Misreading Iraq, reading the world

June 15, 2014
One of the many unpleasant aspects involved with reading about the current crisis in Iraq undoubtedly relates to having to subject myself to American press coverage of the Middle East.

Such was the case with a video appearing in the Washington Post the other day. The video, produced by senior national security correspondent Karen DeYoung, purports to 'explain' the 'Sunni-Shiite divide' in the span of just a couple of minutes.

Predictably, the story it recounts begins a long, long time ago....

Media coverage of non-western countries tends to focus upon the alleged timelessness of contemporary conflict. 
I suppose there were probably good intentions at play here, but the piece leaves a lot to be desired. As is the case with a lot of the journalists covering the Middle East, DeYoung presents entire civilizations through the prism of today's headlines. 'The divide between Sunnis and Shias' explains the narrator, 'began 1400 years ago when the Islamic prophet Muhammad died, and the two sides clashed over who should succeed him.'
So, in other words, none of this has anything to do with recent history--it all began a long, long time ago.

This video touches upon the classic themes of Orientalism to reassure Americans that conflict in Iraq started long, long before the American invasion.

This kind of thinking, unfortunately, is typical in the media analysis of the Middle East, in which overmatched news correspondents are all too willing to describe anything they can't understand in terms of centuries-old strife, and usually have no trouble finding talking heads
willing to back up these claims.

A very old story...

There are three main characteristics to DeYoung's video, all of which are classics in American media treatment of Complicated Conflicts Involving Non-Western People. Again, there is really nothing new here.

First, there is the assumption that these conflicts are timeless--so old, in fact, that there's absolutely nothing we could possibly hope to do about it. Imagine a conflict that has actually been waged for 1400 years--sounds pretty insurmountable, doesn't it?

Ancient Hatred: Good name for a metal band, but not a great way of looking at current events

In fact, most of these conflicts are not timeless at all. While it is easy to find examples of conflicts going way, way back, in most cases the instances of conflict are interruptions of much longer eras of peace. When conflict does break out, it is not so much the latest chapter in a never-ending struggle, but rather is fought in response to relatively recent events taking place with regard to politics, economics, or other concrete issues.
It's disingenuous to characterize ME conflict as 'ancient'

Secondly, the emphasis in this kind of reporting frequently falls upon supposedly dogmatic religious differences. This is also a feature of the video. Right after misinforming its viewers about the supposed timelessness of 'the Sunni-Shiite divide,' the video sets out to define both Sunnis and Shiites in essentially religious terms:
'Both groups agree that Allah is the one true God, and Muhammad his messenger. They both follow the five pillars of Islam, and read the Koran. But disagreement over how to interpret it has caused such a divide over time, that many Sunnis don't even consider Shias to be proper Muslims.'
Yes, of course--this is all we need to know about Sunnis and Shiites, all of whom presumably act precisely according to the ideals of the religion to which they adhere. And of course, this is the main reason why a young Sunni man living in Baghdad would think it's a good idea to kill or chase out his Shiite neighbors. He's thinking about religious differences that are more than a thousand years old, not about how to protect his own family from conflict that constitutes a clear and present danger.

But even though the only thing that most Americans might know about Iraqis is that most of them are Muslim, Iraqis should not be defined by their religion any more than anybody else. I'm not saying this because it's the politically correct thing to do, but because human beings aren't hard-wired that way. None of us lives up to the stereotypes set up by people who are ignorant of our culture, society and daily lives. Pretending that Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis are nothing more than the sum of religious dogmas we can look up on Wikipedia just leaves us with gross misunderstandings about what motivates people in the countries in which successive American governments have gotten us involved. Not a great idea. 

