It?s Saddam Hussein?s and Yasser Arafat?s worst nightmare: little children reading the Bible or the Koran in their homes, and adults openly discussing their religious beliefs. That?s what?s currently happening in the Fertile Crescent that birthed Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
For decades, neither Hussein nor Arafat allowed for true religious freedom. In Iraq, Hussein followed the Stalinist model of requiring total obedience from his people. That left little room for religion because any independently accepted moral authority threatened the supremacy of the state. Those wishing to worship anything other than Hussein were imprisoned or killed.
In Palestine, Arafat used anti-Christian and Jewish rhetoric to empower himself. Young military recruits were told that supporting Arafat?s rule was part of the ongoing struggle for an independent Palestinian state and a pan Arab nation. Arafat?s rhetoric gave young people the feeling that they were taking part in a holy war. The youth displayed their loyalty to this national cause by enthusiastically strapping bombs to their bellies and detonating themselves in crowded Israeli shopping centers.
Of course, Arafat knew that he could never dislodge Israel by force. And yet they continued to send children to their deaths in suicide bombings and terrorist attacks. This wasn?t a religious struggle. These kids weren?t giving their lives for a cause. They were dying because their leader was using them as pawns to keep himself?and his extremist rhetoric?relevant.
That is now changing. Following the liberation of Iraq, liberated Shi?a Muslims in Iraq danced in the streets, openly celebrating the birthday of Muslim martyr Imam Hassan. Hussein had previously forbidden the celebration of this Muslim holiday. Other religious pilgrimages, including Christian and Jewish, have followed.
A little over a month ago, 3.3 million Iraqi citizens participated in the country?s first democratic election in over half a century. They ran through gunfire to exercise the basic right of self determination. This is a historic shift in the region from oppression to democracy. And the whole world is bearing witness. The entire Arab world will see the citizens of Iraq exercising a choice and a voice in the most intimate areas of their lives?religion, government, the court system.
That same possibility now exists for Palestinians in the post-Arafat era. The administration is again talking about the prospect of an independent Palestinian state, and Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, has begun engaging Europe and the Middle East in this historic opportunity for change.
For the first time in 50 years, we?ve made meaningful strides in attacking the basic problem of hopelessness, tyranny and poverty in the Middle East. Just last week, the Bush Administration facilitated the withdrawal of 15,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon. Over the past few months, we?ve seen free elections for Palestinians and Iraqis. At the same time, Israel has withdrawn from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. This is only a beginning. It will take an enormous effort by the U.S., Israel and the new Iraqi and Palestinian leadership to reestablish peace talks, and to bring a new possibility for peace to the region. There have been casualties and expenses and violence and resistance. But a little over a month ago, people voted in Iraq, and a democracy began. This means Palestinians and Iraqis have the opportunity to enjoy something rather extraordinary?basic human rights.