Traders in Tales of Woe

Among the worst enemies of Iraq’s Sunni people are the community’s own self-appointed leadership, and its media defenders around the Arab world. That is the assessment of Harith Hasan al-Qarawee, who writes that simplistic explanations for the rise of ISIS are dangerously accepted in Iraq and in the centers of power abroad.

Simplistic explanations of vast problems, in addition to being wrong, tend to imply simplistic solutions. Thus the equation that says that ISIS organically grew out of the minds of Iraq’s newly oppressed Sunnis suggests an easy solution: partition Iraq and Syria to give the Sunnis their own country. A deceptive formula that is finding increasing favor in Washington and elsewhere.

Sunni victimhood: this is the narrative that we hear now, the story of how it all boils down to Iraq’s Sunni Arab population being oppressed. But the political figures and groups who are the most prominent exponents of this victimhood narrative are not so much concerned with the sufferings of the Sunnis, or with mending the injustices that have been done to the Sunnis, as they are with loudly broadcasting the litany of their suffering. The way the narrative of victimhood is expressed shows how it is a tool to advance the agenda of these groups.

This is not to say that all these hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens- people whose social and political identities have been reduced to the simple category of “Sunni”- that these people are not real victims of real injustice; the injustice itself is no myth. Indeed, it is a agonizing reality: families made homeless, innocent people crammed into Iraq’s prisons, villages and towns smashed to ruins.

The conmen who deceived the Sunnis of Iraq have always been first and foremost those who claimed to speak in their names, the political operators both inside and outside the country who have long been willing to gamble with the fates of huge populations in the service of aims which have nothing to do with actually bettering the lives of those populations.

Only a day after Amnesty International issued its report deploring the abuses of Kurdish militias destroying and burning the homes of thousands of Sunni Arabs who once lived in towns and villages bordering Mosul, Kirkuk and Diyala, came the news that the Coalition of Sunni Forces would boycott the Iraqi Parliament. The Coalition was protesting the abuses committed by Shi’ite Arab militias in the city of Muqdadiya [in the east near Baghdad]; local Sunni notables in that city sought to bring the rampaging militias before an international court.

The first prominent Sunni political figure to respond to Amnesty’s report on the depredations of Kurdish militias in the country’s northwest was the former governor of Nineveh himself, Atheel al-Nujaifi [Nineveh, whose capitol is Mosul, is mostly ISIS territory at present; ethnically it is mixed between Kurds and Sunni Arabs]. Al-Nujaifi denied that the Peshmerga troops of the Kurdish Regional Government [his political allies]were involved in the atrocities; he blamed instead angry Yazidi groups [a religious minority targeted for extermination and enslavement by ISIS]aided by the PKK [leftist guerilla group of Turkish Kurds]. And he blamed as well the Iraqi national government for paying the wages of the militias.

There is no denying that large portions of the Sunni Arab population feel excluded and abused by the Iraqi state since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Much has already been written on the topic; for many, the American occupying forces take much of the blame, given the violations they committed against the civilian populations of Sunni majority areas, as well as their decision to dissolve the [Sunni-dominated] army and police forces and eradicate the Baath party.

For others, the blame falls on Shi’ite militias, which carried out sectarian cleansing operations and killings during the [American occupation-era] civil war in Baghdad. Or they blame the government of Nouri al-Maliki [Prime Minister 2006-14] and its overt [Shi’ite] sectarianism. Still other lay the blame on forces within the Sunni community which pushed it down a suicidal path, a path most recently embodied in ISIS.

But no matter how the sense of “alienation” felt by Sunnis in post-Saddam Iraq is explained, there will always be two difficult truths:

The first is that in Iraq, a “Sunni problem” was actually created, indeed manufactured, during the last thirteen years, and was made more intractable by sectarian struggles for power within the government, and the policies that issued from those struggles.

The second truth is that there were people who actually invested in the “Sunni problem” in order to gain political prominence, in the same way that Shi’ite and Kurdish elites invested in the victimhood discourse of their own communities for political gain.

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Photo: Chloe Cornish/IRIN

If are not careful to distinguish between the widespread feeling of oppression in communities that are hastily described as “Sunni,” and the political and propagandistic use of that feeling, then the “Sunni problem” will remain an open wound, manipulated and exploited by politicians seeking personal profit at the expense of their communities. The Sunni plight will continue to be a bloody shirt waved by sectarian media figures abroad, as they put on shows of sympathy for their “Sunni brothers” in Iraq, or conversely every Sunni in Iraq will keep being equated with a potential DAESH member for those who seek to justify the abuses and crimes of other sects and communities against them.

A few months ago, John Bolton, the former [Bush-era] American ambassador to the UN, published an essay favoring the creation of a Sunni state partitioned from Iraq and Syria. Although Bolton begins his piece with a summary of the injustices suffered by Sunnis in Iraq and Syria under regimes backed by Shi’ite Iran, he quickly gets to the real point: the strategic benefits that would accrue from the creation of a Sunni state cropped from the neighboring Shi’ite entities, an ally of the West in its struggle against Iran.

Bolton’s article, typical of the imperial inclinations of American right-wing ideologues, is mixed with a strikingly superficial understanding of the region; he apparently believes that with nothing more than the weight of the word “Sunni,” the map of the region can be redrawn, a new state built from the ruins of others.

