Nir Rosen records the hardening of sectarian boundaries, the firming up of assabiya, or group identity, in the Middle East.
By **Robin Yassin-Kassab**
By arrangement with Qunfuz.com.
Photograph via Wikimedia Commons by Veritas 2233.
For a mix of contextual analysis and gripping reportage, the reader will find no better book than Nir Rosen’s magisterial Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World.
Most Western correspondents were flown into Iraq unable to speak Arabic, largely ignorant of the context, to pass their time attending coalition press briefings or embedded with the U.S. military. Their reports were heavy with simplistic labels (“the Sunni triangle”, for instance) and ignored non-sectarian nationalism and class issues. Rosen’s writing on Iraq is the polar opposite of such parachute journalism. He speaks Arabic for a start, and blends in physically as a result of the “melanin advantage” bequeathed by his Iranian father. More to the point, he is courageous and energetic, going where few outsiders would dare, whatever their skin tone. He’s a reporter of the best kind, capable of locating pattern behind the copious detail. So he doesn’t merely report the mosque sermons he attended, or his encounters with militiamen and their victims, but accurately interprets and reads between the lines. His descriptions of time, place, and personality are vivid, with not an ounce of orientalism added. His lack of sentimentality combined with his obvious sympathy for the people of the region make him the perfect candidate to voyage into the sectarian heart of darkness.
His regional experience is an obvious strength. It allows him to trace the momentum of sectarian-political discourse from one area to another, beyond state boundaries. The first part of the book is called “The Lebanonisation of Iraq”. The second is called “The Iraqification of the Middle East.” The section on Afghanistan feels a little like an afterthought, because the dynamics outside the Arab world are different and because Rosen doesn’t speak Pushto, but it’s still as perceptive and as dramatic as anything a newspaper can offer. (I have some reservations about the (nevertheless very good) series of articles he wrote on Syria for al-Jazeera’s website in September and October 2011; he seems to see the Syrian revolution through an Iraqi prism, perhaps oversensitive to sectarian aspects of the developing conflict and not sensitive enough to the fact that, unlike in Iraq in 2003, the trouble began with a popular mass movement against state brutality.)
Starting between the invasion of Iraq and the civil war, Rosen records the hardening of sectarian boundaries, the firming up of assabiya, or group identity. The sectarian Interim Governing Council of 2003 was replaced by an even more sectarian parliament in 2005. The elections were held according to proportional representation, with the whole country considered one electoral district. This weakened local-interest parties and strengthened ethno-sectarian blocks.
This symbolization didn’t happen naturally. Rosen describes a “reprogramming” of Lebanese Sunni attitudes by combined Saudi, neo-conservative, and right-wing Lebanese propaganda.
He describes—or allows his interviewees to describe—the Shia sense of liberation and the Sunni sense of horror when the Saddam regime dissolved. Shias poured into the streets to perform the mourning rituals they’d been forbidden formerly, to celebrate their repressed identity. Sunnis viewed these scenes with a distaste born of sectarian and class prejudice, and with very real fear. Why, many asked themselves, did “secular” and religiously neutral Iraq suddenly look like south Tehran?
Beyond Iraq, there was not so much a Shia revival (that was 1979) as a revival of Sunni chauvinism. In Jordan, where King Hussein had given the Muslim Brotherhood control over the education ministry in 1970 in return for its support during the Black September massacres of Palestinians, the associates of Abu Musaab az-Zarqawi recruited suicide bombers to kill “apostates” and “Safavids” in Iraq. In Lebanon, where the civil war of 1975-1990 had opposed Christians and Muslims, Sunnis now turned against Shia. Saddam Hussain’s deposal by imperialist forces, then his execution at Eid to the sound of Shii taunts, had transformed him into a Sunni martyr. The assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, supposedly by Syrian (therefore Alawi) hands, did something similar.
This symbolization didn’t happen naturally. Rosen describes a “reprogramming” of Lebanese Sunni attitudes by combined Saudi, neo-conservative, and right-wing Lebanese propaganda. The Hariri family’s Future movement, though led by secular billionaires and allied with Druze and some Christians, framed its political battles with Syria and Hizbullah as episodes in a wider anti-Shia struggle. Fearing Hizbullah’s popularity, the region’s pro-American regimes—Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan—joined in, tarring the “resistance front”, including even Sunni Hamas, as an expansive Persian-Shii crescent. Saudi backers and the Hariris funded and encouraged viciously sectarian Salafis who accused Hizbullah, the only power to have reconquered Israeli-occupied territory without granting political concessions in return, of protecting the Israeli border. “It seemed to me,” writes Rosen, “as though Lebanese Sunnis were becoming the new Maronite Christians, no longer interested in Arab nationalism but only in a narrow Lebanese chauvinism, looking to America for protection and hating the Palestinians to the point of sympathizing with Israel.”
Lebanon has long consigned its Palestinian refugees to apartheid confinement. Right-wing Maronite Christians worried by swelling Sunni numbers were the historic enemies of Palestinians in Lebanon, insisting on their marginalization and slaughtering them in their camps during the civil war (Syrian troops helped out in 1976). Palestinians and Sunni Lebanese were allied in the war, armed Palestinians frequently acting as the militia of the Sunni community. Yet by 2007, many Lebanese Sunnis blamed Palestinians en masse for the presence of Fateh al-Islam, an armed Salafi group, in the Nahr el-Barid camp outside Tripoli. The fact that Fateh al-Islam counted more non-Palestinians than Palestinians among its ranks, including many Lebanese from Tripoli, did not affect anti-Palestinian attitudes. In the full-scale assault launched by the Lebanese army on the camp, many were killed and 40,000 were made (and in most cases remain) homeless.
Back in Iraq, Rosen examines in detail the rise of the Mahdi Army and al-Qa’ida and the long battle to ethnically cleanse Baghdad’s Amriya neighborhood. He describes how Sunni resistance fighters came to see the Shia militias who were driving them out of Baghdad and al-Qa’ida, who had turned Sunni towns and suburbs into a brutal version of Qandahar, as greater enemies than the Americans, and how they worked with the Americans in the “Awakening” movement. He studies the American “Surge” of military forces and how, in the new context, it brought an end to the worst violence. He also examines the intra-Shia civil war, which pitted the middle classes represented by the Iraqi Islamic Council against the working class Sadrists.
This post originally appeared at Qunfuz.com.
Robin Yassin-Kassab was born in west London in 1969. He grew up in England and Scotland, and has lived and worked in London, France, Pakistan, Turkey, Syria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Oman. He is the author of The Road from Damascus. He is also a co-editor and regular contributor to PULSE, recently listed by Le Monde Diplomatique as one of its five favorite websites.