While much of the West focuses itself inward, something astonishing is happening in Iraq, a country in which thousands of Western lives have been lost and the sum of Western dollars spent runs into the hundreds of billions. Iraq's future as a free and responsible nation may well depend on its outcome. The future of pluralism in Iraq’s political system may also hang in the balance, as may the long-term survivability of the country’s Christians and other minorities.
Since early October, millions of marginalized Shiites have led an unending mass protest against the entrenched corruption of the Shiite-majority government, and against the interference of its theocratic Shiite neighbor, Iran, which has spent years tightening its grip on Iraq’s internal affairs. The open opposition is unprecedented in its bravery and scope.
More than 300 people have been killed since the protests began -- most by thinly disguised Tehran-backed militias -- as Iran’s proxies struggle to stop the demonstrations. Many thousands of civilians have been seriously injured. The government has attempted to cut internet access, but pictures and video of the protests have continued to reach the outside world, sharing a story of horror and courage. Peaceful, non-violent protestors demanding a non-sectarian, secular country, with a new constitution that provides true equality for minorities and marginalized Muslims alike, are shown being gunned down by live ammunition or by the lethal use of military-grade tear-gas canisters. These weapons are fired like rockets directly into masses of unarmed people.
The demonstrations, and the violent response to them, have brought together Iraq’s majority and minority populations in a remarkable way. Christians -- including their clerical leadership -- have joined openly in supporting the protests. Signs expressing solidarity with minority communities are also widely seen, held in the hands of Muslim protesters.
Iraq’s Constitution is explicitly based on sharia. Religious minorities are flagged on government ID cards and treated as second-class citizens, persecuted as convenient by Sunni and Shiites alike. In such a context, the anti-theocratic element of these protests is something that seemed unimaginable until it happened.
It is also perhaps the last meaningful ray of hope for a future of true equality for the Christians who have seen their population decline slowly for centuries -- precipitously in the past 100 years, and with increasing speed over these last two decades.
A country with one of the oldest and richest Christian cultures on earth, Iraq is now down to its last 200,000 Christians -- at most. Just under two decades ago, that number was as high as 1.5 million, but war and persecution, most recently at the hands of ISIS, have taken a heavy toll.
ISIS has not had a monopoly on persecuting Iraqi Christians in the past century. They have been targeted throughout the 20th century. Even after ISIS was driven from Iraq’s Nineveh plain, Iran-backed militias set about colonizing former Christian areas and engaging in mafia-style shakedowns, punctuated with occasional violence, against the local Christian communities.
The Christians have not been alone. Other non-Muslim communities are increasingly beleaguered as well. The Mandaean and Kaka'i populations have largely collapsed. Many Yazidis, brutally decimated by ISIS, have fled Iraq, while many more remain in refugee camps, unable to return to their homes near Sinjar. These recent years have thus witnessed a growing movement to rid Iraq of its last remaining minorities. Iraq's once-sizeable Jewish population of about 150,000 was forced out more than half a century ago.
The millions of Iraqis in the streets these past weeks are clear in openly rejecting this history of faction-driven marginalization. The protesters, mainly younger and more Western-oriented, are demanding a new constitution that eliminates the failed sectarian rule of their country and removes the power of the ruling elites that have pillaged the country's wealth since 2003.
As the protests have continued to swell, growing numbers of government officials have publicly admitted to a failure to serve the people. In the streets, the protesting masses remain undeterred in their demands. What hangs in the balance in the coming days and weeks is whether this opening for a legitimately pluralistic and free Iraq, with equal opportunity for all, will live to move forward, or whether these goals will be crushed for good by Iran with the complicity of its proxies and of allies now clinging desperately to power in Iraq.
Meanwhile in Iran, violent protests erupted throughout the country starting last Friday. In these protests, images of Iran’s political and religious leaders have been publicly defaced in a manner strikingly similar to what has been taking place in Iraq since October. While the Iranian protests were initially linked to a recent hike in domestic gas prices, Iraqi protestors believe that their neighbors have been watching events unfold in Iraq and are taking courage from them.
In a telling joke now circulating in Iraq, the protesters claim that the clerics of Iran have been trying to export their revolution to Iraq for 40 years, but the people of Iraq have exported their own revolution to Iran in just 40 days. Iran is now under a virtual news and social-media blackout.
In recent days, Western governments including the United States have begun to make clear to Iraqi leaders that for their country to avoid a permanent future as a failed pariah state - a dark possibility which still lurks just around the corner - the ongoing killing and attacks against non-violent protesters must end now. Internet and social-media communications must be restored, and Iraq’s government must respond to the overwhelming will of the people and step down. It is a moment of historic importance for Iraq and the Middle East, and a distracted West needs to wake up to it today.
Stephen M. Rasche is Vice Chancellor at the Catholic University in Erbil, Kurdistan Region, Iraq, where he is Director of the Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christianity. He is the author of the upcoming book The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East. The views expressed are the author's own.