The lack of knowledge on display in Bolton’s piece reflects the ongoing process that has transformed communities into supposedly static entities with fixed essences, a vision of contemporary geopolitical strife in which everything leads back to ancient hatreds between religious sects.

It is this sort of simplistic or just plain tendentious argument that has generalized the narrative that DAESH emerged naturally out of the “marginalization of the Sunni,” and the related argument that the Sunni populations chose to accept DAESH’s authority because of the oppression they had endured under the Alawite regime in Damascus and the Shi’ite one in Baghdad.

And of course it is undeniable that DAESH did indeed take advantage of feuds and sectarian divides, and indeed used as its central rallying cry the struggle against regimes it depicted as the “evil other.” And it is undeniable that the politics of sectarianism was indeed greatly exacerbated by both these regimes and by the armed groups which fought against them.

But defining what is in reality a very limited and circumstantial shared sectarian identification as the outright explanation for the rise of DAESH – and thus also the formula for the antidote to DAESH—means ignoring numerous other truths and factors. Because in the real world, jihadi organizations of all sorts flourished and predated the “Sunni plight” in Iraq and Syria. And in most cases they concerned themselves with fighting what were Sunni regimes, in countries which did not and do not have a Sunni-Shi’ite divide: places like Libya, Algeria, Egypt, and others.

If there were no such sectarian rift in Iraq, would it have been possible for DAESH to emerge and grow in Iraq? Some of DAESH’s successes, its ability to seize and hold major cities, would probably have been harder in countries without a Sunni-Shi’ite divide.

But the reality is that DAESH and similar jihadi organizations have been able to build a presence in every country where the authority of the central state has weakened or collapsed, and this demonstrates that the jihadi project is to a great extent independent of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide. The jihadi project has its own conceptions and projections, modes of thought that were formed well before the recent deepening of the sectarian [Sunni-Shi’ite] divide in the region; indeed some of the premises on which these groups are founded are shared equally between Sunni and Shi’ite groups.

It is not difficult to see that “Sunnis” have ended up being the biggest victims of the way their narrative of oppression has been exploited at the hands of DAESH and other “friends” of the Sunni.
No one can see this more clearly than the huge number of people in Iraq who have been uprooted, pushed out of their homes and their cities; more than three million, the majority of them Sunnis.

And the losses are in places other than the humanitarian field; the political as well. The are against DAESH has allowed the completion of a process of demographic engineering which has been to the detriment of Sunnis more than any other group.

The recent spate of abuses and violations carried out by Shi’ite militias against the Sunni populations of the Muqdadiya district are part of a wider plan, of organized demographic shifts whose aim is to redraw the country’s sectarian map in a way that better suits the interests and objectives of these militias. It is also an expression of a sharpening desire for sectarian revenge that goes against all rationality, that wraps itself in a kind of ‘sanctified’ behavior immune to criticism.

And even as the central government dodges its duty to confront the extremism of these militias – dumping all the blame on DAESH for the abuses and violations—video evidence has emerged, recordings which clearly show Shiite militants burning Sunni mosques, shouting sectarian slogans that completely contradicts the official discourse that insists on presenting these men as fighters for a “national cause” and goes against the instructions of the Shi’ite religious leadership which reiterated endlessly the necessity to avoid collective punishment against civilians.

Meanwhile in the north, the Kurdistan regional government is successfully completing a program of redrawing its own frontiers, expanding under the pretext of the war against DAESH and benefitting from the silence of those who simply accept that the core of the conflict is Sunni against Shi’ite, and who are unwilling to open a new front with the Sunni Kurds.

Amnesty International says that although Kurdish officials “have justified the displacement of Arab communities on grounds of security, it appears to be used to punish them for their perceived sympathies with IS, and to consolidate territorial gains in ‘disputed areas’ which the Kurdish Regional Government authorities have long claimed as rightfully theirs.”

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Photo: Chloe Cornish/IRIN

The report is based on investigations made in 13 towns and villages, has testimonies from the local population as well as satellite images that prove the deliberate character of the destruction of wide portions of those towns, destruction in which participated the Kurdistan’s army, the Kurdish Syrian militias and the Yazidi militias.

Amnesty reports that “Kurdish forces forced Arab residents to leave by demolishing entire villages after [Kurds] took them back from DAESH in Northern Iraq”.

The present violence has multiplied the suffering of the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shi’ites of Iraq. But when people’s genuine suffering is turned into a “sectarian plight” that is used for political purposes, or into feuds that are disconnected from the desire of ordinary people to simply live in peace and dignity, it also loses the ability of creating a natural reaction of compassion and solidarity among other groups of people.

And that is precisely what is happening to the region today: the suffering and pain of real people has been neutralized by a commodification of suffering in the “market of the plights.” Crimes which do not touch “our group” or which were not committed by “our enemy” are met with silence or complicity, with a sense that we do not want to disturb the founding myths of the group to which we belong, or that we might find ourselves excluded from our group if we express solidarity. And that is how the mouthpieces of Sunni suffering have manufactured a group and an identity out of the Sunnis, and in that making have participated in the creation of a national affliction with no visible end.

Harith Hasan al-Qarawee Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard