Thursday, February 12, 2009

More on sectarianism

In keeping with the unusual degree of attention being given to the Iraqi local elections--including claims by the supporters of the occupation that this represents a vindication of sorts--writer and editor Mohammed Aref writes in the UAE paper AlIttihad about sectarianism, and whether or not the strong showing by Maliki's "Nation of Laws" coalition reflected a genuine move by the Iraqi political class away from sectarianism.

The essay is a very sophisticated one, but Aref's simple answer is "no it didn't".

He cites with approval Reidar Visser's essay in the spring 08 edition of the Journal of Arab Studies called "The Western imposition of sectarianism on Iraqi politics," for a thorough grounding in the various ways in which the US and others have promoted sectarianism as part of a divide-and-rule strategy, and secondly the ways in which the Western media have trumpeted the sectarian narrative, partly for its drama and its simplicity. (I must have missed something, because I wasn't aware of this essay when it was published, and I still don't know if it is available in any way other than subscribing to the journal--see

Aref notes "sectarianism" can have two meanings: One referring just to the cultural entities themselves, and the other referring to the evils of clannishness, to illustrate which he quotes from a hadith: Someone asked the Prophet about love of one's tribe, and the Prophet replied: "Look, asabiya (groupism or clannishness) considers the defects of its own group to be superior to the good points of others."

In the first sense, Aref talks a little about the origins of Shiism and in general about geographical and other factors, then he comes to the point:
These geopolitical factors are in fact the foundation of the great cultures that Iraqis have prided themselves on throughout history. The occupation--and the non-national regime that the occupation generated--threaten the countries spiritual, religious and patriotic wealth, just as much as it threatens the country's natural wealth. And it is going to be up to the new generation of Iraqi nationalists to protect that wealth. Because nationalism isn't emotion and anthems and flags. Rather, it is the basis for the existence of the country and its unity, and the fundamental bond between the nation and its citizens. The experience of Iraq shows that the loss of nationalism carries with it an enormous price, and that is why it has been considered sacrosanct by the people of Iraq and their governors throughout history.
On the election itself and the Dawa coalition's success with its slogan of non-sectarianism, Aref writes:
Do the election results show that the Dawa party has abandoned its sectarian identity. Or is this rather a case of a policy of "taqiya" [the practice of denying your religion when external dangers demand it] resorted to by this Shiite party? And did its competitor the Supreme Islamic Council led by Hakim lose its "supreme" status after getting only 10% of the votes? Did the election results indicate the banishment of sectarianism? Or was it rather a national requirement within the framework of sectarianism in order to restore security and provide basic services, strengthening the central government and rejecting federalism?
It seems quite possible that Aref doesn't have any particular insight into what is being cooked up in the Green Zone by way of Maliki/American strategy for the coming period. His point is that beyond the slogans, sectarianism in the bad sense is still the basic building-block of occupation strategy, and for Maliki to adopt the slogans that he did seems to Aref a kind of "taqiya".

He concludes by citing a book by Iraqi political scientist Adul Radha Al-Taan, called "History of the concept of politics in old Iraq", having as its theme the idea of successive waves of immigration into Iraq by groups with a variety of cultural traditions and orientations, and the complementary idea of political unity capable of embracing the whole range of groups. Citing the book is another way of driving home his point that while there is inevitable "sectarianism" if that merely means a variety of cultural groups, that is not at all the same as the negative and mutually antagonistic "sectarianism" that has been exploited and continues to be exploited by the occupation.

The same point about the persistence of bad sectarianism in spite of the recent local-election rhetoric has been made a number of times by the Iraqi writer Fadhil Al-Rubaie (outlined here; and another link here). LB of RoadstoIraq has been keeping track of Al-Rubaie's writings on this, but so far this important topic hasn't been able to get past the gates of Big Punditry. (See the Visser piece referenced above for a pretty good explanation why).

(Still, h/t to Marc Lynch for noting the existence of this AlIttihad piece; maybe he could be persuaded to tell people what's in it). Given that my own readership is limited to the three of you (a joke !)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your posts re "sectarianism." As a historian, I am grateful for the broad perspective which makes the current tragedy comprehensible. Your analyses are excellent and clarifying.

About (pronounced the Canadian way, one of my dual non-sectarian identities!)two years ago I concluded that Cole is fine for a morning wrap-up of the fragmented scene, Lynch is a knowledge blogger-boy in his field but yours is the analytical gem I send on to my friends for a clearer understanding of Middle East politics.

3:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Contrary to your claim of "no recent accolades," you're the recipient of many kudos.

For months I've been forwarding many of your analyses to the "Princeton scholar" mentioned in your column featuring Ray Close's comments. The "scholar" has frequently circulated your posts to his list of worthies.

5:29 AM  
Blogger badger said...

Thanks Dual, I just knew someone was reading this

1:00 PM  
Blogger Parvati said...

Just come across this on PressTV -
"Sadr to join forces with Maliki's party":

Iraq's senior cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has suggested his anti-US movement could return to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shia alliance.

"If there is an intention to reform policies and put in new systems and controls that are not ethnic or sectarian or partisan and include all political powers ... we are with this idea," Sadr said in a Friday prayers message read out in mosques.

He also urged all Iraqi factions to join hands to make the new policies take effect, and defeat the enemies of the nation.

The remarks follow Iraq's January 31 provincial elections, in which Sadr-backed candidates became the second-largest party next to Maliki's allies in several provinces, including the capital Baghdad.

Sadr's comments echo a call the premier following the polls, in which he urged political parties to work together to strengthen provincial councils and help rebuild the war-torn country.

"The hearts of Iraqis no longer have patience with the lack of services" in the country, Sadr said. "Alliances should not be with the former sectarian power that has brought us previous wars and hunger, and should also avoid the powers that tend towards the former regime," he added.

The Free Independent Movement, backed by Sadr, has said that it may return to the United Iraqi Alliance, which includes Maliki's Dawa party, under the conditions.

In September 2007, 32 Sadrist lawmakers quitted the United Iraqi Alliance, complaining that Maliki had stopped seeking their consultation after a dispute over a timeline for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq.

I'd be interested to hear your thinking on this move, its undercurrents.. and its prospects.

7:13 PM  
Blogger badger said...

Parvati, you read my mind.

I have some thoughts on it in the next post...

8:32 AM  

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