?

MCDONNELL: Well, I do a lot of work on Nigeria as well, and have been following Boko Haram, and pushed for the foreign terrorist organizations designation for Boko Haram for about four years. So, there's a connection.

Even in terms of the ideology of building a caliphate and Boko Haram has even said that they will become submissive to ISIS, to be under the caliphate that ISIS is building, even though the—Shekau, who was head of Boko Haram, wanted to be a caliph himself.

In terms of any kind of ethical—when you see they took over 300 girls at—the Chibok girls who are still, most of them, still out there and pregnant and if they haven't killed themselves because, just like the Yazidi girls who have wanted to die because of what they've gone through, I don't think—even if they have some kind of ethical basis, it's not part of reality. It's their own construct.

So there are connections, though, with Boko Haram, al Shabaab, even other groups that people don't talk about as much. For instance, factions of the Sudanese government are also very much connected with what's going on.

GJELTEN: Yes, sir.

MOHAMMED: Hello. My name Mohammed. I just came from Yemen a few weeks ago. And Mr. David, you said something that very interested [sic] for me. ISIS and al-Qaeda, they found a lot of support by the public. (Inaudible) in Yemen, in Baghdad, in Iraq. A lot of supporting from the people. They support al-Qaeda, they support ISIS, and somehow (ph).

I think this is because of the marketing.

SAPERSTEIN: (Inaudible.)

GJELTEN: The marketing.

MUHAMMED: Marketing. Al-Qaeda and ISIS, they go to the poor people and they give them food. They give them money, and they say (inaudible) support, "We want to make you safe."

But for the government, like American government, unfortunately, they are always focusing about the political channels so they have always gave funds to the (inaudible) government, the Iraqi government, the Yemeni government, which is mostly as corrupted government, and they never gave money to the people.

So you can see that the people in Yemen, the (inaudible) in Iraq, they mostly trust (ph) the United States, and not only they trust al-Qaeda because they see in their eyes that they give them money and food.

SAPERSTEIN: This is a really important question, and a very complicated and challenging one for us. There are numerous examples of where religious groups and some non-religious extremist groups have first taken hold, and going back, sometimes, decades, in failed states or quasi-failed state situations, by providing just basic services to people that weren't being provided.

There aren't schools. They build the schools and then they bring their ideology into the schools, which may be very different from the ideology or the culture of the majority of the people in the community, but they control it. (Inaudible.)

We were talking today with someone who says they are seeing a replay of this in areas in southern Senegal, here, or extremist groups moving in, creating schools and all of a sudden girls are wearing things that are not at all the norm here.

And that they're subsidizing high school kids going to study at the madrassas out of the country, then and coming back and the parents don't know the kids when they come back. And they're providing food, they're providing medical care, they're providing all kinds of things that build the loyalty and connection to people that then gets transmuted into political or military activity as conditions change, et cetera.

We will never address combating violent extremism and countering terrorism if we can't buy (ph) countries to deal with the fundamental problems of opportunity and equality that people have. If groups are going to be oppressed because of their religious identity anywhere, and if groups are going to have their religious life driven underground, all of that becomes—if they don't feel that they can achieve the ability to live their life in accordance with their conscience, that they want religiously for themselves and their children and families in the community of which they are a part, it provides a fertile field, you know, that's filled with the frustrations and despair of those communities. Then it's played on by extremists to manipulate it and control the people there.

So it's not just an abstract nicety to say, "Well, in order to stop extremism, you have to have equality and democracy and, you know, full participation in its society." It's actually strategy here. That's the direction you have to move in. And it's not going to happen overnight. We know that. You can't turn a country that's not a democracy into democracy overnight.

But every time you make it a more tolerant and inclusive society, even if there are other practices that are problematic, you're helping to shut out those who would capture the frustration and despair of people with extremist interpretations.

So I'm really glad you put that on the table.

GJELTEN: Yes, sir.

BASHIR: Good evening. Thank you. I want to direct this question for Andrew.

GJELTEN: Can you (inaudible)? Could you identify yourself?

