Sunni Centrism and the Shi'a of Iraq
by Norvell B. DeAtkine
In following the Iraq conflict of the past year, both from Iraq and since returning, I believe the greatest void in analytical reporting has been the lack of in-depth reporting on the Shia. There seems to be a studied disregard or indifference to the Shi'a. While there is also very little reporting on the Kurds or Turkoman, the number of Shia in Iraq would seem to require a great deal more attention. Why this lack of attention?
It is not a new phenomenon. In his book Shia Islam Heinz Halm wrote, Most people understood very little of the religious beliefs of the Shiites and their more than thirteen century-old tradition. At best there were pictures of flagellants, scourging their backs till they bled or beating brows with swords.1 Robin Wrights book, Sacred Rage, and a popular BBC film called The Sword of Islam popularized the idea of revolutionary Shiism. After a short period of a more favorable view of the Shia following the 1991 Gulf War, Halm goes on to write, Western politicians and commentators soon resumed their familiar, vague fear of Shia expansionism: the image of a weakened Saddam who held Iraq together was still preferred over that of an Iranian dominated Shia state in southern Iraq.
As Yitzhak Nakash states in Shias of Iraq, the best book yet written on the subject, most observers and even many experts confuse Iranian Shiism with Iraqi Shiism and therefore do not understand the significant and vital differences. Iraqi Shiism has very little in common with the Iranian brand.2
In their book The Arab Shia: The Forgotten Muslims, Graham Fuller and Rende Rahim Franke recounted the reluctance of Arabs to even discuss the issue. Many refuse to accept that it is an issue.3 In my own experience Sunni Muslims in a Western audience will always insist that there is no real division. When asked whether he was Shia or Sunni, a Sunni translator I worked with in Baghdad replied he was non-denominational because there are only Muslims, not Sunni and Shia.
Of course one other current reason for the lack of reporting on the Shia community is the relative lack of violence in the south or in Kurdistan, yet from reading the daily reports which speak of attacks throughout Iraq it seems that Iraq consists entirely of the Sunni Triangle and Mosul, the latter a long time hot bed of Sunni Arab nationalism. Except for brief periods when Muqtada Al-Sadr sends his thugs out to get killed, the Shia receive very little notice. But I think there are deeper and more pervasive reasons for the lack of interest or informative analysis. I think the answer to this lack of interest is in the way the Shia community is viewed by both scholars and journalists in the West, and the United States in particular.
Not only have journalists been influenced by the media portrayal of the Shia, but also the majority of Western scholars of Middle East studies have very little on-the- ground knowledge of Shia, and very few Western scholars of Arab origins are of a Shia background.4 Moreover, many of the American scholars who are called upon by the media to talk and write about the situation in Iraq have not been there since the war, or many for decades. Professor Juan Cole has been frequently identified by the media as Americas leading scholar on Shiism5 and yet in a recent article in The New Republic it was revealed he has never been to Iraq.6 They are speaking and writing about an Iraq which no longer exists. In fact many of the cherished shibboleths about the Middle East need re-examination. For decades the Western academic community has been absorbed by the Arab-Israeli conflict, with nearly every issue or conflict in the Middle East seen as an adjunct or symptom of this issue. It is a community that has viewed the problems in the Middle East as primarily a consequence of the existence of Israel and/or American support for the state of Israel. They have tended to overlook the many symptoms of a much wider and deeper problem that the late great Foreign Service Arabist Hume Horan called the Arab historical baggage.7 It is a predilection to live in the past, mythologizing history and a failure to face problems that are internal and not a result of colonialism, imperialism or Zionism.
A particularly cherished tenet of Western academics is the importance of Arab nationalism or pan-Arabism. The point here is that pan-Arabism is almost exclusively a Sunni movement with a smattering of Greek-Orthodox Christians such as George Antonius, who saw it as an alternative to Islamist movements. It has always been identified with the elite of the Arab world. The Neo-Arabists brought up academically in a post-modernist world of Edward Said and the Arab Nationalist Movement have never been much concerned with those ethnic groups that did not fit into the image of the Arab World they mentally constructed. Hence, as writer Kenan Makiya (Republic of Fear) has so vividly pointed out, the intellectuals of the Arab World were never outraged by Saddams use of chemicals against the Kurds or systematic butchery of the Shia.8 They were far more incensed by the U.S. assault on Falujah, an operation that was welcomed by most of the Shia community and seen as long overdue.
