Is this Liberation?
by Ray Gaston

Based on an address delivered at a Conference at Karbala University, Iraq, on Imam Hussein and his relevance today.
Saturday 28th February 2004

Salaam Aleikum

I would first of all like to thank the organisers of this conference for inviting me and to say what an honour and a privilege it is for me to be asked to contribute to this conference. I am certainly no expert on Imam Hussein and feel very inadequate to the task. But during my time here in Iraq over the last couple of weeks I have been struck by the beauty and depth of the Shi'a Muslim faith and the power of the story of Imam Hussein. I have also been overwhelmed by the amount of suffering that the people of this land have faced because of tyranny, war and economic sanctions and it is this dual experience that I want to reflect upon in my talk to you this afternoon.

Firstly let me introduce myself more fully. As you know, I am a Christian Priest and Iraq has featured in my life for a number of years. As a supporter of Amnesty International, I was aware of the Human Rights abuses perpetrated by the old regime. As a peace activist I was involved in resisting the war on Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003 and it was during the invasion last year that Hussein Mehdi and I first met. I come also to Iraq with concerns that those countries who now offer this land liberation' were those who twenty years ago and beyond helped tyranny rise to power.

And it is with that word 'Liberation' that I would like to begin. Since being here I have been struck by the immense sense of relief amongst those I have spoken to that the old regime has gone. But does this - as politicians in my country and elsewhere like to claim - amount to liberation? Salih, a teacher in Baghdad, told me off, in the way teachers do, for using the term 'invasion' about the US forces. He said to me 'Mr Ray do not call it invasion, it is liberation!' Contrastingly, Uraainib, whose brother was in an Iranian prisoner of war camp for 16 years said to me 'The Americans talk of liberation, anyone can talk of liberation. Saddam Hussein talked of liberation, liberation for the Palestinians, liberation for his people but it was empty words. As far as I am concerned, Saddam and the US are two sides of the same coin!' Two very passionate responses to the language of liberation -- one claiming it, the other rejecting it -- in relation to the current situation for the people of Iraq.

The truth is that politicians, tyrants and military chiefs all use the language of liberation very easily and for their own purposes. But liberation for a people is a deeper process that involves much more than the relief of the removal of tyranny. It is both material and spiritual. It requires not just being rid of a tyrant but truth telling; it requires not so much 'reconstruction' as healing. It requires the building of trust and the possibility of real hope and it needs to arise from the people themselves.

The language of liberation is something that is prevalent in our religious traditions. I come from the Christian tradition and I read that tradition as one that speaks and offers liberation. In the story of Jesus Christ, in his ministry, death and resurrection we believe that we are shown a God who is with the poor and marginalised. We are shown a God who in the crucifixion faces the worst of human violence and responds not with wrath and destruction, but with love: in the resurrection we believe Christ offers us God's love again. We are called to embrace that love and live it in the world. We are called to seek the crucified of today - the victims of injustice and violence and to respond to the complexities of the violence and pain of our world with love and compassion, to identify with those who are marginalised and from that place to seek resurrection in real healing, reconciliation and hope. For me Christianity is a spirituality that struggles with the realities of our world. It is not a retreat into an other- worldly piety but a spirituality that is rooted in the real violence, exploitation, hatred and confusion of our world and offers a way of redeeming it through meeting God in our active identification with the marginalised and in our refusal to use violence.

And it is this struggle with the bitter realities of life that I have been touched by in my recent contact with the Shi'a faith and particularly in the story of Imam Hussein and the time of Muharram and the day of Ashura remembering the events of Karbala.

Two often used slogans have sat with me during my time here in Iraq and have formed the basis of my meditation and reflection on the story of Imam Hussein. The first is from Imam Jaafar As-Sadiq

'Every day is Ashura, every place is Karbala'

When Hussein, my companion, and I set off for Iraq, I felt much unprepared. We had received a good deal of attention from TV, radio and newspapers in our local city in the UK and we spent much of the last couple of days going to interviews. I really felt that our time might have been better spent praying and I felt I could have done with a couple of days of retreat for preparation. When we arrived in Damascus we headed straight for the border only to be refused entry into Iraq so we returned to Damascus and took the opportunity of the delay to go and visit the Shrine of Lady Zaineb. I was struck immediately by its beauty and felt a real sense of the presence of God in this place of pilgrimage and prayer. There were a group of pilgrims there singing a beautiful devotional song to Zaineb. The singing was in a spirit of deep lamentation and I was mesmerised by it. The singing got louder and more intense and around me I could feel others being drawn into the orbit of the lamentation. I found myself reflecting on the journey ahead, remembering stories I had heard. Reflecting on the disappearance and execution in the 1980s of my travelling companion's brothers-in-law, the mass graves, the wars, the victims of sanctions and I wept. I felt my heart was being broken open by God for the people of Iraq; this was the preparation I had needed and there was no place more appropriate than the shrine of Zaineb. And it was here that the words of Jaafar As- Sadiq made sense. Iraq today is Karbala, Iraq today is Ashura. And this sense that the sufferings of the Iraqi people are the reliving of the sufferings of Imam Hussein and his followers became even clearer to me as we eventually journeyed into Iraq and began to meet people and hear their stories.

