Arabs, tribes, Iraq and Islam

Shia1Day after day the drumbeat of sectarian violence continues. Iraq is dividing along sectarian lines. True or false? The alleged nation of Iraq faces a civil war that, in the end, will take place along lines that are religious, even if that fact makes journalists -- and American political leaders -- uncomfortable. Who knows the doctrinal and cultural differences between Shiites and Sunnis? Does this information matter?

The recent Newsweek cover story "Iraq's Young Blood" about the next generation of fighters in Iraq was a perfect example of poignant, brilliant journalism that still avoided the crucial questions about the role of religion in the region's past, present and future. What are young Sunnis taught about the beliefs of the Shiites? What are young Shiites taught about the Islamic beliefs of the Sunnis?

However, that same issue also included a short Christopher Dickey essay -- "There's No Stopping Iraq's Bloody Cycle: Iraq's vendettas could haunt the West for years" -- that made some crucial points. Here is the opening:

Blood feuds flourish where family ties are strong and the rule of law is weak. Add the righteousness of competing faiths along with fierce memories of ancient wrongs and you have the makings of savage, seemingly endless conflicts from Northern Ireland to the Balkans, the lake regions of Africa to the arid Holy Land. And Iraq -- well, Iraq is in a class by itself: a breeder reactor where explosive hatreds were both incited and contained by Saddam Hussein's brutality, only to become an uncontrolled chain reaction after the U.S.-led invasion liberated both the country and its vendettas. Arab culture cannot be solely blamed for the furies that have been unleashed in Iraq since 2003. But it guarantees they will not be soon, or easily, tamed.

The tradition of "an eye for an eye" is so ancient and dangerously ingrained among the desert Arabs that 1,400 years ago the Qur'an called on good Muslims to forgo vengeance in order to expiate their sins. But the old codes of honor remained, and in the most troubled parts of Iraq today, increasingly, they prevail. When governments cannot or will not protect the people, then families, clans, tribes, gangs and militias will. (Indeed, among the Shiites of Karbala, gang rule has a history as old and complex as the mafia in Sicily.)

The key in this essay is the way Dickey uses the phrase "Arab culture" in place of references to Islam. In other words, the fighting is tribal, not essentially religious.

That is an interesting statement. Is it true? Is the Sunni vs. Shiite conflict so old that the Arab tribes are now divided along lines of blood as well as doctrine? While we are at it, are the Shiites of Iraq divided from the Shiites of Iran by tribe as well as language and nationalism? What happens to the "Arab" factor if the conflict broadens across the region and, thus, involves Kurds, Turks, Egyptians and others? Would a conflict between Iran and Saudia Arabia be, essentially, tribal? National?

Where do tribal customs end and religious beliefs begin? And the ultimate question: Is the rule of law possible under these conditions?

The end of Dickey's essay is especially sobering. The Bush White House seemed to think that secular government was the answer. Did the people of Iraq agree? The bottom line: Do Muslims want to join the Western world?

In the 1960s, soldiers and dictators of the Arab world had imagined they were integrating their societies into the West, leaving behind the rule of clans, the dogmas of faith. Saddam Hussein's Baath Party grew out of that trend. But the 12-year embargo of Iraq after his disastrous 1990 invasion of Kuwait eroded the facade of modernity. People reverted to dependence on tribes and mafias for their economic survival.

Enough vendettas have since been launched in Iraq to keep its communities at each other's throats for years. And America's role in spawning them guarantees that memories of the conflict will long outlast our presence on the ground. Iraq's Arab neighbors already fear that many among their vast populations of young people -- humiliated by the stagnation of monarchy, dictatorship, occupation and defeat -- will seek dignity through violence just as young Iraqis are doing. They will call it jihad, of course, even if the spirit that moves them is more akin to Crips and Bloods than to the Qur'an.

Once again, we face a basic question: How can journalists (and our politicians) discuss Islam without exploring the beliefs, customs and tribes that are at the hearts of the divisions within Islam?

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