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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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Stephen

    I think you are right. It would be very interesting to learn about all the tribal and cultural ties in the Middle East and how that relates or not relates to Islam, or other religious minorities in the area.

    I think it would also be interesting if Iraqi Kurdistan, which is apparently open for tourism, is also discussed, mainly along the lines of why that area is quite stable compared to the rest of the country.

    (And if you don’t believe that Iraqi Kurdistan is open for business, read this article at Maybe it is a joke, or the situation could change suddenly, but there are also people at the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum discussing backpacking trips they have done/are planning to Iraqi Kurdistan. It is quite surreal compared to all of the bad news we otherwise hear from Iraq).

  • evagrius

    Well, you could ask better questions and quit confusing “Arab” with Islam, ( the first to be called Christian were inhabitants of Antioch, an Arab city- Arab Christians created the Arabic alphabet, etc;etc;).
    Egyptians are Arabs, except for the original Egyptians who are Christian Copts.
    Turks are not Arabs. Kurds are not Arabs.

  • Jennifer Emick

    “Where do tribal customs end and religious beliefs begin? ”

    They pretty much don’t. The rivalry between the Sunnis and the Shiites has been a tribal dispute from the very start. So you have politics (Arab Sunni vs. Shiits, and by extension, Iranian influence) and a seven hundred year old dispute that’s still very emotional for some. It’s akin to the medieval Christians (and face it, some to this day) who blamed the Jews for killing Christ.

  • dpulliam

    We should expect our media to tell us the difference between Sunnies and Shiites? Aren’t we supposed to just figure it out as we go?

  • Larry Rasczak

    “The alleged nation of Iraq ”
    WONDERFUL phrase!

    “The bottom line: Do Muslims want to join the Western world?”

    Excellent question! We simply asumed that they did, we never asked.

    Given that they have had about 500 or so years to join, and still haven’t gotten around to it; I’m thinking the answer is no.

    GREAT piece!

  • Jerry

    The bottom line: Do Muslims want to join the Western world?

    That is a hightly prejudiced question. If you don’t see it, try a substitution like this: Do Catholics really care about our secular institutions or do they just want to impose their beliefs on everyone?

    The other questions should motivate people to read books such as Karen Armstrong’s Islam.
    The tangle between religion and tribalism is complex in the middle east today, especally in places like Iraq. It’s far beyond what can be covered in a story like this one.

    But I also think that you don’t like the focus of the story – on the affects of the civil war on the children and want a different story. Of course, that’s fine to want to read something different, but I also think it’s very valuable to focus on an issue that transcends the two sides. Seeing how the fighting is harmful to both sides is also very valuable to keep in mind.

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  • Harris

    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?

    I would think the answer lies with a kind of Occam’s Razor: this explanation covers the data better than the other. Reductionistic? Yes. But that’s why you have magazines and books.

    Really, it’s not that hard. Islam is found in all manners of places, and all manner of varieties. Why should we think, given this dispersion, that this particular conflict is best explained by religion?

    And were one to grant the premise, that this is really explained best as a religious conflict, then why do we excuse the US involvement? Why not then go along and say what some Mideast commentators have suggested, that the US-Iraq war is at its core Christian v. Muslim, the Crusades in another form? Goodness knows, enough Evangelical leaders alone have said enough stupid things to make this plausible.

    Sometimes religion is the color, sometimes it is the content. Here, I think it the former.

  • Jeff

    To start off a wee bit off topic: yesterday morning, before the State of the Union, the Today show obviously had an unexpected gap at the bottom of the 8:30 halfhour, and threw in a nearly four minute ‘splainer about “Pentecostals.” While it seemed pretty clear some guest didn’t show or got stuck in the head, and this was put up with no lead-in or context, it was a good overview, mentioning Azusa Street and the current ascendancy in global Christianity of Pentecostal forms of congregational life and worship (disclosure: i’m a non-pentecostal mainline/oldline pastor and writer, not a flack for the Assemblies of God or COGIC).

    I bring this up because at the end, they went back to Meredith and the subbing David Gregory. They had been watching, and were clearly a little startled. Gregory’s first words were (close approx of verbatim from memory) “That was a very interesting piece on a group few Americans know much about.” Meredith was a bit throw by their size and influence, and stuttered around trying to say so nicely, then they threw to local.

    My point being — if David flippin’ Gregory thinks we don’t know that Pentecostals exist, let alone not hardly know much about ‘em himself, how on earth can we hope to hear coherent coverage on the Shia/Sunni tribal/religious distinctions on the other side of the globe?

    Rather than trying to influence media (hi, Rev. Edgar and the NCC!), churches will need to figure out how to teach their parishoners how to be wise-as-serpents consumers of media, of all sorts.

    “…that few Americans know anything about . . .” Yikes.

  • Caspar Heydenreich

    I believe most journalists need a lot of education about the differences among various Christian churches who happen to share what used to be considered an all-inclusive term in their names.

    It is virtually impossible to accurately refer to Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and even Episcopalians and Catholics (let alone Jews, Muslims, etc.) by those simple terms anymore.

    Religious bodies exist within all these once-upon-a-time united communions which have since broken communion with each other and have distinct characteristics. Likewise, the boundaries have been further blurred by communion being established between some of these new factions (e.g. American Episcopalians and ELCA “Lutherans”).

    Journalists should take care to be accurate in their reporting by at least correctly identifying the church body their story applies to.

  • Nancy Reyes

    Check out Strategy page on sunni vs Shiite.
    LINK. The CSMonitor had an article last week about the Shiite minority in Saudi not having religious freedom.
    So not only is there a Shiite/Sunni problem, but also an Arab/Persian problem…which predates Islam.