On the “ancient hatred” between Sunnis and Shiites
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Sid Shniad
2014-10-19 04:14:13 UTC
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<http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/643976>Arab News 14 October
2014Sectarianism in Mideast is not at all coincidental*

*“The roots of sectarian conflict aren’t that deep in Iraq.” -- Fanar
Haddad, author of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity. He
doesn’t buy the view that there is an “ancient hatred” between Sunnis and
Shiites. Ramzy Baroud*

Consider this comical scene described by Peter Van Buren, a former US
diplomat, who was deployed to Iraq on a 12-month assignment in 2009-10.

Van Buren led two Department of State teams assigned with the abstract
mission of the “reconstruction” of Iraq, which was destroyed in the US-led
wars and sanctions. He describes the reconstruction of Iraq as such:

“In practice, that meant paying for schools that would never be completed,
setting up pastry shops on streets without water or electricity, and
conducting endless propaganda events on Washington-generated themes of the
week (“small business,” “women’s empowerment,” “democracy building.”)”

As for the comical scene: “We even organized awkward soccer matches, where
American taxpayer money was used to coerce reluctant Sunni teams into
facing off against hesitant Shiite ones in hopes that, somehow, the chaos
created by the American invasion could be ameliorated on the playing field.”

Of course, there is nothing funny about it when seen in context. The entire
American nation-building experiment was in fact a political swindle
engulfed by many horrifying episodes, starting with the dissolving of the
country’s army, entire official institutions and the construction of an
alternative political class that was essentially sectarian.

Take the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), which was founded in July 2003 as
an example. The actual ruler of Iraq was the Coalition Provisional
Authority (CPA), headed first by Gen. Jay Garner, then by Paul Bremer, who,
affectively was the governor of Iraq. The figureheads of the IGC were
mostly a conglomerate of pro-US Iraqi individuals with a sinister sectarian

This is particularly important, for when Bremer began mutilating Iraqi
society as dictated to him from Washington, the IGC was the first real sign
of the American vision for Iraq with a sectarian identity. The council was
made of 13 Shiites, five Sunnis, five Kurds, a Turkmen and an Assyrian.
One would not dwell on the sectarian formation of the US-ruled Iraq if such
vulgar sectarianism were embedded in the collective psyche of Iraqi
society. But, perhaps surprisingly, this is not the case.

Fanar Haddad, author of *Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of
Unity*, like other perceptive historians, doesn’t buy into the “ancient
hatred” line between Sunnis and Shiites. “The roots of sectarian conflict
aren’t that deep in Iraq,” he said in a recent interview.

Between the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in 1921 and for over 80
years, “the default setting (in Iraq) was coexistence.” Haddad argues that
“Post-2003 Iraq... identity politics have been the norm rather than an
anomaly because they’re part of the system by design.”

That “design” was not put in place arbitrarily. The conventional wisdom was
that the US army is better seen as a “liberator” than an invader, where the
Shiite community was supposedly being liberated from an “oppressive” Sunni
minority. By doing so, those in [whose] name Iraq was “liberated” were
armed and empowered to fight the “Sunni insurgency” throughout the country.
The “Sunni” discourse, laden with such terminology as the “Sunni Triangle”
and “Sunni insurgents” and such, was a defining component of the American
media and government perception of the war. In fact, there was no
insurgency per se, but an organic Iraqi resistance to the US-led invasion.

The design had in fact served its purposes, but not for long. Iraqis turned
against one another, as US troops mostly watched the chaotic scene from
behind the well-fortified Green Zone. When it turned out that the US public
still found the price of occupation too costly to bear, the US redeployed
out of Iraq, leaving behind a broken society. By then, there were no more
Shiite vs. Sunni awkward football matches, but rather an atrocious conflict
that had claimed too many innocent lives to even be able count.

True, the Americans didn’t create Iraqi sectarianism. The latter always
brewed beneath the surface. However, sectarianism and other manifestations
of identity politics in Iraq were always overpowered by a dominant sense of
Iraqi nationalism, which was violently destroyed and ripped apart by US
firepower starting March 2003. But what the American truly founded in Iraq
was Sunni militancy, a concept that has, till recently been alien to the
Middle East.

Being the majority among Muslim societies as a whole, Sunnis rarely
identified as such. Generally, minorities tend to ascribe to various group
memberships as a form of self-preservation. Majorities feel no such need.
Al-Qaeda for example, seldom made such references to being a Sunni group,
and its targeting of Shiite and others was not part of its original
mission. Even its violent references to other groups were made in specific
political contexts: They referred to the “Crusaders” when they mentioned US
military presence in the region, and to Jews, in reference to Israel. The
group used terror to achieve what were essentially political objectives.

But even Al-Qaeda’s identity began changing after the US invasion of Iraq.
One could make the argument that the link between the original Al-Qaeda and
current group known as the Islamic State (IS) is Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. He
was the founder of Al-Tawhid Wa Al-Jihad group, and didn’t join Al-Qaeda
officially until 2004. A merger had then taken place, resulting in the
creation of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

While Zarqawi’s move to Iraq had originally targeted the US occupation, the
nature of his mission was quickly redefined by the extremely violent
sectarian nature of the conflict. He declared “war” on the Shiites in 2005,
and was killed a few months later at the height of the civil war.

Zarqawi was so violent in his sectarian war to the extent that Al-Qaeda
leaders were allegedly irritated with him. The core Al-Qaeda leadership,
which imposed itself as the guardians of the Muslim Ummah (nation) could
have been wary that a sectarian war would fundamentally change the nature
of the conflict — a direction they deemed dangerous.

If these dialectics ever existed, they are no longer relevant today. The
Syrian civil war was the perfect landscape for sectarian movements to
operate, and, in fact, evolve. By then, AQI had merged with the Mujahideen
Shura Council resulting in the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), then the Levant
(ISIL), which eventually declared a Sunni-centered Caliphate on land it
occupied in Syria and, more recently in Iraq. It now simply calls itself
the Islamic State (IS).

Sunni militancy (as in groups operating on the central premise of being
Sunni) is a particularly unique concept in history. What makes IS an
essential sectarian phenomenon with extremely violent consequences is that
it was born into an exceptionally sectarian environment, and could only
operate within the existing rules.

To destroy sectarian identities prevalent in the Middle East region today,
the rules would have to be redesigned, not by Paul Bremer type figures, but
through the creation of new political horizons, where fledgling democracies
are permitted to operate in safe environments, and where national
identities are reanimated to meet the common priorities of the Arabs.

While the US-led coalition can indeed inflict much damage on IS and
eventually claim some sort of victory, they will ultimately exasperate the
sectarian tension that will spill over to other Middle Eastern nations.


Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally-syndicated
columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com
Email: ***@hotmail.com
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