It’s Theology, Not Baseball: Misunderstanding Iraq’s Sectarian Conflicts

Over a decade after the US-led invasion of Iraq, President Barack Obama has given an hour-long interview to the New York Times which recites the mantra of “inclusive governance” with no mention of religion. He did cite problems involving Sunnis and Shi’a — and neighborhood issues that involved Israelis and Palestinians. But for an observant Christian leader of a conspicuously religious nation, sectarianism appears to be entirely a political problem: if only “the Shi’a majority had reached out to the Sunnis” after the Americans packed up, all would be well.

This is the legacy of a mindset in which Congressmen and even American intelligence officials, after the invasion of Iraq, confessed to being clueless about Sunni and Shi’a Muslims — and whether Iran and Saudi Arabia were one or the other. In this worldview, the players might as well be baseball teams; all we need do is keep track of their colorful outfits and politics. Imagine planning an intervention in Northern Ireland with no idea as to what Protestant and Catholic identities are about.

In this vein on the other side of the Atlantic, the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland writes that the self-styled Islamic State’s predations in Iraq and Syria are really about “medieval lawlessness … helped by the very 21st century decline of the global behemoth.” The 2003 intervention may have been the “original sin.” But Freedland like Obama is happy to lay the blame squarely on Iraqi and Syrian politicians whose ongoing sins are not having enough Sunnis in government.

By this logic, the proper antidote to sectarian conflict is to have the warring sects represented by their own members. Never mind any concept of nationhood, citizenship, national institutions, or a shared historical and constitutional narrative. Simply ignore theological conflict as “medieval,” and treat the whole matter as a squabble about economic and political goods. After all, this is what the “secularization thesis” has proclaimed all along as the ultimate outcome of modern rationalism — even if leading scholars like Peter Berger, William McClay, Olivier Roy, Daniel Phillpot, and Fabio Petitio tell us that the evidence for such a claim is firmly to the contrary.

Now it is undeniably true that the extremism of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram and their many variants thrives on poor governance, power vacuums, social marginalization, and sheer hunger for political control. It cannot be a coincidence that these groups are at their most robust in places where the rule of law and democratic culture are at best fragile — from Somalia and Yemen to Afghanistan, northern Pakistan, Mali, and the Central African Republic. It is also true that transitions from authoritarian to looser forms of governance are fraught with high political risk, as in ex-Yugoslavia, Egypt, and Iraq.

Moreover, most of these radical groups, including the “Islamic State,” have a record of cynical gangsterism, routinely taking hostages and terrorizing targets for ransom. Many of their recruits are ex-cons and social dropouts. In the diasporas of Europe and North America, the seeming romance of radical ideological causes can appeal to those who are disenchanted, or crave the satisfaction of being part of a larger cause no matter how degenerate it may appear to their fellow citizens.

But this is not the whole story — and pretending that we can explain away sectarian clashes as if this were a baseball league will not make them so.

Why is it that the radical groups appeal to exclusive theologies for their legitimacy? Even a one-time “street thug,” as a Pentagon official described the earlier incarnation of the head of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, evolved into a “religious figure” who eventually claimed the title of “caliph.” Likewise, al-Qaeda’s erstwhile movers and shakers, from Osama bin Laden down, have had secular career paths en route to their jihadist roles. True, you cannot summon the faithful to jihad without touting the right confessional credentials. But that’s just the point: nothing is as conducive to global radical mobilization as an exclusive theological summons.

The thousands of recruits that these groups have mobilized cannot all be dismissed as a motley crew of adventurers and ne’er-do-wells. From internet websites to literature and institutionalized instruction, sectarian identities and hatreds are actively fostered. Not all the converted will journey to war-zones in search of martyrdom. Most will be content to exercise their new-found contempt for “deviants” — particularly those closest to home, such as the Ahmadiyya, Alevi, Baha’i, Shi’a, and Yazidi —in acts of organized domestic rage.

There is plenty of encouragement for that “low-intensity” domestic jihad in official legislation in countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, where exclusive theologies accompany the dominant political ideologies. Sometimes, the two are inseparable — sharing a common enemy, pluralism. Of late, Indonesia and Malaysia have flirted with such behavior.

This trend is hardly confined to Muslim-majority societies. Buddhist Myanmar and Sri Lanka, Hindu India, and Christian Uganda and Zimbabwe have done their share of official hate-mongering.

So has the United States’ principal ally in the Middle East, Israel. As David Sheen has noted in these pages, none other than the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef, invoked biblical passages to call for the eradication of Palestinians. Far from being an isolated outburst, Sheen observes that other senior rabbis have done likewise, routinely drawing on a confessional vocabulary of wholesale destruction of non-Jewish enemies. What Sheen fails to note is that this is an entrenched trend that goes back to Israel’s very founding. Famously, Yitzhak Shamir, who went on to serve as prime minister in 1983 and again in 1986, proclaimed as a “resistance fighter” back in 1943:

“Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat… We are very far from having any moral qualms as far as our national war goes. We have before us the command of the Torah, whose morality surpasses that of any body of laws in the world: ‘Ye shall blot them out to the last man.”

Like their secular counterpart, theologies of inclusion can play a vital part in countering anti-pluralist tendencies. We have an abundance of modern activist exemplars on this score from all quarters — James H. Cone, Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama to Mohandas Gandhi, Fethullah Gülen, Abdurrahman Wahid, Michael Lerner, and Karim Aga Khan. “Pluralist societies,” to quote the last named, “do not happen by themselves as accidents of history. They are a product of enlightened education and continuous investment by government and all forces of civil society … [building] on differences of outlook, ethnicity, religion and culture.”

A version of pluralism that is fixated on secular political inclusion will have no purchase among theo-exclusionists of all stripes. This is not of course about a theologically-driven foreign policy, no matter how liberal in orientation. Rather, it is to acknowledge that a democratic ethos will not by itself manufacture effective inclusion in Iraq, Syria, Israel-Palestine, or anywhere else. Nor is effective inclusion merely about political representation, for all its symbolic and practical value. Narratives of national and social inclusion have no shelf life unless they build on key markers of citizen identity. And in this post-secular age, leaving out theologies fails the test.