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Beating the Drums of Orientalism

[Jalal Talabani, Nouril al-Maliki, and Joe Biden on 1 December 2011 during [Jalal Talabani, Nouril al-Maliki, and Joe Biden on 1 December 2011 during "Iraq's Day of Commitment." Image by dvidshub/flickr.]

The US occupation of Iraq, coupled with its attendant deployment of sectarianism as a political technology, has foreclosed the possibility of non-sectarian modes of seeing, or critiquing political life in Iraq. In "Shiites and Sunnis in post-US Iraq: separate and unequal; some predict dissolution of country," the five contributors, four of whom are writing from Iraq, adopt this lens in reflecting on the contentious relationship between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. In the article, originally published by The Associated Press and re-posted by The Washington Post and The Washington Times, the authors hone in on the Shia persecution of vulnerable Sunnis in the aftermath of the withdrawal of US troops. Such a portrayal shows the occupying imperial power as a neutral arbiter of Iraq’s religious communities, or in the authors’ words, as Iraq’s “peacemakers.” Without them, we are told, Iraq’s Sunni minority has to fend for itself in a now Shia-dominated country. 

Instead of providing a historically informed, nuanced analysis of the current situation in Iraq, where everyone bears the brunt of sectarianism, the authors resort to the simplistic and oft cited ahistorical binary of Sunnis vs. Shias. They mention the word “Iraqis” only once, as if only sectarian subjects, not Iraqis, inhabit Iraq. Reading this article raises the ghosts of works by Gertrude Bell, in which she expresses fear of Shias, albeit in a very different Iraq, except unlike her depictions, the article is devoid of any eloquence. It also uncritically replicates the common media (mis)representations of Iraq since 2003. These perceive Iraq as a place consisting of three antagonistic groups, namely Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. As such, the article reproduces an Orientalist trope in which on the one hand stands a benevolent colonial occupying power while on the other, the inhabitants, who belong to two opposing sectarian groups: the one predatory, the other persecuted.

The article erases the recent history of US occupation and its attendant imperial politics of subjugation. That thousands of Iraqis were killed, wounded, maimed, and displaced because of this occupation is completely dismissed. As are the consequences of the 2007 US troop surge, which deepened the ethnic and sectarian segregation of neighborhoods in Baghdad. The article also remains silent on the fact that the US administration, in collaboration with the exiled Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein, institutionalized a sectarian quota system after toppling the Iraqi regime in 2003. By so doing, the occupation regime has entrenched and set the tone of political sectarianism in a way that appears to be inescapable, but in reality, is not.

By stressing the historical and political contexts of Iraqi sectarianism, I do not wish to deny the prevalent sectarian tensions that exist today, or the multiple injuries that have resulted since and have not left any segment of society unscathed. However, to fail to address this context, to treat the current lived reality in Iraqi primarily as one of a dominant sect (Shia) persecuting a helpless sect (Sunnis), to leave unaddressed questions of power and the implications of a ruling elite (whether Sunni, Shia or Kurd) invested in sectarian power sharing, is in and of itself an injury against an Iraqi people already reeling under the weight of occupation, war, unemployment, and lack of basic services.

The authors speak of Sunnis and Shias as two homogenous, insulated groups. Yet education, political views, religious loyalties, class, gender, sexuality, and place of residence play an important role in the ways Iraqis identify themselves and consequently, their access to jobs and privileges. While institutional sectarianism privileges the ruling elites, it also largely informs regional and international strategic interests in Iraq. Probing the question of power thus sheds light on the role of the United States in producing and perpetuating such a system, while simultaneously exposing the role that neighboring states have played in Iraqi affairs since 2003.

What is most troubling about the article is the implicit idea that an Iraqi people does not exist. Only Sunnis and Shias do. The authors further depict the divisions among these two groups as resilient and persistent. Implicit in this argument is the Orientalist discourse that Iraqis cannot outgrow these primordial affiliations in order to develop national sentiments. However, a quick look at the modern history of Iraq shows that secular political parties dominated the political scene until the rise of Saddam Hussein to power in 1979, that neighborhoods were always mixed, and that religion played a minor role in defining social and political relations. More dangerously, not only does this argument absolve several US administrations of any culpabilities, it commends occupation. When the US troops are presented as “protectors” of the Sunni community, one is faced, yet again, with a yearning for the benevolent occupier to save a defenseless group of natives from the hands of another aggressive group!

[This article was first published on Sightings at the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of
Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.]

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