Saturday, March 18, 2006

Riverbend Essay

Already I know just seeing the name "Riverbend" will lose many readers. To many, she has been the gold standard for Iraqi anti-American sentiment. Too bad so many have made that pre-judgement because she is highly-regarded in a lot of circles, and her essay this morning rings absolutely true to me. Reflecting on the last three years in Iraq, she goes to a core issue, the poisonous divide the press is calling "sectarian," a separation of Sunni and Shiite Moslems that before the war was, from all I have read, minimal to non-existent in most of Iraq.

This is not to say there was no differnce. There clearly was a divide with a mathematical advantage to Shias. And there was also a political unevenness in Saddam's manipulative tactic of allowing a Sunni minority to subjigate a Shiite majority. But those differences seem to have been more tribal or social than sectarian, an accident of political alliances which furnished a convenient template for a political imbalance. Such arrangements are nothing new in the history of totalitarian regimes. Think South Africa, the former Yugoslavia, Romania, Hitler's Germany. Playing one group off against another is a tactic in every tyrant's toolbox, typically with a minority group (seeking power, and offering loyalty to the dictator in return for the acquisition of that power) receiving military, technical, economic and police resources to keep the majority under tight control. It is a win-win arangement between a minority group and the tyrant whereby a numerical majority is kept under control.

With a tyrannical infrastructure no longer in play, the fires of a backlash are in play, with every report fanning the flames. One would hope that as an outside force seeking peace the US might become an agent of reconciliation, but thanks to the need for hegemony official policy is aimed more at allignment with whatever forces emerge dominant from the chaos. And all the talk about "democracy" points to the dominance of the mathemaical majority, which in this case happens to be Shiite. On the face of it, the notion is appealing. But at another level it is nothing more than an inverted version of a totalitarian state, with a tyranny of the minority being replaced by a tyranny of the majority, that worst possible enemy of democracy itself.

With those thoughts in mind, go read the Riverbend essay.

I read constantly analyses mostly written by foreigners or Iraqis who’ve been abroad for decades talking about how there was always a divide between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq (which, ironically, only becomes apparent when you're not actually living amongst Iraqis they claim)… but how under a dictator, nobody saw it or nobody wanted to see it. That is simply not true- if there was a divide, it was between the fanatics on both ends. The extreme Shia and extreme Sunnis. Most people simply didn’t go around making friends or socializing with neighbors based on their sect. People didn't care- you could ask that question, but everyone would look at you like you were silly and rude.

I remember as a child, during a visit, I was playing outside with one of the neighbors children. Amal was exactly my age- we were even born in the same month, only three days apart. We were laughing at a silly joke and suddenly she turned and asked coyly, “Are you Sanafir or Shanakil?” I stood there, puzzled. ‘Sanafir’ is the Arabic word for “Smurfs” and ‘Shanakil” is the Arabic word for “Snorks”. I didn’t understand why she was asking me if I was a Smurf or a Snork. Apparently, it was an indirect way to ask whether I was Sunni (Sanafir) or Shia (Shanakil).

“What???” I asked, half smiling. She laughed and asked me whether I prayed with my hands to my sides or folded against my stomach. I shrugged, not very interested and a little bit ashamed to admit that I still didn’t really know how to pray properly, at the tender age of 10.

Later that evening, I sat at my aunt’s house and remember to ask my mother whether we were Smurfs or Snorks. She gave me the same blank look I had given Amal. “Mama- do we pray like THIS or like THIS?!” I got up and did both prayer positions. My mother’s eyes cleared and she shook her head and rolled her eyes at my aunt, “Why are you asking? Who wants to know?” I explained how Amal, our Shanakil neighbor, had asked me earlier that day. “Well tell Amal we’re not Shanakil and we’re not Sanafir- we’re Muslims- there’s no difference.”

It was years later before I learned that half the family were Sanafir, and the other half were Shanakil, but nobody cared. We didn’t sit around during family reunions or family dinners and argue Sunni Islam or Shia Islam. The family didn’t care about how this cousin prayed with his hands at his side and that one prayed with her hands folded across her stomach. Many Iraqis of my generation have that attitude. We were brought up to believe that people who discriminated in any way- positively or negatively- based on sect or ethnicity were backward, uneducated and uncivilized.

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