Monday, April 30, 2007


It is always interesting to read the posts of Iraqi bloggers who blame the sectarian violence in Iraq on the current Iraqi government and/or the US without mentioning the crimes of Sunni extremists and Baathists, who began murdering Iraqi Shia and Kurds long before Shia militias started their murderous rampages in Baghdad. Riverbend writes in her latest post:

"I always hear the Iraqi pro-war crowd interviewed on television from foreign capitals (they can only appear on television from the safety of foreign capitals because I defy anyone to be publicly pro-war in Iraq). They refuse to believe that their religiously inclined, sectarian political parties fueled this whole Sunni/Shia conflict. They refuse to acknowledge that this situation is a direct result of the war and occupation. They go on and on about Iraq's history and how Sunnis and Shia were always in conflict and I hate that. I hate that a handful of expats who haven't been to the country in decades pretend to know more about it than people actually living there."

Amazing. Not a word about the hundreds of suicide bombings and car bombs that have killed tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis since 2003. Perhaps Riverbend believes, like many Arabs and Arab Americans do, that Americans are behind those bombings, or that bombing markets and mosques is a natural reaction to invasion and occupation by a foreign power. Dare I say that the bombers were Sunni extremists, and most victims were Shia and Kurds? To make such a claim is to run the risk of being called a 'sectarian' - to some Iraqis, I AM the sectarian because I mention the sects of the criminals who mass murder Iraqis.

Apparently to Riverbend and a few other Iraqi bloggers, the Baathi elite are not sectarian and never were. This is not to say that Maliki's government is not sectarian in nature, and that the powerful Shia clerics (Hakim, Sadr) are not without fault, but to assert that the current Iraqi government is responsible for starting the sectarian violence is absurd. Furthermore, the current government in Iraq, as dubious as many members' qualifications may be, is a product of democracy in a Shia-majority country that has been dominated by Sunni Arabs for centuries.

Vali Nasr writes in his excellent book The Shia Revival:

'The cities of Baghdad and Basra, and others, swelled much as Beirut had, as strife, persecution, continuing high birthrates, and rural underemployment drove millions of Shias off farms and out of villages. These people streamed into vast and poverty-stricken conurbations such as the Zafaraniya neighborhood of South Baghdad or Sadr City, the enormous Shia neighborhood that skirts the eastern and northern edges of Iraq's capital. The poor of Baghdad or of Basra in the far south had little connection anymore with rigid authority of their ancestral farms and marshes. In the slums, desperately needed social services came via the efforts of such clerical leaders as the ayatollahs Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr (executed by Saddam Hussein in 1999, and the father of Muqtada al-Sadr), Abol-Qasem al-Khoi, and Ali al-Sistani. As a result, when Saddam's regime fell before U.S. tanks, it was not the mathematician-turned-politician Ahmad Chalabi or the doctor-turned-politician Iyad Allawi who emerged to lead the Shias, but Sadr, Sistani, and the clerics of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).'

If you have not read The Shia Revival and want to understand more about the history of sectarianism in Iraq, this book is a must read. Vali Nasr explains the historical persecution of the Shia, and not just in Iraq, but also in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. He explains in a chapter aptly titled The Fading Promise of Nationalism that although the Iraqi Shia embraced Arab nationalism, they were still marginalized and persecuted:

'The Shia also embraced nationalism enthusiastically. In the aftermath of World War I, new national identities were forged - sometimes out of thin air - to define the struggle against colonialism and the character of the nation-states that were to follow. For the Shia, especially where they were a minority, secular nationalism was an inclusive identity. It defined them above and beyond the polemical debates of old and as equals to Sunnis in the eyes of the nation. Shias had failed to dominate the Islamic world theologically or politically and had faced the pains and perils of marginality. The modern state showed them a path forward that was free of the baggage of their religious identity. In Iran nationalism did not have these connotations, because Shias were a majority; but where Shias were a minority or ruled by Sunnis, nationalism appealed to them in the same way that inclusive ideologies attract minorities, who are drawn by a promise of a level playing field. Shias therefore embraced Arab nationalism, Pakistani nationalism, and Iraqi or Lebanese nationalism, in each case imagining a community where Shia-Sunni divisions would not matter. The modern world, at least in its nationalist guise, held the promise of ending centuries of painful prejudice and persecution.

The promise, however, proved to be illusory, as the modern states grew increasingly authoritarian and showed a penchant for using Sunni sectarian prejudices to shore up their own authority. The entrenched the very divisions that the Shia hoped they would bridge. These nations solidified Sunni rule and Shia marginality and, worse yet, gave impetus to sectarianism. The founding ideas of these nations, despite a certain surface rhetoric of inclusiveness, never truly encompassed the Shia. Nor did they make provisions to include the socioeconomically disadvantaged classes, who often were predominantly Shia (as in Iraq and Lebanon). Marginality continued to dog the Shia as they faced institutionalized discrimination, persecution, and vicious prejudice in their everyday lives.

...Shias have never risen beyond the glass ceiling that separates them from the Sunni elite. A few, such as Saddam's last and highly colorful information minister, Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, rose to prominence. But they were tokens in a world where Shia feet never trod the real halls of power. Saddam Hussein liked to make much of the second part of his name before his Shia subjects - especially during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s - but he nevertheless characterized Shias as Iranian lackeys, and he periodically purged the Ba'th Party of its Shia members in order to make sure that the levers of state power and the banner of Arab nationalism remained firmly in Sunni hands. Shia privates filled the ragtag conscript ranks of Saddam's poorly equipped and ill-trained regular army, but the elite Republican Guards and Special Republican Guards were Sunnis almost to a man. Iraqi Shias revealed what they thought of the Ba'th Party when they insisted on including a clause in the August 2005 draft constitution that would ban all "racist" institutions, meaning among other things the Ba'th Party, and that barred former Ba'thists from holding office.'

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