Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Politics aside...

Meet Hassan Khalif Salih, Chairman of the Human Rights Network in Hawieja Province, Iraq. Hassan is one of a group of Iraqi leaders here in the US as part of the Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs International Visitor Leadership Program. A group of us met at my friend Susan's house tonight to talk about grassroots civic engagement--and to eat delicious halal food and share our stories.

Coming from Great Britain, an Imperialist country with a shameful history of colonialism, I'm not a supporter of invasions in general or the 2003 one justified by those elusive (some might say imaginary) weapons of mass destruction in particular. However, as I love to tell my students, I frequently learn most from those whose positions are very different from my own. This evening I learned some very positive effects that regime change had for ordinary Iraqis.

Hassan told me that prior to the 2003 invasion, groups such as his--which exists to safeguard human rights in Iraq and to lobby on behalf of political prisoners--simply could not have existed; they would never have been allowed. After Saddam Hussein was toppled from power, hundreds of civic action groups, small and large, organized and not so organized, began to spring up everywhere as citizens discovered a new freedom to take part in grassroots activism. Hassan, who is from Hawija, a poverty-striken area in Kirkuk Province which is a source of much terrorist activity, saw an opportunity to put his lawyer's training and deep concern for human rights into action, creating the now seven-year-old Human Rights Establishment.

Hassan and his fellow guests, Bashar Al-Mandalwy, founder and manager of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, and Hamid Hussein Safar, Director of Media and General Relationships at the Wasit Electoral Commission, offered us a fascinating perspective on what regime change meant for civic engagement in Iraq. More than that, they offered us the hand of friendship.

"See you WHEN you come to Iraq," Bashar the Iraqi journalist told my daughter Joy, the politically active US high schooler. All politics aside, such friendships forged over falafel and black tea give me great hope for our world...

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