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Sunni from Shinola By: Christopher Hitchens
Slate | Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Ever wonder how to piss off an Iraqi? It's relatively simple. Just ask one, no sooner than you have been introduced: "So you're an Iraqi? How absolutely fascinating. Do tell: Are you a Kurd or a Sunni or a Shiite?" This will work every time, just as it's always so polite and so useful to ask a brown-skinned American if he or she is Chicano or, you know … Latina.

If you fall into conversation with an Iraqi, you will soon enough find out what you want to know. Kurds are not shy about mentioning their nationhood, and followers of the Shiite confession are not inclined to make a secret of the fact. So don't force the question. But you will have to know a lot of Iraqis before you meet one who cannot introduce you, usually with pride, to his or her Sunni cousin, or Kurdish auntie, or Shiite brother-in-law, as the case may be. And as for ethnicity and religion beyond our customary categories, you had better be prepared to meet Turkish and Assyrian Iraqis, as well as to bear in mind that in 1947 there were more Jews in Baghdad than in Jerusalem (many of the former of whom had been there longer), that many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are Christian from more than one denomination—Islamic fanatics murdered the head of their Anglican congregation just the other day—and that the spiritual leader of the Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, is an ethnic Persian.

When it comes to Iraq, one of the most boring and philistine habits of our media is the insistence on using partitionist and segregationist language that most journalists would (I hope) scorn to employ if they were discussing a society they actually knew. It is the same mistake that disfigured the coverage of the Bosnian war, where every consumer of news was made to understand that there was fighting between Serbs, Croats, and "Muslims." There are two apples and one orange in that basket, as any fool should be able to see. Serbian and Croatian are national differences, which track very closely with the distinction between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic beliefs. Many Muslims are Bosnian, but not all Bosnians are Muslim. And in fact, the Bosnian forces in the late war were those which most repudiated any confessional definition. (And when did you ever hear the media saying that, "Today the Orthodox shelled Sarajevo," or, "Yesterday the Catholics bombarded Mostar"?)

In Iraq there are also two apples and one orange in the media-coverage basket (as well as many important fruits that, as I mentioned above, are never specified). To be a Sunni or a Shiite is to follow one or another Muslim obedience, but to be a Kurd is to be a member of a large non-Arab ethnicity as well as to be, in the vast majority of cases, a Sunni. Thus, by any measure of accuracy, the "Sunni" turnout in the weekend's referendum on the constitution was impressively large, very well-organized, and quite strongly in favor of a "yes" vote. Is that the way you remember it being reported? I thought not. Well, then, learn to think for yourself.

This same tribal habit of mind—tribal on our part, I mean, not on the part of the Iraqis—allows some people to make the lazy assumption that the liberation of Iraq has created these differences, or intensified them, rather than sought to compose and heal them. The Saddam Hussein regime was based on a minority of a minority—a Mafia clique based in and around the city of Tikrit—and it stayed in power not by being "secular" or multiethnic but by being sectarian and by playing the card of divide and rule. It treated all the inhabitants of the country as its personal property, and it made lifelong enemies among all communities and all confessional groups. The differences between these groups are now specified in a constitution, perhaps a bit more than I would like, but are at least specified in order that no group is to be left out, or classified as second-class.

Since Iraq has no choice but to be a plural and various country, these diversities can be handled in only one of three ways: by a fascistic dictatorship of one faction over all others, by civil war leading to partition, or by federal democracy. The first option has now, I think, been demolished for all time. The second two options need not be mutually exclusive or incompatible, since one is still possible and the other is still hard, and since a great deal of damage was done to intercommunal relations (to phrase it mildly) during the decades of the fascistic expedient, and since there are neighboring countries that have an interest in supporting their own religious or ethnic clienteles within Iraq. But these are long-standing material realities, and not in any way the product of the intervention. It would make as much sense to say that the murderous terrorism of the religious sectarians is the product of the intervention.

Ah, but that is exactly what the moral cretins do say about Zarqawi and his death squads. There may be an argument about the authenticity of the newly released Zawahiri/Zarqawi correspondence, and I myself make no pronouncement. But as it happens, we know from many open sources that there is a debate among the jihadists as to the wisdom and even the propriety of killing civilians without discrimination, or of slaughtering the Shiites as if they were all heretics or apostates. One of Zarqawi's mentors has even weighed in, on a Muslim website, questioning the excessive zeal of his disciple. So even the most stone-cold killers and dogmatists have to wonder, and to worry, about the balance of forces in Iraq. I take this as a sign of encouragement. Perhaps, since they, too, are human, they will have to worry about the enormous casualties they are taking, as well as inflicting.

There will soon be a comparative experiment to run. The Syrian Ba'athist dictatorship of Bashar Assad, which is also based on a tiny confessional minority—the Alawites—is currently entering its moribund stage. Its despotism and corruption to one side, it has made the vast additional mistake of supporting death squads in Lebanon as well as in Iraq. When Syrian Baathism implodes, and when the many Arab and Kurdish Muslims it has oppressed take revenge, and when its killers prowl the streets of Beirut as well as Damascus and Aleppo in the hope of saving what they can, will we hear again that this chaos and misery would never have happened if it were not for American imperialism?

Actually, we are already hearing rehearsals of this stupidity. Discussing the possibility of cross-border tussles to deal with Syria's wretched, spiteful sabotage of the new Iraq, the New York Times kept tight hold of its only historical analogy and announced—in a news story, not a sidebar—that this was Cambodia all over again. And so it might just possibly be, if we were fighting the Vietcong in Iraq and if Assad were the cynical but neutralist Prince Sihanouk. As it is, our foes in Iraq are much more like the Khmer Rouge, and Assad's regime is more like the aggressive and corrupt minority rulers of South Vietnam, so the analogy is at the expense of those who repeat it parrot-fashion, and who mostly cannot tell Sunni from Shinola.

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Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.


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