Saturday, October 2, 2010

Eid al-Fitr, Sectarian Identities and Iraq's Political Elite

It is commonplace to argue that Iraq is an "artificial society" because its main ethnic groups, the Sunni Arabs, Shi'i Arabs and the Kurds can't get along. The logical implications of this model, one of a society rent by ethnic and confessional cleavages, is that political stability, much less democratization, are not in the realm of the possible.

If Iraq's ethnic groups can't get along, one has a hard time explaining two developments that occurred at the end of Ramadan in September. While not earthshaking events, they still provide a window on ethnoconfessional relations in Iraq and belie the argument of Iraq as a society suffering from "ancient hatreds," to use a term favored by some students of ethnic conflicts.

Large numbers of Arabs traveled from the south and north central regions of Iraq to celebrate the end of Ramadan in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the semi-autonomous region of three Kurdish provinces in north eastern Iraq. Reports in the Iraqi press and al-Hayat describe a situation in whch there were so many Arab visitors that it was virtually impossible to find a hotel. In the market (bazar), Arabic was heard everywhere and Kurdish merchants were enjoying brisk sales. If Kurds and Arabs really despised one another, why did so many Arabs feel that the best place to celebrate Eid al-Fitr would be in the KRG?

Obviously, security was one concern since the KRG is largely devoid of the violence that still plagues areas of Arab Iraq. However, what we are seeing is the return to historic patterns in which large numbers of Arabs visited the north on a regular basis.

In describing the flood of Arabs visiting the KRG during Eid al-Fitr, newspaper articles conducted interviews with tourism officials who speak of large projects designed to accommodate much higher levels of domestic and foreign tourism. If ever larger numbers of Arabs do visit the north, this will be one opportunity for Iraq's Arabs and Kurds to establish better relations which were cut off after the 1991 Gulf War.

Indeed, Arabs always traveled to the north during the hot summer months. The difference now is that the KRG is in charge of tourist accommodations, not the central government, which will provide more employment for Kurds and promote the development of more small enterprises. While there is extensive government corruption in the north (as there is in Baghdad), revenues from tourism will help the populace at large which is not benefiting as much as it should due to the KRG's political elite appropriating much of the region's oil revenues for themselves ad their retainers

In the south, it is notable that many Sunni and Shi'i clerics celebrated Eid al-Fitr together to celebrate the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq. This recalls the June 1920 Revolution when Sunnis and Shi'is prayed in each mosques and celebrated each others' religious rituals to protest the British occupation of Iraq. After the February 2006 bombing of the al-Askari mosque in the ethnically mixed north central city of Samarra, a mosque particularly important to devout Shi'a because it is site where the 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, went into occulatation in 874 CE, both Sunni and Shi'i clerics called upon their respective confessionalists to pray in the other sect's mosque as a demonstration of national and religious unity.

What these considerations point to is that the problems facing Iraq are not so much rooted in the populace at large but in its political elite. Much of this elite was not in Iraq during Ba'thist rule. Still weak and fragmented, many of its members constantly play the sectarian card. These sectarian entrepreneurs, who Iraqis historically have referred to as the tujjar al-siiyasa (merchants of politics) should not be confused with the Iraqi populace which demonstrated through the national parliament elections that were held this past March that they are fed up with sectarian appeals and want the government to focus on providing security and services instead.

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