Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
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Iraqi academic calls for greater solidarity between peoples

Ali Mamouri pictured with the residents of Warrane College

The problems being experienced in Iraq today stretched beyond that country’s borders to the whole world, a journalist and academic specialising in Middle Eastern religious affairs, Dr Ali Mamouri, told Warrane residents.

Speaking at the College on 17 September 2014, Dr Mamouri argued that the central problem in Iraq and elsewhere is the tendency for peoples to consider themselves as “the default” and to place other peoples at the category of “the other”.

Dr Mamouri, a former lecturer in Tehran University, Qom University, Mustansiriya University and other Iranian and Iraqi universities, is a columnist at Al-Monitor, writing on Iraq and Iran and on religious and cultural issues. He is presently completing a second PhD in Australia at the Institute for Social Justice at Australian Catholic University.

He pointed out that most of the publicity given to the events in Iraq in recent times focused on the victimisation of western people – the two American journalists and one British aid worker who were beheaded – without showing the same concern for the many Iraqis who had been killed.

“Where are the 10,000 people killed in the past three months,” Dr Mamouri said. “Where are the more than 1,000 Yazidi people killed on the top of Mount Sinjar, without food without water.”

“And the issue of the Christians expelled from their city after more than 4,000 years living there. The issue of the Sunni people themselves – half a million of them displaced from Mosul after IS took this city. There were 1,700 youths killed in just two hours in the Base of Spiker.”

“We feel more sympathy with people we know. If something happened to my brother or my sister, I feel that more deeply than something that happened to people in other situations, in other countries, in other parts of the world.”

“This is the base of the problem. And what will happen after that, after this categorisation – after this classification? This perspective designs our decision, our action and our relationship with the others.”

Dr Mamouri said that too many people make generalisations about other peoples, producing stereotypes. This, he argued, was what had happened in Australia with British people’s attitudes towards Aboriginal people. When confronted with migrants, some Australians also tended to forget that they were once migrants to this country as well.

He said that many non-Moslems were now saying that they “don’t have a problem with Moslem people”, but then added that they think their religion is wrong and that it is their religion that forces them to “make problems in the world”.

He said such people would open the Koran and “cherry pick” verses that suggested jihad means that “you have to kill people”, but then “hide the other side of the story”.

They ignored the fact that many Moslems, including Sufis, interpreted “Jihad” as a moral process for overcoming “bad desires inside humanity”, not that it is necessary to kill other people.

Dr Mamouri argued that demonising other people was a deep issue for the whole of humankind.

“The national identity is the main problem in Iraq,” he said. “The national identity, the collective identity that imposed by totalitarian regimes over the nation has failed to include all Iraqi people.“

“Over the past 100 years, after the establishment of modern Iraq, national identity failed unfortunately to cover all of Iraqis.

“This is not an easy issue. This issue is a common issue for other nations with different levels. What is an Australian? What does it mean to be an Australian? Everyone has a different answer for that.”

Dr Mamouri said there was an ongoing decline of multiculturalism and diversity in Iraq where there were more than 40 or 45 categories of religious, cultural, linguistic and ethnic groups in the country.

He had worked for many years to preserve the diversity and protect the multiculturalism in Iraq, joining group of people from different religious background to establish an organisation that sought to establish relationships between different groups of people.

First, they worked to establish laws in the parliament following the period of Saddam Hussein’s government.

“The laws were to protect minorities and to protect the state of multiculturalism and diversity there,” he said. “The second part was the educational system. We realised that there was many problems, particularly with the subject of history and religion. A lot of misunderstanding and stereotypes came from these two subjects.

“We sought to change them, to propose a different curriculum for all the kids and get them involved and connected with each other.

“We also tried to encourage students and postgraduate students in the university to make their thesis and research in the field of multiculturalism, diversity and minorities in Iraq.”

“The third thing was establishing the Iraqi interfaith consul that include many different clerics from different sects and religions – Christianity, Islam, etc.” “There are more than five kinds of Christianity in Iraq and we have more than 10 kinds of Islam.”

“This consul was very important because for the first time it put the religious leaders in a continuous and growing relationship and communication. They meet with each other regularly – maybe two or three times quarterly.

“Finally there was the project of “citizenship ambassadors”. It was begun in 2012 in Iraq. The idea was that we needed to work on the young people there. We trained 400 people from different parts of Iraq.

“Each of them started to have some workshops for local people of each village. The workshop was over two weeks. The first week was to teach people about diversity and multiculturalism in Iraq. Many people do not know about the other people there. We had to introduce them. We had to explain that Jewish people had lived in Iraq for more than 26 centuries and they are natives of this country. We have Christians, Yazidi, Mandaien and so on.

“The second week was visiting religious sites. We got Moslems to visit a church and see what a church is exactly. And the same thing for Christians – to come and visit the holy site of Moslems and to see that there is not a very big difference. We all worship one God and there is a lot of similarity between all these people.”

Dr Mamouri said this project was continuing in Iraq and showed many slides of the different groups involved. Nevertheless, he said, despite the many good things that had been achieved in a short time, the situation was expected to get worse and Iraq could lose many of its minorities.

He repeated that the real problem was “the issue of the self and the other”.

“We have to criticise that and we have to fix that as much as we can, although we can’t get rid of it completely,” he said. “We can improve relationships with other people and criticise the negative things we think of other people.”

During the question-and-answer session that followed his talk, Dr Mamouri said there must be a stronger role for the international community to play in Iraq.

“We can’t just step back,” he said. “We have to do something for the people. We have to help the people because they cannot get rid of ISIS, the most strong and powerful terrorist group there.

“They are more than 40,000 soldiers. A lot of them came from western countries – around two thousand people. We have to help the Iraq’s elected government and the minority and majority of the country, the Sunni, Christian, Shiite and other groups.

“We can help them, not necessarily by sending troops on the ground, but by equipping the military forces, by forcing the regional powers to help Iraq.”

Asked about the Kurdish push for independence, Dr Mamouri said it was necessary in the short term for all Iraqis to stick together. After they overcame the extreme elements in the country the democratic process could be used to bring about independence, but it was important to recognise that independence could act like a cancer, with more and more groups wanting to get independence.

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