On the other hand the popular image of the Shia is, as Halm observed, one of fanaticism, engaging in bloody religious rituals, and a backward mysterious people. This bias or indifference toward the Shia has been particularly pronounced in Iraq. The western written history of Iraq is the history of the Sunni. It remains so today. In Iraq, for instance, the majority of the Iraqis employed by western journalists as translators and assistants are Sunni and many worked for the Baathi regime.9 The reason is very simple. Under the Saddam regime very few Shia became journalists. In fact the International Journalist Center under Saddam was well known as a superficial cover for the Intelligence apparatus of the Saddam regime. The few who were professionals were either Sunni Baathis or others considered reliable by the regime. Most of the people qualified with any journalistic experience to provide assistance for Western journalists after the war were in fact Sunnis and/or Baathis.
As any honest journalist will readily admit, these translators are not mere word processing machines. They guide the journalists, point them in certain directions, lead them to selected people to interview, and basically influence what the journalists hear. They are the filters through which journalists see and hear Iraq. Recently this situation has become more pronounced as it has become more dangerous for Western correspondents to wander about in Baathi/Sunni areas. Speaking of the security situation, journalist Vivenne Walt told an interviewer in the Columbian Journalism Review, Western journalists are really too much at risk to operate here. She says all this makes her incredibly reliant on fixers and translators. She goes on to say, A translator is much more than a translator here.10 She also adds translators have not lived in a vacuum for the past thirty years. They are just as much the product of Saddams culture of fear as the subjects they help journalists interview. It is only slightly less dangerous for journalists of Shia backgrounds to report from the Sunni heartland (Iraqis can tell within a few minutes from a name and the accents what village or city a person comes from). Certainly the old problem of accessibility to insurgent leaders is always predicated on how the previous story portrayed them. Therefore the use of Sunni stringers has become more prevalent.
In the past month several incidents have surfaced the reality that many of these stringers or local journalists are indeed at least sympathetic to the Sunni Baathist cause. The not-so-mysterious ability of Al-Jazeera journalists to arrive just as an ambush or other attack takes place should convince all but the most naïve that there is a working relationship between Al-Jazeera and the Baathis and the pan-Islamists. Moreover, the purchase of these videos and photographs by U.S. media is an indicator of the lack of in-depth balanced reporting which has characterized the Western media in Iraq.
Western journalists of Arab origin are generally Palestinian or Levantine and very often present the same bias I found so prevalent in Lebanon when I lived there, among not just the Sunnis, but Christians as well. Most have a decided bias in favor of Sunnism, which to the Arab world elite (and Western elite), represents a more secular, sophisticated version of Arabism and Islam. According to my Shia Lebanese friends who frequently visit Lebanon, this attitude remains in vogue, and the Shia still face a great deal of discrimination within professional and political circles in Lebanon from both Christian and Sunni Muslim.
One of the very few journalists who is reporting accurately on the Iraqi Shia today is Michael Rubin11 whose articles I frequently send to the Shia I worked with in Baghdad, and they are very laudatory of his insights into their community. He has been very critical of the U.S. Governments lack of access or apparent unconcern for the aspirations of the Shia community and their lack of understanding of their community, their traditions, or their aspirations. The repeated and rather simplistic equations of Iraqi Shiism to Iranian or the Iranian version of a Wilayat a Faqih (rule by a religious authority) continues to surface.12 The truth is quite the opposite. The tombs of several Shia imams, as well as the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, will diminish the importance of Qum in Iran as the center of world Shia study and pilgrimage. In fact the future Iraqi Shia state will be a competitor to Iran, politically and religiously.
On the world political scene there is also a certain animus against the Shia. It was the French president who is recently reported to have said he could deal with Sunnis, but not Shia. His recent lavish reception of Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a state whose attitude toward a new Iraqi government is cool at best, is illustrative of this feeling. King Abdullah of Jordan has also weighed in on the danger of a Shia arc from Iran to Lebanon.13 He has since couched that in more diplomatic terms, but in the coded language of the Middle East everyone knows what he means. Throughout the Arab World and particularly in the Sunni Fertile Crescent there is contempt and perhaps some fear of an Iraqi Shia Arab government. To a large extend this is based on the expectation that a Shia dominated Iraq, despite some obligatory anti-Israeli and pan-Arabist bombast for public consumption, will in fact turn away from the Arab World as constructed by the Pan Arabists. As mentioned above, Shia interest in the ArabIsraeli conflict is minimal.
Despite their reputation as a backward people in Iraq, the reality does not bear it out. The people I worked with in Baghdad were extremely well educated and reasonable. In many ways they are more open to Western ideas. Their acceptance of Ijtihad (interpretation of Islamic legal doctrine) is far more progressive than the traditionalist Sunni view that the doors to Ijtihad closed in the 10th century.14 One need only read the English version of Al-Sistanis website in the Frequently Asked Questions section to see a surprising modernist view of morals and manners.
