When I was in the States, I was privileged to hear some great speakers on some great topics. However, the most significant thing I think I heard was from an Iraqi Muslim.
At the Transmillennial 2008 conference, God spoke to us through a man named Bahjat. I don’t mean to suggest that Bahjat, an Iraqi Muslim now living the U.S., is a prophet – he certainly didn’t present himself as God’s spokesman. But I believe that God, for whom national boundaries are irrelevant and religious boundaries less important than we’d like to make them, is at work powerfully in Bahjat’s life and speaks clearly to us through Bahjat’s story.
That story is an uncomfortable one. Bahjat was a citizen of Baghdad who risked his life and his family’s safety to help the U.S. government secure Iraq in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein. He used his computer training and skills as translator to help an occupying force, risking shame and harm to help rebuild the country he dearly loves. He put everything on the line to help the U.S. while many of us risked nothing as we watched images of the war on television.
...Bahjat passionately narrated his experience. His slideshow of unforgettable photographs included an image of a bombed car that injured his brother and killed his friend. He questioned the cost of the war as he told of others in his work-group who were kidnapped, tortured and killed for assisting the U.S. forces. Bahjat shared how he worked with a hood over his face so that the opposition would not discover his identity. He told us that on two occasions he and his family received death threats from insurgent groups that felt betrayed by Bahjat’s commitment to freedom and peace in Iraq.
Bahjat realized they were not going to be safe in Baghdad. After several attempts to escape war-torn Iraq, Bahjat eventually made his way to the U.S., taking up residence in Florida. He shared with us the angst of being an Iraqi in America and the fear this caused potential employers who, one after another, turned him away. He spoke of the language barrier as well as the ethnic and religious hurdles. He asked us to imagine how we would feel in Baghdad, penniless and trying to survive in a culture we did not understand.
After risking life and limb to help the U.S., he felt abandoned as he attempted to begin life anew in America. No help was forthcoming in finding employment, becoming a U.S. citizen or even rescuing the remainder of his family still under the threat of death in Baghdad. As he spoke, we could feel his frustration and anger. The palpable sense of injustice and betrayal filled the air.
...A few people at the conference saw this as offensive, others saw it as sad. But I think we can all agree that this is his reality and something we had no right to question. I couldn’t help but think that, in his shoes, I would share his perspective.
Perhaps more than anything Bahjat’s story made me realize that if [we are] going to take societal transformation seriously then we must make room for the beliefs, feelings, and perspective of others. We must resist the urge to re-create them in our own image and to force our view of the world onto them. This is, I think, the temptation at the heart of colonialism – one that lives on in the lingering ethnocentrism of nationalistic fervor.
Tim King reflects on this, along with the questions of Patriotism and Nationalism here. Well worth a read.