Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Timeless Enmity Canard: Iraq Edition

In a guest post an Informed Comment, Sumbul Ali-Karamali lashes into the application to Iraq of what I call the Timeless Enmity Canard:
"A lazy way to dismiss conflicts as hopeless is to characterize (usually erroneously) the disputing parties as having been 'at each other’s throats for centuries.' It happened in Bosnia when the Christian Serbs started expunging Bosnian Muslims from the area; it happened in Rwanda when the fighting between Hutus and Tutsis erupted; and it’s happening now with respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s also happening in Iraq. It is nearly impossible to listen to news about Iraq without hearing of 'sectarian violence' and receiving the impression that the U.S. (the invader, remember?) is simply there as the intermediary between the Sunni and Shi’a, who have – of course – always been at each other’s throats...

"I find this constant conditioning, and in this particular case, the constant portrayal of Sunni and Shi’a Islam as adversarial, extremely damaging. It’s self-fulfilling, dehumanizing, and inaccurate."

I might quibble with some of the history, mainly in that I am far less willing than she is to see proto-Sunnism in the Islam of the Umayyad dynasty. That, however, only strengthens her case, in that it suggests that while later Sunnis would claim the period of the "rightly guided caliphs" as their golden age, when you get into the Ummayad caliphate which actually carried out the Karbala massacre, Sunni Islam has nothing to do with it. Husayn, the primary Karbala martyr for Shi'ites, is revered by Sunnis as the Prophet's grandson, Ali is one of the four rightly guided caliphs, and the Umayyads are remembered as tyrants who perverted the caliphate into a kingdom. Sunni Islam developed in reaction to the concept of dynastic religious leadership as claimed by the Umayyads and Abbasids, ultimately arguing that only the religious scholars could interpret doctrine and that the caliphs were mere political leaders.

An analysis of Sunni-Shi'ite tensions in Iraq would have to take into account the fact Sunni Islam was the dominant ideology of the Ottoman Empire, and this did lead to persecution of Shi'ites, who were seen as a potential fifth column for Shi'ite Iran. This, of course, is an accusation still leveled at Arab Shi'ites in both Iraq and Bahrain. The Ottoman legacy also affects the present in that it left Sunnis as the dominant military and administrative class and, in a political culture in which proximity to power translates into further political and economic advantage Sunnis were favored, not for religious reasons, but because they were close to Saddam. While Saddam persecuted Shi'ite religious leaders as possible rivals to his authority and suppressed Ashura commemorations because of their anti-dictator implications, he actually tried to draw Shi'ites into his regime's patronage network by trying to create a bunch of new tribal leaders called the "Shaykhs of the '90's."

It was the United States occupation regime that decided to political divide the country into Sunni and Shi'ite blocs, Iran that favored the sectarian religious parties that have come to dominate Shi'ite politics, and Saddam's regime that suppressed all internal leadership it could, leaving only religious leaders whose political views he found non-threatening. Meanwhile, it's worth pointing out that the bloodshed of the sectarian cleansing that happened in Baghdad was primarily because neighborhoods were integrated during the 20th century. In other words, despite the history above, the current cycle of violence is only a few years old and a result of conditions in post-Saddam Iraq rather than something the Ba'athist regime suppressed.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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