Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Exploiting The Old Feud

'Saddam had always had a flair for drama and a keen sense of history. To make sure that his countrymen felt the meaning of what had happened as well as to poison the well for the United States, he compared Baghdad's fall to the Americans in 2003 to its fall to the Mongols in 1258. That earlier conquest had spelled the end of the caliphate and is remembered by Sunni Arabs as a calamity, when the rivers of the cultured Abbasid capital are said to have run black with ink from books and red with the blood of the Mongols' massacred victims. Iraqis, Saddam hoped, would come to see resisting the coalition's occupation as an Islamic duty. He then made an ominous comparison in which he likened the Shias' lack of resistance to the Americans to the alleged offense of Ibn al-Alqami, the last caliph's Shia vizier, who supposedly helped the Mongols to sack Baghdad. "Just as [the Mongol chieftain] Holagu entered Baghdad," he ranted, "so did the criminal Bush enter Baghdad, with the help of the Alqami." His implication was clear: just as the Shia had betrayed Islam in 1258, he was saying, so they were betraying it again in 2003.

Since Saddam raised the ghost of Ibn al-Alqami, references to him have become ubiquitous in communiques of insurgents and Sunni extremists. As the bloody travails of war and occupation have unfolded in Iraq, the Shia have once more been held responsible for failures of the Arab world. Long persecuted and suppressed by the Sunni-dominated Iraqi state, now they are being blamed for teh debacle that Sunnis face in the new Iraq - and by extension in the whole Middle East.

The ready way in which a "secular" Ba'thist figure such as Saddam can ring a change on a seven-century-old Sunni grudge to appeal to sectarian prejudices is a sign that the concepts and categories that are often cited in order to explain the Middle East to Western audiences - modernity, democracy, fundamentalism, and secular nationalism, to name a few - can no longer satisfactorily account for what is going on. It is rather the old feud between Shias and Sunnis that forges attitudes, defines prejudices, draws political boundary lines, and even decides whether and to what extent those other trends have relevance.'

-Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival

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