Sunday, April 28, 2013

Al-Jazeera and Iraqi Sectarianism

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is accusing al-Jazeera of fomenting his country's escalating Sunni/Shi'ite violence:
Iraqi authorities announced yesterday that they had revoked the operating licences of Al Jazeera and nine other satellite TV channels for promoting sectarianism during a wave of violence...
More than 180 people have been killed in gun battles with security forces and other attacks since the unrest began on Tuesday. The violence follows more than four months of largely peaceful protests by Iraq's Sunni minority against the Shiite-dominated government...
The Doha-based channel has aggressively covered the Arab Spring uprisings, and has broadcast extensively on the civil war in Syria. Qatar is a harsh critic of the Syrian regime and a leading backer of the rebels, and is accused by many supporters of Iraq's Shiite-led government of backing protests in Iraq too.
Two things are going on here.  First, al-Maliki is simply blaming his country's problems on outsiders, and specifically trying to discredit his Sunni opponents by portraying them as being manipulated by foreigners.  This is a pretty old trick in the Middle Eastern playbook, and presumably that of other regions, as well.

More troubling, however, is the way the whole complex of events, including the Iraq protests and al-Jazeera coverage of Syria, reflects an intensification of the sharp Sunni/Shi'ite divisions that emerged in the Arab world in concert with Iraq's civil war and have been amplified over the past couple of years by the conflicts in Bahrain and Syria.  Because al-Jazeera has reportedly mostly ignored Bahrain's protest movement, it might even be legitimately accused of covering events in a pro-Sunni way, though I suspect that is simply a by-product of Qatar's own political interests in keep Bahrain out of the public eye. 

Al-Maliki's policies have been aimed at entrenching the power of sectarian Shi'ite political forces in Iraq, and this entrenchment is a lot of what led to the current violence in that country.  His claims of foreign inspiration, though, will resonate with many, and so further the conflict by creating divisions in how it is remembered that will impact the attitudes and actions of people in coming years.

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