Saturday, November 25, 2006

A selective memory

Sectarianism is hardly a new weapon in the colonialist arsenal

Azmi Bishara
Al-Ahram Weekly

"....The identity crisis in the eastern Arab world is a modern phenomenon, not the extension of a condition with deep historical roots. Nor are nationalism and state- and nation-building concepts that conflict with the existence of tribal and sectarian affiliations; they are answers to the challenges of building a modern society. The problem in Iraq, today, is that the country's tribal and sectarian structure is being forced on Iraqis as a mold for political affiliation. People aren't born as a nation; nations are built. And in order to build a nation you don't go delving into history, when there was no state or nation and when all that existed were tribes and sects, as some Orientalists do.

Proponents of the modern Arab nationalist project, by contrast, hoped to forge a sense of Arab nationalist identity as a basis for a political entity and citizenship and, perhaps, democratic government at a later stage.

In Iraq, as they and other colonial powers did elsewhere in the Levant, the British set about constructing a regional state, not as a means for superseding tribal and sectarian affiliations but as a structure that deliberately entrenched these divisions and aimed them against Arab nationalism. Colonial authorities, we recall, depended primarily on minorities -- or those they classified as minorities -- to build the "national" army. Now, nearly a century after the Sykes-Picot agreement, people are wringing their hands over the failure of that state, while throughout the colonial powers and their successors fought the only serious and feasible alternative, Arab nationalism. And now they are scrambling for solutions, such as a loose federation or increasing the number of troops in Iraq, as a last ditch attempt to preserve the unity of the country before "bringing Iraq to an end".

How curious. Contrary to what we had thought, Rumsfeld's resignation or dismissal may herald a greater military involvement and a tightening of the American grip in Iraq. Nor is this regarded at odds with the appeal to talk to Syria and Iran over Iraq. Now the theory on Iraq is do whatever it takes to win and impose a federal solution or let the country fall apart.

After having identified Arab nationalism as enemy number one, they co-opted Arab nationalist criticisms of the sub-regional state and its dependence on tribal and sectarian groupings and then distorted and turned these criticisms against both the state and Arab nationalism. Now the Arabs are required to recognise tribal and sectarian divisions as the only structural basis for a pluralistic society and to stop thinking of these pre- modern allegiances as possible impediments to statehood and nationalism, as Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries concluded.

Today's Iraqi occupation ideologues have concocted three super-simplistic myths to which they have reduced contemporary Iraq history: a Sunni- based Baathist regime ruled over the Shia, the oppressed Shia appealed to the US and Britain for help, and the resistance to the occupation is really a sectarian war between the Sunni and Shia. Their need to invent a fiction in order to cover up their failure and to suggest that Iraq either has to go the way they say or else, is not all that different from the fiction of weapons of mass destruction, the major difference being that they are now producing a real weapon of mass destruction aimed at Iraq and the eastern Arab world.

The Arab nationalist and leftist parties were not sectarian or ethnic allegiances. Iraq, together with its political elites and general public, passed through periods in which non-sectarian ideas and affiliations prevailed. Nor were previous Iraqi governments sectarian in nature: they didn't even allow religious affiliations to appear on identity papers and other official documents, and the use or exploitation of sectarian allegiances was regarded as shameful, perhaps criminal and certainly politically incorrect. If anything, it is the suppression of sectarianism that is contributing to the vehemence of today's sectarian chauvinists who are avenging past ills perpetrated by the Saddam regime. But this regime was not "Sunni"; it was a monolithic state apparatus shored up by a single party and state police and intelligence agencies, all of which consisted of both Sunnis and Shias.

Under previous Iraqi governments, officials did not like to have sectarian tags affixed to them. Only now has this become the rule, which is applied retroactively even to those who lived and died without an ounce of sectarianism in their blood. Abdel Karim Qasem is now labelled "Shia", Abdel-Salam Aref "Sunni"; the "Shia" Naji Taleb was prime minister under Aref; the founder of the Baath Party was originally "Christian", as was one of its most prominent members, Tareq Aziz, while Fouad Al-Rukabi, the first national chief of the Baath Party, was Shia. In 1963, in fact, all the civilian members of the Regional Command were Shia. Over the period of Baath Party rule there were three prime ministers: Ahmed Hussein Khudeir "Sunni", Saadoun Hamadi "Shia" and Mohamed Hamza Al-Zubeidi "Shia" and of the two speakers of the National Assembly, one -- Naim Haddad -- was Sunni and the other -- Saadoun Hamadi -- was Shia.

It is probably also futile to point out that things weren't always as monolithic and centralised as they were under Saddam Hussein, either in the government or the Baath Party, and that even under Saddam the monopoly on power was not a Sunni one wielded against the Shia but rather a monopoly by a military junta whose sway in the party and the state intersected with the regional and kinship ties of its constituents.

The first religious figure to have died as the result of torture was Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al-Badri Al-Samaraai, a Sunni. Mohamed Baqir Al-Sadr was executed ten years later. Moreover, for those who care to remember, the Sunni and Shia fundamentalist offensive was directed against the "secularist regime" in Iraq and the Iranian media constantly reminded its public that the two assassinations were connected and proof of the Baathist regime's war against Islam, both Sunni and Shia. But does anybody in the Iranian media mention Al-Badri today? Similarly forgotten are the armed confrontations against the government in Falluja in the 1970s (The so-called "Dervish Uprising") and the Ramadi uprising during the funeral of Mohamed Mazloum.

Evidently, the rule of political sectarianism and the preparation of the Arab world for the latest colonialist weapon, requires partial collective memory alongside partial collective amnesia."

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