The fear of Shia power in Iraq extends to the Christians and Kurds. The Christians see them as religious fanatics after all Saddam had the Chaldean Christian, Tariq Aziz, as one of his top henchmen, and the Kurds, while they detest Sunni Arab Nationalism, also fear the specter of Shia Islamic fundamentalism, a fear played to by the Baathis to keep the oppressed and disenfranchised from forming a coalition. The much more secular Kurds made it a point to show me pictures of their women taken in the 1950s and the fact they are all wearing western clothing. Their view is that the Arabs forced Islamic practices upon them. (More bars than mosques are in Suleimaniya, several young Kurds proudly told me.) Nevertheless these people are unlikely to join forces with the Sunni Arabs against the Shia because they view Arab Nationalism as simply a preserve of Sunni Arabism with a few storefront minorities. The fate of the Palestinians who were living in Shia areas of Iraq is ample testimony to the attitude of the Iraqi Shia toward Arab Nationalism, a sacred cause among the Palestinians, whom they identified with the Saddam regime and Pan-Arabism, the mantra of the Baath Party. After the war, many were displaced from their homes by returning Iraqis who had been previously displaced by Saddam to provide apartments for Palestinians. Our U.S. Army civil affairs people in the south took care of many of them in makeshift refugee centers after the war.
This strong bias against the Shia is fully reciprocated by the Shia. To the Shia, especially of Iraq, Arab Nationalism translates into Arab Sunni domination. The Arab media networks, in particular Al-Jazeera (Shia in Iraq call it the Wahhabi network) and to a lesser extent Al-Arabiya, are seen simply as mouthpieces for Sunni Arab Nationalism. There are no internationally known Shia Arab networks of equal funding or stature. One Shia satellite network, Fayhaa, is on the air about 12 hours a day and another one called al-Furat has just come on the air.
Outside Shia networks like Al-Manar, the Hezbollah network, and Al-Alam, the Iranian network, have little following in Iraq. Yet Al-Jazeera is seen in the West as presenting a valid reflection of the attitudes of all the people of the Arab World, including the Iraqis. Despite the fact that Al-Jazeera was not seen in Iraq under Saddam, there is a convincing case that Uday was funneling funds to that network to go easy on Saddam, and that was fully reflected in their reporting. In terms of Press, the Shia in Iraq have only two under-funded and low circulation newspapers, both published in a desultory manner, one by the Dawa Party and another by the SCIRI organization.
Moreover, it is the nature of the Shia community, which lends itself to being misunderstood or ignored. The Shia, especially of Iraq, have had a history of domination and oppression, not just under Saddam but dating back to the Ommayad Dynasty of the 8th century. It was the Shia who provided the impetus and foot soldiers for the overthrow of the Ommayad Dynasty in Damascus by the Abbasids of Baghdad in 750AD. The first betrayal of the Shia was the immediate persecution of the Shia by the new Abbasid regime, which was also Sunni. This domination of Shia by Sunni continued through the Ottoman regime and was institutionalized by the British. The Ottoman Sunni Turks were despised because of their treatment of the Shia but the British chose to ignore this animosity toward the Turks in World War I. Freya Stark laments the lack of British cultural intelligence in WWI during the ill-fated Mesopotamian campaign to take advantage of this Shia antipathy to the Turks.15 But in fact the British diplomats and officials who served in Iraq were even more enamored with Pan Arabism than the Iraqis themselves. From Lawrence of Arabia to Gertrude Bell to Freya Stark there is an obvious antipathy or indifference to the aspirations of the Shia. As she wrote, The Shia are all fanatics here and one cannot enter their mosques. I should like to get in touch with them but it is a toss up as one cannot very well combine Shia and Sunni and I do not know which my fate will be. 16 Like Gertrude Bell before her, Freya Stark was an avid supporter of Arab Nationalism. 17 The only aberration in this history was the brief Abdel Qassim regime that drew its support from the Shia and Communists (who were largely Shia or other powerless minorities). Qassim was overthrown and the Sunni Baath has ruled ever since.
After a brief, unsuccessful revolt against the British after World War I, the Shia of Iraq retreated to their normal quietist practice of religion, staying out of politics and maintaining their tradition of taqiya, dissimulating ones religion in order to survive. In other words, they are unaccustomed to the reins of power, never having had it in their hands. A member of a community that has survived by being unobtrusive does not simply seize the mantle of leadership and take charge. Hence one finds that even in areas where there is mixed Shia and Sunni population, such as Diyala, the Shia hold back and the Baathist insurgents operate (even in Basra where there is a 30% Sunni population). In short there is a culture of submission among the Shia even when the reins of power are within reach.18 For instance, Imam Al-Sistani, by far the most followed Shia cleric in Iraq, has consistently stayed out of the political limelight and, except for Al- Sadr whose following has diminished, most of the Shia clerics have kept a low profile. Ironically it was the Shia who boycotted the elections under the British and paid for it by becoming disenfranchised.
