11. The Discursive Mapping of Sectarianism in Iraq The “Sunni Triangle” in the Pages of The New York Times

Sahar Bazzaz
On March 19, 2003, the United States and a small group of supporting nations known as the “Coalition of the Willing” launched “Operation Iraqi Freedom” with the expressed intent of removing the authoritarian regime of then President Saddam Hussein and establishing a democratic government in Iraq. A few weeks later US President George W. Bush gave a jubilant address to American troops aboard the battleship USS Lincoln, announcing the successful termination of combat operations and the beginning of reconstruction in Iraq, declaring proudly: “America sent you on a mission to remove a grave threat and to liberate an oppressed people, and that mission has been accomplished.” [1] Yet despite the optimism that followed President Bush’s declaration of the cessation of combat operations in April 2003, and contrary to the oft-cited belief that Iraqis would surely welcome US troops, a violent insurgency began to spread throughout Iraq. By the end of summer 2003, the security situation in that country had greatly deteriorated as insurgents began to target occupation forces, civilians, foreign contractors, and members of the newly formed Iraqi police. On August 19, insurgents bombed the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad resulting in the death of, among others, the UN Chief in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. By late August, the insurgency was attacking vital infrastructure, including water lines and oil pipelines, and many of the foreign contractors who had come to Iraq to participate in reconstruction were already leaving. Less than a year later, the New York Times declared, “War’s Full Fury is Suddenly Everywhere,” as violence spread throughout Iraq, resulting in unprecedented numbers of American and Iraqi dead. [2] Administration officials, political analysts, and US troops stationed in the country were forced to concede that something had gone terribly wrong. Then Deputy Secretary of State, Paul Wolfowitz—a major supporter of regime change in Iraq and an architect of the invasion—declared his surprise that such fierce resistance to the US presence in Iraq was emerging. [3] Anthony Cordesman—a leading policy analyst and well-respected member of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC—went so far as to declare the US occupation a “dismal failure.” [4]
The emergence of an insurgency in Iraq spawned a dizzying search for answers regarding its sources. What could explain a seemingly puzzling paradox—namely, that Iraqis who were brutalized for so long by the regime of Saddam Hussein and his ruling Ba’ath party were resisting “liberation”? Some analysts sought immediate answers with instrumental value for understanding the insurgency in order to crush it. Others hoped to expose what they believed to be the folly of neoconservative policies in the Middle East. And for still others, violent resistance by the Iraqi “Other” elicited existential questions about the essence of the American “Self.” Was the Bush administration’s policy of regime-change and exportation of democracy a new trajectory in American politics? Or was it simply a continuation of the US imperial character in a different guise?
As pundits opined about the situation, Americans began a process of discovering Iraq as unfamiliar and virtually unknown places, such as Falluja, Samarra, and Najaf, entered center-stage, while sectarian and ethnic divisions within Iraqi society—Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurd—gained heightened importance in political and strategic analysis. For US troops on the battlefield, this process of discovery occurred through a combination of direct combat experience, on one hand, and military education, on another; in December 2003, for example, the United States Department of Defense Intelligence issued a pocket-sized guide entitled, The Iraq Transitional Handbook, which was intended to provide US military personnel with “basic reference information on Iraq, including its geography, history, government, military forces, and communications and transportations networks.” Reflecting “the coordinated U.S. Defense Intelligence Community position,” the Iraq Transitional Handbook was meant “to familiarize military personnel with local customs and area knowledge to assist them during their assignment in Iraq.” [5] Meanwhile, the print media, blogosphere, and other communications outlets broadcast the war to the American public back home. A Lexis-Nexis Academic search using the word ‘Iraq’ as the search criterion reveals that within the first year following President Bush’s declaration of victory, more than three thousand articles and editorials discussing Iraq appeared in the New York Times alone. [6]
