The Daily Iraq: 9 August 2013

Iraq Body Count figures for August 8: 3 killed

IBC total to-date for August, 2013: 193 civilians killed

Seems like a couple of relatively quiet days in a row as Ramadan came to an end, as the only piece I could find today reported that four Iraqis were killed, after three yesterday. Obviously one violent death is too many, but this is a country that’s seen dozens killed every day for the past couple of months. I do wish that the news media would stop saying things like this:

Violence has markedly increased this year, especially since an April 23 security operation at a Sunni Arab anti-government protest site that sparked clashes in which dozens died.

Protests erupted in Sunni-majority areas in late 2012, amid widespread discontent among Sunnis, who accuse the Shiite-led government of marginalising and targeting them.

Analysts say Sunni anger is the main cause of the spike in violence this year.

Or maybe the problem is these “analysts,” whoever they are. Yes, there is unrest in the Sunni community and yes, the government responded poorly to that unrest when it first started. Nouri al-Maliki is presiding over a government that routinely is given horrible marks on good government and democracy indexes. Government corruption is high and competence in fixing the economy or delivering basic services is low, and the anger over these things is particularly felt in the Sunni Arab community, which finds itself on the outside looking in when, under Saddam, it had been the most privileged demographic in the country (yes, the vast majority of Sunni Arabs had no voice in Saddam’s government, just like everybody else, but I think the anger comes from the feeling that they’ve sacrificed so much only to trade one lousy, oppressive government for another). But “Sunni anger” is not “the main cause of the spike in violence this year,” jihadi terrorism is. The reason I know that is because Sunni Arabs, the ones deemed insufficiently devoted to the fundamentalist cause, are being targeted as often as, or more often than, Kurds and Shi’i Arabs. Of the four people killed today, 2 of them were Sunni Arabs from the anti-ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) militia called Sahwa. So yes, there is Sunni anger, and it’s probably being used as an excuse by the terrorists who carry out these attacks, but it is not causing the violence.

Two more Iraq stories caught my eye today; I’ll discuss below.

The first piece is something that may be relatively minor but may also become a big problem: apparently al-Maliki is considering postponing next year’s scheduled parliamentary elections, mostly because his party didn’t do so hot in April’s provincial elections. The provincial elections were contested under the Sainte-Laguë system, which, and don’t ask me how because of all the things I am not, “statistician” is at the top of the list, is supposed to boost the electoral prospects of smaller parties that may be locked out of a simple closed list election with a minimum threshold. In fact, that’s exactly what happened in the provincial elections; the country’s three largest parties (two Shi’i, one Sunni) lost ground while a number of small parties won seats. This kind of outcome in the parliamentary elections would be good for “representative democracy” but probably bad for “getting anything done in parliament,” and definitely bad for “Nouri al-Maliki himself,” so al-Maliki is pondering ways to get around the problem (“the problem” in this case being “democracy”). It’s unlikely that he’ll just call the elections off and go full-dictator, but he could make a justifiable case that the deteriorating security situation has made elections impossible. Alternatively he could use uncertainty over the electoral system (there’s obvious resistance to adopting Sainte-Laguë for the parliamentary elections, but Iraqi courts have ruled that the previous (closed list with threshold) system was unconstitutional, so there’s a bit of a problem there.

What concerns me is that these kinds of shenanigans can’t help but impact the public’s, particularly the young public’s, perceptions of democracy as a system. This is a critical time for democracy in the Middle East. Egypt has overthrown a democratically-elected president who was no longer governing democratically, but now is stuck with a government appointed by and beholden to the military, trying to write a constitution without a mandate, and lacking a viable secularist party that can contest elections against the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood that just got tossed out of office. Iran just elected a relatively moderate president in Hassan Rouhani, but this is the second go for a moderate presidency in Iran; the first time under Mohammad Khatami ended so badly, with discouragement over the Khatami’s effectiveness and the degree to which his government had been manhandled by the clerical establishment, that the Iranians elected a batshit insane conservative buffoon just to try something different. Now Iraq’s PM looks ready to monkey around with his country’s electoral process because he doesn’t like how he thinks the next vote will turn out. If “democracy” as practiced in the Middle East keeps producing disappointing or downright catastrophic outcomes, are young people going to decide that “democracy” is the problem rather than the particular circumstances that have hamstrung it in these cases?

