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It’s Always Sunni in Iraq

As I enter the Loyola blogosphere I find myself deeply immersed in the unfolding Middle East tragedy, where Mission Accomplished has taken on a whole new meaning.  If by mission accomplished the US meant to destabilize the Middle East at the dawn of the 21st century, then, yes that mission has been accomplished. Post 9|11 Occidental policies have failed to respect the interconnected nature of Oriental thought, where religion impacts economics, politics impacts culture. Fomented by insurgency, civil disunion and religious rivalries dating back to the basement of time, Iraq is but the next domino to fall in an ancient epic of religious, cultural and political intricacies waged on ancient soil.

The Gordian Knot that is the modern Middle East demands far more than the sword of polemic rhetoric. Foreign intervention has a long and storied history of failure.  It is the graveyard of invaders since Alexander the Great for a reason.   Ottoman, British, French, and now American – whether ancient crusaders or modern armies – have miserably failed at understanding what it means to think like an Arab.  The international community needs to learn as much from the region’s history as it claims to have learned from its post 9|11 experimentation.  And it needs to stop kidding itself. Western-styled democracy is not the solution to what ails the Middle East.  A closer examination of the Arab Spring demonstrates how few countries have transitioned to democratic states well, affording modern proof of that territorial precept.  Egypt’s greatly anticipated transition to democracy after the Tahrir Revolution has all but vanished after recent elections returned iron fisted leadership to power. Libya is leaderless, rife in intertribal conflict.  Shiites, Sunnis and Christians alike seem to prefer the tyranny of Bashar al-Assad while the international community has done little more than watch from the sidelines as Syria’s brutal civil war wages into its fourth year.

Many business students have a limited understanding of the millennial old Sunni | Shiite conflict and its consequent impact on the Arab market.  While a primer is warranted – in fact essential for the business student – so too is a dedicated, conscientious and careful study of the contradictions that make up the Middle East as a market. The modern quagmire is but the most recent manifestation of a centuries old and porous battle of physical and theoretical borders.  The Arab market is not some mysterious abstraction beyond the realm of understanding by international business students seeking careers as citizens of a borderless world, but a necessary learning laboratory for bridging Western sense with Eastern sensibilities.

The Sunni | Shiite split dates back to the year 632 soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. While there is no reliable statistic on precisely how many of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are Shiites, they are the minority of Muslims. Sunnis are the majority across the Islamic world. Shiites are concentrated in Iran, Southern Iraq and Northern Lebanon, have strong majorities in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, with significant majorities in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, constituting 80% of the native population of the oil-rich Persian Gulf region.  As Augustus Norton argues in his book Hezbollah: A Short History, the rivalry centers on  “who is the rightful successor to the prophet?”  Shia believe leadership should stay within the family of the prophet.  Sunnis believe leadership should fall to the person who was deemed by the elite of the community to be best able to lead the community. And it is fundamentally that political division that began the Sunni-Shia split.   The cauldron of long-simmering Muslim tensions has only been inflamed by political instability in the region, translating core religious and cultural differences into outright hatred.

Iraq is roughly 60% Shia, 40% Sunni and home to many religious sites important for both Shia and Sunni Muslims. Baghdad was a center of Islamic learning and scholarship for centuries.  Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime was toppled in 2003, propelling long-oppressed majority Shiites into Iraqi power.  Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki squandered resources and the new millennia opportunity to horizontally reunify the country devastated by yet another invading armada of American troops, degrading conditions so deeply as to empower ISIS, punish Sunnis, and enable the escalation of sectarian violence that has costs hundreds of lives in June alone.   Adding to the conservative US Department of Defense estimate of over 135,000 civilian lives since the Iraq War began in 2003.  Iraq in June 2014 is a failed state where female volunteers bear arms to protect Shia holy sites, armed gangs of young hooligans join ISIS troops ravaging the country with blood-thirsty revenge brigades, while the civilian Iraqi population wonders how long they can survive more lawless tyranny.  Commodities have all but vanished and those fortunate enough to find basic supplies are trading a devalued Iraqi Dinar, anemic in its purchasing power in a market where food and medicine prices have skyrocketed in a matter of days.

Post 9|11 foreign powers – driven by varying calibrations of xenophobia, capitalist expansionism, and thirst for oil-rich country resources – have showcased how policy myopia, (in)famously captured by Bush Doctrine auteurs in the “punish France, ignore Germany, forgive Russia” strategy, is one of many childishly simple approaches employed to solve wildly complicated problems.  Those still tethered to neo-con doctrine, have begun beating their war drums once again, demanding the Obama Administration bomb Iraq into the stone age.  After $3 Trillion USD to fight a war that could never be won, under false pretense, and with abysmal consequences, these neo-con hawks have labeled President Obama weak for seeking diplomacy over weaponry and have introduced their newest political marketing offensive with this “clever” new sound-bite: “ISIS knows only how to kill.”

We have lost Iraq.  President Kennedy reminds us that victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan. Orphaned of a demand for comprehensive, extroverted and inclusive solutions, the pluralism sought in the Middle East seems like nothing more than a dream.  Pluralism in the Western sense came only after all other options failed and it is important to recall that pluralism in Europe and the United States were largely possible because both continents experienced an Enlightenment.  The last enlightenment in the US was captured by the revolutionary and progressive ideas of the 1960s, an era that gave us perhaps the greatest of political slogans during the May 1968 Democratic Convention Protests in Chicago; “Be Realistic.  Demand the Impossible.”

Perhaps it is time to consider the very real possibility that Middle Eastern peace has passed this generation by.  It’s going to take more than fiery and irresponsible proclamations from pundits, politicians or Imams to calm the flames of righteous indignation vexing Iraq. Understanding religious differences in general and Islam in particular cannot be detached from the exigencies of history. It’s going to demand the impossible…the inquisitiveness to explore how to build a true coalition of the willing; Sunni | Shia coexistence among a united brotherhood of Muslims. A commodity history teaches us is in short supply.

Acknowledgment:  I would like to thank Jonas Sileika for proving the title that in turn, inspired this piece.

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