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Ali is an economist and political analyst, working at a private UK-based company. He worked previously at the World Health Organisation and has an MSc in Development Studies from SOAS. You can follow him on Twitter (@alialsaffar).

Denouncing demonisation

A  recent trend that I have noticed being perpetuated by the lethargic (and often incompetent media), is the insinuation that Iraq’s Sunni community voted on non-sectarian grounds, while the Shi’a voted only for fellow Shi’is because they remain unable to see part sectarianism. Case in point, an article written by Firas Atraqchi for the HuffPo:

In the March 7 election, Allawi appealed to Sunni (and some Shia) voters not because he is Shia or a former Baathist himself, but because his supporters believe in his message for a non-sectarian Iraq.

Lets call a spade a spade here. The open list system means that people could vote for individual candidate, and if its true that over 70 of the 91 seats the INM got in parliament are occupied by Sunnis, it stands to reason that perhaps…just maybe… everyone voted on sectarian grounds.

This shouldn’t be particularly important, but the demonising of an entire segment of the Iraqi society, which in some form or another has been a fixture of our country’s sad past (whether it be against the separatist Kurds, the terrorist Sunnis or the Zoroastrian Shia) really has got to stop. It serves nothing but to drive wedges between these communities at a time when things are so fragile and precarious,  they can potentially lead to irreversibly damaging Iraq’s social fabric.

This is not to say that the strategy of demonising is the sole reserve of the media; Iraq’s politicians have mastered the techniques and use it at will. It is particularly useful when something goes wrong and a scapegoat or common enemy is needed to divert attention away from their own failures and shortcomings.

11 Comments on “Denouncing demonisation”

  1. Anonymous May 3, 2010 at 2:56 pm #

    But there is nothing “demonising” in being non-sectarian? or that’s not how it is perceived in Iraq now? Could you explain please.

  2. Ali D May 3, 2010 at 3:44 pm #

    Demonising denouncement

    Let us, indeed, call a spade a spade. Do you mean to say:

    1- Shia are being demonised for voting on sectarian grounds.
    2- Sunnis are not being accused of this.
    3- Sunnis are, though, guilty of this.
    4- Making ‘point 3’ clear puts Shi’a in a better light.

    ?

    If I have understood your argument correctly, then this is in itself the problem. We are saying that “Shi’a have done something wrong, but don’t blame them, the Sunnis are just as bad”. If you have issue with the blame that Shi’a are under, is the solution to blame Sunnis also? Wouldn’t this be hypocritical? Rather, if your argument is that it is wrong to blame one side for something that both are guilty of, then surely blaming both “…serves nothing but to drive wedges between these communities at a time when things are so fragile and precarious…” as you put it?

    Of course, even if disagreeing with this being an issue, the point that still stands is that for the argument to hold, point 3 from above must be justified (the argument otherwise, of course, crumbling). Your justification for this comes from the point, and a I quote, that “over 70 of the 91 seats the INM got in parliament are occupied by Sunnis”. The issues with this point are:

    i) If the justification for the accusation that voters vote on sectarian grounds is the high proportion of MPs in that party of the same sect as the voter, then why did the Sunnis not vote for the ALL Sunni parties?

    ii) It overlooks the fact that Allawi presented his non-sectarianism from 2003. The “Shi’i parties” took seven years to claim “non-sectarianism”.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I did notice that you were aware of the weaknesses caused by the speculative tone of this argument, especially where you used two words expressing uncertainty as to the validity of the accusation; “perhaps…just maybe… everyone voted on sectarian grounds.”

    But then why do you continue to build on this speculation as though it had been proven and done with? The point, as made in its current form, simply does not hold. It does have foundation; however, its foundation is of circumstantial and subjective evidence.

    It seems from your article that you do agree that at least a large proportion of Shi’a voted on sectarian grounds (as you never tried to refute this, but simply accused the ‘rest’ of the same). I also agree that many Shi’a probably did. This point, therefore, holds, at least between you and I. Now, if you are arguing that we should not try to exasperate sectarian divides by concentrating on the Shi’i sectarian vote, then I would have more sympathy for the argument.

    Then again, why not call a spade a spade?

    Ali D

  3. Ali Rashid May 4, 2010 at 8:49 am #

    Hi Anonymous,
    Sorry it seems that I wasn’t very clear in my post. I am not saying there is anything wrong with being non-sectarian, I am saying there is something wrong with trying to perpetuate a myth that one segment of Iraqi society is non-sectarian, while the other is sectarian to the core.

    Ali D, thanks for your comment, in your useful numbering technique I will try to clarify what I was getting at:

    1- Shia are being demonised for voting on sectarian grounds.
    2- Sunnis are not being accused of this.
    3- Sunnis are, though, probably guilty of this.
    4- Trying to classify segments of Iraqi society based on patterns that are in and of themselves inaccurate serves nothing but exacerbate differences that are already there. So, by classifying Iraq’s Sunnis as nationalist non-sectarians, and the Shi’a as the opposite, when in my opinion the voting pattern doesn’t necessarily prove this at all,is very similar to the ”all Sunnis are Ba’athis” fallacy that has been used and abused in Iraq. It serves only to foment distrust.

