Faith in ‘The Other Iraq’

I need to flash back to a recent Washington Post, so please hang in there with me for a moment. When it comes to knowing how to embed YouTube videos, I have issues.

One of the goals of GetReligion is to point out religion “ghosts” in mainstream news reports, with said “ghosts” being defined as religious themes that the newspaper’s staff either missed altogether or didn’t know how to handle.

Well, the page-one Washington Post story “Kurds Cultivating Their Own Bonds With U.S.” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a good example of a reporter spotting the religion ghost in a big story. In fact, the ghost makes a brief appearance near the top of the story.

The problem is that the ghost then drifts away and it takes the reader a long, long time to find that thread again. There is even a chance that the ghost is driving the story.

Here is the opening of the piece:

The 30-second television commercial features stirring scenes of a young Iraqi boy high-fiving a U.S. soldier, a Westerner dining alfresco, and men and women dancing together. “Have you seen the other Iraq?” the narrator asks. “It’s spectacular. It’s joyful.”

“Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan!” the narrator continues. “It’s not a dream. It’s the other Iraq.”

With Sunni and Shiite Arabs locked in a bloody sectarian war, Iraq’s Kurds are promoting their interests through an influence-buying campaign in the United States that includes airing nationwide television advertisements, hiring powerful Washington lobbyists and playing parts of the U.S. government against each other. A former car mechanic who happens to be the son of Iraq’s president is at the center of Kurdish efforts to cultivate support for their semi-independent enclave, but the cast of Kurdish proponents also includes evangelical Christians, Israeli operatives and Republican political consultants.

There is a lot of color in there. However, I was hooked by the image of “The Other Iraq” campaign and the advertisements themselves. I immediately wanted to know: OK, where in the world did that come from? This is a crucial question since, as the story notes, this PR campaign by the Kurds is, in a subtle way, clashing with U.S. policies to maintain a unified Iraq and a happy Turkey — no matter what.

It takes a long time to get to the ads and, while much of the material through which the reader has to march is fascinating, I finally decided that this was one case in which a long page-one story really needed to be broken up into some reader-friendly sidebars. This leads us to evangelical activist Bill Garaway in Santa Cruz, Calif., who is one interesting guy. His devotion to the Kurdish cause is rooted — no surprise here — in missionary work in the region. He is convinced, as he says in the story, that “There is nobody like them in the Middle East. They’re Muslim, but they hate fundamentalist Islam. They love America.”

So who is this guy?

Garaway, a rangy 62-year-old with receding silver hair, became enamored with the Kurds more than a decade ago, after concluding that many key events described in the Bible occurred in Kurdistan, including the stories of Noah’s ark and Queen Esther. He believes not only that the Kurds are descendants of the ancient Medes people, but also that the three wise men who the Bible says visited baby Jesus in Bethlehem came from Kurdistan.

For Garaway, championing the Kurdish cause has been the latest twist in a life filled with unexpected turns. As he tells it, he protested the Vietnam War as a college student, burning his draft card at a UCLA rally in 1967. He subsequently lived in a commune with 140 others in the hills above Palo Alto, Calif., where he ran a food cooperative, taught yoga, befriended members of the Grateful Dead and hosted poet Allen Ginsberg in his treehouse. One day, a group of friends who had left the commune returned and invited Garaway to join their church. He did, and soon after, he said, “God revealed himself to me.”

He and his wife settled in Santa Cruz in the early 1970s, where they opened a church, started to surf and began to raise a family. They had six children, all of whom were home-schooled. Four have become professional surfers.

Right. Now read the whole story and tell me, does this guy deserve a sidebar or what? This is one case where I think the religion angle deserved to be broken out of the political, war-story structure of this massive story and allowed some room to grow.

One more thing: Are the Kurds (a) Sunni, (b) Shia, (c) Zoroastrian or (d) all of the above? It would have been nice to know. Did I miss a reference?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Religious makeup of Iraqi Kurdistan (according to Wikipedia):

    “The population is about 5-6 million. The majority of these are Sunni Muslims. There are also significant numbers of Yazidis, Kakeyís and Christians. Kurds comprise the ethnic majority in the region while the Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians and Arabs who reside particularly in the western part of the area make up the rest.”

  • tmatt


    Thanks for the link. I knew the info. I simply was making the comment that it would have been good to have included at least a sentence on these facts in the WPost story.

  • Maureen

    I’ve been really surprised that so little is made of the ancient Persian empire’s influence on the culture and legends of the whole region. I mean, not only does it jump out at you, you get to talk about jumping over bonfires, heroic blacksmiths, and evil kings with snakes growing out of ‘em.

  • Mike

    It always strikes me as strange when the media delineates Iraq into “Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds.” To translate it into an Christian context, it would be like saying that Switzerland is made up of “Protestants, Catholics, and Germans.” I’ve never seen a mainstream news story that takes the time to distinguish religious identity from ethnic identity.

  • Hiwa Afandi

    All what Garaway thinks about us (Kurds) is true.

    We love people regardless of their ethnicity or religion. But we have been hurt, we have been betrayed and we have been gassed, killed and deprived of our history, rights and dignity.

    I don’t know how long can we last the way we are now, Kurds are changing by the hostile and opportunist world surrounding them.

    We need the help of true men and women of God, we need the faithfuls to stand for us. We love you and we need you to survive with dignity in a part of the world where Evil is growing, where the devil will count the final days of our civilization if we don’t wake up.

  • MattK

    Bill is such a great guy. (I’ve known him since I was 5 years old.) But I wish the reporter had mentioned that the church in Palo Alto where he became a Christian was the little pentecostal church on middlefield road where my Dad was the pastor during the 1970s.

  • MattK

    I should mention that when I last talked to Bill (Summer ’06) he said he is doing someting with the Assyyrian Church of the East (, too.

  • Bartholomew

    I wonder how this fits in with a Washington Times story from last May (which I blogged at the time), which began with the news that

    Retired Iraqi Gen. Georges Sada, a former fighter pilot-turned-Christian evangelist, says Kurds are converting to Christianity “by the hundreds” in northern Iraq.

    The parallel the Post makes with Taiwan is interesting – the idea that Taiwan was run by Christians was of course one reason why it enjoyed such popular support in the US for many years.

  • MJBubba

    Here is a related story for additional reading for anyone interested in the subject, not necessarily with any quarrel regarding how the reporter covered the story. I found this as a link in the Christianity Today weblog: