By WAQAR RIZVI
Ever since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003 and the realization that outside occupiers would not be welcome as liberators, as hoped for by the then US Defense Secretary, there has been a consistent effort to keep the narrative about the nation within that of a growing sectarian divide.
In 2006, then Senator and now Vice President Joe Biden even went as far as proposing a division of Iraq into three autonomous regions along ethnic-sectarian lines.
From the moment Iraq was freed from the grips of Saddam Hussein, and headed down the path of democracy, external actors have had a hard time accepting that as the majority population, Shias would naturally rise to power. It has been noted thus that regional countries, especially the likes of Saudi Arabia and its [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council allies, as well as the West, have through both official statements and the media waged a concerted effort to convince us all that sectarianism and Iraq are synonymous.
That the likes of the Saudis, in their hatred for all things Shia, which blinds them to what is or isn't good for the Muslim community at large, would take such a stand is what we've always come to expect from the Al-Saud clan. That the West would take such a stand too is expected, as playing up any minute Sunni-Shia divide works well with its desire to maintain influence through divide-and-rule tactics.
The obsessive calls for the successive Shia authorities to respect their Sunni brethren, as if replaying in a never-ending loop, has driven us to forget some hard facts.
Without any push from external actors, Shia scholars in Iraq, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, arguably the most influential cleric for majority Iraqi Shias, have released edicts highlighting Muslim unity. Ayatollah Sistani has gone as far as ordering Shias to not even refer to Sunnis as their 'brothers' but as 'ourselves.' The banning of any disrespect to Sunni sanctities was also put in writing and released as an officially-stamped ruling for Shias to obey.
Ever since, Ayatollah Sistani has not been silent on matters pertaining to Muslim unity, reminding the government of its duties towards them in weekly Friday sermons by his representatives in the holy city of Karbala. The West and regional governments, as well as their respective media, however, have ignored such statements, or have only given them a passing mention.
That wrongdoing has occurred is not up for debate, as every single group has its bad apples who go against the grain of what is good for the whole. There is no justification for any such crimes and that must not be understood as the purpose here. The Iraqi government has, of recent as well, said it will investigate all allegations, and all will be brought to justice regardless of sect. Time will tell if the government will be able to act on this promise, as it must, even according to the wishes of Shia scholars.
As much as the Saudis or the West may believe themselves to be in a position of moral authority when it comes to speaking about the protection of Iraqi Sunnis, it is their individual and collective actions which have contributed to any feelings of sectarianism. Beyond that, it is an undeniable fact that throughout the chaos in Iraq since 2003, it is Muslims, Sunnis and Shias both, whose blood has been spilled. There have been targeted sectarian attacks, but not by lay-Iraqis, but by Saddam loyalists who are out for vengeance, and militants backed by the likes of Saudi who want nothing more but to spew hatred through their blood-letting.
Even now, with the fight to liberate Tikrit from the un-Islamic State, a group about the culpability of whose founding in US and Saudi policies volumes can be written, a chorus of voices has arisen claiming undying care and concern for what Shia volunteer fighters will do to the Sunnis once they liberate their areas. While these pundits disrespectfully ignore the landmark statement of Ayatollah Sistani laying out the rules for fighters in the battlefield specifically saying no harm must come to any person who is liberated, nor revenge sought even on those who may have supported the un-Islamic State, they also look away when stories of Sunnis joining Shia fighters come to the fore.
The truth of the fight for Tikrit exposing major gaps in the sectarian narrative is simply too much for many to swallow. Wither their expertise on a divided Iraq if suddenly they have to backtrack and admit Sunni volunteers and tribesmen are working hand in hand with their Shia brothers to liberate their country of a cancer brought upon them from outsiders?
Yet, through gritted teeth they have had to report the inconvenient truth. These analysts who understand and know little about how Shia and Sunni scholars work, have had to admit, again just in passing and with much bitterness, the facts. They have had to admit that volunteer forces who liberated the town of al-Alam were greeted as liberators by the Sunni residents. They have had to admit that there are now growing ranks of Sunnis joining hands with the Shias in this fight against the un-Islamic State cancer. All this, as said is done with just enough resentment in their words to leave doubts in the minds of readers, listeners, viewers. They want that large enough gap to remain open so that at one, even small, slip-up, they can jump back in with their rhetoric of sectarianism.
It is for the Iraqi peoples and authorities then, regardless of sect, to rise above all this. They must realize that they themselves will have to open their eyes and listen to the guidance of their religious scholars, who have preached, commanded, and desired unity from day one. Scholars' words have remained the same throughout, yet it is the media, foreign governments, and some of the people who have forgotten them.
Let Iraq then go back to its roots of when citizens spoke of brotherhood among all. Let them ask themselves: who benefits from their division along sectarian or ethnic lines? Has it not been Iraqi blood which has been most shed, while it is outsiders who most stoke the fire of false-hatred?
It is only by closing ranks and expelling those who do not have the interests of the country at heart that the people and authorities can get back to the work of building a country for all, with functioning organs working towards that end. The climate of hate and fear-mongering must end, security must be restored by working together, and each citizen's life valued by all.