BROOKE GLADSTONE: Since the violent extremist group ISIS began taking control of large parts of Iraq, a media narrative explaining its stunning rise has gathered force. It goes something like this: In the absence of a tyrant or occupying force, sectarian hatred has emerged, once again, and is tearing the country apart.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The destruction of Iraq has returned it to the ancient rivalries between Shia, Sunni and Kurds.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: They injected, once again, into the system and all of the old problems, all of those sectarian tensions, rose to the surface.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: What we have to do is look at where we are today, and where we are today is based on centuries of, of sectarian conflicts just, you know, coming to roost once again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But is sectarianism the best prism through which to understand the unfolding disaster in Iraq? In a word, no, says professor Ibrahim al-Marashi, professor of history at California State, San Marcos, who we reached in Istanbul.
PROF. IBRAHIM AL-MARASHI: These are not kind of your ancient ethnic hatred that was used to explain away the conflict in, let’s say, Yugoslavia or Rwanda. Shi’as and Sunnis have inhabited what is today’s Iraq for centuries without events of communal violence that we see today. So, in other words, you can’t just look at the last couple of years and say it’s always been this way. The word “sectarian” suggests that sects are cohesive political units. But even among groups like ISIS, they, as a Sunni group, are more than willing to kill other Sunnis who get in their way. It would be misleading to call it sectarian. I would call it simply a power play.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so let’s say it is a power play, isn’t the power play seemingly always between Sunnis and Shi’a?
PROF. AL-MARASHI: No. If you looked at politics from the forties all the way to the seventies, what drove conflict back then was clash of ideologies. It was Communist versus pro-Western Republicans. In Lebanon, for example, if you look at the Lebanese civil war, you would say that’s a classical example of sect, the Maronites versus Sunni Muslims. But you had Christians fighting alongside Muslims because those Christians believed in Communism, and the government in Beirut was a pro-Western anti-Communist government.
Look at Iraq in the present. If it was sectarianism that was driving the conflict, you would assume all the Shi’a parties, as well as all the Sunni parties could unite on the sectarian platform. But that hasn’t happened. It invalidates the notion that sectarianism, in and of itself, is driving the conflict.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is, and why so consistently across the region?
PROF. AL-MARASHI: What appears to be a sectarian conflict is the nature of violent political conflict around the world, whether we’re talking about Latin America or Africa. It just so happens that the Middle East - the contest to the largesse of the state, whether it’s oil revenues, whether it’s the patronage networks that the state provides, happens to fall along sectarian lines.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then it seems that one part of the media narrative would also be true, which is that if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were able to, or if he had, put in a more power-sharing government, then maybe ISIS couldn't find a safe haven.
PROF. AL-MARASHI: But you have to understand it from Maliki’s perspective. There was a genuine fear in the Iraqi state that the bosses would come back to power. And the bosses happened to be Arab Sunni. So what seemed like anti-Sunni muzzling, he’s not gonna do this without reaping some political rewards. And we saw that in the recent election. He definitely won a huge part of the popular vote, and his party was the largest victor in the last parliamentary election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Many historians, notably David Fromkin, in his 1989 magisterial bestseller, The Peace to End All Peace, said that the groundwork for today was laid in 1916 by France and Britain, with Russia’s ascent, in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided the Middle East in spheres of influence and then later, in 1920, the borders were redrawn. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, they didn't exist prior to World War I. Many of these states seem to be intended to divide one group from another or impose the rule of minorities over majorities.
PROF. AL-MARASHI: Sykes-Picot did create states that served colonial interests, rather than it reflecting tribal and ethnic realities on the ground. Nevertheless, states like Syria and Iraq do correspond to geographical regions that have been closely integrated over a long historical period of time. So, it’s not so much about the drawing of the borders, but the colonial practices of governance that set up these states to be inherently unstable, where minorities would perpetuate the rule.
Iraq’s first king was not, just not from Iraq. He was also an Arab Sunni ruling over a new state that was predominantly Kurdish by ethnicity and Shi’a by sect. That starts Iraq on a political trajectory that will eventually lead to the rise of Saddam Hussein and then the chaos we see now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What perception, propagated in the media that is wrong is likely to lead to wrong policy?
PROF. AL-MARASHI: I would say number 1, the media narrative, and I see this reflected in policy circles, that this is a sectarian conflict that has been raging on since time immemorial, and that the conflict is simply a conflict driven by differences in religious practice. That’s the first mistake because you're developing policy treating Iraq at three different ethnic cantons, if you will.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Sunni, the Shi’a and the Kurds.
PROF. AL-MARASHI: Which also then leads to kind of renewed calls saying, okay, maybe Iraq should be partitioned along those lines. And, again, I would say that’s a mistake in policy because Iraq is not neatly divided among those three communities. Such a partition would be an even more bloodier process than we’re seeing today. And number 2, the second media narrative is if Maliki were to resign all of Iraq’s problems would be solved. Sure, you can call for Maliki to resign but, then again, you have a large segment of Iraq’s population that was behind him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think of David Fromkin’s view then, the author of The Peace to End All Peace? He likened the situation in the Middle East to that of Europe in the fifth century, after the collapse of the Roman Empire. He wrote, quote, “It took Europe a millennium and a half to resolve its post-Roman crisis of social and political identity in nearly a thousand years to settle on the nation state form of political organization and 500 more years to determine which nations were entitled to be states. The continuing crisis in the Middle East in our time may prove to be nowhere near so long-lasting, but the issue is the same, how diverse peoples are to regroup to create new political identities for themselves after the collapse of an age-old imperial order to which they’d grown accustomed.”
PROF. AL-MARASHI: Fromkin has a point in that the — it was a peace that ended all peace in the Middle East. But we have to give agency to various Arab leaders who have also put the Middle East in the situation that it is today. The borders were kind of a recipe for a toxic stew, but the cooks, at the end of the day, were still Middle Eastern leaders who allowed this to happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ibrahim, thank you very much.
PROF. AL-MARASHI: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ibrahim al-Marashi is a professor of history at California State, San Marcos, and we spoke to him from Istanbul.