A third feature of this type of analysis is that it shifts all of the blame for the fighting onto the victims themselves. In addition to being inaccurate, such an approach is incredibly self-serving and disingenuous. For Americans, I can certainly understand why it may  be reassuring to blame the violence taking place in Iraq today on an 'ancient' squabble that began 1400 years ago--but that doesn't make it right. 
A reassuring thought, perhaps...
Rather than look to the destabilizing force of an American invasion in 2003 that was supported by nearly two-thirds of Americans on the day the Iraq War began, we're supposed to believe that Iraqis are killing each other over events that took place 1400 years ago. So we blame the Iraqis themselves--and the ancient hatred that their religious sects supposedly encourage--when discussing the nature of today's fighting. 
This is the sort of attitude that produces pieces like this one from the Deroit Free Press. The Free Press story was about how today's events in Iraq were viewed by veterans. The overall view was that veterans were upset because they felt that their hard work had been wasted. The tone of the piece was sympathetic (towards American soldiers), and focused on the loss of American life and treasure due to the war. While this is a story worth telling, it was frankly jarring to read all of that and hear virtually no reference in the article--except for the concern expressed by veterans for their Iraqi friends--of the incredible damage that events over the past decade have played in Iraq.
Estimates vary, but some claim that a half-million Iraqis have died so far as a consequence of America's war of choice. More than a million refugees were created as a result of this war, not to mention incredible trauma, economic deprivation, and complete loss of long-serving pluralistic institutions. And then we complain about how those incompetent Iraqis are just screwing up all of the good that we accomplished.

The Free Press piece concludes with one of the veterans opining on today's events in Iraq. “The Sunnis and Shi’ites have been at each other’s throats for a long time,” he said. “We cannot stop that."
The Post-Cold War Era

The type of presentation seen in the Washington Post video isn't new, nor is it limited to how Muslims or the Middle East are portrayed in American thinking. Back in the 1990s, then Secretary of State Warren Christopher similarly said of the fighting in Yugoslavia: "The hatred between all three groups—the Bosnians and the Serbs and the Croatians—is almost unbelievable. It’s almost terrifying, and it’s centuries old."
Warren Christopher: Yugo conflict 'centuries' old


That's a pretty reassuring thought, now isn't it? The Clinton administration didn't want to get involved in Yugoslavia, so why not just pretend that this was a problem that began 'centuries' ago? Who could blame you, after all, for not trying to stop something like that?
Yugoslavia's conflicts were not 'ancient' either 

Now, staying out of Yugoslavia was not necessarily a bad idea in its own right. But it was similarly disingenuous to present the fighting in Yugoslavia as simply the latest stage in a war that had been going on for 'centuries.' What about the role that foreign powers, especially Germany, played in destabilizing Yugoslavia by recognizing Slovenia and Croatia as independent states while they were still part of Yugoslavia? Tito's Yugoslavia had been, to a large extent, a product of the Cold War. Once the Cold War was over, Yugoslavia was no longer needed. There was a lot more to the breaking of Yugoslavia than a supposedly organic explosion of 'ancient hatreds.'
Beyond Identity

Look: people who are intelligent, well-informed and well-meaning can disagree about the wisdom of getting involved in places like Yugoslavia or Iraq. But we do ourselves no favors by deliberately misrepresenting the source of conflict. While Sunni and Shia Islam have existed for nearly 1400 years, and while conflicts have at times been waged in the name of religion and nationalism, the mere fact of religious or ethnic pluralism does not create conflict. There are other variables in play.

In the case of Iraq, the main cause of the present conflict is the 2003 American invasion, followed by an occupation that seemed--in the eyes of many Iraqis--to favor the Kurds and Shiite Arabs over Sunni Arabs. Additionally,  Iraq is now stuck with shallow institutions and a ruling system that was imposed upon them by a foreign power. Yet we think Iraqis are crazy and irrational for not being able to deal with all of this as well as we'd like them to.

Whereas both religion and nationalism can be powerful means of galvanizing people to a certain side during a conflict, the actual causes of conflict are usually much more mundane and specific: political representation, economic interests, the division of economic resources, the re-drawing of borders, and so forth. Conflicts like Iraq and Syria today, or Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s, are not fought over age-old hatreds, even if the various sides within these conflicts are based upon ethnic or religious divisions. Rather, the conflicts derive from political, economic and other concrete factors that are very much part of the contemporary scene. But amid the collapse of other forms of pluralistic institutions, individuals are often left with no other choice than to adhere to ethnic or religious groupings. 