The second piece I saw that interested me was this one at Foreign Policy, written by Fanar Haddad at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore. He’s noticed a change in the rhetoric being used in anti-Shi’i movements to describe the Shi’i themselves, particularly in Iraq:

Prior to 2003, anti-Shiism in Iraq was perhaps best encapsulated in the term ajam. Ajam (singular ajmi) is an Arabic phrase meaning non-Arab; however, in the modern Middle Eastern vernacular, particularly in Iraq, “the ajam” is usually understood as “the Iranians.” Throughout the 20th century this term was used to discredit Shiite activists and political opponents by casting doubt on their national loyalty and Arab pedigree. Sectarian otherness was framed in distinctly national and ethnic terms with scant, if any, reference to sectarian dogma, doctrine, or beliefs. In other words, prior to 2003, Middle Eastern Sunni-Shiite dynamics were more often manifestations of nationalistic and ethnic rather than religious expression.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein changed all that. Since 2003, ajam, a term that was ubiquitous in what was regarded as anti-Shiite sentiment in Iraq and beyond, has all but disappeared from public usage. In its place has emerged a style of anti-Shiism that was largely the preserve of clerical circles of the Saudi Arabian variant. This is a discourse of exclusion primarily based on religious otherness that is embodied by the word rafidha. This new form of sectarian animosity frames the Shiites as suspect not because of the allegedly ambiguous national loyalties of some nor because of the so-called “ethnic impurity” of others but because of the beliefs that define the sect as a whole.

The word ‘ajam comes from a now-obscure verb that refers to the act of adding the dots to Arabic text to make the letters distinguishable from one another, which centuries ago was something that literate Arabs would only do to make the language intelligible to non-Arabs whose fluency in Arabic was in question (there is another verb based on the same root that means “to try,” but you’d have to ask a real scholar of Arabic whether the two meanings are related or just happen to share the same root). It denotes in a pejorative sense anybody who speaks “gibberish,” i.e., a language other than Arabic, and means “non-Arab” in the same way that the Greek word barbaros, from which we get “barbarian” (and Berber, for that matter) means “non-Greek.” The distinction between Arab and Ajam was enshrined in the names of “the two Iraqs,” the Arab one and the Persian one. Until the creation of the nation-state of Iraq in the 20th century, anybody describing the Iraq we know today had to refer to it as ‘iraq al-‘arab in Arabic or ‘iraq-i ‘arab in Persian, to distinguish it from ‘iraq al-‘ajam which is the region of Iran that borders it to the east. This 18th century map of Persian shows “Irak” in the western part of Iran; that’s ‘iraq al-‘ajam:

Persia map

The word rafidah, meanwhile, comes from an Arabic root that means “to leave” or “to abandon,” and means “deserter.” It was first used to denote Shi’i all the way back in 740, during the failed rebellion of Zayd b. ‘Ali, who was the grandson of the grandson of Muhammad through the line of Ali. A number of Shi’i loyalists had rejected Zayd’s claim to being imam in favor of his brother, Muhammad al-Baqir, and in fact the Imami, or “Twelver,” version of Shi’ism practiced by most Iranians follows the line of imams through Muhammad, not Zayd. These could be called the first rafidahs (plural rawafid), but the term is usually used in reference to an event that took place as Zayd was dying from wounds suffered during the revolt. Supposedly, as Zayd was lying there mortally wounded, many people in Kufa (now in Iraq and the city where he’d fought and lost) who were sympathetic to the Shi’i cause asked Zayd what he thought about the first two caliphs (successors to Muhammad), Abu Bakr and Umar, who most Shi’i today see as having usurped the rightful succession from Ali. OK, this is an odd thing to ask a dying man, but we’ll allow it. Zayd replied that he had never heard a disparaging word about either and that both were good Muslims. The Kufans who heard this answer and rejected it (i.e., preferred to curse Abu Bakr and Umar as usurpers) were seen as abandoning Zayd and were called rawafid. The term continued to refer to “Shi’i” in the sense of those who “abandoned” Zayd by refusing to venerate, if not outright cursing, Abu Bakr and Umar, acts that are deeply offensive to Sunnism.

