The Last Battlefield

The Last Battlefield November 2, 2007

Back in September, the blogger Riverbend – the thoughtful, eloquent young Iraqi woman who authors the blog Baghdad Burning – left Iraq along with her family. After four years of writing from a first-hand perspective about the chaos and violence that the U.S. occupation has unleashed on her country, Riverbend and her family finally decided that things had become too dangerous to stay, and it’s hard to blame them.

She writes about leaving her house for the last time, taking only the essentials:

The last few hours in the house were a blur. It was time to go and I went from room to room saying goodbye to everything. I said goodbye to my desk- the one I’d used all through high school and college. I said goodbye to the curtains and the bed and the couch. I said goodbye to the armchair E. and I broke when we were younger. I said goodbye to the big table over which we’d gathered for meals and to do homework. I said goodbye to the ghosts of the framed pictures that once hung on the walls, because the pictures have long since been taken down and stored away- but I knew just what hung where. I said goodbye to the silly board games we inevitably fought over- the Arabic Monopoly with the missing cards and money that no one had the heart to throw away.

and the fear and uncertainty involved in crossing the border into Syria:

The trip was long and uneventful, other than two checkpoints being run by masked men. They asked to see identification, took a cursory glance at the passports and asked where we were going. The same was done for the car behind us. Those checkpoints are terrifying but I’ve learned that the best technique is to avoid eye-contact, answer questions politely and pray under your breath. My mother and I had been careful not to wear any apparent jewelry, just in case, and we were both in long skirts and head scarves.

and, finally, her amazement at finding the peace long denied her after just a short trip over the border:

I wonder at how the windows don’t rattle as the planes pass overhead. I’m trying to rid myself of the expectation that armed people in black will break through the door and into our lives. I’m trying to let my eyes grow accustomed to streets free of road blocks, hummers and pictures of Muqtada and the rest…

How is it that all of this lies a short car ride away?

Riverbend and her family, now refugees facing an uncertain future in a new home, are just a few among millions who have been displaced by religious warfare, and not just in Iraq. After last year’s clash between Israel and Hezbollah, and now continuing street violence and political gridlock, Lebanon is another place whose stability seems increasingly tenuous:

[Edgard] Baradhi, a 29-year-old Maronite Christian electrician, is moving to Qatar later this month, joining thousands of Lebanese of all faiths and political inclinations who are emigrating for tranquility and higher-paying employment.

…Bishops of Lebanon’s Maronite Church estimate that 1 million, or one in four, Lebanese left during the past year. “The country is on the edge of an abyss,” they said in a Sept. 25 public letter urging politicians to settle their differences.

Indeed, it’s not just Lebanon and Iraq that have been blighted by sectarian struggle:

Across the Middle East and North Africa, it’s rare to have a conversation with a young person who doesn’t want to emigrate to the U.S., Canada, Europe or Australia. Internal conflict scars countries from Morocco to Iraq, and unemployment across the region tops 10 percent.

Although the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia are known for being industrialized First World countries with healthy economies, the obvious reason so many people want to emigrate there is more basic: because those countries, unlike Lebanon or Iraq, have a real separation of church and state, and are not convulsed by warfare between competing religious sects.

War in any form is a severe drain on the people and resources of a nation, of course, but religious war is especially destructive. Religious warfare is a vicious spiral, because it drives away a region’s intelligent, secular, educated professionals – the very people whose presence is most likely to foster peace and stability – and leaves behind only the violent, reckless fanatics who are willing to slaughter each other over a pointless patch of earth, thus leading to further violence and instability, and further promoting the economic collapse that breeds the fanaticism and reckless despair of the next generation of holy warriors.

Making things worse is that, unlike many forms of political or nationalistic warfare, religious conflict is particularly resistant to diplomatic resolution. When two factions are fighting over their form of government, or access to natural resources, those are material concerns rooted in the real world, where a compromise can usually be reached. But when the warring sides are each convinced that they best represent God’s will, that they are carrying out his wishes, then diplomatic resolution is almost impossible. After all, how can we of the true faith compromise with the enemies of God? If God has told us that we are to have this land, why should we accept anything less from other human beings? Why stop fighting when God has promised that victory is imminent?

As anyone can see from the religious conflicts still smoldering after centuries, humanity’s ability to hold a grudge in these matters is essentially limitless. There seems little hope that any of these battles will subside any time soon, though the rest of the world’s nations should do what we can to abate them. It may be that the best hope, in the long run, for any of these conflicts to cease is for the driving-out process to finish. Once there’s no one left in the disputed territories but fanatics, it may be that they’ll realize how pitiful and backward they’ve become compared to the rest of the planet, and finally decide to set their grudges aside and seek peace.

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