Last Sunday, I was invited by a friend to participate in a conference on religious reconciliation. Ghaith is a former Shiite militia leader who led hundreds of militants out of Sadr City in 2006 to take over a Sunni mosque. In February 2007 he was arrested by the US military. He was transferred to Iraqi custody in 2010 when the US shut down Camp Bucca, which at its peak was the largest single prison complex in the world. He was released in October of last year.
Seeing Ghaith for the first time in more than four years was a joy. I corresponded with him in prison. He is my age—30. He is incredibly charismatic, and I wonder often what I would have done in his position. Ghaith now runs an NGO that addresses Iraq’s divisions, and the subject of Sunday’s conference and discussion was the role of academia in reconciliation. In prepared remarks, I offered a bit of my personal history as an example of religious reconciliation, explaining that such things come from people, not leaders, and from things like intermarriage and interaction.
My mother was raised Catholic. Her parents were Maronites from Damascus and Beirut. She, like many other first-generation Lebanese-Americans and Syrian-Americans, was born in Detroit, Mich., where industry and economy brought together people of all religions and races, and for a time, made America perhaps the most powerful and progressive country in the world.
My parents did not give up religion altogether. They raised my brother, my sister and me in a Unitarian Church. Perhaps the best way to describe the Unitarian Church is that it fosters a belief that spirituality is an important part of being human, but it does not preach a specific doctrine. Part of the mission of the Unitarian Church is to educate its members about other religions. Before I was a teenager, our Sunday school teachers—Sunday school is the part of the church where children are sent until they are old enough to sit quietly in the church every Sunday—took us to a different place of worship each week. We went to Hindu and Buddhist temples and we visited churches of various Christian denominations. We went to a synagogue and we prayed with black people, because in the US, there is still segregation in religion. There was no mosque in my city then, but if there had been, we would have gone.
My parents don’t talk much about their parents’ religion, but there is one story that my father likes to tell. When my parents decided not to baptize me in the Catholic Church, my mother’s parents threatened to disown them. There were a few days of heated arguments before my mother’s father relented. In the end, he simply decided that family was more important than religion.
My father’s mother never stopped trying to convert us, even on her deathbed. But she never treated us any differently than she treated her other grandchildren, who were raised Baptist.
I haven’t been to church since I left my parents’ house when I was 18 and went to the university. Nearly five years ago, I married a Shiite from Baghdad who had been divorced from a Sunni. She has two children—Sushis—who live with us in the US. Her parents and family at first opposed the marriage, but like my grandfather, they decided family is more important. I have always been welcome in their house here and I am having dinner there tonight.
I was apprehensive that some members of the audience might find this more than a little offensive. I have, on more than one occasion here, been told to say “Christian,” if asked about my religion, and to just leave it at that, the discussion about whether god exists being a non-starter. It wasn’t long before a member of the audience did criticize what I said, but the real trouble started when someone suggested that perhaps the marjayia, the Shiite religious establishment, had become too far removed from the people. That set off a shouting match. It’s no secret here that the minister of higher education is a Shiite fundamentalist, and more than a few of the professors seem to be of the same ilk.
In the end though, saying what I said, especially as an American, in a lecture hall at Baghdad University, would have been impossible three years ago.