The remarkable proliferation and generalization of knowledge about Iraq is surely a testimony to the power of the media in the global age. More significant, however, is the fact that a body of knowledge—an “archive”—about Iraqi state and society is taking shape as a result of this encounter. By the term “archive” I refer to a bourgeoning set of discourses about Iraq, its people, history, culture, geography, government, and religious traditions. Informed by the work of postcolonial studies and post-structuralism, scholars of early modern and modern European empires have demonstrated the multiple ways in which systems of knowledge have been implicated in imperial conquests and legitimation. [7] They argue that the conquest, control, and administration of new lands and peoples by imperial powers were predicated on the simultaneous conquest of “an epistemological space.” [8] Moreover, “facts” about conquered territories and indigenous societies produced through disciplines such as cartography, geography, and anthropology aided in translating terra incognita into a comprehensible and readable whole amenable to control and efficient administration. [9]
In this chapter, I consider the implications of prolonged US military occupation and administration of Iraq in shaping American public discourse about Iraqi state and society during the early years of the conflict. With its emphasis on sectarianism—the notion that Iraqi politics is determined exclusively by sectarian identity—the emerging discourse offered a lens through which to define Iraq as an “epistemological space,” and therefore to make it legible to the American public. I argue that sectarian categories of analysis gained a degree of intellectual coherence through a process whereby different regions of Iraq have become associated with specific sectarian groups. The concept of the “Sunni Triangle,” a term referring to a geographical region in Iraq that appeared in the print media in conjunction with the emergence of an Iraqi insurgency in 2003, was key to this normalization. Through a close reading/literary analysis of one US newspaper, the New York Times, I trace the evolution of the term “Sunni Triangle” between 2003 (when it first appears) and 2005, when elections for an Iraqi interim government were held. As a discursive construct, the “Sunni Triangle” was a means to localize the threat of violence against and resistance to US occupation forces by confining them (that is, violence and resistance) to a geographic region northwest of Baghdad.
My contribution is necessarily a modest and largely incomplete one since it is impossible within the scope of this chapter to discuss the vast discursive production resulting from US involvement in Iraq, which includes publications of political think-tanks, intellectuals and experts, returning veterans whose accounts of service in Iraq abound, bloggers, government issued press releases and reports, newspaper editorials, and works of fiction and film, to name only a few. [10] In addition, it is virtually impossible to ascertain the intentions and personal opinions and views of published authors without understanding the process by which New York Times articles and editorials surveyed in this chapter were selected for publication. How the New York Times readership understood and interpreted the information they culled from these articles is also difficult to know. And, moreover, the fact that I analyze discourse as it emerges and evolves in real time, so to speak, makes any conclusion about its historical significance provisional at best. Nevertheless, I maintain that a glimpse into an “archive-in-the making” provides a unique opportunity to analyze the nexus of knowledge, power, and discourse formation as it develops within the context of the US use of military force to radically reshape Iraqi society, economy, and politics along neo-liberal and liberal democratic lines. This is especially true since the New York Times, like other mainstream US media sources, shores up its legitimacy as a reputable news outlet by regularly drawing on the expertise of technocrats and intellectual elites.

Sectarianism as an Analytical Framework

Sectarian analysis of Iraq displays several general characteristics and assumptions. The first is the notion that religious and ethnic identities are mutually exclusive. The second is that there is a consensus among members of different ethnic and religious groups over how political power should be divided among them. In other words, social, regional, or gender hierarchies within these groups do not influence politics or undermine sectarian identity or solidarity. The third is that in pre-liberation Iraq political power was exclusively reserved for Sunnis while Shi’ites and Kurds were victims. And finally, the fourth assumption—one that is paradoxical in that it seems to undermine the Coalition’s desire to transform Iraq into a democracy—is that an Iraqi national identity as a basis for political cohesion does not exist. Instead, only the authoritarianism of the Saddam Hussein regime prevented Iraq’s disintegration through the suppression of sectarian centripetal forces. These elements are most clearly summed up in an editorial that appeared in the New York Times on December 24, 2003, outlining the main features of Iraqi society since Iraq’s creation by Britain in 1921:
For most of its modern existence Iraq has been a forced amalgam of three different peoples [my emphasis] ruled by a privileged Sunni Arab minority and held together by force. The failure to arrange a fair balance of power among Shi’ite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and non-Arab Kurds helped doom Iraq to dictatorship. Saddam Hussein pushed the formula of Sunni dictatorship to the ultimate extreme, terrorizing the Shi’ite majority and unleashing wholesale murder against the minority Kurds.
