Thursday, May 1, 2008

There is no Sunni Shii Divide

The Christian Science Monitor published an article about a recent debate in Qatar on the 'Sunni Shii Divide,' or lack thereof. It will be broadcast on BBC on May 3rd and 4th.

I love that this argument is getting press. It is important to understand that Sunni and Shii have lived side by side in the Middle East for centuries. Meaning in the Safavid and Ottoman Empire, in Iran and Iraq, and in neighborhoods, marrying one another. 1 in every 3 marriages in Iraq is mixed. What does that tell you? While yes, there have been conflicts and skirmishes, it was never because of religious quarrels or differences, it was about power and politics, land and water, expanding empires with competeting interests in Baghdad, and the Shatt al Arab; there has been much more sharing and intermingling between these groups than conflict. I guarantee, very few people were talking about who was a Sunni and who was a Shii in the time of the Ottoman Empire. They were just all MUSLIMS. I also doubt many people, except Saddam Hussein, talked about it in Iraq before the invasion.

What people absolutely FAIL to understand, is that even though Saddam persecuted and massacred Shii, that does NOT mean that the average 'Sunni' Iraq disliked Shii. Saddam was a secular man who used a Sunni identity to oppress the majority 'Shii' population to keep himself in power. Iraqis under Saddam were so far removed from their government - they did not participate in politics and in society. They could not have been more distant from Saddam's policies. It is similar to the idea that just because someone was a Baathist did not mean they subscribed to Saddam's policies. They joined because if they did not, they would be jailed. Teachers, for example, joined to keep their jobs and receive salary increases.

Sunni and Shii lived side by side in Iraq before the invasion. They married one another. They lived in the same neighborhoods. In the same homes. Many probably did not even know their own neighbors' religious affiliation byond being Muslim or Christian.

My least favorite argument in the entire world about Iraq is: The calm before the invasion existed bc Saddam kept a tight lid on sectarianism. Sorry but BS. BSx500. This calm was not maintained because of the 'tight lid' Saddam kept on the population. There was nothing to keep a lid on.

The violence in Iraq today is due to the disbanding of the army and the US divide and rule political strategy after the invasion: Sunii, Shii, and Kurds will divide power, each in one main office. Why couldn't Iraqis have shared it?

While that division of power sounded so great to so many, it reminded me of the British strategy during the mandate system. (Whether US intentions were to divide and rule or not, that is what the US did.) After receiving the mandate to govern Iraq after the fall of the Ottoman Empire after WWI, the British included a portion of Kurdish population in the newly drawn Iraqi nation to prevent a strong united Iraqi government supported by a united Arab population. The British then encouraged feelings of Arab nationalism, which clearly would not settle well with Kurds. (This rise of ethnonationalism was new to the region; throughout the Ottoman Empire Kurds and Arabs lived side by side, both Muslims, both citizens of the Empire.) The British sought the divide the population by fomenting Arab and Kurds identities as antagonistic, just as they fomented hatred between the Muslim and Hindu population in India, between Jews and Palestinians in Palestine.

While US intentions may not have been to foment hatred between Sunni, Shii, and Kurds, their division of the population on ethnic and religious lines in a power and security vaccum they created did just that.

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