FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

‘Islamic State’ Sectarianism is Not Coincidental

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 General 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 past.

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 Shias, 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 Shia. “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 Shia community was supposedly being liberated from an oppressive Sunni minority. By doing so, those in their 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 Shia 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 Shia 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 was essentially political objectives.

But even al-Qaeda 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. The Jordanian-born militant 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 Shia 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 Arab peoples.

While the US-led coalition can indeed inflect 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 is a PhD scholar in People’s History at the University of Exeter. He is the Managing Editor of Middle East Eye. Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).

More articles by:

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
February 26, 2020
Jefferson Morley
How the US Intelligence Community is Interfering in the 2020 Elections
Patrick Cockburn
With Wikileaks, Julian Assange Did What All Journalists Should Do
Manuel García, Jr.
Climate Change and Voting 2020
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Russiagate: The Toxic Gift That Keeps on Giving
Andrew Bacevich
Going Off-Script in the Age of Trump
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Anti-Russian Xenophobia Reaches Ridiculous Levels
Ted Rall
Don’t Worry, Centrists. Bernie Isn’t Radical.
George Wuerthner
Whatever Happened to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition?
Scott Tucker
Democratic Socialism in the Twenty-First Century
Jonah Raskin
The Call of the Wild (2020): A Cinematic Fairy Tale for the Age of Environmental Disaster
George Ochenski
Why We Shouldn’t Run Government Like a Business
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange and the Imperium’s Face: Day One of the Extradition Hearings
Nozomi Hayase
Assange’s Extradition Hearing Reveals Trump’s War on Free Press Is Targeting WikiLeaks Publisher
Peter Harrison
Is It as Impossible to Build Jerusalem as It is to Escape Babylon? (Part Two)
Max Moran
Meet Brad Karp, the Top Lawyer Bankrolling the Democrats
David Swanson
Nonviolent Action for Peace
Ed Sanders
The Ex-Terr GooGoo Eyes “The Russkies Did it!” Plot
February 25, 2020
Michael Hudson
The Democrats’ Quandary: In a Struggle Between Oligarchy and Democracy, Something Must Give
Paul Street
The “Liberal” Media’s Propaganda War on Bernie Sanders
Sheldon Richman
The Non-Intervention Principle
Nicholas Levis
The Real Meaning of Red Scare 3.0
John Feffer
Cleaning Up Trump’s Global Mess
David Swanson
How Are We Going to Pay for Saving Trillions of Dollars?
Ralph Nader
Three Major News Stories That Need To Be Exposed
John Eskow
What Will You Do If the Democrats Steal It from Sanders?
Dean Baker
What If Buttigieg Said That He Doesn’t Accept the “Fashionable” View That Climate Change is a Problem?
Jack Rasmus
The Nevada Caucus and the Desperation of Democrat Elites
Howard Lisnoff
The Powerful Are Going After Jane Fonda Again
Binoy Kampmark
Viral Losses: Australian Universities, Coronavirus and Greed
John W. Whitehead
Gun-Toting Cops Endanger Students and Turn Schools into Prisons
Marshall Sahlins
David Brooks, Public Intellectual
February 24, 2020
Stephen Corry
New Deal for Nature: Paying the Emperor to Fence the Wind
M. K. Bhadrakumar
How India’s Modi is Playing on Trump’s Ego to His Advantage
Jennifer Matsui
Tycoon Battle-Bots Battle Bernie
Robert Fisk
There’s Little Chance for Change in Lebanon, Except for More Suffering
Rob Wallace
Connecting the Coronavirus to Agriculture
Bill Spence
Burning the Future: the Growing Anger of Young Australians
Eleanor Eagan
As the Primary Race Heats Up, Candidates Forget Principled Campaign Finance Stands
Binoy Kampmark
The Priorities of General Motors: Ditching Holden
George Wuerthner
Trojan Horse Timber Sales on the Bitterroot
Rick Meis
Public Lands “Collaboration” is Lousy Management
David Swanson
Bloomberg Has Spent Enough to Give a Nickel to Every Person Whose Life He’s Ever Damaged
Peter Cohen
What Tomorrow May Bring: Politics of the People
Peter Harrison
Is It as Impossible to Build Jerusalem as It is to Escape Babylon?
Weekend Edition
February 21, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Anthony DiMaggio
Election Con 2020: Exposing Trump’s Deception on the Opioid Epidemic
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail