2paragraphs: You’ve written that one obstacle to eliminating barbarism is that “many actors do not see the victims of their attacks as human.” Can it be that despite longstanding proximity and co-existence this remains true of the warring Shia and Sunni sects in Iraq? Can something so entrenched be solved?
Ivan Arreguin-Toft: The Sunni insurgency spilling over from Syria, most recently in the form of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, has for its ideational foundation something called Salafism: the idea that the low status and capacity of Islam’s faithful worldwide is God’s collective punishment for sin. In this view the survival of Israel in 1948 was God’s first chastisement, and the first great gift of the Almighty to the faithful was the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1989. This view of history has given rise to Salafi jihadism, which is the idea that good Muslims are not only licensed, but obligated, to discipline by killing (though most would say “murdering”), both their wayward brethren (apostates), and unbelievers (infidels and crusaders) who threaten the faithful. Beyond the glorious example of Afghanistan’s mujahideen, the appeal of this movement in Iraq can be traced to two factors: (1) the domestic nature of the regimes across the region, which have held firmly to sclerotic politics and bad economic policies; both of which have accelerated corruption and large-scale grievances; and (2) a well-intended but profoundly stupid foreign military intervention in 2003, which brought to power the current Shia government, whose corruption over the past decade has been equaled only by its incompetence. From the insurgents’ perspective, the current regime in Iraq is populated by infidels, birthed by crusaders.
The solution to ongoing and escalating sectarian barbarism in Iraq will need to find its foundations in its causes. Iraq is unique in several ways, but in particular there is no place on Earth where so many Shia and Sunni live together within a single state. Partly this is because unlike most Shia, who are Persian, Iraq’s Shia are overwhelmingly Arab. Partly this is because when Saddam Hussein became Iraq’s dictator, he set about slowly secularizing and modernizing Iraq. Ironically it was not until the two Gulf Wars (1990–91; 2003–11) that this Arab-secular equilibrium was shattered, leading to the present sectarian barbarism. The solutions should therefore stem from the causes. First, Iraq’s leaders must distribute Iraq’s wealth in ways that put Iraq’s young males to work and allow them to save enough money to get married and have children. Resentment over elite corruption is more responsible for the Arab Spring and its aftershocks than political tyranny. Second, foreign military forces must exit the region, since as with corruption, the presence of “crusaders” fuels recruitment of young males to fight for the faithful. Finally, Iraq’s leaders should re-emphasize their ‘Arabness’ as a way to help Iraqi Sunnis (and Saudi Arabs) recover the humanity of their Shia brothers.