The Happy Arab News Service

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Sunni - Shia

Washington post published another article about the Sunni Shia split in Iraq. This time the reporter focused on mixed marriages or better what's left of them. While there is nothing particularly extraordinary about the article and its heart breaking stories it has some astonishing statistics.

While there are no official statistics, sociologists estimate that nearly a third of Iraqi marriages are unions between members of different sectarian or ethnic communities. In the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, many Iraqis argued that the prevalence of such unions showed that Iraqis cared more about their Arab or national identity than their sect, which would spare the country a civil war.

But Iraq's sectarian strife has risen sharply since the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra by Sunni militants a year ago. Since then, more than 500,000 Iraqis have fled their homes, a number that is growing by 50,000 every month, according to the United Nations. The vast majority have left mixed areas, the main battlefields of the sectarian war.


Our perception of Iraq may be severely out of step with the reality. It is repeatedly reported that many areas in Baghdad have been ethnic cleansed or turned into depopulated buffer zones between Shia and Sunni communities. The imagination is struggling to comprehend the speed with which sectarian wars have split the city.

In view of the situation the staggering 1/3 of marriages that are estimated to be mixed ones raises some questions. The only other similar case i know about is Bosnia where around 1/3 of pre-war marriages were mixed. Given that this is at least the second ethnic conflict we know when mixed marriages utterly failed to prevent total disintegration of the society, the question is what powers ethnic conflicts with such an energy that they are capable in the span of a few years totally undo a social order cemented by massive intermarrying between the communities.

That 1/3 of all marriages are mixed means that not only the spouses but their immediate relatives too, such as fathers and mothers-in-law for example, have established long term relationships crossing sectarian boundaries. Given, in particular, the extended nature of the traditional Arab family, it means that one single such marriage should involve in one form or another many dozens of family members on both sides. It's a huge mass of people with a clear stake at preserving inter sectarian harmony, who theoretically should act as counterweight to the forces of disintegration and break-up threatening the existing order.

Yet the amazing thing about ethnic conflicts is the speed with which they can undo decades of co-existence and apparently however elevated a number of mixed marriages. While it's difficult to predict which ethnic conflict will lead to a complete break-down of the society from my experience of the final meltdown of the Soviets I would think that it is when acts of extreme violence start, even as isolated episodes carried out by isolated and unrepresentative individuals, that a swift and sure end follows. JOnly a few years ago when the US troops had just captured Baghdad thousands of Sunnis and Shia were demonstrating on the streets professing unity and brotherhood. But soon and long before the situation reached the dramatic proportions of today, all signs of disintegration were already present. The classic Arab trick of setting everybody against a common enemy, this time the coalition forces, did not work.

In fact not only it did not work but it plainly made matters worse as it allowed the Iraqis to waste precious time on making empty statements, false declarations of unity against the occupation, in short, avoiding taking on the problem head-on by massively moving on the Sunni insurgents who for a few years clearly led the way in terms of sectarian massacres.

Probably everybody who seriously followed Iraq was impressed by the astonishing restraint demonstrated by the Iraqi Shia and by the control their Ayatollas have over people. Even after months spent under almost daily suicide attacks on Shia mosques, weddings and funerals the Ayatollas still appeared to be in control of the situation keeping their followers from massive retaliation. It was not until the attack on the Golden Mosque of Samarra that the country started sliding into a full blown sectarian war with the Mahdi Army and Badr brigades opening a wave of retaliatory killings against the Sunnis.

The sociologists and psychologists should pay attention to ethnic conflicts as it appears that something else is involved here than just meets the eye. People from zones of intense ethnic confrontations often look as if their brains are switched into a special mode and an amount of violence that can make the situation explode often seems to be absolutely inadequate to create such a mess. Many people involved in vicious and violent ethnic conflicts later struggle to comprehend the acts of their neighbors or to explain their own behaviour. One would think that when under attack by other human beings some patterns of thinking and behavior are activated in people, very powerful patterns indeed, that are so powerful to the point they are capable of transforming the very basic human perception of oneself and others. Much of this failing back on sectarian identities makes certain sense in times of conflict and in fact could have been useful in the pre-historic environment of tribal warfare which can indicate its possible evolutionary origin. Yet it is a clear maladaptation for a huge extended society which modern society is.

Whatever the case with ethnic conflicts and the forces driving them it's usually a safe bet that when violence starts and is allowed to proceed unabated, no amount of demagoguery or mixed marriages will save people from disaster. In this sense it was the responsibility of the Iraqi Sunnis and probably the Sunni world as a whole to pay attention to groups like Al Kaida in Iraq, and not only to be denouncing them every single day but to mobilize the local Sunni population against them. After all if a few cartoons could spark violent demonstrations all across the Muslim world, a few fatwas by respected clerics sure could have done the same thing for the Sunnis in Iraq. When a community finds itself willingly or not turned into a base for launching attacks against another community, empty declarations of innocence or demagogic condemnations with no practical consequences are of little use. Though a few peace loonies on the other side may be left satisfied with this, on the whole words don't help here. Bullets do.

The Sunnis received enough encouragement both from the US and from the Iraqi government to take part in the political process and in rebuilding the country and even at the peak of the Shia backlash the violence inflicted on the Sunnis was mild compared to hundreds, or maybe thousands, of spectacular car bomb (better truck bomb) attacks staged by the extremists among them. Instead of demanding a timetable for the immediate pullout of coalition forces the Sunni leaders should have better requested additional US and government troops to break the back of this insane insurgency. Now it appears that not only they have lost their position of the politically dominant community but that in many places they have even lost an opportunity to live as a minority.

To put it short nothing will save communities from sectarian wars unless these communities are ready to confront the violence coming from their own members towards other communities by the very means these members use, which is violence. People around the globe should better get this idea and stop betting that high proportion of mixed marriages or nice talks will do the work. One of the Christian Science Monitor reporters recently visited Pakistan. Pakistan is a home to the second largest concentration of the Shia in the world. There are 30 millions of Shia in Pakistan, more than in Iraq. The country is huge and so the Shia are just a minority there, about 20% of the population. Over the last 20 years thousands of people died in Sunni Shia sectarian tensions. Last year about 300 died from violence that included suicide attacks on Ashoura processions and Shia mosques. This is considered an achievement in Pakistan, a sort of a Sunni Shia approximation of the idea of universal love and brotherhood of all men.

Yet worries grow over a possible Sunni Shia escalation as some areas in Pakistan experience a rapid Talibanization. The Taliban have a very unimpressive record of peaceful co-existence with Shia communities and some in Pakistan are worried that these extremists may set off another Sunni Shia war there. The reporter visited areas of Pakistan where Sunnis and Shia live side by side, interviewing locals. Among the questions he asked one was whether the tensions are indeed rising and if so how serious the situation may become. Though some of the locals acknowledged a certain deterioration in the relationships all promised to the reporter that no sectarian war is possible there because both communities are heavily intermarried. Needless to say that after Bosnia and Iraq this reasoning sounds very familar . . . But it does not sound very convincing . . .

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