Last week, Sami Ramadani undertook the urgent task of giving Western audiences a history lesson on the supposed entrenched sectarian violence of modern Iraq. His The Sectarian Myth of Iraq, written for The Guardian, sends a message rarely acknowledged in the English speaking world: “We coexisted peacefully for centuries, and need neither brutal dictators nor western intervention.”
He explodes the illusion that Iraq and the Middle East in general is but a cauldron of historically rooted Shia-Sunni sectarian animosities, and that the current crisis is reducible to the region’s supposedly incurable religious violence—a mentality that has become a truism in the media and foreign policy establishment. This misperception spills over into common American discourse as the simplistic “Arabs hate each other,” or “this is a centuries old religious conflict.” But Ramadani’s point is proven by his wealth of historical references; his conclusions further run counter to everything Americans have been told about Iraqi society:
“The most serious sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq’s modern history followed the 2003 US-led occupation, which faced massive popular opposition and resistance. The US had its own divide-and-rule policy, promoting Iraqi organisations founded on religion, ethnicity, nationality or sect rather than politics. Many senior officers in the newly formed Iraqi army came from these organisations and Saddam’s army. This was exacerbated three years ago, when sectarian groups in Syria were backed by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”
Many in American government and media have been asking over the past week: “How do we keep getting the Middle East so wrong?” There are many avenues of approach to this question, but perhaps the simplest and most basic, confirmed in my own experience, is that Americans continue to see the region according to simplistic stereotypes, caricatures, and orientalist abstractions. American assumptions never line up with Eastern realities, yet our power combined with ignorance continues to sow disaster. It might help for American policymakers to simply travel to those places they are intent on changing, and to live among the common populace for an extended period –doing so would likely shatter many illusions.
I served in the Marine Corps during the first years of the Iraq War and was a 9/11 first responder while stationed at Headquarters Battalion Quantico 2000-2004. I thought I knew something about Iraq upon the start of our new “war on terror”: Arab culture, with its intrinsic primal religious passions and resulting sectarian divisions, must be brought to heel under Western values of pluralism, secularism, and equality if peace and stability are to ever have a chance. This was a guiding assumption among the many Marine officers, active and retired, that I conversed with during my years at Quantico. Iraqis and Middle Easterners were, for us, abstractions that fit neatly into categories learned about by viewing a C-span lecture, or perhaps in a college class or two: there are Sunnis, Shia, some dissident sects, they all mistrust each other, and they all want theocratic states with their group in charge.
My first visit to the region as a civilian desiring to study Arabic in 2004, after completion of active duty military service, began a process of undoing every assumption I’d ever imbibed concerning Middle East culture, politics, and conflict. An initial visit to Syria from Lebanon was the start of something that my Marine buddies could hardly conceive of: Damascus became my second home through frequent travel and lengthy stays from 2004 to 2010, and was my place of true education on the real life and people of the region. While my fellow servicemen were just across Syria’s border settling in to the impossible task of occupying a country they had no understanding of, I was able view a semblance of Iraq as it once was through the prism of highly stable Ba’athist Syria.
During my first weeks in Damascus, I was pleasantly shocked at just how wrong my simplistic ideas about region were. I expected to find a society full of veiled women, mosques on every street corner, religious police looking over shoulders, rabid anti-American sentiment preached to angry crowds, persecuted Christians and crumbling hidden churches, prudish separation of the sexes, and so on. I quickly realized during my first few days and nights in Damascus, that Syria was a far cry from my previous imaginings, which were probably more reflective of Saudi Arabian life and culture.
