Majority Retort

by Jonathan Cohn | April 7, 2003

SOUTHFIELD, MICHIGAN Just hours before the first bombs fell on Baghdad, the conversation taking place at a suburban Detroit restaurant was laced with ambivalence about the looming conflict. "[Saddam Hussein] is evil," said Dave Nona, an engineer and land developer. "He has caused a lot of hardship and misery to a good country and a good group of people. But that country has suffered a lot, especially in the last twelve years. ... Will it be a merciful war?" Explained Michael Sarafa, president of a Michigan trade association, "My basic problem is that we went from nine-eleven to liberating the people of Iraq in eighteen months. How do you connect the dots?" Building a democracy in Iraq would be nice, added Vanessa Denha, an official with the local county government. But it might also be "wishful thinking." By themselves, such comments are hardly remarkable. Even today, many Americans continue to harbor questions about the campaign to oust Saddam. But the group assembled at this restaurant were not just Americans: They were Iraqi- Americans, a population widely believed to be unambiguously supportive of the war. In late February, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz gave a rousing speech to several hundred local Iraqis at a meeting hall just a few miles away, provoking chants of "Saddam must go!" and, within days, enthusiastic coverage from sympathetic media outlets. "Iraqi Americans overwhelmingly agree" with Bush's war plans, The Weekly Standard reported after the Wolfowitz speech. "IRAQI IMMIGRANTS SEEK SADDAM OUSTER," read the headline on a Washington Times story. After quoting one such eager Iraqi, the story went on to note, "His sentiments are shared throughout the largest Iraqi community in the United States, in southeast Michigan: Get Saddam out of power and do it now." The problem with these accounts isn't that they misinterpret the sentiments of the crowd that attended Wolfowitz's speech. It's that they erroneously assume those sentiments to be typical of all American Iraqis. In fact, as reporters for local outlets such as the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News have noted, opinion about the war among Iraqi-Americans in Michigan largely breaks down along ethnic lines. While Muslims overwhelmingly favor the assault on Saddam, Christians, who make up the vast majority of Michigan's Iraqis, have decidedly mixed feelings. Although hard numbers on the American-Iraqi population are hard to come by, it's widely believed that more than 150,000 people of Iraqi descent live in the Detroit area and that, of those, most are Chaldeans, a Catholic sect that traces its genetic lineage back to the Sumerians, who ruled Mesopotamia beginning in 3500 B.C. In addition to calling themselves Iraq's only indigenous people--Chaldeans are like "the American Indians of Iraq," says Martin Manna, a p.r. consultant--they also claim to have been converted by Thomas the Apostle, which would make them among history's very first Christians. But, while the Chaldeans may have been the first people to thrive in the land straddling the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, they relinquished control of it long ago: Although they remain Iraq's third- or fourth-largest ethnic group depending on whether you count Shia and Sunni Muslims separately with 800,000 Chaldeans at most still left in Iraq, they constitute roughly 3 percent of the nation's total population. That number is small in part because Chaldeans have been leaving Iraq for places such as the United States since the turn of the century, first to find economic opportunity and later to flee political persecution. Indeed, it was the rise to power of the Baath Party, and eventually of Saddam, that sent what was probably the largest wave of Chaldeans to the United States from the 1960s through the 1980s. Nowadays, most Chaldeans have at least one family member or friend who has felt Saddam's wrath, even if they haven't felt it themselves. "You know, if you had to pick who's worse [Saddam], Hitler, or Stalin you'd have a hard time going one-two-three," says one middle-aged Chaldean, who asked to remain anonymous to protect the safety of relatives still within Iraq. Recalling the experiences that led him to flee in the mid-'60s, he described the public gallows that Baath Party officials set up in the town square and how they used it to make examples of would-be dissenters. "They took them one at a time to the noose, so that that last one actually witnessed the first ones dying." Still, Saddam never singled out Chaldeans for the kind of vicious treatment he has visited upon Shia in the south or Kurds in the north presumably because Chaldeans never had the numbers to threaten him politically, as those other groups did. (Apparently, Saddam has also spared Chaldeans some of the cruelties he has visited upon Iraqi Assyrians, the Christian group from whom the Chaldeans broke off centuries ago and who have been outspoken critics of Saddam for years. According to Assyrian advocacy groups, in the 1970s, Saddam destroyed literally hundreds of Assyrian churches and villages as part of his effort to "Arabize" the population.) As a matter of fact, many Chaldeans within Iraq have remained loyal to Saddam, serving prominently in his regime (as in the case of Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz). For years, Saddam rewarded this service by