Throughout years of bloody civil conflicts, waves of displacement, and an ongoing political deadlock in Iraq, the Iraqi academic and author Saad Salloum has steadfastly advocated interfaith dialogue, religious freedom and minorities’ rights.
His work was recently honoured by the Ibn Rushd Fund for Freedom of Thought, which jointly awarded its 2022 prize to him and Nayla Tabbara, of Lebanon, and their respective organisations.
Saad Salloum is the founder and chair of the Masarat Foundation for Cultural and Media Development, a non-profit organisation specialising in diversity and interfaith dialogue. He is also an assistant professor of political science at Al-Mustansiriya University, in Baghdad.
Salloum recently talked to Al-Fanar Media about the need to rethink how diversity is viewed in the Arab region and to provide more religious freedom to minorities.
‘Unity in Diversity’
Many academics in the Arab World regard diversity as a threat to unity, Salloum said. On the contrary, he sees it as an inexhaustible source of wealth, especially in countries that depend on a single source of revenue such as oil.
“For decades, we have learned from the prevalent political and academic literature that diversity is a threat to the state’s unity. I have read university theses and papers considering the study of minorities and diversity as a threat to national unity,” said Salloum.
“Diversity is the basis of unity. I urge academics to stop writing about it from a security approach inspired by conspiracy theories.”Saad Salloum Founder of the Masarat Foundation for Cultural and Media Development
“Actually, diversity is the basis of unity. I urge academics to stop writing about it from a security approach inspired by conspiracy theories.”
Besides academics, Salloum also encourages Arab youth to rethink the issue and change their paradigm of diversity.
“We should stimulate political thinking about the importance of ‘Unity in Diversity,’ a great political slogan we should fight for in order to support social cohesion in the Arab world,” he said.
“Managing diversity should become a requirement for the new generation’s protest movement, in order to build rational citizenship that improves the management of its human resources and invests in its cultural capital and ancient heritage.”
Depoliticisation and Awareness
Salloum launched Masarat and its magazine in 2005 to focus on spreading awareness of diversity amidst a highly polarised environment, with great politicisation of religious affairs and a non-pluralistic public sphere.
He has published 18 books in Arabic on diversity issues, including “Minorities in Iraq” (2012), “Creative Diversity” (2013), “The Yazidis in Iraq” (2016), “The End of Diversity in Iraq” (2019), and “The Ongoing Genocide” (2022). Besides publishing in English, some of his works have been translated into French, Italian and Dutch.
For his career and advocacy of religious freedom and human rights, Salloum was awarded the 2018 Stefanus Alliance International Award, in Oslo; the 2019 Chaldean Patriarchate Award (for his book “Christians in Iraq”); and the Kamel Shiaa Award for Cultural Enlightenment.
While he believes that “God’s land is vast”, he says the Arab world, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf, can be described as “God’s narrow land” in terms of religious freedom.
“Religious minorities find it difficult to obtain official recognition regardless of their spiritual and moral content because they simply contradict the structure of the dominant culture or challenge the hegemonic beliefs of the majority,” he said.
He mentioned the Bahá’ís and the Yazidis as examples.
The tragedy of the Yazidis “threatens to repeat the Palestinian refugee model. They are a new Palestinian people, as a displaced Yazidi man told me in Duhok.”Saad Salloum
“More than 200 years have passed since the birth of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith (1817-1892), yet the Baháʼís are not recognised in all Arab and Islamic countries, except for a symbolic recognition in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq,” he said.
Moreover, he added, eight years after the genocide perpetrated against the Yazidis in Sinjar, the survivors are still living in tents. “Their tragedy threatens to repeat the Palestinian refugee model,” he said. “They are a new Palestinian people, as a displaced Yazidi man told me in Duhok.”
From his last visit to Sinjar, Salloum explained that the Yazidis often talk about “the ongoing genocide”, given the hazardous geopolitical conflict that continues over their identity and their ancestral homeland in the Iraqi-Syrian borderlands.
Levels of Recognition and Freedom
While many religious minorities fight for official recognition, Salloum thinks that official recognition alone is not enough.
“There are three levels of recognition. First is the official one that includes mentioning religious minorities in the Constitution, legislation, and official school curricula,” he said.
The second level is recognition by the traditional Islamic religious authorities.
The third level is popular recognition, which is usually tainted by stereotypes and prejudices that feed hate speech and discrimination against religious minorities in the public sphere, explained Salloum.
While some religions, such as the Yazidis and Mandaeans, are mentioned in the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, Salloum thinks they are not treated on an equal footing with Islam, which makes official recognition limited.
To bridge the gap between Muslim leaders and minorities, Salloum co-founded the Christian-Muslim Dialogue Initiative in 2010, the Iraqi Council for Interfaith Dialogue in 2013, the Institute for Religious Diversity Studies in Baghdad in 2019, and the Institute for Diversity Journalism in Iraq in 2020.
He also helped establish the Iraqi National Center Against Hate Speech in 2018, which aims to monitor and counter stereotypes by training journalists, media professionals, and bloggers in the Diversity Journalism Institute.
While Arab constitutions contain clauses guaranteeing freedom of religion and belief, Salloum thinks that the Arab world lacks respect for religious freedom as a basic human right.
“This right must include the freedom of an individual to embrace whatever religious or non-religious ideas he wants,” he said. “It is a right that includes three basic elements: the freedom of the individual to embrace any religious or non-religious ideas, the freedom to convert, and finally the right to be without religion. These elements are not guaranteed in any Arab country.”
Hopes for a New Push for Change
Freedom of religion “includes three basic elements: the freedom of the individual to embrace any religious or non-religious ideas, the freedom to convert, and finally the right to be without religion. These elements are not guaranteed in any Arab country.”Saad Salloum
Salloum believes that young people are the “yeast of change.”
He admired the angry Yazidi youths in Sinjar, who opposed the armed factions and regional forces that interfered in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, calling to make Sinjar a weapon-free zone.
“This is a new episode of outrage that will spread to the entire Arab world. It is not a merely local event in a remote border place, fifty kilometers from the Iraqi-Syrian-Turkish border triangle,” he said. “It echoes recurring scenes throughout the Middle East.”
He sees hope in that to reignite the will to change after setbacks to the dreams inspired by the Arab spring uprisings: the reversal of democratic gains in Tunisia, Egypt’s return to military rule, and Syria’s turning into a wasteland after a bloody civil war, as is the case in Yemen, Libya, and Iraq.
Salloum sees some positive signs. He mentioned the Marrakesh Declaration for the protection of religious minorities in the Islamic world (2016), the Baghdad Declaration on countering hate speech in Iraq and the Middle East (2016), and the Al-Azhar Declaration on Citizenship and Coexistence (2017). “They are all interrelated initiatives that complement and reinforce each other,” he said.
He also cited the visit of Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates, to become the first pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula, which gave impetus to such initiatives.
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“That visit resulted in the signing of the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, also known as the Abu Dhabi declaration, by Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, in February 2019,” he added.
“This was followed by the pope’s visit to Iraq in March 2021, a country rich in its religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity, with 21 religious sects, including 14 Christian sects.”
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