Most cliches are cliches because they contain at least an element of truth. The phrase ‘divide and rule’ is a case in point; the phenomenon has been recognised as a strategy of political power, particularly imperial power, since at least Roman times, and was raised to an art-form by the British during their colonial heyday.
Most cliches are cliches because they contain at least an element of truth. The phrase ‘divide and rule’ is a case in point; the phenomenon has been recognised as a strategy of political power, particularly imperial power, since at least Roman times, and was raised to an art-form by the British during their colonial heyday. Today it can be seen in various forms, being used by the world powers to ensure their global hegemony generally, as well as in numerous specific ones. Considering the emphasis Islam places on the unity of the Ummah, one might expect Muslims have degree of resistance to this particular strategy, but in fact a predisposition to align themselves according to what Benedict Andersen called "imagined communities" – be they sectarian, nationalist, racist, cultural or class-based – appears to be a characteristic of humans generally, to which Muslims have proved far from immune. Thus racism, class-ism, sectarianism and cultural snobbery are as prevalent in Muslim societies as in any other, and the powers that be have exploited the tendency to sectarianism to the full, not least in their success in isolating Iran as a Shi’i state and so irrelevant to the rest of the Ummah of Islam.
In Iraq, the US has attempted to use ‘divide and rule’ by exploiting both sectarian issues – between Sunnis and Shi’is – and nationalist ones, between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds. In both cases they have been helped by the fact that these divisions do genuinely exist in Iraqi society. The make-up of the Iraqi Governing Council and the sectarian basis of the political structures that the US hopes to establish to do its work in Iraq, reflect both local concerns and the US’s agenda. However, the example of solidarity and cooperation between Sunni and Shi’i Muslims and Islamic organizations in their resistance to the US occupation, particularly in the last month of increased fighting, suggests that the differences can be bridged provided the vision and will are there to do it. This is particularly impressive considering two factors, which may or may not be linked: firstly the influence of sectarian salafi ideas among Iraqis Sunnis, particularly introduced in the past by Saudi-sponsored Islamic workers and organizations, and brought in also more recently by foreign mujahideen who are known to be in the country fighting the Americans; and secondly the fact that the Shi’i community has repeatedly been the target of appalling terrorist attacks which are generally blamed on sectarian Sunni groups.
Elsewhere in this issue of Crescent, Abu Dharr writes about the damage sectarianism and nationalism have done to the Islamic Revolution in Iran; so we should not fall into the trap of blaming sectarianism only on the machinations of our enemies. We must be aware that the flaw lies in ourselves. However, the people of Iraq, a country populated by a mixture of nationalities, cultures and schools of thought, have the opportunity to demonstrate to the Ummah and the world that it is possible to unite on the basis what all Muslims have in common, over and above the far smaller things on which we differ. Some of our political leaders in Iraq are falling into the trap of divisive politics, but the presence of a powerful common enemy, the US imperial occupation, has helped ordinary people and the community bodies they run to pull together in a common cause. If this trend can be maintained in Iraq’s political development, by Iraqi leaders following the lead set by their followers, Iraq’s future may prove to be a lot brighter than it seems at present.