Speaking to the Iraq Civil War

The Shi‘a in the Arab World
MER 242 — Spring 2007

Twin specters hang over the Middle East of the American imagination — the perceived rise in the geopolitical power of the region’s Shi‘i Muslims and the dark shadow cast by the sectarian reprisals that increasingly propel the Iraqi civil war. In the United States, pundits and Democratic presidential candidates point to the first specter as the ominous unintended consequence of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which, according to what is now conventional wisdom, strengthened majority-Shi‘i Iran at the expense of the US-sponsored order in the Persian Gulf. The Iraqi civil war, meanwhile, is the newest evidence for Americans that conflicts in the Middle East are intractable because they are, at root, religious. Many Americans have turned against the Iraq war not because the invasion was launched on false pretenses or lacked UN approval, but because they now see the well-intentioned US military trapped amidst what Newsweek called “violent sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the two main branches of Islam that have been at odds for centuries.” In Washington, former war supporters like Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) have taken to calling for “passing the torch to the Iraqis, who are the only ones who can handle this ancient—I’d say primitive—sectarian dispute.”

If nothing else, the notion that a primordial Middle Eastern hatred explains the Iraqi civil war is distressing for its resonance with the canard that Jews, Christians and Muslims have been fighting over the Holy Land since time immemorial. Regular consumers of American news coverage believe that because upon each flare-up of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, historical primers inevitably appear in the newspapers to show that the confrontation is infused with religious attachments anchored deep in the past. Such primers are an abuse of history, because they substitute detours through antiquity for excursus of far more relevant contemporary events. Politically, they are pernicious, for they encourage passive public reactions—shrugs at hopeless tribalism or the stunned silence one would evince at a natural disaster. “They will never make peace,” many readers understandably conclude, before flipping to the sports page.

As with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the problem with the religious-sectarian narrative of the Iraqi conflagration is not factual inaccuracy per se. Violence has indeed plagued Sunni-Shi‘i relations from time to time, and several wars have been fought in the name of establishing one sect’s power or another, or at least been so justified by the aggressor. It is sadly true that the Iraqi civil war has a distinctly sectarian cast, and many Iraqis have certainly died or fled their homes simply because they are Sunnis or Shi‘a.

The problem is lack of historical context. Timelines do not tell us what caused outbreaks of “sectarian violence,” and they are especially poor at conveying multiple causes. Nor, crucially, does the existence of doctrinal differences between Sunnism and Shi‘ism teach us anything about the relationship between sect and politics—why and how communal aspects of identity take precedence over others, why and how religious identity becomes “sectarian” or chauvinist, why and how rulers mobilize feelings of communal belonging for political ends. This last point suggests that we search, in contemporary rather than ancient history, for the political moorings of the tenet that sectarian affiliation determines political motivation, and so explains current events.

American fear of Shi‘ism stems partly from the unresolved angst caused by the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the 444-day hostage crisis in Tehran. Footage of shouting Iranian revolutionaries burning US flags—the archetypal “Death to America” images for Americans over 35—and the 1982 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, attributed to Hizballah, imprinted lasting mental equations of Shi‘ism with political extremism and Shi‘i religiosity with irrationality. These prejudices surfaced immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, in April 2003, as commentators gazed aghast upon the pilgrimage of Iraqi Shi‘a to Karbala’ to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a practice long banned under the old regime. “That is religious fanaticism as demented as you will ever see it,” said MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell on the Sunday talk show “The McLaughlin Group,” as pictures of chest-beating Shi‘a flashed on the screen.

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