Award-winning Iraqi religious diversity scholar and journalist Saad Salloum, in concert with other religious leaders and activists, has taken an important step forward toward restoring and maintaining religious diversity in war-torn Iraq.
As reported by Al-Monitor:
“On a hot summer day in Baghdad, a group of academics, civil activists, clergymen and leaders of Iraq’s various religious groups gathered to launch the Institute for the Study of Religious Diversity, the first of its kind in the Middle East.”
The new institute, which combats religious stereotypes and hate speech, was parented by the Baghdad-based nonprofit organization Masarat, which focuses on minorities, collective memory studies and interfaith dialogue.
“Religious minorities’ representatives described the institute’s launch as a ‘historic step.’ The institute will be a pioneer in the region, teaching the tenets of various minority faiths, including Mandaeanism, Yazidism, Baha'ism and Christianity, to Muslims.
“The institute will bring the leaders of various religions together and also cooperate with academia and religious leaders to develop and teach curricula to Muslim clergymen, to help them adjust their sermons and the wider Islamic discourse regarding diversity in Iraq. The ultimate aim is to combat radicalism and hate speech against minorities.”
Iraqis received 37 hate messages per day from various media outlets during the run-up to the parliamentary elections. This soared to an average of 76 hate messages per day during the referendum on the independence of Kurdistan.
In an interview with Gilgamesh Nabeel of Qantara.de, Saad Salloum describes how the new institute was conceived and developed:
“In 2016, the Masarat launched the Baghdad Declaration to Counter Hate Speech in Iraq and the Middle East, in conjunction with the Marrakesh Declaration for the Protection of Religious Minorities. This was institutionalised through the establishment of a Centre for Countering Hate Speech in 2018. The new institute is therefore intended as a methodological supplement to the Centre for Countering Hate Speech.
“A study conducted by Masarat in the period from February to December 2017 shows that Iraqis received 37 hate messages per day from various media outlets during the run-up to the parliamentary elections. This soared to an average of 76 hate messages per day during the referendum on the independence of Kurdistan. The Centre for Countering Hate Speech and the Institute for the Study of Religious Diversity are therefore two ways of responding to the challenges imposed by widespread hate and ignorance of ‘the other’…
“The institute is an attempt at reform, with the aim of eliminating negative religious stereotypes and prejudices. The idea is to prevent the preferential treatment of one particular religion—as the ‘best’ or the ‘dominant’ faith—over others and actively work against the introduction of religious monopolies.”
Mr. Salloum, who, with others, has invested 15 years in research on the promotion of religious diversity in Iraq, was awarded the prestigious Stefanus International Prize for religious freedom in Oslo, Norway, in September of 2018. The Stefanus award was presented:
“…to Mr. Salloum and Dominican priest Father Ameer Jiji as a culmination for their continuous and diligent work in the field of religious freedoms, spreading the culture of dialogues and the acceptance of the Other in Iraq throughout more than 14 years …establishing the Iraqi Council for Interfaith Dialogue, as well as the National Center for Combating Hate Speech this year….” (Masaratiraq.org)
Mr. Salloum hopes to alter the prevailing perception that oil is the main source of wealth in Iraq and instead bring more emphasis to the wealth of religious culture and tradition:
“The main concept behind the launch of this institute is the need to alter attitudes towards diversity management, presenting diversity as a source of wealth and not as a source of division. Rather than oil, which has brought us only conflict and corruption, the institute seeks to promote diversity as our undying source of wealth. Rather than simply investing in the rich history of Islam and Christianity, we are also seeking to include Iraq’s historic Jewish heritage, as well as the legacy of the Mandaeans, followers of John the Baptist, a religious minority that has lived in Iraq for more than two thousand years.
“As a first in our countryʹs contemporary history, the institute will be offering a Yazidi curriculum authored by Khalil Jundi, a Yazidi expert who has worked for three decades to collect and document his people’s oral traditions. Moreover, we will also teach the beliefs of more modern religious minorities, such as the Baha'is, and the beliefs of Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion that has been recently revived in Iraqi Kurdistan after centuries of disappearance.” (Qantara.de)
The new institute’s focus will initially be on teaching facilities and then extending its activities to reach out to journalists, media professionals, activists, bloggers and social media commentators who can make a significant impact on the views and mores of the region.
At the end of the 19th century, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, political conflict escalated to genocide. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis of minority faiths have been slaughtered or driven from their homeland. In an article published by Conversation.com, Ali Mamouri writes that “Iraq has at least 30 distinct identifiable ethno-religious groups.”
“Iraq’s identity had been interconnected with diversity. Holy sites that are being destroyed by IS are more than cultural tourist attractions. They have served as sites of tolerance and peaceful co-existence for a country whose fortunes have waxed and waned.”
Saad Salloum heads the research department in the College of Political Sciences of Mustansiriya University and is one of the founding members of the Iraqi Council for Interfaith Dialogue. His publications focus on Iraqi minorities and include the books “Minorities in Iraq” (2013), “Christians in Iraq” (2014) and “Policies and Ethnic Groups in Iraq.” (2014).
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