New York Times Editorial Desk, December 24, 2003
Other New York Times articles similarly sketch Iraq in terms of minority-majority relations. However, instead of emphasizing the modernity of Sunni political dominance as in the quote above, these articles radically de-historicize sectarianism by presenting it as an immutable feature of the Iraqi social and political landscape. For example, in the new democratic Iraq, reports the New York Times in 2003, Sunnis would lose “the advantages they enjoyed for centuries.” [11] One year later, New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins explained that the Sunnis represented “a minority that has dominated the country for five centuries.” [12] And, in the lead-up to the Iraqi elections in 2005, the New York Times also reported, “Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority has dominated the ruling class through all Iraq’s transformations, from the Ottoman era through the British mandate and the reign of Mr. Hussein.” [13]
Elements of the sectarian analytical framework also appear in other forms. For example, Amatzia Baram, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Haifa, proposed that the inability to quell the violence and govern Iraq was related to poor knowledge on the part of Coalition authorities about the “tribes” of the country. In an editorial entitled, “Victory in Iraq, One Tribe at a Time,” Baram advocates the establishment of “a bureau for tribal affairs to serve as a repository for knowledge of the tribes and their traditions” by the Coalition authority. Although Baram does not mention sectarian affiliation directly, he specifically identifies the tribes of “central Iraq”—an area associated with Sunnis—but makes no mention of the southern tribal confederations in Iraq many of whose members identify themselves as Shi’ites. [14] In other words, while “tribes” constitute a basic feature of Iraqi society according to Baram’s analysis, American military personnel should focus their attention on the tribes of a certain geographical location roughly corresponding to the purported “Sunni Triangle.” Sandra Mackey, author of a book on Iraq, also emphasized the sectarian-tribal framework in an article she wrote for the New York Times in April 2004. Mackey argues that as conquerors of Iraq, the Ottomans—presumably like the Americans today—were forced to contend with Iraqi tribal dissidence and un-governability in their efforts to establish control over the region. Her efforts to draw parallels between sixteenth-century Constantinople/Istanbul and twenty-first-century Washington, DC reveal contemporary American concerns about the outbreak of violence in the city of Fallujah that spawned a broader insurgency throughout Iraq at the time her article was published. “When the Ottomans arrived in the 16th century,” writes Mackey, “Istanbul co-opted the tribes of Falluja and the Sunni Triangle rather than conquer them.” [15] Mackey’s employment of the term “Sunni Triangle” suggests its existence as a geographical region of concern for would-be conquerors four centuries before the United States occupation of Iraq.
In “Rebuilding Iraq Is …Nothing a Few Middle Class Guys Couldn’t Solve,” we find a rare example of the intersection of sectarian and economic analyses during the period under investigation. A young Iraqi entrepreneur explains that, whereas Saddam Hussein’s regime stifled the entrepreneurial spirit among Iraqis, the new order must nurture it. Only the support of an indigenous capitalist class could save Iraq. The interviewee explains, “Politics divides people because you compete for dominance. You please the Shi’ites, the Sunnis won’t like it. You please the Kurds, the Arabs won’t like it. But business unites people. If you’re a Sunni and I’m a Christian, we can always make a deal. When we make money together, everybody gets a dividend. It’s like a dinner with enough food for everyone.” [16] The tone of the article is both striking in its hopefulness about the future of Iraq and in its validation of American entrepreneurial ideals. Moreover, in contrast to the articles discussed previously, in which sectarianism functions covertly within the analysis, this article overtly assumes sectarianism as a defining feature of Iraqi society.
It is important to emphasize that other ways of analyzing Iraqi society exist in tandem with the sectarian framework as I have outlined it above. One particularly interesting example can be found in the Iraq Transitional Handbook to which I referred earlier in the chapter. The Handbook, which the United States Department of Defense Intelligence published in December 2003, long after violence had erupted in Iraq, explains that although Iraqi society is diverse in terms of ethnic and sectarian identity, it would be incorrect to emphasize this division in understanding the country. “Sunni Arabs in Iraq comprised the country’s ruling elite under the Hussein regime. It is difficult, however, to speak of a strict or cohesive Sunni political identity. Sunnis subscribe to a broad spectrum of ideologies and affiliations, many of which have little to do with religion.” [17] This rather subtle reading of the role of sectarian identity in Iraqi politics is curiously countered by a significantly less nuanced explanation also found in the Handbook about the behavior of Iraqi Arabs. In what seems like a regression to nineteenth-century Orientalism, the Handbook explains that the “Arab’s view of the world is based on one of five concepts: atomism, fatalism, wish-versus-reality, extremism, and paranoia” (ibid., 67). Military personnel who deal with Iraqis while on their tour of duty should adjust their behavior accordingly, because “Arabs do not address challenges the way Americans would” and “do not generally subscribe to the Western concept of cause and effect” (ibid., 67–68). In other words, irrespective of the sectarian distinctions among Iraqis, they collectively form the unknown “Other,” which is clearly distinct from the American “Self.” The fundamental category of analysis is therefore a national one rather than one based on internal sectarian divisions among Iraqis.
In “Postcards from Iraq,” commentator and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman also highlights the relationship between the American “Self” and the Iraqi “Other” instead of focusing on sectarian and ethnic divisions within Iraqi society. Nevertheless, sectarianism is implicit in his argument, despite his avoidance of the terms “Sunni” and “Shi’ite.” According to Friedman the difficulties of “plant[ing] the seeds of decent, consensual government” in Iraq reflect broader regional problems. The “Arab world” lacks the “minimum of tolerance and respect for majority and minority rights” necessary for democracy. “We are trying to plant the seeds of decent, consensual government in some very harsh soil,” explains Friedman. He contrasts the integration and ethnic diversity of US armed forces to those of the Iraqis, thereby making a broader comparison between these societies. The US armed forces in Iraq represent “a Noah’s Ark of Americans: African-Americans and whites, Hispanic Americans and Asians, and men and women I am sure of every faith.” Friedman defers to arguments about “American Exceptionalism” in order to explain and then justify the US agenda in Iraq. “The fact that we can take for granted the trust among so many different ethnic groups, united by the idea of America—and that the biggest rivalry between our Army and Navy is a football game—is the miracle of America.” Friedman concludes in a self-congratulatory tenor that Iraq lacks the distinguishing characteristics of US society—they “are not in the drinking water.” With a sense of relief he adds, “So let’s thank God for what’s in our drinking water,” and hope “that maybe some of it washes over Iraq.” [18]
The two previous examples—with their emphasis on an undifferentiated Iraqi “Other” as a foil to the North American “Self”—closely reflect Edward Said’s by now widely-known description of relations between colonizer and colonized in which the Eastern/Muslim/indigenous/barbaric “Other” acts as foil to the Western/Christian/colonial/civilized “Self.” [19] When viewed together with Friedman’s views, the sectarian analysis, which emphasizes differentiation and diversity among the Iraqi population rather than homogeneity, seemingly offers a way out of the Saidian binary (colonized/colonizer), by allowing for the possibility of alliances between Americans and Iraqis. What transpired in 2003, therefore, is indicative neither of a colonial relationship between Iraq and the United States nor of a war of competing national interests between them.
By highlighting the rhetoric of sectarianism in the discussion above I am not suggesting that sectarian tensions are a creation of the US media or that such distinctions did not exist among Iraqis before 2003. Nor am I refuting the fact that Saddam Hussein’s regime committed unspeakable atrocities against specific communities and ethnic groups in Iraq. In other words, I do not suggest that sectarian distinction is simply a discursive phenomenon. “Sunni” and “Shi’ite” are and have been markers of identity in contemporary Iraqi society and in the past. [20] Furthermore, these identities have been mobilized and become politicized toward different ends by various states and political actors from the Ottomans and their neighboring rivals, the Safavids (and later, the Qajars) during the early modern and modern eras, [21] to British mandatory authorities after World War I, [22] to the Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. [23] The sectarian argument has also been adopted by non-state actors such as Ahmad Chalabi (the now somewhat notorious Iraqi exile, vocal critic of Saddam Hussein’s regime, leading figure in the London-based Iraqi National Congress, and a major advisor to members of the Bush administration regarding preparations for the 2003 invasion of Iraq), who has repeatedly emphasized sectarian politics in his vision of the new Iraq following the fall of the regime. [24] What I do wish to emphasize, however, is that in the early years of the occupation of Iraq by Coalition forces, New York Times articles exhibited an overwhelming tendency to frame Iraqi state and society in terms of sectarian and (in the case of the Kurds) ethnic separateness and distinction. In the process, “Sunni” and “Shi’ite” seemed to become normalized as ontologically coherent and inert analytical categories withstanding the passage of time and the conquest or intervention of foreign powers from the Ottomans to the British to the Americans, on one hand, and the ideology, institutions and policies of the Iraqi nation-state, on the other. The fact that successive colonialist and nationalist interventions could themselves be instrumental in the re-constitution or shaping of sectarian identities according to specific historical or geographical circumstances is completely absent from this view. This analytical framework has played a crucial strategic and political role in helping to explain Iraqi responses to foreign intervention while also inadvertently justifying the actions of the United States and its Coalition partners as both moral and necessary.

