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Changing Hearts and Minds to Combat Religious Persecution

ERBIL, KURDISTAN—Iraq’s north is ground zero for the region’s religious wars. Many of the victims of the Islamic State have fled to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, an autonomous region whose people long have desired independence. 

The region today contains well over one million people displaced from persecution and fighting elsewhere. The human flood started more than a decade ago, with a sustained attack on Christians by Islamist extremists in HardwiredIraq. More recently the Islamic State has conducted a murderous campaign against Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities. 

Refugees are hard to miss: Death, prison, mistreatment, and hardship await those stuck under the Islamic State. 

Even when ISIS is defeated the status of Christians and other religious minorities will remain precarious at best. Unfortunately, religious persecution is not a temporary response to a rare moment of conflict. Instead, it is the norm in Muslim majority nations across the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. 

U.S. officials have never felt comfortable confronting the crime of religious persecution. They have few answers to offer other than pressing unwilling governments to better protect politically unpopular minorities. 

Thus, to counter the underlying intolerant ideologies and theologies, argued Tina Ramirez, head of the group Hardwired, you “have to deal with human dignity of the other and freedom of conscience.” In her view “building local leadership” is the only way to get long-term results. “With this model you replicate the process. Local people need to take up religious freedom themselves,” she explained. 

It should be obvious that religion cannot be separated from international affairs. Much Middle Eastern terrorism against Americans and others is blowback for U.S. military and political policies, but theological acceptance, even encouragement, of violence acts as a powerful accelerant. Religion also underlies the repressive nature of most Arab and Islamic regimes. 

Thus, any response to issues of violent extremism must take religion into account. American officials should continue to press governments of Islamic nations to change oppressive policies. However, a deeply intolerant understanding of Islam usually animates the mistreatment of religious minorities. 

A number of worthy organizations combat religious persecution. But Hardwired, formed by Ramirez, a former Capitol Hill staffer long dedicated to the cause of religious liberty, attempts to address the issue by changing the way contending religious groups think in persecution-prone societies. 

Hardwired teaches religious minorities how to press for freedom of religious conscience for all and religious majorities why they should respect the freedoms of those in the minority. The group explains that it seeks out local leaders in government, education, journalism, business, law, faith, and more. And the effort is working, moving people, one-by-one, to support more tolerant policies and societies. 

As Hardwired’s guest I attended a seminar in Erbil which included a full range of religious minorities, including both Sunni and Shia Muslims, who sometimes are minorities depending upon the country in which they live. A top official with Kurdistan’s Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, Mariwan Naqshbandi, told me that his biggest challenge was “to bring the religious minorities together to start working with each other.” The simple act of sitting, talking, and eating with each other emphasized their shared humanity, which underlies Hardwired’s approach. 

Moreover, almost everyone at the session had a story of extraordinary tragedy and hardship due to religious persecution. The overriding lesson was that violent Islamic extremism had hurt everyone there. Ramirez related moving stories about people who started out as religious imperialists came to see that their efforts to impose their faith were only a less violent variant of what ISIS was promoting. 

Christians and other religious minorities obviously need to learn how to better organize and defend their right to practice their faith. But they also need allies among religious majorities to turn religious freedom into a legal principle and political practice. 

Participants took the lessons and taught them to refugees, including younger people. Moreover, the organization magnified its impact by working with civil society groups and the media, sparking public discussions, and government officials. 

Despite all of the good done by Hardwired, the overall task of promoting religious liberty in the Middle East obviously remains daunting. Hearts and minds need to be changed. Hardwired hopes to keep expanding its training to new countries. 

Ramirez and her colleagues are playing the long game, but it’s the only one which gives hope of ultimately eliminating the intolerance which underlies so much of the violence and oppression now ravaging the Middle East.

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