On Thursday evening, I attended a memorial service for Fern Holland and Salwa Ali Oumashi at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. Holland (my opposing counsel in a labor law case two years ago) was the point person for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq for women’s political empowerment. Oumashi was Fern’s translator and close associate.
Most accounts of Fern’s death referred to her as a human rights or women’s rights activist. That description isn’t wrong. But Paula Dobriansky, Under-secretary of State for Global Affairs, put it better when she called Fern a pro-democracy advocate (and a heroine). And, since pro-democracy advocacy by the U.S. has often made a certain kind of liberal nervous, it is not surprising that this activism by what Fred Barnes calls “the post-war corps” in Iraq is largely unremarked upon by the mainstream media. On the other hand, I may be over-explaining the media’s motivation. The desire not to report any success, or even feel-good, story associated with Bush’s war is probably explanation enough.
In any event, I want to post a statement by Dr. Radwan A. Masmoudi, founder and president of the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy, in memory of Fern Holland:
Should the United States and other democratic nations, spend costly resources and even make sacrifices to help the people of Iraq develop democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights? Fern Holland believed so, and she gave her life for this belief.
On March 9, Fern Holland became the first civilian in the U.S. aid and reconstruction effort to be killed by the enemies of democracy. She and Robert J. Zangas, another U.S. aid worker, were shot to death together with their Iraqi translator south of Baghdad.
Fern was only 33 years old when she was brutally murdered, but few individuals have done more for the cause of freedom and human rights in Iraq and the Middle East. This dynamic young attorney helped in writing essential provisions for women’s rights in the new Iraqi inerim constitution. During a few brief months since American forces liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s regime, Fern Holland labored to make this liberation deep and lasting.
Fern Holland was a friend not only of democracy but also of the authentic faith of Islam. Contrary to the terrorists and thugs of Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party who have tried to hijack a great and humane religion, Fern Holland understood that Muslims’ love for God requires compassion and respect for the rights and dignity of all men and women.
Between tours of service in Iraq, she visited Washington last November and attended the Iftaar dinner, during the holy month of Ramadan, sponsored by the Center ofr the Study of Islam and Democracy. The theme of the panel discussion that evening was “The Road to Democracy in Iraq: The Role of Religion in Politics.” Fern’s enthusiasm, her love of other people, and her sincere and genuine devotion and respect for the Iraqi people were on radiant display at the dinner.
Fern Holland left lucrative work in law firms not once but several times to serve the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized far from home. She volunteered for two years in the Peace Corps in Namibia, and ran a legal clinic in Guinea [now named for her]. Finally, she worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Coalition Provisional Authority as a human rights and democracy specialist in Iraq.
During the last six months of her life, Fern Holland corresponded with me every week by e-mail from Hilla, in the south-central region of Iraq. She was passionate in her determination that Iraq can and will become a society devoted to democracy and human rights. She was always urging and inspiring me and my collegauges to help the Iraqi people stand up with dignity, and build a modern, democratic and progressive state that can protect their rights and inspire Arabs and Muslims around the world.
We could never do enough to satisfy Fern Holland’s zeal for hellping the people of Iraq. The constant refrain of her e-mails was: “We need more scholars and teachers over here,” “When will you open an office for the Center in Iraq?” In recent months, she helped set up three training centers (human rights group, women’s association, and tribal democracy council) in each of six provinces in South Central Iraq, and was trying to post a democracy teacher/trainer in each one.
Fern Holland dreamed of setting up a Middle Easter Institute for Democracy in Babylon, that will draw leaders and students from all over the region. In recent weeks, she organized a one-week course on constitutional democracy in Jordan and took 67 Iraqis to participate in it, coordinated the particpation of 36 Iraqi (men and women) leders of new founded NGO’s in a workshop on Islam and democracy, and coordinated a campaign that collected 12,000 signatures by the women (and men) of Hilla to request that 40% of the future parliament of Iraq be set-aside for women.
Almighty God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, will embrace this noble woman whose love for long-suffering Muslim victims of tyranny and terror was greater than her love for her own life. She was fervent in her belief and commitment that Iraqis are capable, and desirous, of becoming the first real democracy in the Arab world, and she gave her life to make it happen.
Americans and all civilized nations must persevere to make sure that the seeds that Fern Holland planted bear fruit. The goal of freedom, democracy, and human rights in Iraq and throughout the Muslim world is, as Fern Holland understood, attainable. This cause, that she loved so bravely, will triumph if good men and women, and their governments, invest time, toil, and persistence.
I, and my colleagures at CSID, grieve for this great and sudden loss for Iraq and the cause of democracy everywhere. May God bless Fern Holland.