|"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what
makes us important to the people around us."
A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is
a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary
spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women,
a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East.
A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward),
a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of
Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary
spirituality in Erie.
|By Joan Chittister, OSB
There is such a thing as being too American, too
sure of how easy it is to be part of a democratic society. I proved it to
myself last week.
The Womens Global Peace Initiative, the U.N. partnership
organization of which I am a member, met in New York City for the first of what
is intended to be a series of conferences between Iraqi and American women. The
hope is to be able to create alliances between U.S. and Iraqi women in order to
respond as women to the circumstances in Iraq together while the politicians go
on doing political things and the military goes on shooting. But dont be
misled by the word conference. This was not a conversation
This was, in part, a shouting match. It was, furthermore, always a
confusion of positions. The Iraqi delegates contradicted themselves and argued
with one another at the same time. There were, we discovered, as many Iraqs in
the room as there were Iraqis.
Someplace along the way, I began to realize that if there were ever a
metaphor for what is really going on in Iraq, this firestorm of shouting,
accusing, pleading, gratitude, threats and resentment had to be it.
It was an exercise in democracy for people who are just learning what
democracy means -- and do not like all of its implications or understand all of
Maelstrom is too mild a word for what happened in the
session -- and yet, in the end, there was no doubt that what is really going on
in Iraq became far clearer in this room than it was in the morning papers.
The delegation itself posed a problem. Of the 40 Iraqi names forwarded
to the U.S. State Department for approval, only 17 were finally issued visas.
The remaining representatives to the 24-member delegation were Iraqi-Americans
who are more or less involved in the present situation either from afar or as
periodic on-site consultants. As a result, the hundred or more U.S.
participants in the conference heard from a number of women involved in the new
government but heard very little from women who were not speaking in some
official or civil capacity. We heard about the problems facing the country but
we did not hear from internal refugees, for instance, of from those who are
unemployed, homeless or wounded.
But even at that, the information was chilling. After years and years of
sanctions and more years of war, Iraq is a hobbled country.
Thousands and thousands of Iraqis have died in this war or as a result
of this war.
Electricity is lacking.
Water systems are polluted and unsafe.
Medical services are limited.
Therapeutic drugs and chemotherapy are unavailable.
Unemployment is over 50 percent.
The list is legion. Every area of life has been affected, limited, or
But most severe of all, underlying all other problems, central to the
breakdown of society in Iraq is, ironically, the breakdown in security.
Regardless of the fact that there are 130,000 U.S. soldiers in the territory,
the women say, no one is safe on the streets.
Despite the careful coaching of a U.S. State Department official
overheard telling the Iraqi women that they should be careful to call the U.S.
invasion of Iraq liberation -- not occupation -- the
tensions about the U.S. presence in Iraq erupted from the delegation over and
Lawlessness has broken out. Civil stability is at an all-time low.
Civilians fear being shot by nervous U.S. soldiers who are operating
checkpoints but not policing the streets or guarding the Iraqi borders.
You completely disbanded our million-man army and left us powerless and
vulnerable. You didnt even do that in Kosovo or Japan, another
Your government is running our government, a third woman
told us. We are not free and independent.
You removed the One Dictator, one woman said, but now
you have left us with many -- meaning no one is in charge and everyone is
in charge at the same time.
And yet, at the same time, even though the U.S. military is acting
neither as border guards nor as police, they pleaded for American troops to
stay. Otherwise, they say, they will simply be prey. To whom? To everyone.
Border nations, insurgents, al- Queda. Everyone.
And while they pleaded for help, they argued with one another about just
how bad was bad and how liberating the liberation had really been. The
tyrant is gone, some said. But others said, You had no plan.
Thats why all this has happened.
Mission accomplished the president called it?
It sounded more like Mission not yet begun to me. You
destroyed the country, one woman said; you should fix it.
But there is another side of the issue, too. What will be the final
effect of all of this on the United States itself?
More national debt, of course.
More political bitterness, for sure.
More electoral spin, for certain. U.S. political candidates claim
victory and Iraq teeters on the edge of total collapse.
So what will be the end of all these war games?
While the Iraqis are struggling to learn how to talk without screaming
at one another as they did in New York, we will find ourselves consumed by the
political realities of our own election.
While the Iraqis try to understand that democracy does not mean the
consent of the majority to repress minority opinions or experiences, as some of
these women attempted to do to other women in the meeting in New York, we will
be trying to chart our own future regardless of theirs.
While the Iraqis are learning that the democratic process is meant to
gather all the ideas of a group and then test each of them for their wisdom and
their justice rather than silence any of them, we will be trying to decide
ourselves what direction we want for our own country.
In the midst of it, I figure, someone somewhere will suddenly decide on
election eve that if its not mission accomplished, it had
better be mission aborted. The troops, like the Iranian embassy
hostages in 1981, will suddenly be brought home. Iraqi women will be left to
find their own way through the dangerous streets. The United States will be
neither a protective military presence there nor a needed humanitarian
From where I stand, I figure I have just heard what the Iraqi women will
call that. Some will call it abandonment; others will call it
independence; all of them will call it a disaster if we
dont somehow save them from what we saved them from -- and soon.
Four major themes emerged in the conversation: security, children, women
and civil society. I will be telling you what they said about each of the other
three in the weeks to come.
Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister,
c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.
To receive an e-mail alerting you to when Joan Chittister's latest column has been posted to NCRonline.org, visit
the following Web page and follow instructions: http://www.nationalcatholicreporter.org/fwis/signup.php
Copyright © 2006 The National Catholic
Reporter Publishing Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111
All rights reserved.