    I am not saying don’t blame the Shi’a for voting on sectarian grounds just because the Sunnis did the same. I am not saying that at all. I am saying that by trying to pass one of as noble, nationalist and non-sectarian and the other as sectarian (when both, in my opinion voted on sectarian grounds), will only breed resentment. We need to identify the problem of voting on sectarian grounds before we can even hope to remedy it. Of course, this is something we seem to disagree on because I think you are adamant that the Sunnis did not vote on sectarian grounds, but I think the fact that Iraqiya seems to have gotten the same number of votes as its 3 main components did in the last election does suggest that there was a sectarian colouring to the vote.

    As for you question regarding why Sunnis didn’t vote for all-Sunni parties, I think the answer lies in the fact that without fail, all the most prominent representatives of the Sunni political parties were part of Iraqiya, and given the open list system, there is absolutely no need to vote for the remnants of Tawafuq or the Islamic Party.

    As an aside, my tone is speculative for one reason only: I am not nearly pompous or arrogant enough to pass definitive judgement on the situation in Iraq. Even if 100% of Sunnis voted for Iraqiya, I would still use words like ”perhaps” and ”maybe” because in the world of politics, everything is circumstantial.

  4. Ali Rashid May 4, 2010 at 9:10 am #

    Right on cue: http://www.alrafidayn.com/2009-05-26-22-07-53/14821–48-.html

    Disastrous if true.

  5. Anonymous May 4, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    Dear Ali, I agree with you on that myth. There are two facts about this election, I hope you agree with me about them:
    1- Voters still voted based on sectarian and ethnic preferences.
    2- Political parties learnt the lesson of sectarian and ethnic agendas so they promoted themselves as nationalistic, inclusive and non-sectarian (although in reality they remain their former self)
    At the same time, we can say that Allawi managed to win again the secular votes he won in 2005. Being said that, I think we agree that Allawi’s list won the following:
    non-sectarian secular Shi’a votes, non-sectarian secular Sunni votes, sectarian Sunni votes (majority)

    As for Maliki, I still believe that Maliki too won some of the secular Shi’a votes but not likely he won any secular Sunni votes.

  6. Anonymous May 4, 2010 at 1:24 pm #

    Dear Ali,

    I agree with you in general that is not so clear-cut as some try to say but there are two facts that need to be mentioned. Even though it was an open list system, people did vote for the leaders of the lists (i.e. Maliki and Allawi etc.) as they are the only ones that have that kind of recognition, and because more people voted for Allawi in central and western areas, it is normal that the MPs that won seats in those areas are of that specific sect, if they had broader support in Southern areas, Iraqiya would be more balanced, so you cannot blame Iraqiya for that imbalance, it is the system of seat distribution according to provinces. The other point I would like to make is about some prominent sectarian Islamic Party members moving over to Iraqiya, and one should asses whether that move was more a help to the non-sectarian Iraqiya, or a help to those sectarian politicians who are trying to appear non-sectarian. I believe it is a little of both, but on the balance of things, it’s more the latter.

    Regards,

  7. Ali Rashid May 4, 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    Anonymous1: I agree with what you have said
    Anonymous2: You raise a good point. Perhaps the current system is inherently skewed towards perpetuating sectarian voting patterns? It is understandable that any party, Iraqiya included, would nominate a Sunni in Anbar and a Shi’i in Najaf, but again, if those who voted for them are truly non-sectarian, it wouldn’t have mattered. What I was saying, (in my mind remains true) and that is, Iraqi voters are still voting with consideration to their sect, otherwise there would be nothing preposterous about Iraqiya nominating a Sunni candidate in Najaf.

    I am not attacking Iraqiya here, I am merely saying that I believe that there remains a problem of sectarianism and confessionalism in Iraq, and that this is not being captured by those who insist that only those who voted INA/SLA are sectarian. I say this not because I support these two parties, I don’t, but because I think we can only work toward solving problems once we know they exist!

    Best,
    Ali

  8. Ali D May 4, 2010 at 2:20 pm #

    Dear Ali

    Thank you for clarifying your stance.

    “Of course, this is something we seem to disagree on because I think you are adamant that the Sunnis did not vote on sectarian grounds, but I think the fact that Iraqiya seems to have gotten the same number of votes as its 3 main components did in the last election does suggest that there was a sectarian colouring to the vote.”

