What Germany & Europe should know about democracy and Islam in Iraq

Interview with the Iraqi archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana, founder and executive director of the Iraqi Christian relief organization CAPNI


David Müller: Father Emanuel, in Europe there is an ongoing debate about how to deal with Islam in general, with its more liberal forms and the rather orthodox, fundamentalist Islam. What is your view, based on your personal estimation and on the long historical experience of your church?

Emanuel Youkhana: It is important to take into consideration that European Christianity and Christians in the Middle East are speaking from different positions. As a native, Christian minority we live under a majority Muslims – but not with in terms of equality – in Islamic dominated states. European countries as secular societies are committed to the human rights, holding up the ideal of freedom of religion and receiving Muslim migrants and refugees as a minority. One of the consequences is that we experience the reality of Muslim life completely different. We all live under the Islamic Sharia, in an environment directly or indirectly created by the mosques, the media and the public life. Muslims are practicing Islam entirely here, whereas in Europe Muslim life happens mainly inside the mosques and in the private life of Muslim people.

Müller: But are Muslims here and there not just the same people?

Youkhana: Of course they are, and there is nothing to say against them. But let me give you an example. When the cartoons about Muhammad were issued, all over the Muslim world there were mass demonstrations in the streets and official claims against the humiliation of Islam. Many were expressing their anger by massive violent attacks against Danish embassies in different countries and churches in Iraq. At the same time there is nearly no reaction or protest in the Islamic world when in the name of Allah thousands were massacred, taken into slavery, and hundreds of thousands were forced to leave their hometowns. We haven’t seen a single mass demonstration. This tells a lot.

Müller: European politicians and representatives of the Christian Churches try to deescalate and not to intensify the contrast between Christians and Muslims in our countries.

Youkhana: I do understand this position. But sometimes I see that the politicians and/or church leaders are beautifying Islam and avoid confrontation whereas Muslims are the main actor expected to start and support initiative to introduce and practice a tolerate Islam.

I welcome secular institutions and Church representatives backing Islamic initiatives for mutual respect, coexistence and dialogue. But this should not lead in a way that they are acting on behave of Islam. It’s not a one-way street. It’s mutual.


Müller: People in Germany do not agree whether the US invasion of Iraq was the right move. We are ready to defend and to encourage democratic structures, but not against the will of a sovereign state. It is important for us to act democratically. It is important for us to act democratically. Due to the great desire for migration, however, time is working against us in Iraq. How far can or should a democratic state, a Western society, intervene to build democratic structures according to Western standards without resorting to “secret service methods”?

Youkhana: You see, even in the issue of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 we have different positions between Iraqis and Westerners. From your German point of view, as a stable country, it is more than questionable to go to war anyway. And I agree: War is never a solution.

Our position, however, was that as victims of a totalitarian and cruel regime, we had no peace anyway when some cowboys from America came and brought war. We had suffered civil wars and wars with our neighbouring countries for decades. We were exposed to chemical weapons used by our regime against its own people. More than four thousand villages were demolished completely under Saddam. So, we were in war and we were expecting the invasion as a last battle to end long decades of war.

Müller: But the invasion didn’t end the war.

Youkhana: Unfortunately, it didn’t. Just for a few months everything seemed fine, there were no checkpoints inside the country, the situation was safe all-over Iraq and people were living their daily life and travelled safely. But very soon it became clear that the American invasion didn’t only lead to a change of the regime but to a collapse of the country. Competing and fighting groups and militias filled the ideological and power vacuum following the totalitarian regime.

Müller: So you would say the invasion was wrong?

Youkhana: There were many mistakes, but I would still distinguish between toppling Saddam and the post-Saddam era when the US had no plan and no strategy. From our point of view the pressure Europe and the Arab countries put on the US to withdraw was not helpful. The withdrawal delivered Iraq and the population to corrupted, unqualified politicians who had no concept and no experience in building a democratic civil state. We do have newly implemented democratic mechanisms, but we don’t have experience with and education on the values of democracy, i.e. we are free to elect but don’t have criteria to decide whom to elect.

I will give you an example, which highlights the problem in a fun way, though it is not funny at all. At the elections there had to be female nominees because we have declared to fight gender discriminations. So according to the quota for women in Iraqi parliament there was a lady who engaged in a campaign. There were election posters everywhere, but none of them was showing the lady, only her husband! It just didn’t feel right for the lady and her family to stand for herself in public, and it didn’t feel right for an important part of our society. This shows how we implemented the mechanisms of democracy without the cultural fundaments to build on.

Müller: Really awkward. What was known about the female nominee?

Youkhana: Not much, not even her name. She was introduced as “the wife of”, or “the mother of” someone. Here is another example for how decisions are made. One of the former candidates for the Kurdistan cabinet, Haider Faili whom I know personally, is a convinced socialist, or even communist, anyway he is a firm secularist. His family, however, is Shiite. His mother promised to vote for him but didn’t in the end. When asked by her son, why, she answered: “The mosque would be angry with me if I vote for you, not for the Shiites.” You see, although it was the mother’s free decision to vote for her son, she bowed to the pressure of the religious leadership.


Müller: What would be a decent way for Western countries to back democratic structures without military and violent intervention?

Youkhana: It is important to help immediately and to find long-term solutions. I prefer to invest in long term solutions helping the country and the region to become stable and develop a lasting political system. The Western world has a vital interest there too because we are living in a global village.

Müller: What do long-term investments look like?

Youkhana: First of all we should invest in curricula, in the education of the new generations, in the support of university students and professionals. We need to build a new generation able to take responsibility for the country’s fate.

