Beating the Drums of Orientalism -- Sightings

In the nearly nine years since the United States entered Iraq and proceeded to remove Saddam Hussein from power, one of the choruses that proponents of this invasion/occupation have sung concerns our role as protector of the persecuted.  When we entered Iraq the persecuted were the Kurds and the Shia Muslims.  Now it's the Sunni Muslims.  Zainab Saleh responds to an article that describes the current role of US troops in just this manner, and ascribes it to the principles of "Orientalism," an academic reading of the Middle East that reflected colonialist perspectives.  We are the protectors -- they need us.  In this version of reality there are, as Zainab Saleh writes, no Iraqis, just Sunnis and Shiites.  Everything is seen in sectarian terms.  While admitting that there sectarian elements involved, the story is much more complex.  It's an interesting piece that needs to be read, especially as war drums start to beat with regard to military action in Iran.  I invite your thoughts!


Beating the Drums of Orientalism
Zainab Saleh

The US occupation of Iraq, coupled with its attendant deployment of sectarianism as a political technology, has foreclosed the possibility of non-sectarian modes of seeing or critiquing political life in Iraq. In an article originally published by The Associated Press and re-posted by The Washington Post and The Washington Times, the five contributors, four of whom write from Iraq, adopt this lens in reflecting on the contentious relationship between Sunnis and Shias there. In "Shiites and Sunnis in post-US Iraq: separate and unequal; some predict dissolution of country," the authors hone in on the Shia persecution of vulnerable Sunnis in the aftermath of the withdrawal of US troops. Such a portrayal produces the occupying imperial power as a neutral arbiter of Iraq’s religious communities, or in the authors’ words, as Iraq’s “peacemakers.” Without them, we are told, Iraq’s Sunni minority has to fend for itself in a now Shia-dominated country. 
Instead of providing a historically informed, nuanced analysis of the current situation in Iraq, where everyone bears the brunt of sectarianism, the authors resort to the simplistic and oft cited ahistorical binary of Sunnis vs. Shias. They mention the word “Iraqis” only once, as if only sectarian subjects, not Iraqis, inhabit Iraq. Reading this article raises the ghosts of works by Gertrude Bell in which she expresses fear of Shias, albeit in a very different Iraq. It also uncritically replicates the common media (mis)representations of Iraq since 2003. These perceive Iraq as a place consisting of three antagonistic groups, namely Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. As such, the article reproduces an Orientalist trope in which on the one hand stands a benevolent colonial occupying power while on the other are the inhabitants, who belong to two opposing sectarian groups: the one predatory, the other persecuted. 
The article erases the recent history of US occupation and its attendant imperial politics of subjugation. That thousands of Iraqis were killed and wounded, maimed and displaced, because of this occupation is completely dismissed. As are the consequences of the 2007 US troop surge, which deepened the ethnic and sectarian segregation of neighborhoods in Baghdad. The article also remains silent on the fact that the US administration, in collaboration with the exiled Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein, institutionalized a sectarian quota system after toppling the Iraqi regime in 2003. By so doing, the occupation regime has entrenched and set the tone of political sectarianism in a way that appears to be inescapable, but in reality, is not. 
By stressing the historical and political contexts of Iraqi sectarianism, I do not wish to deny the prevalent sectarian tensions that exist today, or the multiple injuries that have resulted since and have not left any segment of society unscathed. However, to fail to address this context, to treat the current lived reality in Iraq primarily as one of a dominant sect (Shia) persecuting a helpless sect (Sunnis), to leave unaddressed questions of power and the implications of a ruling elite (whether Sunni, Shia or Kurd) invested in sectarian power sharing, is in and of itself an injury against an Iraqi people already reeling under the weight of occupation, war, unemployment, and lack of basic services. 
The authors speak of Sunnis and Shias as two homogenous, insulated groups. Yet education, political views, religious loyalties, class, gender, sexuality, and place of residence play an important role in the ways Iraqis identify themselves and consequently their access to jobs and privileges. While institutional sectarianism privileges the ruling elites, it also largely informs regional and international strategic interests in Iraq. Probing the question of power thus sheds light on the role of the United States in producing and perpetuating such a system, while simultaneously exposing the role that neighboring states have played in Iraqi affairs since 2003.
What is most troubling about the article is the implicit idea that an Iraqi people does not exist. Only Sunnis and Shias do. The authors further depict the divisions among these two groups as resilient and persistent. Implicit in this argument is the Orientalist discourse that Iraqis cannot outgrow these primordial affiliations in order to develop national sentiments. However, a quick look at the modern history of Iraq shows that secular political parties dominated the political scene until Saddam Hussein's rise to power in 1979. Neighborhoods were always mixed, and religion played a minor role in defining social and political relations. More dangerously, not only does this argument absolve several US administrations of any culpabilities, it commends occupation. When the US troops are presented as “protectors” of the Sunni community, one is faced, yet again, with a yearning for the benevolent occupier to save a defenseless group of natives from the hands of another aggressive group! 

Zainab Saleh is Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Haverford College.

On the occassion of John Paul II's visit to India in 1999, the Advaitin teacher Swami Dayananda Saraswati addressed a public letter to the pope entitled "Conversion is Violence." The letter, as Reid Locklin summarizes, drew an "absolute contrast ... between 'aggressive, converting' religions like Christianity and Islam and 'non-violent, non-converting' religions like Hinduism" (4).  But is it true that Hinduism does not convert?  In this month's web forum, Locklin, a Martin Marty Center Senior Fellow in 2010-11, explores "whether and in what respect modern Advaita movements may be said to advocate religious conversion"; and he identifies "a key methodological defect in the controversy: namely, a univocal concept of conversion."  Locklin also suggests ways that "an Advaita theology of conversion might ... offer resources for reconsidering, reimagining and redescribing conversion to Christ, on the model of that most famous of converts, the Apostle Paul" (8-9).  Read Up, Over, Through: Rethinking "Conversion" as a Category of Hindu-Christian Studies.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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