We are led to believe that a 7th century religious division is the best explanation for a 21st century political disease. We are to accept that an ancient hatred between two major trends of Islam, Sunni and Shia, explains a very secular and very modern project of organising people around the concept of a nation state. Some go so far as to assert that the current wars in Iraq and the wider region are the Middle-East’s own version of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War, which led to the fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire.
On the face of it, it’s hard to contest this narrative, not least because of the sectarian divisions that plague Syria and Iraq, plus the armed mobilisation of militant Sunni and Shia groups across the region. The fighting has all the appearance of religious proxy wars. This popular narrative, though, is misleading; it is a very lazy assessment of regional ills.
Taking questionable assumptions about western history and using them to explain the Middle East is even more suspect. The widely held (but inaccurate) belief in religion’s unique capacity for violence has become an established way to present explanations; a cultural meme, in fact, and the first to be invoked when violence is unleashed. Aside from its inaccuracy, we are also guilty of historical reductionism if we apply this belief to the Middle East. Islam and, by extension, the region from which it sprang lack the familiar features to make a useful historical comparison because the religion did not spawn an equivalent of the Holy Roman Empire.
These facts don’t fit neatly into the popular narrative of violent religion, as William T. Cavanaugh explains in his book The Myth of Religious Violence. This, asserts the professor of theology at DePaul University, is the conventional wisdom of Western societies, and it underpins many of our institutions and policies. The Myth provides our secular social orders with a stock national enemy: the religious fanatic. The danger in this, argues the author, is that in establishing a religious other, who is essentially irrational, fanatical and violent, we legitimise coercive measures against them.
The Myth of Religious Violence tells us a lot about our attitude towards violence in the Middle East. By questioning common tropes, it’s calling for better understanding. This is not simply a case of burying our metaphorical head in the sand and ignoring obvious religious dimensions to conflicts. Cavanaugh’s contention isn’t with secularism as such, or religion for that matter. He takes issue with our cultural conditioning for singling out religion over secular political ideologies, which have the same, if not greater, potential for violence; secular nationalism is an example of this.
If this analysis is a fair appraisal of Europe’s so-called religious wars, which I believe it is, it’s even more appropriate for the Middle East, given that Islam did not have a comparable centralised church as the epicentre of religious and political revolt. There was no comparable political entity from which people demanded their freedom; in fact, it was the exact opposite until the creation of the modern nation states, following which the people of the Middle East have been subjected to various forms of authoritarian rule, from whose grip they wanted to escape during the Arab Spring.
This brings us to Iraq, which has endured some of the bloodiest sectarian conflict in the post-Saddam era. Unlike European countries, Iraq, like most of its neighbours, is not a nation state. It is more accurately described as a state-nation; a concoction of the post-colonial political formula imposed on the region according to interests other than those of its people.
The state-nation political model created a unique situation where the structures of the state, particularly its security institutions and their coercive function, dominate over everything else, including the rights of individuals and society. The nation is arbitrary but the state is central. The nation served the state in sharp contrast to the nation-state model where the state, to a greater degree, serves the nation. It’s this legacy of the past seven decades, not the legacy of a millennium-old Sunni-Shia divide, which best explains the chaos in the Middle East.
“While there was never perfect harmony,” explains Nir Rosen, in his book Aftermath, “there was also no history of civil war between Sunnis and Shiites until the American invasion of Iraq, or anything resembling the international mobilisation of sectarianism through media and statements of politicians and clerics.” This point is of great importance at this moment in time. “But since the American occupation of Iraq created a bloody civil war,” Rosen continues, “relations between Sunnis and Shiites in the region have deteriorated to the point where if you meet a stranger, the first thing you want to find out is if he Sunni or Shiite.”
Iraq’s slow descent into a failed state, outlined in part one of this series, is not the result of an ancient feud between the two major currents in Islam. From a political point of view, Sunni and Shia identity markers were passive if not banal for most of Islam’s history. Their transformation into aggressive political identities is a modern phenomenon. Indeed, Iraq’s sectarian fracture is very much a modern story about the failure to create new nation states where none existed before; Iraq’s story is very much a tale of secular nationalism.
As Rosen suggests, the roots of Iraq’s current sectarianism lie largely in US policy. The American-led invasion and occupation fractured the country along sectarian lines in a way that religion had never done in the past. The neo-con view of Iraq can be summed up thus: “All Shia, good; all Sunnis bad; all Kurds, lower case democrats.” What the US did was reduce the country from “twenty-seven” ethnic and religious groups to just three. Which one of the boxes you ticked determined whether you had political and economic power or not.
With the stroke of a pen, Paul Bremer, the head of America’s occupational authority post-2003 invasion, abolished state entities, from the army to the Olympic Committee, thus compounding the fear that Sunnis had no place in the new Iraq. The de-Ba’athification policy pursued by the US occupation purged the civil service of its top layer of management, making between 20,000 and 120,000 people unemployed and removing what was left of the state and its institutional memory. This was particularly dangerous in the case of the army and its officer corps, who instead of joining the new military joined the insurgency and, eventually, the Sunni militants.
The political system put in place under the US occupation institutionalised a rough and ready form of ethno-sectarian consociationalism, although the Iraqi constitution does not stipulate any distribution of positions based on ethnic or sectarian factors. However, an informal agreement developed in the process of successive governments being formed, in which a Shia Muslim is prime minister, a Kurd is the president and a Sunni is the speaker of the council of representatives (parliament). This divided Iraq’s polity along religious and ethnic lines consciously and encouraged politicians to seek votes on the basis of communalist identities.
According to political theorist Toby Dodge from the London School of Economics, profound uncertainties created by the Iraq War pushed millions of people into the arms of religious and ethnic groups, militias or whichever identity gave them protection. They turned to “political entrepreneurs” or local sub-state groups, including militant Sunni groups, who looked to be a much safer bet than the Iraqi state, which was divided along sectarian lines. Combined with Prime Minister (now Vice President) Nouri Al-Maliki’s policies of marginalising the Sunnis, millions of Iraqis had no incentive to remain within the system.
By the time that Mosul was overrun by Sunni militants in 2014, Iraq had been stricken fatally by divisions that had been institutionalised by the US and its occupational authority. What many now call a religious war is thus, in reality, secular in origin, created by failures of state-nation building and US foreign policy. This will not, of course, bring comfort to those who are suffering; victims are no more concerned about the ideological roots of their misery as they are about the source of their “salvation”, which is perhaps why some subjected themselves willingly to Daesh governance.
However, that shouldn’t deter us from challenging what are comforting, sanctimonious and lazy assumptions that do little to ease the suffering and serve to justify a particular narrative in the West that is calling for more wars and military interventions overseas.
Equally dangerous is the fact that it provides a rationale for the self-fulfilling prophecy of continuous “religious war” where none existed before.