After a few days in Iraq with our CRS team, it is very obvious that one of the most serious challenges for this country is the almost total lack of trust among peoples and institutions. Tensions among peoples in this region go back to the time of Muhammad the prophet. When he died in 632, there was a dispute over succession to serve as the Caliph of the Islamic community across the world.
This led to two groups emerging: Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. Today, Sunnis are the majority in most Muslim countries--about 85% to 90%. However, Shiites are a majority in Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Bahrain. Neighboring Syria is about 75% Sunni, and Saudi Arabia is about 85% Sunni.
These two groups have been in conflict in various ways over the centuries and this conflict raises tensions and impedes sound working relationships. Since these countries tend to have theocratic governments, the lack of trust runs deep. The presumption is that the ruling group favors its peoples over the other group.
This lack of trust and increase in suspicion of each other is a very serious problem, and helps to understand why it is so difficult to navigate foreign policy in these parts of the world. To further complicate the scene, there are many sub-sects of the two major groups. And of course, the Christians adhere to Jesus Christ, and not to Muhammad. They are a minority in all of the Middle East countries.
Sometimes the tensions between Sunnis and Shiites break out into armed conflict, as with the Iran versus Iraq war several years ago. You then have to include the Kurds who dominate Kurdistan and who tend towards the Sunni traditions. But Kurds are fiercely independent and adopt various practises from all groups. The Pesh Merga Kurds are famous fighters and have been successful in ridding Iraq of ISIS.
It is necessary to review briefly this history in order to understand the deep level of distrust that exists. An example might help. We met many families who had fled Mosul because of the attacks by ISIS. These people told us that often their neighbors, who were Muslims, pointed out to ISIS fighters that they were Christians--who then had to flee for their lives. One man put it well: "My neighbor, with whom I shared bread at table, turned on me and betrayed me. How could I ever trust him again? " These stories of distrust reminded me of Jesus and Judas at the Last Supper: "The one who dips his bread with me in the bowl will betray me."
There is a deep distrust of government authorities since they often favor their group over others. Since Christians have no political power or great numbers, they are vulnerable to discrimination.
Distrust in Iraq is so pervasive that Iraq is a totally "cash economy." People do not trust banks, nor the government, nor each other with their money. Everything is paid for in cash--credit cards and checks are non-existent. This makes it very difficult to manage larger transactions.
The displaced Christians returning to Teleskof [an earlier blog] are reluctant to go home because of many factors of distrust. Neighboring towns are Arab majority and non-Christian. Yet when ISIS attacked their Christian town, none of their neighbors came to help them. In fact, after the Christians fled, the neighbors looted their homes. Enormous distrust.
Since Teleskof is a Christian town, local government services are very slow to return. There is little electricity and water, no functioning schools, and no health services available yet. The Christians feel that they will be the last in their region to have services restored.
The wars in the past ten years have greatly increased the distrust across Iraq, and the political gridlock in Baghdad is the direct result of this distrust.
Re-building trust among all the various Iraqi peoples is a huge challenge, and will take many years to bridge the gaps of distrust. Memories of betrayal are not easily nor quickly erased.
CRS has worked very diligently to create trust by hiring local peoples from all backgrounds to assist in the many services which CRS offers. Indeed, CRS is showing the way forward for Iraqi peoples--working together for the good of all people is the best way to begin restoring trust among all groups.
[For the wonderful work of CRS, visit: www.crs.org ]