    I am not adamant that Sunnis did not vote on sectarian grounds. My issue is with the fact that a Sunni vote for Iraqiya is classified as a sectarian vote. Where is the basis for this? It is an extremely speculative and subjective view to say that the reason behind this is simply that (maybe) most of the the MPs voted for in Iraqiya were sunnis. My issue is that to make this accusation with no evidence, more than speculation, makes for a very weak argument. To further go on and build on this ‘shaky’ statement and say that therefore we should not pass the sunnis of as “nationalist and non-sectarian” makes for an even weaker extension. I am not arguing that we should be highlighting the nobility of any sect based on their voting patterns. But I think that what does breed resentment is to tell voters (namely Sunni voters):

    “You are not actually non-sectarian and nationalist as you did not vote for a party of a majority of Shia candidates.”

    I don’t have the statistics at hand but you do make a good point in saying that “Iraqiya seems to have gotten the same number of votes as its 3 main components did in the last election does suggest that there was a sectarian colouring to the vote.” However, if someone claims to be voting on non-sectarian grounds, whether Shi’i/Sunni/Other and irrespective of whom they voted for, what right do we have to tell them “no, you didn’t actually vote on non-sectarian grounds- you’re not actually as nationalist as people give you credit for.”

    I guess my question boils down to this. Whilst I understand that the issue is that one side may be being demonised for something that others may also be guilty of, what benefit do we stand to gain from demonising all those whom we think are guilty? Surely if demonising breeds resentment, then our best option is to act above it, and rather promote the ethics of non-sectarianism and nationalism?

    What are your thoughts?

    Many thanks

    Ali D

  9. Anonymous May 4, 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    Dear Ali,

    My issue is that you are downplaying the role of the leaders of these parties. It is my submission that it would have not mattered that much who the leaders (i.e Allawi, Maliki, Hakim and Sadr) would have nominated in the provinces, since people were picking the party based on its leader rather than the actual members. As for nominating people from within that province, it seems normal, as they would be able to obtain the votes of their family, friends and community, and that happens even in the UK, people always prefer someone running to be from that constituency or to at least have lived there or have some sort of connection to it.

    Thanks,

  10. Ali Rashid May 6, 2010 at 8:39 am #

    Hi Ali D, sorry for the late reply.

    Before I go on, I mention “the Sunni vote” and “the Shi’i vote” with reluctance because I do not believe they are as dichotomous as that,or at least, I hope they aren’t.

    I am not entirely sure I am understanding your point. It seems there is a question mark regarding whether the Sunni Arabs voted on sectarian grounds, I think you agree with me on this. But then you take exception to raising doubts on whether the Sunni vote was “nationalist and non-sectarian”. I am not sure the two views are reconcilable.

    As for promoting the ethics of nationalism and non-sectarianism, I agree with you. But I also believe in the ethics of reconciliation; I think Iraq’s communities have suffered from a surge in distrust and scepticism that must be addressed, and demonising one over the other, as in the cases I have mentioned (sectarian voting, terrorism, Baathism) serves only to deepen this distrust.

    Anonymous, thanks for you comment. If I am downplaying the role of the leaders of the parties, it is not my intention. I have said time and again in past posts and in articles I have published that I believe the leaders are sectarian, shallow and should not be trusted. If I understand you correctly, what you are saying is that the motivation for picking who to vote for is irrelevant, as long as that candidate is not sectarian themselves? So, if someone votes for a Shi’i for the sole reason of them being Shi’a, and said candidate incidentally turns out to be non-sectarian, then the initial vote is non-sectarian? I do not believe this to be true, because regardless of who the representative turns out to be, there is an underlying sectarian trend in society that brought him to position in the first place that must be addressed.

    Best
    Ali

  11. Ali D May 6, 2010 at 4:23 pm #

    Dear Ali, no problem, I look forward to your comments. I hope that objective arguments set the pretext with which we may open our minds; I’ve certainly benefited from all that you have written.

    1- You are correct. I do not believe that the Sunni vote was largely sectarian, or otherwise.

    2- I have no issue with raising doubt over any view with regards to the reasoning given behind voting patterns. I have issue with concluding that one sect is or is not of particular traits; namely the traits of nationalism and no-sectarianism. To re-quote myself:

    “But I think that what does breed resentment is to tell voters (namely Sunni voters):
    ‘You are not actually non-sectarian and nationalist as you did not vote for a party of a majority of Shia candidates.'”

    This is what I have issue with.

    3- Most importantly, the issue I raised initially is of three parts:

    To denounce the demonisation of shia with the pretext of promoting common principles of nationalism and non-sectarianism is fine.

    To denounce the accusation of sectarianism with the accusation of sectarianism of others serves no purpose, save for the one that defuncts any denouncement to begin with.

    To deny nationalism and non-sectarianism with the justification of doubt shed on apparently non-sectarian vote is not an argument that holds. (Note: ‘denying’ and ‘shedding doubt’ are two different issues).

    I hope this is clearer.

    Many thanks

    Ali D

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