Caught in the Crossfire

Some thoughts on Iraq from the “Vicar of Baghdad”
By Jake Auchincloss ’10

The Reverend Canon Andrew White is the pastor of St. George’s Church, the only Anglican denomination in Iraq. He is also Founder and President of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, an organization devoted to promoting religious harmony throughout the region. During a recent stint as a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, Canon White discussed his experiences in Iraq with the HPR.

Harvard Political Review: Are you optimistic about the situation in Iraq? Do you believe that sectarian violence is intensifying or subsiding? Canon Andrew White: If you’d asked me three months ago, I would have been very optimistic. If you ask me now after we have all been rocketed every day at least fifteen times for the last two months, it’s very difficult to be positive at the moment. But we realize that there is no short answer to everything that’s happening. We are rebuilding a nation, and that’s highly complex and takes time.

HPR: Do you think that Iraq has to be rebuilt as a federation of three religions?

AW: I think that it’s important that we try and get across that the primary thing is first and foremost being Iraqi. At the moment it’s still the first thing is your tribe, the second thing is your religion, the third is your political work. So the whole issue of one’s personal politics is completely wound up with your personal religious beliefs. Religion and politics are intrinsically linked and we can’t separate them like in the West.

HPR: Does the fact that Americans are almost as religious as Iraqis but still maintain a constitutional separation of church and state make you optimistic about what can happen in Iraq?

AW: No. It doesn’t make me optimistic at all. I think it is incredibly hard to deal with religion and politics, and when religion goes wrong it goes very wrong. We have got to find a way to navigate closely between religious and politics in a positive way. It will take a long time.

HPR: Have the Sunni and Shia factions been genuine, in your opinion, in seeking peace, or are they wrapped up in the environment and in distrust and power-seeking?

AW: You just said a word that was absolutely awesome: power-seeking. You’ve got to see that terrorism as a whole is stewed loss. People have ultimately lost power, and what they ultimately want back is power—power for their own security, for their own well being, for the well-being of their people. Understanding that is really crucial. Some of these religious leaders are genuine, and others aren’t.

HPR: Have you found that coalition troops on the ground are expressive of their Christian faith? If so, what is the effect when they deal with Iraqis?

AW: Yes, they are—particularly the Americans. This is not as true for other members of the coalition. I look after the chapel of the coalition and the Americans are very committed. And with regard to people we’re working with, the more committed you are to your faith the more that they will deal with you. Iraqis want people to believe in their faith, even if, as it is in this case, that faith is different.

HPR: What are your dealings with General Petraeus? What are your impressions of him?

AW: I speak with him regularly. I like his style of leadership. He’s really, really good. He’s an outstanding soldier, and the really nice thing is that if I can’t get a word across to him during the week, I can always preach it on Sunday, because he’s also in my congregation. It’s very interesting—even when we’re dealing with the Iraqi religious leaders, they will often say to us, “We want to know what General Petraeus thinks about this.” And they trust him.

HPR: What parallels can you draw, if any, between sectarian conflict in Iraq and the religious wars in Europe in the sixteenth century?

AW: Well, we can see that so much of the inter-religious violence that we are seeing in Iraq today is very similar to the violence perpetrated by Christians of earlier times, not least the Crusades. You think that people are wrong and you go to get them.

HPR: Does the fact that the religious wars were so long and so brutal make you despair at all, because in some respects religious conflict in Iraq is only beginning?

AW: Absolutely. It makes you very worried, and very afraid, and very determined to find a way not to allow the violence to descend to a certain level. One of the things I always make very clear is that the violence we’ve seen today has been seen before. And the perpetrators then were Christians.

HPR: You’ve advised governments in negotiating hostages with religious groups. How are religiously-inspired crimes generally different from secular crimes?

AW: The whole approach is totally and utterly different, because so much violence and even death has been inflicted in the name of God. And therefore you have to work for solutions in the name of God. So the whole methodology and approach is completely and utterly different. And most people do not understand that. Most people do not realize that religion and politics are intimately linked. Madeline Albright wrote a book recently, well after she was secretary of state, called The Almighty and the Mighty, and she said in that book she only realized afterward how closely religion and politics were linked. And unless we are willing to engage between politics and various religions we will seriously misunderstand everything that’s going on around us.

HPR: Do you feel a special responsibility in your role, then, as someone who embodies this mix of religious and political interests?

AW: I do. I see the one thing that I can offer that other people can’t is an ability to enhance the issue of how religion and politics meet together. And the two are vitally important. You must have this connection between religious and politics. And we cannot pretend that we can continue to keep it separate.

HPR: You also have medical training. Do you think being a man of faith and a man of science is at times contradictory, and if so how do you resolve it?

AW: I couldn’t do my present job right now if I hadn’t had the medical training. Even though my medical career was relatively short, I learned so much about crises. And today I deal with crises. And when somebody gets blown up, it’s not much good preaching your sermon. They need to be looked after and given some urgent medical treatment, which, fortunately, I can do.