I met Bushra, a woman in her 40s, with such a calm and kind face, open and compassionate, who lost six of her brothers and her father in the early 80s and still lives in a house only a few doors away from a house that had been turned into a detention/torture centre. She was ostracised by family and friends who were afraid of being associated with her. I watched this woman at the Free Prisoners Association listen to the stories of others, I saw her in her own home provide comforting words to a young man who was openly grieving about his brothers. I heard her tell the story of her family with dignity and power. I was reminded of Lady Zaineb, herself a woman who, despite the indignities she faced, spoke out with words of power and truth.

I think of the houses I have visited, one of them belonging to my travelling companion's wife's family, that were turned into torture chambers. I think of the desert that these places have become. Like Karbala, perhaps these places need to become places of pilgrimage. Just as Karbala, once a desert, is now a city that in its holy places speaks of a deep truth, so these houses may become places where the stories of the victims of injustice and oppression are not forgotten but honoured and where the whole truth is revealed --- including the truth of who funded and supported the regime that tortured, massacred and imprisoned them.

I think of the story of Imam Hussein's daughter Rocqui'a, who when crying for her father after the battle was presented with his head on a plate. I think of her death soon after, the effects of such cruelty and abuse, her trauma, and I think of his baby Abdullah who died of thirst and I am reminded of the children of Iraq today. The street children I have seen rummaging in the piles of rubbish in central Baghdad, the children with cancer because of the effects of depleted uranium used in the 1991 war. I think of the child psychologist in Nasariyah who told me she believes 80% of Iraqi children are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I think of the record of the execution of a nine year old girl found by the Free Prisoners Association in Baghdad. . .

Everyday is Ashura, every place is Karbala

Wherever there is suffering and injustice, there is Karbala, there is Ashura. Whenever we listen to the stories of the oppressed and honour them by letting them drive us to stand against injustice and violence there is Ashura, there is Karbala.

The second inspiration to my thoughts on Imam Hussein comes from Mohandas Gandhi who said

I have learnt from Hussein how to be oppressed yet victorious

And I was reminded of Gandhi's words as I listened to Quays' story. Arrested on suspicion of being a member of the Dawa Party, Quays and others were held in a security centre in a suburban district of Baghdad in the early 1980s. Quays was severely tortured and had several bones broken. He revealed to us the scars on his wrists and legs from over twenty years ago. He told us how after 3 days of torture his hands were so big and swollen that it was almost comical. He felt so thirsty but was refused water and left in a cell to die. He remembers the horrendous pain in his body the bleeding from his eyes and nose, his feet and nails. His legs were broken and his shoulders dislocated. He thinks he lost consciousness and then felt that he was in the shrine of Imam Hussein: two scholars came, one got ahead of the other to lead the congregation in noon prayer. After the prayers, the leader invited him to come and sit beside him. He went over to him and he was offered two bowls, one with grapes in it and the other with dates in it, none of which Quays enjoys eating. He chose 3 dates and at that point he regained consciousness, his thirst and hunger had disappeared and he felt strengthened in his morale, being able to remain steadfast to the end. The guard's attempts to recruit him to spy on the others detained with him failed. And it was his faith in God and the inspiration he drew from the story of Imam Hussein that helped him through. The story of Imam Hussein helped him to become victorious in the face of oppression.

Perhaps, it is a beginning of healing to place these stories at the centre, perhaps it is a beginning of hope to concentrate on working to heal the children of Iraq the countries future.

But in retelling the atrocities of the recent past and in looking for hope in the future we must also be awake to the realities of the present. I think of Imam Hussein and of his father Ali, both men of principle who sought to act with justice and to use power wisely and for the good of all, seeking not to oppress others. And then I think of Iraq today, under the rule of the occupation forces. The 18,000 people in detention some because their relatives are suspected of crimes even though they themselves have done nothing. I think of the 234 people who were arrested at the village of Abu Hisma last November - the water was cut off by the US military and has not been reconnected for several months. The wife of the local school teacher was shot dead going to the village's one water supply after curfew. A bomb was dropped on the house of a suspect - Hebron style and the village citrus grove destroyed. People are prisoners in their own homes. The village is surrounded by barbed wire and a 5pm curfew is in operation so no one can enter or leave the village after dark. Similar things are happening in other villages like Abu Siffa. I wonder how Hussein would have reacted to the injustice of criminalising whole villages and oppressing their people.

I ask you - is this liberation?

My friends, I hope and I pray that you the Iraqi people -- a warm, welcoming, hospitable and generous people - - will be helped by the international community to together heal yourselves of the wounds of tyranny, imperialism and war -- drawing on the best of all the religious traditions in this great land -- the cradle of civilisation. And I will do my best to campaign for this in my own country.

Liberation is not something that is brought by invaders or by the removal of one form of tyranny -- it is something that people experience and achieve for themselves, utilising their own spiritual, political, emotional and cultural resources. I pray to God the Merciful and Compassionate One, that there may be a process of healing, truth telling, justice and reconciliation in this land that is informed by the light of the story of Imam Hussein.

Ray Gaston is Vicar of All Hallows Church in Leeds (UK). Around the time of the War on Iraq, the parish developed a relationship with Hussein Mehdi and the CRHODI group and the Ahlul Bayt Islamic Centre on Hanover Square, Leeds, Hussein invited the parish to join him on his return to Iraq to visit his family, make investigations into the details of his brothers in laws disappearances and executions under the old regime, to participate in the Shia remembrance of Ashura, and to investigate projects in Iraq for which the Church and the Islamic centre might be able to jointly raise funds. Ray was asked to go by the PCC and the church raised money to pay for his flight.

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