The news media is obsessed with violence, and Iraq provides ample stories. There is the Sunni-Shiite conflict, spiraling out of control and stacking bodies higher and higher. There are attacks on Iraqi government forces. And of course, there are attacks on Americans, which provide the best stories because we are most concerned with, and best able to relate to, those who are similar to ourselves. Lost in all of these bloody story lines is a smaller, but no less important conflict, one that has been largely neglected in mainstream press coverage.
The Mandaeans are a small religious community of about 60,000 to 70,000 worldwide with roots historically in Iraq and Iran. Mandaeanism is a monotheistic religion, with Adam, Noah and John the Baptist as prophets; hence, Mandaeans are also known as Sabians, or “those who are baptized.” Peaceful by religious law, the estimated 30,000 Mandaeans living in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003 have been swept up in the violence that has gripped the country. Approximately 17,000 have already fled, seeking refuge in surrounding countries and Europe.
For those who are left in Iraq, life is now unbearable. Islamist militants who seek a theocratic state in Iraq see no place for the “non-believer” Mandaeans there, and thus have undertaken a process of ethnic cleansing. Militants demand that Mandaeans convert to Islam, or face violence and possible death. Mandaean women, accustomed to their religion’s traditional system of gender equality, are forced to wear veils and have been frequent targets of kidnapping and rape, after which they are often killed. Violence and threats are used to expel Mandaeans from communities.
“Genocide” is a very strong word, and also one whose meaning is much debated. It is clear that Mandaeans in Iraq are being subjected to ethnic cleansing, the attempt to create ethnic homogeneity by removing other groups through (generally violent) coercion. It seems likely from the evidence that the antagonism against the Mandaeans who attempt to remain in Iraq also constitutes genocide: the commission of violent and/or oppressive acts with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, religious or racial group in whole or in part, according to the United Nations Convention on Genocide.
The number of victims of violence and the overall population in danger in this instance is relatively small when compared with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda or the death toll from ethnic cleansing in Darfur, which is in large part why the Mandaeans’ plight has received so little attention. But genocide is unrelated to size and the threat is very real that their religion and its unique language and culture could disappear without prompt action. The United States has agreed to take in 7,000 Mandaean refugees, but this is not nearly enough when tens of thousands more need aid.
While it is unappealing to attempt to differentiate between the merits of groups of refugees, the Mandaeans are in danger of dying out and taking with them a religion that has existed for nearly two millennia. They are unable to perform the baptism ceremonies integral to their religion because of lack of water in the camps, and they are afraid to send their children to school, worrying they will receive an education in Islam and lose their own culture. They cannot afford to “wait in line,” as Laurens Jolles, head of a team for the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, has said they must. Without immediate international action, there is a grave risk that the Mandaeans will become the latest in the list of exterminated groups.
The United States must recognize and act on this imperative, for the invasion of Iraq is what set in motion the events that have pushed the Mandaeans to this precipice. It is undeniable that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who destabilized the region around Iraq, and his removal, no matter what other motivations President Bush and his administration may have had, is not a negative outcome. However, in removing Hussein and the Baathist political infrastructure that supported him, the United States removed the barriers that had been preventing sectarian conflict, leading to a vacuum of power and unleashing the current violence.
In effect, the U.S. cut off a diseased branch without noticing or paying attention to the hornets’ nest attached to it. This responsibility is why we cannot simply pull out of Iraq and it is why we owe it to the Mandaeans either to protect them or to work to move them from such a hostile environment to a place of tolerance where they may prosper. The United States is in the best position to determine the future of the Mandaeans. We have both an opportunity and an obligation to protect this defenseless people, or else stand by idly as their chance of survival grows slimmer.
Kai Thaler is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.