Violencehe Sunni Triangle, and the Mapping of Iraq

Denis Cosgrove and others have argued that “mapping”—that is, “acts of visualizing, conceptualizing, recording, representing, and creating spaces graphically”—“are creative, sometimes anxious, moments in coming to knowledge of the world.” [25] Such a process of discursive mapping occurred with the emergence and regularization of the geographic term “Sunni Triangle,” which between mid-2003 and 2005 appeared a total of two hundred and thirty times in the pages of the New York Times. On one hand, cartographic authority aided in the visualization of a sectarian political reality defined by mutual exclusivity among sectarian groups and the domination of the minority over the majority group. On the other hand, it made the highly abstracted sectarian landscape of Iraqi society, as described above, more concrete by associating “Sunnis” with a specific geographical region of Iraq. However, it was within the context of the eruption and spread of violence against US forces—a little more than a month after President George W. Bush’s declaration that hostilities in Iraq had officially come to an end (May 1, 2003)—that the term “Sunni Triangle” began to appear with regularity in the mainstream US media. The New York Times first used the term in an article on June 12, 2003, and shortly thereafter, it appeared in other US newspapers, such as Newsweek (July 12, 2003) and the Wall Street Journal (July 21, 2003). This was almost six months after it had first occurred in the international English-language print media in September 2002. [26] That the term became normative within US public discourse in parallel with the eruption of violence in Iraq is evinced by the fact that between 2003 and 2005, the “Sunni Triangle” appeared a total of two hundred and thirty times in the pages of the New York Times, whereas from January 2006 until 2010, its usage had decreased substantially, occurring only thirty-five times in total.
How did the New York Times discuss the “Sunni Triangle” between 2003 and 2005? More often than not, New York Times articles provided information about its location, topography, and distinguishing ethnological or sociological characteristics. The term “Sunni Triangle” clearly suggests a region inhabited by Sunnis, although it is not clear whether non-Sunnis reside there. This confusion is particularly evident in reference to the city of Samarra, whose geographical location within the “Sunni Triangle” precludes any mention of the city’s historic importance as a Shiite pilgrimage site. Although Samarra’s population was historically and remains today largely Sunni, it is important to the spiritual geography of Shi’ism as the alleged burial site of revered Shi’ite imams. [27] But while attempting to map its location onto Iraq’s material geography, articles often refer to the region as “the so-called Sunni Triangle,” also suggesting journalistic trepidation or uncertainty about the term. For example, in an August 10, 2003 article, Neil MacFarquhar discusses Sunnis “inhabiting what is referred to as the Sunni Triangle around Saddam Hussein’s ancestral homeland.” [28] In a description of the cities of Khalidiyya and Habbaniyya, Patrick Tyler explains “both Iraqi towns lie along the Euphrates River in the so-called Sunni Triangle, an area of intense resistance to American occupation forces.” [29]
A defining characteristic of the “Sunni Triangle” is the prevalence of violence, insurgency, and rebellion within its limits. The region is variously described as “restive,” [30] “volatile,” [31] “forbidding terrain,” [32] a place where “fighting flare[s] up,” [33] and “guerilla war [is] simmering.” [34] It is sometimes inhospitable to westerners. New York Times reporter John F. Burns explains that Iraqi “amiability … greets a Westerner almost everywhere outside [my emphasis] the Sunni Triangle.” [35] The Sunni Triangle also has the potential to export violence to otherwise peaceful areas of Iraq. When conflicts erupted in the northern city of Mosul—an “ethnically diverse city of two million people”—the Times reported that Coalition troops believed insurgents were coming from the Sunni Triangle in order to “spoil” the region. “It was not supposed to be this way in Mosul,” explained New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins. Unlike “places like Ramadi and Falluja and Tikrit”—all of which have been identified by the New York Times as falling within the nebulous Sunni Triangle—which “burned,” adds Filkins, “Mosul stayed calm, the one city with a Sunni Arab majority where most people seemed to regard the Americans as their friends.” [36] Other commentators, such as Tammy Arbuckle, a military analyst who specializes in limited war and insurgency, focused on the actual terrain of the Sunni Triangle—defined, that is, as a geographical locale—as a natural breeding ground for insurrection and militancy. Her analysis implies that this terrain could also sustain insurgencies from various other sectarian groups. She explains:
The Iraqi guerrillas’ area of operation is restricted to the agricultural limits of the Euphrates and Tigris River Valleys to the north and west of Baghdad. This so-called Sunni Triangle—with its maize, tomato and sunflower fields, palm and citrus groves, large farms and small towns—provides the insurgents with food, hiding places and recruits. But beyond it lies arid land, fit only for sheep and goats.