The followers of Zayd established the Zaydi branch of Shi’ism, which was the largest Shi’i branch until the Safavid Dynasty took over Persia in 1501 and mandated the conversion of its population to the Imami Shi’ism practiced by most Iranians today. It is the Safavids who are largely responsible for whatever Sunni-Shi’i division exists in Islam today. Haddad talks about an Iraqi anti-Shi’i polemicist named Taha al-Dulaimi, who preached this ethnic (Shi’i as ‘ajam) anti-Shi’i rhetoric in the 1990s and even went so far as to distinguish between “Arab Shi’ism” and “Persian Shi’ism,” concluding:

This chimes with the ambivalent, even confused, view of many Arabs regarding Shiism prior to 2003: that there is essentially a bad Shiism and a good one with emotional and intellectual proximity to Iran being the arbiter differentiating between the two. This allowed the myth of a non-sectarian Arab world, in addition to myths of unity and uniformity, to be perpetuated and which allowed for a selective rather than wholesale exclusion of Shiites. In Dulaimi’s pre-2003 words: “There is a difference between noble and true Shiites who have a noble and true Shiism and that alien Shiism. We are not talking about … our dear brothers. These are our dear brothers … beware the infiltrating ajmi.” As is obvious in his voluminous writings since 2003, there is no doubt that the concluding sentiment would today be rephrased as the infiltrating Shiite or rafidhi.

The “ambivalence” of Sunni Arabs with respect to Shi’ism is not a modern thing; Sunni Islam has essentially always had a difficult time contextualizing Shi’i Muslims as The Other, because the revered figures, the imams, of Shi’ism are historically also revered by Sunnis; they have to be, because they, even the ones who violently rebelled against Sunni authorities, are the descendents of Muhammad himself. For centuries in much of the Islamic World the Shi’i were politically inactive and lived peaceably under Sunni authorities, they were “good” Shi’a (the Zaydis are, of all the branches of Shi’ism, the one most indistinguishable from Sunni Islam and thus clearly among the “good” Shi’a). Sunni rulers would mint coins with Shi’i inscriptions (I’ve seen coinage of Sunni rulers inscribed with the names of the twelve imams, for example); this is significant because coinage was one of the few ways a sovereign had of broadcasting his authority and ruling ideology to the masses.

But the Safavid takeover of, and imposition of Shi’ism upon, Iran made it possible to denigrate Shi’ism on ethnic terms, as Iranian Otherness, rather than religious terms that might require denigrating honored descendents of Muhammad. The Safavids mandated the cursing of Abu Bakr and Umar, like the rawafid had done, and their open hostility with the Sunni Ottomans (who were themselves Turks but who ruled over most of the Arab population) to their west and Sunni Uzbeks to their east made the ethnic and sectarian fault lines of the Islamic World much clearer than they’d ever been before. The Safavids became the archetype of the “bad” Shi’i, the kind who were politically and militarily active and doctrinally repugnant. But they were also the archetypal Iranian dynasty (funny for a Kurdish ruling family relying on Turkish and Armenian soldiery, but OK), so much so that plenty of modern scholars trace the origins of modern Iran back to the rise of the Safavids in 1501. They, and their bad Shi’ism, were inextricably bound to Iran, Iranian-ness, Otherness. For a Sunni Arab looking to score polemical points, the Safavids made it possible to argue that Shi’ism was, in essence, un-Arab.

The identification of Shi’ism with Iran, or “un-Arabness,” probably helped justify a lot of the open violence that took place between the Ottomans/Uzbeks and the Safavids during the 16th and 17th centuries, but it also ultimately may have ossified the Sunni-Shi’i split in a way that in modern times made for good rhetoric but was a lousy justification for violence. Once nation-states were established with more-or-less stable borders then identifying Shi’ism with “those other guys living over there” meant that they were of little consequence to Arabs living in their own countries. But if Haddad is right and the anti-Shi’i rhetoric really is changing from one based on ethnic Otherness to one based on religious apostasy or dogmatic disputes, that may not bode well for peaceful reconciliation in places like Syria and Iraq.


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