in iraq, the past is the present -- 6/25/14

Today's selection - from The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, by Vali Nasr. The centuries-old struggle between Sunni and Shia is still so fresh and relevant in today's Middle East that in 2003, Saddam Hussein was able to whip up sectarian emotions by referencing events that occurred seven centuries earlier.

"The voice on tape was grainy, but all Iraqis could tell who it was. Saddam Hussein was sending them a message. Recorded at his hiding place shortly before he was arrested and addressed to 'the Iraqi people and the Arab nation' on the occasion of his birthday, April 28, 2003, the tape was vintage Saddam. The fallen dictator blamed traitors for the way his troops had failed so quickly, letting U.S. forces storm Baghdad in just a few weeks of high-speed maneuver warfare. He exhorted Iraqis to resist the occupation and to remain true to their Arab honor and sense of nationalism. They would be triumphant if they remained defiant, he said.

"Saddam had always had a flair for drama and a keen sense of history. To make sure that his countrymen felt the meaning of what had happened as well as to poison the well for the United States, he compared Baghdad's fall to the Americans in 2003 to its fall to the Mongols in 1258. That earlier conquest had spelled the end of the caliphate and is remembered by Sunni Arabs as a calamity, when the rivers of the cultured Abbasid capital are said to have run black with ink from books and red with the blood of the Mongols' massacred victims. Iraqis, Saddam hoped, would come to see resisting the coalition's occupation as an Islamic duty. He then made an ominous comparison in which he likened the Shia's lack of resistance to the Americans to the alleged offense of Ibn al-Alqami, the caliph's Shia vizier, who supposedly helped the Mongols to sack Baghdad. 'Just as [the Mongol chieftain] Holagu entered Baghdad,' he ranted, 'so did the criminal Bush enter Baghdad, with the help of the Alqami.' His implication was clear: just as the Shia had betrayed Islam in 1258, he was saying, so they were betraying it again in 2003.

Mongols at the gates of Baghdad in 1258 ... from the Jami al-Tawarikh by Rashid al-Din, c 1310.

"Since Saddam raised the ghost of Ibn al-Alqami, references to him have become ubiquitous in communiqués of insurgents and Sunni extremists. As the bloody travails of war and occupation have unfolded in Iraq, the Shia have once more been held responsible for the failures of the Arab world. Long persecuted and suppressed by the Sunni-dominated Iraqi state, now they are being blamed for the debacle that Sunnis face in the new Iraq -- and by extension in the whole Middle East.

"The ready way in which a 'secular' Ba'athist figure such as Sadddam [could] ring a change on a seven-century-old Sunni grudge to appeal to sectarian prejudices is a sign that the concepts and categories that are often cited in order to explain the Middle East to Western audiences -- modernity, democracy, fundamentalism, and secular nationalism, to name a few -- can no longer satisfactorily account for what is going on. It is rather the old feud between Shias and Sunnis that forges attitudes, defines prejudices, draws political boundary lines, and even decides whether and to what extent those other trends have relevance."

with special thanks to Ambassador Joseph Torsella (ret.)


Vali Nasr


The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future


W. W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2006 by Vali Nasr


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