Arbuckle, October 2, 2003
If, as the analysis above suggests, the defining attribute of the Sunni Triangle is its proclivity to spawn violence, its location as a geographical space is more indeterminate and uncertain. New York Times articles reveal that the boundaries of the Sunni Triangle continuously shifted according to the movement of the insurgency (see Figure 8). In June 2004, for example, the city of Falluja represented the “heart of the Sunni Triangle.” [37] Several months later, in September, after the outbreak of violence in the city of Samarra, the New York Times proclaimed Samarra to be the “heart of the Sunni Triangle.” [38] And finally in the following month, the city of Ramadi, “the restive capital of Anbar province,” had become “the heart of the so-called ‘Sunni Triangle’.” [39] By the closing months of 2004, the northern city of Mosul also seems to have been absorbed into the Sunni Triangle, significantly expanding its parameters and reflecting the alternative geography outlined in the Iraq Transitional Handbook. [40] Writing for the New York Times in November, 2004, James A. Marks, a retired army general and the senior intelligence officer for Coalition forces during the invasion of Iraq, alluded to the widening scope of the Triangle’s geography when he predicted that “American units that are training in the United States today will absorb the lessons learned in Falluja into their training and deployment in the coming months. These troops will in turn conduct operations throughout the Sunni Triangle: Ramadi, Tikrit, Mosul.” [41] In fact, the slipperiness of the Sunni Triangle—its center constantly shifting according to the outbreak of violence—evokes a moving target that is elusive, changing location at a moment’s notice, and altering position like the enemy combatants who challenge and undermine US strategy in Iraq. In other words, the roving center (the “heart”) of the Sunni Triangle acts as a graphic illustration of the inability to understand the insurgency, to define and isolate it, and ultimately, to eliminate it. Whether through the crosshairs of a firearm telescope or through the discursive mapping of the Sunni Triangle, Americans must first locate and identify the enemy in order to defeat it, bring stability to Iraq, and ensure a sense of victory.
April 2004 was a decisive turning point in the occupation as violence spread beyond the vague and shifting boundaries of the Sunni Triangle to the south of Iraq. In that month, four US contractors had been killed in the Iraqi city of Falluja (a city located within the Sunni Triangle) and their mutilated bodies suspended from a bridge in the city. While the gruesome event shocked American and Iraqi audiences alike, the broad-scale explosion of violence beyond the Sunni Triangle greatly complicated analysis of the Iraq situation. “How did the slaughter and mutilation of four American civilians in Falluja set off a chain reaction that reverberated beyond the Sunni Triangle and jolted the entire country?” What had previously been “a fading guerilla war,” explained the New York Times, “ha[d] exploded into a popular uprising.” [42] If the Sunni Triangle had helped to localize the insurgents in the early months of the occupation, even if their exact identity was unclear, the outbreak of violence in the “Shi’ite Heartland” rendered tenuous even this military and discursive strategy of control.
