Political violence in Iraq
Reports from Iraq uniformly stress the divisions in the country between Kurds, Shia and Sunni. Newspaper regularly refer to the “sectarian” divisions in the country. It leaves the American reader with a sense that Iraq is a very different country from ours and that it is hard for us to understand the passions that divide the population. Commentators on the election were uniformly fearful that sectarianism in Iraq would hinder the formation of a new government.
But part of that sense of strangeness may simply come from the fact that the divisions we live with are so familiar to us. America is no more united than Iraq: there are whites and there are African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans. There are documented workers and undocumented ones. Some Americans are straight; others are gay. Some Americans are men; the others are women. And those are not all that significant divisions that affect our political life. It is difficult to look at Republicans stonewalling Democrats not only on legislation but also on appointees to the Obama administration without wondering about the sectarianism between the two parties in our system.
Religion plays a larger role in the divisions in Iraq than they do over here. But we recall that John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic president in our history. Evangelical religion is a factor in many political issues confronting our country. Nevertheless, race plays a more profound role for us than religion: the first year of the Obama presidency is an exercise in futility. There are many different reasons for that but, clearly, one of them is the fact that Obama is the first black president of the United States.
The difference between our divisions and those in Iraq is, of course, that theirs are often fought out with bombs and guns. Political violence is not unknown in the United States. Racial killings still occur as do killings of gay by straight men, and, much more frequently, of women by men. But physical violence is not daily event for us as it still is in Iraq.
The causes of physical violence in Iraq are a matter of discussion. Many people ascribe it to what sorts of people Iraqis, or, more generally, Arabs are, or they ascribe it to a different culture, or blame it on religion. Such explanation of political violence in Iraq may justify our distrust and dislike of the people there but they do not correspond to actual fact. It also reinforces the sense of strangeness and how we cannot really understand “those people.”
But that is a mistake. What happens in Iraq, politically, is not so different from what happens in the United States every day.
The most fundamental fact is that in our invasion in 2003 we destroyed government in Iraq. Not only did we capture and kill Saddam Hussein, but the early occupation authority disbanded the Iraqi army and sent home the bureaucrats. The result was a period of complete lawlessness with widespread looting of government offices and museums sheltering priceless antiquities. The US military force was not large enough to replace the Iraqi government's forces of law and order. Many years of harsh government repression were followed by a sudden disappearance of any police force. Not surprisingly a great deal of the early violence was apparently perpetrated by criminals.
A second source of violence came from the opposition to the US military. Various armed groups committed acts of violence in the hope of freeing the country from foreign occupation.
There is some indication that the religious component of the violence was very limited. In recent provincial elections, parties that took an explicitly religious position garnered very few votes. A majority of Iraqis want a strong central government to restore order. They appear to care much less about religious differentiations. In the current elections, one of the major contenders is the leader of an explicitly secular party. The Shia—one of the major religious groups—is deeply divided into different factions. Some Shia religious leaders openly support not only an elected government, but liberal freedoms, including freedom of religion. While they want Islamic law to play a role in the country they clearly distinguish the political order they advocate from the religious authoritarianism of Iran.
Whatever happens in Iraq is also under the influence of neighboring countries. Some of the violence is sponsored by Iran. Osama bin Laden's crew has its representatives in Iraq and contributes to the general turmoil.
There is no reason to accept the analysis that blames political violence in Iraq on the divisions between different religious groups. It is much more likely that a great deal of the political violence results from the American invasion and the early decision by the US administrators in Iraq to destroy the Iraqi military and police. We have now managed to help to rebuild both to some extent and apparently that is helping to reduce the prevailing violence.
Certainly, the culture in Iraq differs significantly from ours. But those differences do not extend to the political system. Iraqis, by and large, want peace as much that we do for ourselves. It is not clear at this point in US political history that their sectarianism is more profound than ours. Much of our sense of strangeness, that we cannot understand them or their political life, is misplaced and one more example of our xenophobia.