Religious Neutrality In 94% Muslim Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan is now the only region in the Middle East other than Israel in which the religions of the world are taught on an equal basis in the public schools but no one religion is given preference.
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When Americans sent their sons and daughters to fight in Iraq, whether they agreed with their government's actions or not, they hoped for some result greater than mere retribution. They did not wish for miracles, but they did dare to hope that when the war was over there might be opportunity for a less militaristic, more democratic and certainly more benign Iraq to arise and join the family of well-intentioned nations.

We cannot know yet whether these hopes will be fulfilled. The central government of Iraq in Baghdad remains a scene of contention and conflict, with heated debate over the most fundamental rights. Americans have learned to their disappointment that non-Muslims have been forced to flee from the South of the country, that churches have been bombed, and that the rights of minorities have been denied. It is natural that many in the United States should wonder if their sacrifices will make for a better day anywhere in the Middle East -- but particularly in Iraq.

On June 11, 2012, the government of Iraqi Kurdistan gave an answer. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) -- which is responsible for the northern quarter of the country, an ethnically Kurdish region -- declared that its schools will now be religiously neutral. This means that they will teach the great religions of the world on an equal basis but will not press any one religion upon students or even make what is taught about these religions a part of the final examinations required for graduation. This is a profound change from the previous requirement that Islam be preferred in the classroom and that students master its doctrines as a requirement of graduation. It is an astonishingly broad-mined move by the government of a region that is 94 percent Muslim, that is bordered by nations like Iran and Syria, and in which an American teacher was shot and killed just weeks ago.

Iraqi Kurdistan is now the only region in the Middle East other than Israel in which the religions of the world are taught on an equal basis in the public schools but no one religion is given preference.

"This decision is a result of our Kurdish history," says Mariwan Naquishbandi, spokesman for the KRG's Ministry of Religious Affairs. "Kurdish Islam is not the Islam of Saudi Arabia or Iran. We have often been made to suffer by those who were our Islamic brothers. It has made us more tolerant, more able to see the good that other religions offer to Kurdish society."

It is an attitude that comes as a surprise to many in the West who view all Muslims as alike -- equally radical and equally oppressive of other religions. The Kurds, though, are a unique people among the nations of the Middle East. They are not Arabs but are historically identified with the Medes, an ancient people closely connected to Persian heritage and culture. Most Kurds were Christians long before they began converting to Islam in the sixth century. In fact, many Americans will know the Medes primarily from the pages of the Bible. The Medes played a prominent role in the story of the prophet Daniel, for example and are listed among the nations present on the Day of Pentecost, the day of the Christian Church's birth.

Both their history and the heartrending suffering endured at Muslim hands have made the Kurds -- already a people known for their hospitality -- particularly welcoming of other religions. Older Kurds in Kurdistan today tell of how in 1948, when Israel became a nation and the Kurdish Jews left Kurdistan for their Holy Land, Muslim neighbors wept over the loss and frequently maintained abandoned synagogues -- in some cases for decades after -- in honor of their departed Jewish friends

It is an openness the Kurdish government has had to protect. When the Central Government in Baghdad insisted upon sending its teachers to start schools in the northern region of Kurdistan, the KRG refused. "The religious sectors in Baghdad are filled with religious fanatics," says Naquishbandi. "We knew what they were trying to do. So we refused because we are trying to achieve a more democratic society."

Naquishbandi found the KRG's decision particularly satisfying. He has been working on this and similar reforms for years. As an example of the Kurdistan he hopes for, this intense, pleasant man with a ready laugh keeps both a Koran and a Bible on his desk. He has gained a reputation for his fairness. When he received complaints about an Arab evangelical pastor in the region, a man named Pastor Yousif Matti, Naquishbandi refused to move against the man until he had met him. After lengthy conversation with Matti, the official called those who complained and said, "I will not act against this man, but perhaps I will write something against you for condemning him."

Over time, Matti and Naquishbandi became friends. The official eventually accepted an invitation from Matti to visit the United States. Along with his brother, a general and military judge, Naquishbandi toured parts of America, visited evangelical churches Matti was connected to and even met with Tennessee Congressman Marsha Blackburn in Nashville, where the U.S.'s largest concentration of Kurds live. "I had asked a Mullah to join us on the trip to America," Matti says. "People in America could not believe it, but this is how Kurdistan is different. An evangelical pastor, an Islamic Mullah, and two high-ranking government officials can travel as friends to the United States. It would not be possible for some other nation in the Middle East. It is possible here." Matti founded and runs the Classical School of the Medes, which will soon have some 2500 students from all over Kurdistan.

The KRG's change in school policy regarding religion is a stunning break from the traditions of the region, but it is a step closer to what many Americans have hoped for in these last years. For Naquishbandi, it is simply what his society must do: "This law is going to help with tolerance between the religions. This is what Kurdistan should be."

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