Müller: Should education be strictly secular?

Youkhana: I wouldn’t say so. Although I favor secular school and education that is independent from Muslim religious instructions, I think we should be realistic and take step by step. Educate students, provide curricula, teaching values, criminalizing hatred speech of every description etc. Here our collective efforts should focus and start, so enabling young people to understand their situation and to reflect on it in a global perspective.

Müller: What are necessary conditions to implement such education?

Youkhana: It will for instance include the revision of the constitution. Also many laws and the legislation structure need to be revised. But our immediate challenge is to reach out to our youth. This is the most difficult challenge. It is going to take years, maybe decades, even generations to educate people with the help of public media, politics or NGO’s on human rights like the UN Charta for Human Rights. I would say there is a shortcut. If it’s included in the schools’ curricula, and if the government will include it in its national plans for action, you will see results in one or two years.

Müller: Are there any other useful strategic shortcuts towards democratic change?

Youkhana: Sure, to put pressure, diplomatic and financial pressure on the government could be such a shortcut. Politicians who have established themselves in power aren’t really interested in initiating change. But if you give the money you can determine the conditions. Germany, for example, is now going to invest a lot in Iraq. Okay. Of course Berlin is not a charity-club, neither are Washington or Paris. But why no include human rights criteria in those business plans?

Müller: What specific criteria would you recommend?

Youkhana: Human rights and minority rights should be monitored regularly, based on fair and unbiased reports, provided by NGOs, multiplied by embassies and the institutions of International Human Rights. Based on these reports Berlin and others could decide what kind of conditions must be met. This would also be an ideal means of preventing corruption.

Another effective way is to invest in and support initiatives in the country. For example, some platforms for open and honest debate. After all these man-made catastrophes in our country we need more and better interfaith platforms to discuss the common future of the various ethnicities and religious groups. So far our parties and decision making groups only focus on being the victims of evil outside enemies, of the interests and conspiracies of superpowers who violated our borders to take over our oil. Nobody touched so far the roots of war, hate, crime within our own historical heritage, education and legislation system.

Müller: In Germany we face the rise of right-wing ideas and propaganda. When pointing out the difficulties you as Christians have to face in an Islamic environment, we ought to be careful not to feed anti-Muslim resentments. We must be careful to distinguish between these matters. How to proceed? What would you suggest?

Youkhana: Well, that’s your homework. Growing resentments are not only a German issue, they are global. As far as I understand the German situation the success of right-wing powers to dominate the debate is the other side of the coin of lacking readiness to confront the Islamic progression in a well-balanced way. Of course I fight biased islamophobia among Christians and I support Muslim countries in their fight against radical Islamism. But I still do criticize those failing to go to the roots of the problem or to realize how a hostile Muslim environment leads to islamophobia among minorities in our countries and the western hosting communities. To blame Western colonization for Islamic terror in our region is an insufficient explanation. Sorry, but the Americans brought much more harm to Vietnam than the British or French to Iraq, yet no worldwide terrorism is coming from Vietnam. It is important to remain sober and honest and it is only fair to expect sobriety and honesty from the Islamic side as well.

Müller: Second generation migrants from Muslim Countries do face a lot of problems and marginalization in Western Europe.

Youkhana: But this can’t be the only explanation or even an excuse for radicalization! Christians in Arab countries are marginalized a lot more and yet they do not build terror-networks. And what about all those marginalized migrants from East Asia, China, Africa? I think it is important to touch the sensitive matter of this specific religion, too and to encourage Muslims to critical thinking about their own heritage and their own religious biases as well.

Müller: “Terror has no religion” – this is a common slogan in Europe.

Youkhana: Sure. In terms of the victims’ faith religion is not the issue. So far, more Muslims have been killed by radical Islamists. But religion does matter as a source of terror. At least in my country and in Syria it does. No single Yazidi, no single Mandaean, no single Christian, no single Kakai is engaged in any terroristic action. We have to distinguish and be honest if we want to deal with it effectively. It is important that the Muslims in my country, but also in Europe begin to think more critically and to admit that there is a problem. The religious dimension of the problem should not be covered or excused or maintained.

Müller: What kind of support do leaders, “mukhtars” – mayors – in Christian villages need, or pastors and priests in their communities? How can we encourage them to rebuild their cities and to stay there because there is hope and perspective? How can we give any hope without raising expectations we can never fulfill?

Youkhana: Between being hopeless, without future, and the illusion that UN and NATO will deploy troops to protect minorities there are realistic perspectives we need to hold onto. There should be reasonable international pressure in some geo-military relevant issues like more political autonomy for the Niniveh Plain. War is not a solution, as I said, however the UN should pass a resolution and insist on a border- and ethnicity policy based on the census of 1957, from the time before all these ethnic and religious struggles. It was the most reliable and professionally well-done census and has described the ethnic and demographic situation accurately. This could be an important issue. And it would be important to enshrine all minorities’ rights in the legislation and implement Article 140 of the constitution.

I will give you an example: Let’s have a look at Qaraqosh. This town with 50.000 inhabitants is the backbone of Christianity in Nineveh Plain and all over Iraq. If, for example, the Vatican or any other country would open an office there; not an embassy but a consulate or a sub-consulate, this would send a strong message to Bagdad and be a real encouragement for the region.

Müller: Thank you for the interview. I wish you strength and blessing for your ministry.

David Müller, employee of the ojcos foundation, is a political advocate for religious freedom in Iraq. The interview was written in July 2018 during one of his trips to the region.