Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Soap operas, elite politics and security in Iraq
On August 13th, the Iraqi parliament voted to ban the showing of the soap opera, al-Hasan and al-Husayn on Iraqi television channels. In a video recording of the session, the parliament speaker declared that the film is causing sectarian conflict (al-fitna) in the Muslim world. The film is being shown throughout the Arab world during the holy month of Ramadan. al-Hasan and al-Husayn continues a recent tradition of showing films on topics important to Islam during Ramadan. Such films have drawn large audiences and al-Hasan and al-Husayn is no exception.
The banning of the soap opera shows not only the continued salience of sectarian identities in the Arab world but the lack of effort on the part of political elites to confront the problem of national reconciliation. The problems that led to the banning of al-Hasan and al-Husayn in Iraq are linked to the larger realm of Arab elite politics. This form of elite politics, which refuses to take national reconciliation seriously, threatens the security of Iraq (and that of other Middle Eastern countries where this type of politics is all too often replicated).
As we saw this week, Iraq experienced a devastating series of attacks throughout the country, all of which had sectarian overtones. The groups that organized these attacks need to find recruits to carry out their deadly attacks. Only when all sectors of society feel that they are part of the political process will the recruits for such attacks dry up.
In Iraq's banning the film al-Hasan and al-Husayn, what are the political dynamics of the relationship between culture, politics and national security? In other words, what do the dynamics of banning a soap opera tell us about the politics of national reconciliation in Iraq? And what impact does this form of politics have on Iraq's security situation?
The topic of the assassination of Hasan and Husayn is extremely sensitive since it encompasses the origins of the schism between Sunni and Shiite Islam. Even before it aired, the title of the program was changed from al-Hasan, al-Husayn and Mu'awiya, to al-Hasan and al-Husayn. The omission of Mua'wiya is indicative of the sensitivity of the film's topic. Not only did Mu'awiya organize the attack on Hasan and Husayn's father, the caliph Imam 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was himself murdered in 661 CE, but he was seen as complicit in the deaths of Hasan and Husayn.
The film seeks to edify Muslims about an important event in the history of Islam. Ramadan has become a particularly appropriate time to air lengthy films about complex historical topics because television viewing increases substantially as Muslims fast and spend much of their daytime fast at home.
Taking 3 years to complete, and produced in several Arab countries, the film is comprised of 30 one hour segments. A large number of prominent clerics, religious scholars and historians served as consultants to the producer, Muhammad al-Anzi, of the Kuwaiti Al-Maha Productions company. As al-Anzi has pointed out in several interviews, he tried to present a balanced account of the lives of the two imams, Hasan and Husayn.
The film has elicited criticism throughout the Arab world, including from al-Azhar, the preeminent religious institution in Sunni Islam. The Azhar's calling for the film not be shown based on Sunni Islam's prohibition of showing human representations of Muslim religious figures was underscored by the opposition from the head of the Sunni Religious Endowments (al-Awqaf) in Iraq, Ahmad 'Abd al-Ghaffur al-Samarra'i and the his counterpart, the head of Shi'i religious endowments, Salih al-Haydari. Likewise, through a representative who delivered the Friday prayer in Karbala', Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani indicated his opposition as well, claiming that the film was filled with factual errors and constituted a deviation from Islam.
However, as a commentator to an article on the controversy noted, the film only became political in Iraq once the parliament voted to ban it from all Iraq's television channels. The problem then is the unwillingness of politicians to tackle head on the sectarian divide that still afflicts Iraq and other Arab countries. Rather than open the historical record to scrutiny, political elites instead prefer to repress efforts to examine the past.
While many viewers in the Arab world have been drawn to watch al-Hasan and al-Husayn given the controversy surrounding it, many others indicate their interest in it stems from their lack of knowledge of the historical events that are depicted in the film and their desire to know more about them. Once again, we see the divide between elite and mass politics. By not allowing a healthy discussion of what led to the schism between Sunni and Shi'i Islam, Arab countries are prevented from moving forward with the process of national reconciliation.
The lack of national reconciliation is a key factor that allows sectarian identities to persist. And the persistence of sectarianism is good news for Sunni Arab organizations like al-Qa'ida in Iraq, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq, and their Shi'i counterparts. As long as historical grievances are not confronted, such organizations can find recruits, especially when the government provides limited services and is characterized by extensive corruption.
For political elites, serious efforts at national reconciliation represent a threat to their power base. Indeed, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has dismissed calls for national reconciliation in the past, emphasizing instead that a focus on the rule of law and the constitution is more important (al-Nahar, May 25, 2009).
Once reconciliation becomes part of a meaningful political process, all parts of the political spectrum must be given access to political participation. Once the political process is opened up, the ability of elites to maintain vertical forms of social and political identity are undermined. The cohesion of their political base is threatened. To achieve their narrow personal goals, it is more effective to play the sectarian card rather than pursue a politics of national inclusion.
In Iraq, the al-Maliki government's sectarian based politics has led to the exclusion of important sectors of the population, such as the tribal groups of al-Anbar Province. Many Anbaris who participated in the Sons of Iraq movement (Sahwat al-'Iraq) are understandably resentful that al-Maliki has not kept his promise to integrate them into the army, security forces or state bureaucracy. al-Maliki would like to exclude the Kurds but needs them to offset challenges from the al-Iraqiya list that won the 2010 national parliament elections and is led by his nemesis, Ayad 'Allawi
The pursuit of a sectarian based politics is compounded by political discrimination based on social class. al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition shows very little concern or compassion for poor Shi'a in Iraq (much less the poor of other ethnoconfessional groups). The party is based largely in the prosperous Shi'i merchant and professional middle classes who see the Shi'a poor as aligned with Muqtada al-Sadr's Sadrist Trend and thus threatening to their interests. This neglect provides an opening for radical elements such as the Sadrists and other sectarian militias, such as the "League of the Righteous" (Asa'ib al-Haqq)to recruit among the Shi'a poor.
Further, the failure of the al-Maliki government and the Iraqi political elite to confront sectarianism through an emphasis on national reconciliation has had a negative effect on Iraq's security forces. It is well known that units in the army profess loyalty to individual political parties and leaders rather than to a unified army command.
The failure of members of Iraq's Arab political elite to come to terms with their Kurdish counterparts means that the Iraqi army and the Kurdish pesh merga remain separate military forces. If the two forces could cooperate on national rather than local security, Iraq would be better positioned to assert control over its national territory. While pesh merga units have helped repress terrorist cells in Baghdad in the past, little has been done to integrate these units into the larger Iraqi army.
What the film al-Hasan and al-Husayn indicates is the potential power of historical memory. The past can be used to bring Iraqis (and other peoples in the Middle East) together if done in an open and honest manner as the screen writer, director and producer have attempted to do in the film, al-Hasan and al-Husayn. The fact that the most recent Iraqi school textbooks have avoided all controversial topics and fail to confront the legacy of Saddam Husayn's brutality is indicative of the weak and ostrich-like approach of the political leadership in Iraq.
If the Iraqi government and the Obama administration think that Iraq's security problems can be solved through continued training of the Iraqi army and security forces alone, they need to rethink their assumptions. As the saying goes, "the fish rots from the head down." Structural changes are needed among Iraq's political elite if the horrific attacks of this week are to become a thing of the past and meaningful security for the Iraqi people is to be achieved.