Iraq’s Tribes and Christians: The Dangerous Solitude of Rights Erased

By Claire Evans

03/14/2018 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Iraq’s Christians have long pointed toward the absence of law as a significant driver of persecution. In the Nineveh Plains, where most of the country’s Christians live, this factor contributed to the rise of ISIS. However, this element has had a different impact on Christians living elsewhere in Iraq. For when the country’s judicial system and tribal structure collide, it is the tribe who wins.

As a result, even when surrounded by church community, Christians who experience the force of tribalism feel isolated and alone. Apart from kind and encouraging words, there is nothing anyone can do to defend the rights of a Christian who is forced to navigate Iraq’s turbulent tribal storms. The experience is isolating, fraught with both anxiety and angst.

Mawj, a 40-year-old Christian who lives in Baghdad with his two adult daughters, has experienced the force of tribalism and the resulting loneliness firsthand. Simply put, this past November he had a “car accident with a motorbike and paid $15,000 as nonsense fees.”

His experience, however, is far from simple and instead speaks to the anxiety and isolation that Christians face whenever their rights are disregarded. “I was driving at evening to pick my wife back,” he remembers. “I was trying to park my car and turn right, when a motorbike hit my car on the front and he fell out. At the beginning, everything was good. I took him to the hospital, and his injuries were simple: no fractures (and) no dangerous injury.”

The accident was clearly the motorbiker’s fault, as he was driving erratically. By taking him to the hospital, Mawj lived out his faith by dealing honestly and more than fairly with the other driver. Despite this, Mawj was worried.

The young man on the motorbike belonged to a tribe whose influence could cause problems for his family. In Iraq, extended families often unite into one tribe, or ashira. Traditionally, ashira authority supersedes that of the government, allowing tribes to rule through what often escalates into extreme and violent family feuds over minor incidents. Should an ashira turn its attention toward a Christian, not even the government would interfere to protect him from the ashira. Mawj was anxious that the young man’s ashira would target him and his family. If this happened, he would have no opportunity to defend his rights.

Hoping to avoid this problem, Mawj made a special visit to the family shortly after the accident. “I took a gift, a priest joined me because that is a sign of respect to them according to our traditions. The parents were so good to us, and they said that since he doesn’t have a serious injury, they will cover even his medicine.”

Forty days later, Mawj’s worst fears were confirmed: the motorbiker’s family was not satisfied and referred the situation to their ashira. Mawj knew that the family would demand money, and that they would ask for an exorbitant amount since Mawj was a Christian. Hoping to alleviate the financial pressure, Mawj made a daring plan. “I rented some people (Muslims) to attend with me (representing my family) on the due date to support me. These two people took 1,000,000 IQD (840 USD) to be by my side for less than two hours, and I had to send a car to pick them up and then drop them back.”

Thankfully, renting the services of these Muslim men helped Mawj during the negotiations. Originally, the family demanded that Mawj pay $40,000. But after much debate, Mawj was able to negotiate the cost down to $15,000. This was the sum total of his life savings! “It’s a high amount as compared to the injury, just because I’m a Christian. I mean, the whole rule is not justice, but this is common.”

Mawj would pay this amount the next day, but he had to be careful in how he approached the ashira. If he behaved like he was fulfilling a payment obligation, then the ashira would consider the funds haram and he would be placed in danger. Instead, he had to act like the funds were a gift that he was honored to offer the family.

Ultimately, this speaks to how ashira practices not only surpass government authority, but also religious authority. Often, family members who represent the voice of the ashira are poor, uneducated, and come from a background of violence.

When Mawj initially realized that the ashira had turned their attention to him, his first thought was to flee with his immediate family. “But the amount will be paid anyway,” said Mawj. “The (tribal) rule is either kill someone from your family or someone else should pay on behalf of you… that would be dangerous to my relatives or friends”

With his life savings now depleted, Mawj has struggled emotionally and with the implications of how this will affect his future. “Loneliness was a feeling that couldn’t let me rest, even when I was surrounded by believers. No one could’ve solved this problem.”

For 25 years, Mawj had worked in Baghdad to build up his savings. He had never owned a home, but had finally saved enough to purchase a simple home in Erbil. Yet in one moment, those dreams were gone. While Mawj has a steady job that can still provide him a source of income, it is no small thing to lose one’s entire life savings.

Nearly five months later, Mawj continues to struggle with the implications of this experience. He lives with the knowledge that the ashira could always demand more money, and there is no one to defend his rights should this happen again. Isolated from protection and his name now known to the ashira, his life has been forever transformed by a minor car accident.

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