It is too soon to conclude about the cultural, intellectual, and policy impacts of the mapping of Iraq in terms of violence and sectarianism. What seems certain, however, is that sectarianism has come to occupy the center-stage in media analysis of the Middle East and Islam since the beginning of Coalition operations in Iraq in 2003. This was true to such an extent that Thomas Friedman cast Sunni identity in global terms in an article he wrote for the New York Times about a far-off event: namely, the London subway bombings of 2005. In “A Poverty of Dignity and a Wealth of Rage,” Friedman expatiates on the relationship between Islam and violence. He asks: “Why are young Sunni [my emphasis] Muslim males, from London to Riyadh and Bali to Baghdad, so willing to blow up themselves and others in the name of their religion?” The answer, according to Friedman, lies in “Sunni Islam’s struggle with modernity.” Sunni Muslim males are “humiliated by Western society because while Sunni Islamic civilization is supposed to be superior,” it has suppressed innovation. [43] An analytical category—“Sunni”—that was meant as a lens in the analysis of a localized problem associated with Iraqi political and religious life in 2003 had become generalized as a means of explaining the violence that occurred in London in July 2005.
These preliminary observations regarding the process of sectarian discourse formation since 2003 raise important questions for scholars interested in the knowledge/power nexus in the context of empire. By turning our attention to the “mapping” of Iraq and its implications for shaping the Iraqi archive, on one hand, and on the ways in which sectarian discourse has impacted contemporary Iraqi society on multiple levels (including concepts of space, geography, and their reformulation), [44] on another, scholars may begin to reconsider a number of issues that have informed the study of empires generally and of the eastern Mediterranean, specifically. What are the implications of an analysis that is based primarily on notions of “culture,” defined in terms of ethnicity, religious difference, and/or sectarianism? Is this a broader indication of a trend in historical studies away from class, social, and economic history? Or is it a persistent anachronism that sees the Middle East/Islamic (and non-western societies generally) as outside of history and unexplainable by paradigms and methods considered appropriate for “western/developed/modern” societies? And finally, given the importance placed on “diversity” in contemporary US liberal discourse, what does the focus on sectarian divisions within Iraq reflect about US society at the turn of the twenty-first century, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11?

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[ back ] 1. Cited in Hashim 2006:xv.
[ back ] 2. Gettleman, April 11, 2004.
[ back ] 3. Hashim 2006:28–29.
[ back ] 4. Cordesman cited in Hashim 2006:34.
[ back ] 5. United States Department of Defense Intelligence 2003:ii.
[ back ] 6. The search parameters were April 1, 2003 to April 1, 2004. Compare this number with other contentious political and social issues in the New York Times such as “abortion rights” (164 articles), “no child left behind” (226 articles), or “gun control” (202 articles). I would like to thank Aws Shemmari for his work in collecting this data. I also wish to thank Leila Farsakh and Yota Batsaki for their invaluable comments on various versions of this chapter.
[ back ] 7. For example, Cañizares-Esguerra 2001; Said 1978; Stoler and Cooper 1997; Stoler 2009.
[ back ] 8. Cohn 1996:4–5.
[ back ] 9. Asad 1973; Cohn 1996:4–5; Edney 1997; Stocking c1987; Wolff 2007.
[ back ] 10. Recently, the Library of Congress has launched the “Iraq War 2003 Web Archive.” See http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/lcwa/html/iraq/iraq-overview.html. I would like to thank Susan G. Miller for bringing this website to my attention.
[ back ] 11. MacFarquhar, August 10, 2003.
[ back ] 12. Filkins, July 11, 2004.
[ back ] 13. Tavernise, October 8, 2005.
[ back ] 14. Baram, October 28, 2003.
[ back ] 15. Mackey, April 29, 2004.
[ back ] 16. Tierney, December 21, 2003.
[ back ] 17. United States Department of Defense Intelligence 2003:204.
[ back ] 18. Friedman, November 21, 2004.
[ back ] 19. Said 1978.
[ back ] 20. Nakash 1994.
[ back ] 21. Çestinsaya 2006; Nakash 1994; Stump 2008.
[ back ] 22. Batatu 1980 on British policy towards Shi’ite tribes.
[ back ] 23. On fears of a Shi’ite uprising against the Sunnis, see Hashim 2006; Nakash 1994.