interfering minimally in the Chaldeans' right to practice their faith. "To be honest, as bad as Saddam is, there are still Chaldean churches in Iraq," says Manna. "He hasn't targeted the Christians so much." Meanwhile, because the aftermath of the first Gulf war and the ensuing trade restrictions left Chaldeans, like all Iraqis, struggling to find food and medicine, their American counterparts have been among the most outspoken critics of the U.N. sanctions regime. And, as war approached in the last year, Chaldeans have expressed grave concerns about the potential loss of civilian life. "The images I have in my mind from 1991 haunt me all the time," Saad Marouf, chairman of the Chaldean Federation of America, recently told a Southfield newspaper. "There was no food, no medicine, no services. All the shops were closed. There were children on the streets. ... Those are sights I don't ever want to see again." Sentiments like that are one reason Michigan's Shia Iraqis, many of them veterans of the failed uprising after the first Gulf war, have accused Chaldeans in the United States of being Saddam sympathizers. "Most of them have been supporting Saddam Hussein for a long time," says one exasperated Shia leader who took up arms against Saddam in early 1991, then came to Dearborn after spending several years in a refugee camp. But, even if that were once true of some Michigan Chaldeans, it no longer seems to be the case for most. In my interviews with about a dozen Chaldeans, I detected no unwillingness to condemn Saddam. And, while that could just reflect media savvy on the part of American Chaldeans, it could also reflect more practical considerations primarily, the fact that Chaldeans in Iraq have recently lost whatever special protection the Baath regime once afforded them. Indeed, as part of his campaign to make common cause with Islamic fundamentalism, Saddam has been whipping up anti-Christian sentiment in the last few years, closing Chaldean schools and publishing articles in the state- owned press hailing Islam as a superior religion to Christianity. Last August, Muslim extremists reportedly stabbed and then beheaded a 70-year-old nun staying at a Baghdad monastery prompting Chaldean Church officials within Iraq to warn of a "rising tide of Muslim fanaticism" and of Saddam's "appeasement of that movement." But, if concern over violent Islamic fundamentalism has hardened the Chaldeans' feelings toward Saddam, it has also intensified their worries about what will happen if he falls. After all, with the Shia making up around 60 percent of the Iraqi population, Chaldeans fear that a poorly managed transition to democracy could easily produce a fundamentalist regime that takes its cues from clerics in neighboring countries, exposing the remaining Chaldeans to even worse persecution than they have experienced under the relatively secular Baath Party. "If the majority of the country are Shiites, and they have allegiances with Iran or Syria, they're going to be anti- Christian," says Sarafa. Chaldean relations with Iraq's other key ethnic group, the Kurds, have been considerably better, particularly since a 1998 agreement on religious minorities guaranteed the rights of Chaldeans within the Kurdish- controlled areas of northern Iraq. Still, a U.S. report on the status of Chaldeans in that region noted "old antagonisms" between Kurds and Christians plus incidents of anti-Christian acts, including bombings, mob violence, and murders. All of which helps explain why, a few years ago, a report from an Italian- Catholic organization expressed what many Chaldeans probably still think but would be unlikely to say in public: that "for Christians living in the country, even [Saddam's] regime of terror is seen as a lesser evil. Nothing better can be expected either from the collapse of the regime, or from an Islamic revolution. It is hard to imagine a post-Saddam phase." And, while the whole point of U.S. policy is to create secular democracy in Iraq, many Chaldeans don't seem to believe it can really happen. "Why Bush is so sure he can democratize Iraq, I don't know," concludes Sarafa. "The only thing that has kept the peace over there has been dictatorship." Not every Chaldean shares that sentiment. Many older Chaldeans in particular embrace the war unconditionally, if a bit ruefully. In part, this reflects the fact that they, unlike their U.S.-born sons and daughters, know the horrors of Saddam up close. ("My dad would tell you that this is a great thing," Manna admitted, "because he was forced out with five brothers in the middle of the night in order to avoid being killed.") It also reflects the fact that the older generation recalls the Iraq they knew as merchants: a prosperous, well- educated society seemingly capable of sustaining a democracy if only somebody would get one started. "Within the Arab world, it's the only country that has the proper balance of people and resources," says Nona. "Women are educated. It's open. ... If democracy is to take place anywhere in the Middle East, it will be here." Adds Michael George, an executive at a locally based grocery chain, "The people [of Iraq] aren't going to want a dictator. They'll want to go back to when Iraq was the most thoroughly advanced nation in the Middle East. " It's worth remembering that comforting prediction, just as long as we remember the more anxious ones as well.

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