BASHIR: Oh. My name is TA Bashir. I'm from New York Theological Seminary.


BASHIR: You spoke about the minorities and how they were wiped out by ISIS. During the time that ISIS came to these towns, it was well-reported that in the towns the armament that the Sunnis and the other minorities had were inferior compared to ISIS. Why didn't America at that time arm the people so they would have a fair chance?

The other point I wanted to make was to Ambassador Saperstein. You talked about the five-point plan. That was very interesting. I wonder, is there a plan for the defeat of ISIS militarily before all these other things start? Thank you.

GJELTEN: You may not be the right person to answer that.

SAPERSTEIN: I'll give you a shot at this.

GJELTEN: Yes, Andrew.

DORAN: T A, thank you very much for the question. It's an excellent question.

When I was in Iraqi Kurdistan and Nineveh, the Kurdish Peshmerga took me—they had in the room where we met an American-made M16A2 machine gun that had gone from the United States government to the Iraqi military. It was captured by ISIS and had been recaptured by the Peshmerga.

And they also had a Humvee, an armored Humvee that had been captured, had taken the same route to the Peshmerga. And a Chevy truck with a DShK 50 cal Soviet-made machine gun in the bed of the truck that had been captured from ISIS. So there was a joke that maybe you could just take the Iraqi military out of it and just send it directly to ISIS, because then it will get to us faster.

So, our laws make it very difficult for us to arm the Kurds, who seem to be more effective, and to arm, in turn, Christian militias to defend themselves because we can't very well equip—we can't have laws that permit us to equip militias that undermine the central government.

And this goes to, I think, Ambassador Saperstein's point about the challenges that we face with the nation-states as currently constructed in Iraq. That's not really the sort of thing that America can just intervene and fix and then pull itself out again. So it is a complicated situation.

But to your point, and I hope I've answered your question, you're absolutely right. This is one of the challenges that we face. We are fighting—we are hoping for military success for a side that is going up against ISIS, who are fighting with captured American weaponry.

GJELTEN: David, you talked about one military operation that was very impressive and successful, but sort of the exception rather than the rule, isn't it?

SAPERSTEIN: Look. We—I mean, first, you're absolutely right. The problem is some of what you talked about, but it's more the converse or the opposite at (ph) Makyir (ph). That is they had good equipment. And then when they fled Mosul, they left huge stocks of the equipment behind them, and ISIL got hold of good equipment.

So, yes, both dynamics going on. But we actually provided quite decent equipment. But you don't want to provide very sophisticated weapons to groups like new militias as you're training them, because they're more likely to lose them. And so you want to give kind of basic weaponry during the training periods to people, to avoid their being captured by ISIL. So you have this Catch-22 situation. So that's why I said both are true on this.  

Look. The United States has put together the coalition of the 60 countries that are engaged in supporting the Iraqi troops, in training them, getting them armaments, and through the Iraq government getting armaments to the Kurdish forces, into some of these new local defense forces, I think is a better term, a more accurate term than militias at this point, because they want to defend the communities they're going back to.

So I think, you know, that goes on all the time. And then you have the bombing runs that have, in different places, it has helped the Iraqi forces take some cities back, Tikrit and other cities. And it has not worked in—not been enough to facilitate the Iraqi forces, the combined forces of the—from the Shia communities, and the Iraqi Army forces, and the Kurdish forces working together. It's not been enough, in many cases.

One of the reasons is we are really, really restrictive about minimizing collateral damage. The majority of runs that the planes do actually don't result in bombs being dropped. But of the several thousand actual runs where they have resulted in bombs being dropped, in some cases it's been effective and other cases it's not.

Ultimately, it is going to be the—those with boots on the ground, the Iraqi Army forces here, that have to be integrated. They have to be Sunni and Shia forces together, with Kurdish forces, all working together, and some of these local defense forces.

There is a proposal before the Iraqi parliament to create a national guard force that would have a lot of local control, like we do in our states, but be able to be coordinated with the national armed forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga. It is stalled in the parliament.

Many think that that is one possible way to set this up, to integrate the local forces. So there's thinking about it. There's planning about it. But it is happening far too slowly, considering how swiftly ISIL has been moving in many areas.