What I actually found was mostly unveiled women wearing European fashions and sporting bright makeup – many of them wearing blue jeans and tight clothes. I saw groups of teenage boys and girls mingling in trendy cafes late into the night, displaying expensive cell phones. There were plenty of mosques, but almost every neighborhood had a large church or two with crosses figured prominently in the Damascus skyline. As I walked near the Old City, I was surprised to find entire streets lined with large stone and marble churches. At night, all of the crosses atop these churches were lit up, outlined with blue fluorescent lighting, visible for miles; and in some parts of the Damascus skyline these blue crosses even outnumbered the green-lit minarets of mosques. Historic synagogues were also accessible and well-kept in the small Jewish quarter of Old City Damascus and in the famous National Museum.
More surprising than the presence of prominent brightly lit churches, was the number of restaurant bars and alcohol kiosks clustered around the many city squares. One could get two varieties of Syrian-made beer, or a few international selections like Heineken or Amstel, with relative ease. The older central neighborhoods, as well as the more upscale modern suburbs, had a common theme: endless numbers of restaurants filled with carefree Syrians, partying late into the night with poker cards, boisterous discussion, alcohol, hookah smoke, cigarettes, and elaborate oriental pastries and desserts. I got to know local Syrians while frequenting random restaurants during my first few weeks in Damascus. I came into contact with people representative of Syria’s ethnically and religiously diverse capital city: Christians, Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Druze, Kurds, Armenians, Palestinians, and a number of Arab atheists. The characterization of Syrian city life that increasingly came to my mind during my first, and many subsequent visits and extended stays, was of Syria as a consciously pluralistic and secular society.
Syrian cities (and government organizations) are very much like Iraq before the war: neighborhoods are mixed, and people don’t identify themselves primarily along sectarian lines; “I am Syrian” or “I am Iraqi” is typically as far as you’ll get with “identity” type discourse. In fact, it is generally considered rude to even inquire of a person’s particular religious or ethnic background in daily conversation (much as it is in most parts of the world). The secularist, pluralist, and “Syrian first” attitude, more palpably experienced in urban centers, was a far cry from the simple caricature of “passionate, sectarian, conservative Islamic society” I’d been given while in the Marines and by American culture in general.
I certainly witnessed plenty of examples of Islamic conservatism in Syrian public life, but it was the secular and pluralistic (represented in the diverse population living side by side) aspect that always seemed to dominate, whether I was in Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, or coastal areas like Tartus. Syria’s committed secular identify was confirmed to me more than ever when I first traveled the freeway that wraps around Mt. Qasyoon—the small mountain against which the Damascus urban center is nestled. My speeding taxi passed a couple of expansive foreign car dealerships, but most prominent were a seeming myriad number of windowless entertainment venues, structured like residential mansions, lining both sides of the road. My taxi driver laughed at my perplexed expression and informed me that this was “brothel row” (my translation)—a place where guys go to drink and have their pick of East European, Syrian, and Iraqi women.
When I later got to know a group of Syrian Christian guys—enough to where I could ask potentially awkward or embarrassing questions—they confirmed, with some degree of shame, that all big cities in Syria have their seedy underbellies (“like your Nevada,” my friend Michel said). Places like brothels and “pick-up bars” were allowed to operate in public, but didn’t necessarily advertise what they were about. It was explained to me that while the Syrian government was deeply authoritarian in some respects, it generally allowed (and enforced) openness in social and religious areas unparalleled anywhere in the Middle East. I was told by many Syrians and Iraqis that Iraqi society had been little different from Syria prior to U.S. occupation. Most blamed the Americans and Western powers for the religious nature of Iraq’s resulting civil war, and the ultra-conservative path of the competing sects.
Syrian Ba’ath society, like pre-invasion Iraq, was never ideal; yet, it certainly escapes the many false stereotypes that have come to define the American outlook on the region. Baghdad was very much like Damascus prior to the American invasion: Iraqi nationalism, regardless of sectarian creed, was the organizing principle of the secular Ba’ath state. It is a tragic shame that those U.S. personnel sent to occupy Iraq never got to experience the country before the 2003 invasion. They would have learned the important reality: “We coexisted peacefully for centuries, and need neither brutal dictators nor western intervention.”