[ back ] 24. Roston 2008: 36–38, 222, 279–284; Ahmad Chalabi, “The Future That Iraq Deserves,” Wall Street Journal (Europe), December 22, 2004 cited in Roston 2008:323. The territory that is now known as Iraq served as a buffer zone between the Ottoman-Sunni and Safavid-Shi’ite (and later, Qajar) empires. At times, political rivalry and competition between these neighboring empires was instrumental in normalizing and politicizing sectarian divisions within Iraq (Stump 2008) as in the final decades of the nineteenth century, when Ottoman officials in Baghdad noted with some concern a trend toward the adoption of Shi’ism among (mostly southern) tribal populations of Iraq and began identifying Shi’ism as an obstacle to modernization and a threat to the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid’s call for Muslim unity. Furthermore, border conflicts with Iran, as well as the competing imperial ambitions of Great Britain and Russia with regard to the region, created tensions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Finally, during the mid- to late-nineteenth century, theological and legal debates among Shi’ite mujtahids occurred, which encouraged political engagement among the Shi’ite clergy. The shift had lasting effects for Iraqi Shi’ites, their clergy, and their relationship with Sunnis (Çestinsaya 2006: 27 and 101; Nakash 1994).
[ back ] 25. Cosgrove 1999:1–2.
[ back ] 26. The Weekend Australian and the National Post (Canada) carried an interview with former UN Weapons inspector and a critic of the war, Scott Ritter, in which he used the term “Sunni Triangle” in a discussion of military strategy. “We may be able to generate support for an invasion among some of the Shi’ites and some of the Kurds,” explained Ritter, “but to get to Baghdad you must penetrate the Sunni Triangle. Sunnis will not rise up against Hussein” (Wallis, September 14, 2002). The New York Times made no mention of a geographical location known as the “Sunni Triangle” during the first Gulf War in 1991 (known as “Operation Desert Storm”), when American and international forces sought to oust the Iraqi army from neighboring Kuwait, thereby suggesting its invention sometime after the cessation of hostilities and the imposition of U.N. sanctions and creation of the “No-Fly” zone in northern Iraq.
[ back ] 27. Nakash 1994; Stump 2008.
[ back ] 28. MacFarquhar, August 10, 2003.
[ back ] 29. Tyler, September 30, 2003.
[ back ] 30. Wong, June 7, 2004; Sengupta, August 23, 2004; Wong, October 18, 2004.
[ back ] 31. Wong, June 9, 2004. Between 2003 and 2005, nine New York Times articles use the term “volatile” to describe the city of Falluja, which is located in the region identified as the Sunni Triangle.
[ back ] 32. Wong, June 9, 2004. According to the Brookings Institute website, with which Kenneth M. Pollack was (and continues to be) affiliated at the time that he wrote this article for the New York Times, Pollack “is an expert on national security, military affairs and the Persian Gulf. He was Director for Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council. He also spent seven years in the CIA as a Persian Gulf military analyst. He is the author of A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East.” http://www.brookings.edu/experts/pollackk.aspx accessed March 9, 2010.
[ back ] 33. Wong and Sengupta, June 20, 2004.
[ back ] 34. Berenson, October 2, 2003.
[ back ] 35. Burns, November 16, 2003.
[ back ] 36. Filkins, November 27, 2003.
[ back ] 37. Gettleman, June 13, 2004.
[ back ] 38. Filkins, September 5, 2004.
[ back ] 39. Wong, October 18, 2004.
[ back ] 40. The quote is: “Iraq’s Sunni Arabs inhabit the valleys of the Euphrates above Baghdad, and of the Tigris between Baghdad and Mosul. This region forms a triangle between Baghdad, Mosul, and the Syrian and Jordanian borders.” United States Department of Defense Intelligence 2003:204.
[ back ] 41. Marks, November 10, 2004.
[ back ] 42. Gettleman, April 11, 2004.
[ back ] 43. Friedman, July 15, 2005.
[ back ] 44. For example, how residents of Baghdad now move through and within neighborhoods where sectarian conflict has resulted in a form of ethnic “cleansing”; or how they navigate the largely inaccessible “Green Zone,” which houses the Iraqi government, Coalition offices, and serves as the hub for foreign journalists.