GJELTEN: Well, that security piece that you mentioned in that five-point plan sure seems to me to be sort of at the center of any kind of successful strategy.

Sir. Can you wait for a microphone?

FURMAN: Thank you. David Furman, Gibson Dunn.

So, I was listening to Ambassador Saperstein's five-point plan which is interesting, and also seemed kind of daunting. And he seems kind of pessimistic. But I was thinking, are there successes that kind of pick up on the five-point plan? And I was thinking about two examples that I'd like you to speak to, Kosovo and Lebanon. And is there anything that we can learn from those examples that could apply to what we're talking about today?

So—and I think U.S. was very successful, or seemed successful in Kosovo. Lebanon had its own interesting governance, but they seem like they could be successes that we could look to.

SAPERSTEIN: Look. We're blessed to have Tom Gjelten, who is one of, you know, the great journalists in America. He only ties to being the best journalist in his own family, who has actually written on the Baltic area ...

GJELTEN: Balkan.

SAPERSTEIN: ... it would be probably a better person to answer this.

A couple of observations here. One of the lessons we learned from the Bosnia experience was we didn't dismantle the existing armies there. We really kept them intact, in their barracks, paid their salaries. There was very little incentive for them to start looking around for extremist groups that were doing things. And we didn't replicate that in Iraq.

So, the lesson from this is if you want to have these forces integrated together, you've got to find a way to structure that army here, and to make it happen. And to be sure you engage the Sunni forces with the Shia forces as part of the army, and be very careful about keeping intact the various communities' engagement in this.

They've got to build an army for the nation. Any chance that the nation does have of holding together depends on this mili (ph)—and Tom just said, this military piece is indispensable to it. And that clearly would be a central one.

I mean, Lebanon has both warnings for us, and well as things that, again, here, it allowed a Hezbollah to, in the end, allow—Hezbollah was able to function in a way, and the government was unable to prevent it—to function in a way to keep control over a large segment of the country. It is greatly complicated, creating the kind of Lebanon that the majority of citizens want here.

And the last thing that Iraq needs is to either have a Shia extremist forces in the south maintain separate control over areas, or to have ISIL, up in the areas where it controls, actually remain in effect. And that requires the international community to step up the amount of training and support it's giving to these military efforts. And it's going to take time. But it should be able to be done, and we're determined to make it happen.

GJELTEN: Can I just add one little point? You know, in Kosovo and in Bosnia and in many other places, I think one of the failings has been in the aftermath of the conflict, not in the conflict itself. I think we have a tendency sometimes to neglect the rebuilding, which is some of the other parts.

And what you've seen in Kosovo, for example, is Saudis and other (inaudible) ...


. . . groups come in in the aftermath, and they provide some of the reconstruction and restoration assistance that is very important to people, but the problem is that that sort of then aligns those groups with some regimes that we'd rather not be active there.

DORAN: Could I just—

GJELTEN: Yes, go ahead.

DORAN: One final point, David, because I think it's interesting that you pointed to Kosovo and in Bosnia, which we were discussing earlier. This is a—Kosovo was part of Serbia, part of Yugoslavia following the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War I. Also, Iraq, Syria, I mean, these are countries that were formed—nation-states formed by the European powers, much like Yugoslavia, constructs of multi-ethnic, multi-religious, sectarian groups without a highly developed sense of the common good.

And when did the fighting stop? When it was broken apart. There is no Yugoslavia any more. And I just think it's something that is worth contemplating, how much blood has been spilled to try and hold together this idea of Iraq.

That's not to say that if you were to have a federated Iraq much along the lines of the Bosnia model, that there wouldn't be internal bloodshed, but I think it is something certainly worth pondering.

MCDONNELL: Tom, can I add ...

GJELTEN: Yes. Please, Faith.

MCDONNELL: When David was mentioning the fact that this plan for the national guard is stuck in the parliament, ...


MCDONNELL: ... one thing that the NGO community really would like to see is for there to be a special envoy on the Middle East minorities. The congress passed the legislation overwhelmingly on this. President Obama has signed it into law, but there has been no special envoy picked yet.

