February 22, 2005 | National Review Online

Desert Bigotry

An obstacle to the future of Iraq.

Author: Andrew Apostolou.

The announcement of the Iraqi election results on February 13 evokes memories of the historic polls in South Africa that buried the apartheid system. In both cases a long-discriminated-against majority–blacks in South Africa and Shia Arabs in Iraq–finally achieved power through the ballot box. Neither set of polls was free of irregularities and disorganization: The South African elections were conducted without a register of voters; and around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, insurgent attacks meant that many Christians and Kurds were unable to vote. But despite these problems, voters in both countries patiently queued for hours to exercise a right that many of their compatriots had given their lives for.

The similarities end, however, when it comes to the foreign reaction to the two elections. The South African elections were celebrated almost without exception; the Iraqi elections have too often been shunned or denigrated.

Within the Middle East, hostility to the Iraqi elections has taken on the form of sectarian bigotry — chauvinism of the kind even apologists for apartheid South Africa had the good taste to avoid. Few of those who opposed economic sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s defended the structure and practices of the apartheid regime; its defenders were rarely racists. Instead, they counseled that engagement and dialogue with the pariah regime would hasten its demise more effectively than economic pressure.

By contrast, the Middle Eastern critics of the new Iraq are nostalgic for the old Iraq, a country dominated during its 84-year history by a largely Sunni-Arab ruling caste. They have not hesitated to cite the alleged “special role” — the supposed right to rule — of Sunni Arabs. The other side of this chauvinistic coin is their vilification of the Shia Arabs, the majority of Iraq's population. The Shia Arabs are portrayed as stool pigeons of the Iranian government, traitors-in-waiting ready to betray Arab Iraq to Persian Iran.

The most prominent exponent of the Sunni-Arab ascendancy is King Abdullah II of Jordan. Just as Iraqis were putting together an interim government in May 2004, the king told the New York Times that a dictator was needed to run Iraq — “somebody with a military background who has experience of being a tough guy.” He also dropped a hint that the “tough guy” would probably have to be a Sunni Arab. Speaking of the potential candidates, Abdullah said that the Iraqi army contained “a lot of heroes” from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s — “national heroes.” Because a core military task of the 1980s had been to slaughter Iraqi Kurds, there are no Kurds running for the post of “tough guy.” Equally, as the Shia Arabs were the conscript cannon fodder whose lives were thrown away by the battalion, there are no such “national heroes” from the Shia-Arab community.

To any Iraqi reading the king's words, the implication was clear: Iraq is best run by a Sunni-Arab officer. The assumption that such Sunni-Arab military men might be “national heroes” spoke eloquently for the king's view of Iraq as a country owned by Sunni Arabs, in which Shia Arabs, Kurds, and others are resident foreigners.

Abdullah has taken this further, insinuating that some of the Shia-Arab vote actually is foreign. He told the Washington Post on December 7, 2004, that over one million Iranians had entered Iraq and that many, at the behest of the Iranian government, would vote in the Iraqi elections. His claim went unchallenged.

While the king's comments go largely unchallenged in the U.S., the response in Iraq has been to denounce his unadulterated sectarianism. As a result, King Abdullah was force to clarify his stance. Speaking on January 27 with gross rhetorical overcompensation, he claimed that he wanted a good relationship “with our Shiite brothers.”

Still the king arrogated to himself a remarkable role as a global Muslim spokesman: “As a Hashemite [i.e. a family descended from the prophet], I speak in the name of all Muslims, Sunnis, and Shiites.” Britain forced the Hashemites — a Sunni-Arab dynasty from what is now Saudi Arabia — upon the newly created states of Jordan and Iraq in the 1920s.

Similar pro-Sunni-Arab and anti-Shia-Arab views have come from Salim Lone, the U.N. director of communications for Sergio Vieira de Mello, the special envoy murdered in Baghdad on August 19, 2003. If evidence was needed of U.N. staffers' bias against Iraqi democracy, Lone's collected articles since he left the U.N. make for good candidates.

For Lone, the violence and terrorism of a minority of Sunni Arabs is understandable. Writing in the Guardian on January 31 to denounce the election as “illegitimate,” Lone explained that the Sunni Arabs were fighting because they believed that the U.S. was “systematically excluding them from the role they deserve to play in Iraq.” Lone's recommendation for peace is “to end the occupation and enfranchise the Sunnis.” On this view, Sunni-Arab enfranchisement means giving back to Iraq's third-largest ethnic and religious group their previous leading role.

Lone also denounced the Shia-Arab demand for elections that would emancipate them. For him, the Shia-Arab right to be recognized as Iraq's majority is petty-minded prejudice. Indeed, Lone vilified Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for supporting the American presence “with the single-minded sectarian goal of having the majority Shia at the helm of power in Iraq.”

The notion that the Sunni Arabs have a right to rule was stated openly by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi journalist who had covered the fighting in Fallujah from the insurgents' side. Abdul-Ahad stated baldly in the Guardian on January 26, 2005, that “in Iraq — as is the case in most of the Muslim world — the Sunnis were always the natural-born leaders of the community.” The prejudice of the Sunni-Arab insurgents was reported as fact. The Sunni Arabs, he claimed, “hate the Shia because they are backed by Iran, and they are killing the police because they are collaborators and because they are all Shia.” In fact, the Iraqi policemen and national guardsmen fighting against the terrorists and insurgents in Ramadi, Tikrit, and much of western Iraq are primarily Sunni Arabs.

If there were any doubt as to what a return to the Sunni-Arab ascendancy would mean, one of Abdul-Ahad's Sunni-Arab sources summed it up well: “Our main aim is to drive the Americans out and then everything will go back to normal, as it was before.” For Iraq's Kurds and Shia Arabs, “normal, as it was before” meant war and genocide, oppression and discrimination. For the Sunni Arabs, encouraged to regard themselves as a superior caste, it meant a right to rule — an ascendancy as objectionable as that which sustained apartheid.

Andrew Apostolou works for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.