Our news media should be talking about these other factors, rather than reinforcing the idea that they develop out of 'ancient hatreds' that have nothing to do with our own country's political agenda. But this is the kind of news reporting you get when the country with the strongest international presence in the world is also one of the most ignorant regarding world affairs. And it's getting worse. Congress has cut funding for high-level studies of the NEH (which helped sponsor my doctoral research in Turkey) and Russia/Central Asia. Increasingly, I fear, the United States will be stuck with headline-chasing journalists and uneducated charlatans dominating--with some notable exceptions--our public discourses pertaining to contemporary world geopolitics. 

A few points worth keeping in mind...

While we can't all hope to know as much as we'd like about the rest of the world, there are a few rules of thumb that I think are useful to follow:

a) Don't take the rhetoric at face-value: While many of the participants in conflicts in places such as Yugoslavia and Iraq themselves insist that they are acting in the name of grand national or religious narratives, there is no reason why we have to accept such claims uncritically. It is, after all, a lot easier to convince people to risk their lives for your cause if you tell them it's about god or the nation, rather than money or politics or international interests. Usually, however, ordinary people fight because they have to, or because they're afraid, regardless of what the actual cause of the conflict may be.

b) Follow the money: We shouldn't assume that the one thing we know about a foreign country--they have different religious groups! They have ethnic minorities!--is necessarily the reason behind the events taking place there. When it comes to our own country, we're usually too sophisticated to assume that the mere presence of ethnic or religious difference begets violence, but when the conflicts involve countries about which we know hardly anything, Americans are much too quick to believe this kind of rubbish. What's especially sad is that stuff like this doesn't only come from random blogs, but also respected and widely-consumed news sources like the Washington Post and Time Magazine.

c) Consider the audience: Let's say a bomb explodes today in a city somewhere in the Middle East. Five different organizations call in to claim responsibility. In whose name will they say they were acting? Most likely al-Qaeda, or some other scary-sounding radical Islamic organization. Forty years ago, the folks claiming responsibility would have said they were acting in the name of Maoism or some other radical-sounding ideology from that time. Political figures, activists, street fighters and others will tailor their rhetoric to meet the interests of both the audience they're trying to appeal to and that whose attention they are trying to attract. But a skilled analyst of geopolitical affairs should be able to read between the lines of this rhetoric to gain a better idea of the political, economic or other sorts of issues that are at stake. 

Reading the World

People analyzing developments in the Middle East today shouldn't take these civilizational invocations at face value, but neither should we ignore them. Instead, we need to ask ourselves why particular types of identity appear to be succeeding at a certain time and place. In the case of Iraq and elsewhere today the real question we need to be asking is why sectarian identity is so much more salient than the sort of liberal-secular-nationalist political ideology that American administrations profess to support in the region.

Believe it or not, these are actually themes that are discussed in my book, Turks Across Empires: Marketing Muslim Identity in the Russian-Ottoman Borderlands. While this is an academic study--it is based upon my doctoral dissertation--centered around the activities of three individuals who are today celebrated as forefathers of Turkish nationalism, most of the book is actually about broader developments taking place in the Middle East and Russia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 
Turks Across Empires
In particular, a lot of the thinking behind the book relates to the connection between globalization (I use the term 'mobility'), revolution and the politicization of civilizational identity. I argue that these are features of both the post-Cold War era (1991-present) and the late imperial era (which I define as 1856-1914) in which the book is set. I'm especially interested in tracing the concrete issues--economic and political, mainly--that are often at the root of  discourses that are usually taken as face-value expressions of religious or political identity. 
Such was the case with my 'Turks across empires' (Yusuf Akçura,
Ismail Gasprinskii, and Ahmet Ağaoğlu), individuals who are generally thought of as 'pan-Turkist intellectuals' from the pre-WWI era. Such is also the case in today's world, particularly when the media presents contemporary geopolitical developments as merely the expression of timeless civilizationally-based ethnic/religious conflict. While there are numerous figures in the American media today who are great at covering foreign policy news, features like the WaPo video remind me once again that there's a real need in this country for people with actual expertise on the non-western world to learn how to articulate their interests in ways that relate to present-day geopolitics.

After all, as the fighting in Iraq today should remind us, most of the people holding the foreign policy megaphone in recent years haven't been doing such a spectacular job of managing things.  

More links, analysis and photos can be found in the Borderlands Lounge.

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