The recent example of the fate of the Shia in the Salman Pak area is an example of the reticence of the Shia to fight back. For months Sunni Arab thugs robbed and killed Shia in the area with impunity. Finally in desperation the Shia asked Muqtada Al Sadr to send some of his militia to defend them.19 This finally got the attention of the Coalition forces and the Iraqi Government, whose Interior Ministry, responsible for security, is seen by the Shia as a Baathi infestation. Even now, however, the Western media sources have largely ignored the daily depredations of the Sunni gangs on a historically subjugated Shia community. Strikingly different though, is the attention given to the very recent reported killings of several Sunni clerics
The amazing restraint shown by the Shia community in the face of a campaign of deliberate Sunni/Baathist/Islamist terrorist outrages against the Shia people is a facet of their quietist sentiments. To an extent this passivity can be compared to the history of the American Blacks during reconstruction in the South. This is changing now, partially because of the large numbers of Shia who have and are working with the Coalition or the new Iraqi government, Shia elite are becoming more comfortable with the tools and institutions of power, and their gradual assumption of instruments of government is taking place.
It is the opinion of the educated Shia in Iraq that, as the new Iraqi Government secures itself in power, the interim, and the one to be elected in December, the Sunni community, especially the merchant class, will show a more cooperative attitude toward the new government as the reality of a vastly different Iraq appears inevitable. Certainly, the power of the Arab State, contrary to the opinion of many academics, has proven itself remarkably powerful. As Charles Tripp has pointed out in his book, A History of Iraq, the patronage power of the Iraqi State has given it more unity than ideological movements.20
Most of the educated Shia dismiss the idea of a full-scale sectarian war as a result of the Sunni violence against them, despite the polarization of the Sunni/Shia communities. They point out widespread intermarriage between the communities, with all but two major tribes having Shia branches, and a very strong sense of Iraqi nationalism within both communities that will prevent a Rwanda type conflict. Obviously it is the primary goal of the insurgents to foment this conflict, apparently in the expectation that the Americans would withdraw and the Arab World would close ranks with the Iraqi Sunni to re-subjugate the Iraqi Shia.
However, there can be no doubt that the positive trend in Iraq (and despite the daily recitation of bomb attacks by the media there is a continuing process of rebuilding a broken society)21 is largely dependent on the Shia community remaining in harness and not retaliating on a massive scale against Sunni Arab outrages. Among the educated Shia there is a decidedly strong view that the Coalition continues to be uncomfortable with the obvious fact that one way or another the Shia will rule Iraq, and that continued attempts to placate a Sunni community and give them far more power than their 15-20% population warrants, and emboldens them to continue the insurgency. My recent correspondence with Iraqis indicates a jaundiced perception of what they view as a Sunni-centric orientation of Western influence on the Iraqi Government, including the recent remarks of American officials that were taken as a defense of the Sunni-dominated Defense and Interior Ministries of the Iraqi Government. The educated Shia put much of the blame for the security situation on the Baathist infiltration of those ministries. In contrast to conventional wisdom, which has become almost an axiom among the western cognoscente, the Shia view the demobilization of the army and de-Baathization program as the right policy22 but that it was incomplete and only temporary. They claim that many Baathis are now back in the security forces or in the government. Moreover our demonization of Ahmad Chalabi has irked many urbanite educated Shia among whom he has a wide following.
With the loss of Ambassador Hume Horan, who was popular among the Shia ulama23 and took pains to understand them, we have been unable to produce an official who has empathy with the Shia viewpoint. I vividly remember one of the Arab advisors to the Coalition, an Arab American, who daily evoked an apocalyptic vision of a Shia Iranian State, as many of the talking heads at that time envisioned (and still do).
In summary, we are dealing with a new Middle East, not one constructed in the minds of the Pan-Arabists and their facilitators in Western academia. Pan-Arabism is a dead ideology, however like Marxism, its legacy lives on in academia much to detriment of Middle East scholarship. Many of the cherished shibboleths of the neo-Arabists and post-modernists require vigorous re-examination. Nowhere is this more critical than in Iraq, starting with a re-evaluation of the Iraqi Shia influence on the Middle Eastern political environment.