Everyday Iraqis hope for peace and stability. By John Filson

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Iraqis say Allah kareem (God is generous) as a way of expressing trust in the hands of fate to take care of them in an uncertain future. As the shape of Iraq’s new government slowly comes into focus after the second national elections since the fall of Saddam Hussein, there is reason for Iraqis to feel uncertain.
Will this democratic process actually work? Can the new government finally usher in a measure of stability, or will the familiar chaos of violence swallow Iraqis’ hopes for the future? The elections cannot answer these questions.
Long-term peace and stability depend on a wide range of factors, from the development of Iraq’s economy to the actions of external forces. But more than any other influence, Iraq’s future depends on the beliefs and attitudes of ordinary Iraqis.
Beyond assigning parliamentary seats, these elections have significant meaning in Iraqi society. They are an important part of a much longer process of establishing a political system in Iraq based on the rule of law rather than the threat of violence.
But such a system only works when individual families sitting together around the dinner table see the system as fair and trustworthy. It requires a shift in attitude from fear of exclusion to an inclusive, community consciousness of individual well-being as interconnected with the well-being of others.
Iraqis have to decide whether or not to trust the system and each other. Will political groups that feel disempowered after this round of elections choose to work within the system to vie for power and influence, or will they see violence as the only way to secure their interests? Is the system capable and ready to provide a platform for opposition voices?
Given the country’s history, it makes sense that Iraqis are watching cautiously to see whether the national political process will act as legitimate broker for their aspirations. Iraq’s current borders were set by Europeans at the end of World War I, lumped competing ethnic communities together. Since then Iraqis have witnessed rampant abuses of state power by corrupt sectarian leaders pursuing the prosperity of their own group at the expense of others. Why should it be any different now?
Also, since 2003 Iraqis have been uninspired by the democratic ideals touted by the United States because they see American actions in Iraq as overtly self-interested. Many believe that the United States spent hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and thousands of American lives to reshape Iraq, not because of a magnanimous commitment to the prosperity of impoverished Iraqis, but rather to provide solid footing for US interests in the form of profitable trade relationships and strong influence in the region.
Yet, despite the cynicism, there is cause to be optimistic about Iraq’s future. If Iraqis are allowed to find their own way forward, long-term stability is inevitable.
I spent 20 months in northern Iraq working closely with local communities and organisations of all ethnic and religious identities, dedicated to sustainable reconciliation and development. Every time word of another kidnapping or bombing caused local people to sigh with tired eyes, they also responded by repeating and strengthening their calls for ceasefire and dialogue. Iraqis are tired of violence. They know it can never bring them the future they want.
The kind of interconnected community consciousness that is critical for the new political process to succeed is visible in ordinary Iraqis. As I watched Iraqis debate the formidable barriers standing between Iraq’s competing communities, someone would inevitably bring the conversation back to a broader framework: Kulna insaan, I heard so often: “We are all human beings.”
The outcome of the 2010 elections provides an interesting new chapter in Iraq’s unfolding story. But the strongest determining factor for long-term peace and stability will be the attitudes of ordinary Iraqi people. May a spirit of interdependent well being prevail over fear and exclusionary politics in Iraq, and may the rest of us learn from this example. Allah kareem.

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* John Filson lived and worked with Iraqis for 20 months in northern Iraq as Programme Manager for the Mennonite Central Committee, a faith-based relief, development and peacebuilding agency. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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