And I believe that having an envoy would be very helpful. It would put more pressure on the Iraqi government, because it sees minority communities who have not been listened to in the past and are still not being listened to. It could push that idea of the national guard and keep an eye on it to make sure that, you know, even if it does become a federation and there is more autonomy, it would still be much more able to be safe.

So everybody, keep that in mind. We need a special envoy for the Middle East minorities.

GJELTEN: I'll take one more question. You've had your hand up before, sir.

SMEDLEY: Don Smedley, Rivendell Institute at Yale.

It's more of a conceptual clarification question. The word pluralism, particularly religious pluralism, has been used a lot. And often when it's used, it can be interchangeable with the concept of religious diversity. Well, religious diversity is seen descriptively and empirically. And you seem to have used it that way often, that places in the Middle East don't have these particular groups any more, and so we need to secure their liberty or that they can return.

But it's also used normatively, so that we see that religious pluralism is a good, in some sense, whether it's sort of a philosophical good, like, say, from John Hicker (ph) to Diana Eck, and how we understand it, or whether it's sort of snuck in descriptively, often, that we see that religious diversity itself is a good.

So my question is, are you equivocating on the concept, and using it both ways? And if not, how do you see religious pluralism? Do you see it normatively, such that there are goods and if so, what are those from your standpoints? I'm addressing this to all three of you. And if it's only descriptive, then where do we go from there and, kind of, what's the point?

So, thank you.

GJELTEN: Thank you. Andrew, do you want to step (ph) this? Very quickly.


DORAN: Can I defer to the rabbi?


I think that's an excellent question. Obviously, a complicated question when we say pluralism, what do we mean? I was talking to a congressman last year and we were talking about the idea of pluralism.

And I said, if you take two Americans and you put them in a room, no matter how diverse their views they will begin arguing about the common good. Someone will make a claim to the Constitution or some other higher law, even, you know, whether atheist or believer. They will appeal to a higher authority and make that case, in the case of the common good.

In my experience, that's rare. And I don't know that you would—if you went to Iraq, if you would have—within the context of pluralism, you would have those same discussions.

And you said brief, so I don't know ...


DORAN: ... better off (ph) there, but I think that—I'm trying to help frame the problem, perhaps, rather than answer the question. Sorry.

MCDONNELL: And I would just say, for me, it really is mostly a matter of religious freedom, that all religions have the same freedom and equality. And it's not just freedom of worship, which has been a very popular concept now, but freedom of religion, so that if you want to switch religions, you can do that. If you want no religion, you can have that.

SAPERSTEIN: I agree with that. I think religious freedom ties directly into a number of benefits having to do with stability in a society, having to do with the development of a rich common good that has diverse ideas, that are able to test arguments about what the common good are, that has a diverse culture that I think is inherently a good here as well.

So I think that at the core of this, the right of people to be able to live their religious lives free of harassment, free of persecution, free of punishment, free of death threats, free of threats of enslavement here is indispensable in Iraq to a stable Iraq in the future as well.

But I think of it as a normative good that enriches through its diversity the patrimony of all humankind here, even as it leads in the end to more open, tolerant, free, and stable societies.

GJELTEN: And Andrew made the point in our conversation before we came out here, that minorities can have a leavening effect on the dominant culture.

DORAN: Yes. In fact, the Ottoman Empire made a policy of integrating Christians in the Levant and Syria, integrating Christians into Sunni villages, into Shia villages, into Druze villages, but you won't find—I think there was two exceptions in Lebanon today. You won't find Sunni and Shia villages. And I think that sort of speaks to the leavening effect that they have had in the region.

GJELTEN: Well, we'd like to go on with this, but the Council has fairly firm guidelines that we try to wrap up these meetings on time. You've been a great audience, and I'm sorry we couldn't get to more of your questions. Thanks very much for coming, and thanks to Ambassador Saperstein and Faith McDonnell and Andrew Doran.


DORAN: Thank you.

SAPERSTEIN: It's a pleasure.


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