The Sunni versus Shia Myth By William Bowles

3 December 2003

Much that has been written about the ‘division’ between the Sunni and Shia in Iraq is not only a total distortion of the demographics of the Iraqi population, it also feeds into the propaganda campaign of ‘divide and rule’ tactics that even opponents of the war and occupation can fall into the trap of accepting as true, including I might add, myself, when I used a ‘statistic’ gleaned from the Independent without first verifying it.

I was rapidly called to task over my (or should I say the Independent’s) numbers by a reader:

“Your reference to “the minority Sunni Muslims” and “16 million of Iraq’s population of 25 million are Shias” is [a] fallacy.

He went on to say:

“To date there is not and has not been any Iraqi official record documenting the actual head count of the Sunnis and/or Shias in Iraq. The reason is that in all the Iraqi government censuses previously carried out till the fall of the last regime, there was no requirement in the census forms to specify the Muslim sect [to which a person belonged]. In fact there is no official document issued by the Iraqi governments to date that mentions the Muslim sect in it. Hence, the referenced term about the Sunni’s being a minority and Shias a majority is unfounded and incorrect. Not that it matters anyway but it is worth mentioning there is a counter argument that considers the Sunnis are the majority. I recently received…research by an Iraqi scholar which proved this argument with fairly reliable figures. Needless to say, both arguments do not bear any significance whatsoever. This whole charade is also part of what you so rightly referred to in your article as [a] “massive disinformation campaign” waged by those who have ulterior political motives behind this campaign.”

The writer by the way is an Iraqi citizen currently residing in the Arab Emirates. And to reinforce his point he draws attention to the role of divide and rule in the War in Lebanon and role of the so-called Christian/Muslim ‘divide’ in fomenting discord and civil war in the country that only benefited the Israeli and US imperialists:

“[B]efore and during the Lebanese crisis (1975-1990) there was a widespread belief, [that] to a certain extent became…common knowledge, that the Christians were the majority in Lebanon. That also was a politically motivated fallacy which served its political purposes for years but was later discovered by the Lebanese themselves to be untrue as it became well known, as a matter of fact, that the Muslim population was and still is the majority.”

You would think by now that the tactic of ‘divide and rule’ would have been ‘rumbled’ by most people, yet it continues to cut a swathe of death and destruction across the planet wherever the interests of Western imperialism are threatened, that enumerating them all would fill several paragraphs.

But of course, ethnic, racial and religious differences that mean little during the ‘good times’ are easy to ignite when communities feel threatened, whether the threat is real or invented. And in any case, the ‘differences’ have been artificially maintained by the state utilising a variety of tactics and strategies.

We need only look at the current Labour government’s use of the ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘illegal immigrant’ to see the truth of the role of divide and rule, especially when significant sections of the mass media are complicit in the process, whether it’s the BBC in even talking about it as a ‘problem’ or the more rabid sections of the press intent on inflaming the passions of the most vulnerable communities in this, the 4th richest country on the planet!

And it’s the UK that is the ‘past master’ of the use of this tactic that stretches back centuries to its colonisation of Ireland, India, the slave plantations of the Caribbean, and its colonial possessions in Africa and Asia. And such tactics are varied and ingenious from the use of people from different ‘tribal’ backgrounds in the various sections of the colonial state in Nigeria (Hausa in the army and Yoruba in the civil service, or perhaps it was the other way around, or maybe it was the Ibo, it matters little) through to the importation of Asians either as indentured labour in countries as far apart as Trinidad and as merchants in Uganda or Kenya.

Look, I needn’t go on, it’s all there, in the history books, you don’t have to be rocket scientist to figure it out nor what effect it has on the development process and the autonomy of countries struggling to establish themselves after centuries of colonial domination. It’s the final fallback for imperialism in its struggle to maintain its hegemonic control of the planet and its resources.

We forget that it’s only a century or so ago that Europe too was a bunch of ‘statelets’ busy butchering each other in this or that name, whilst its rulers squandered the wealth of their empires and sacrificed the lives of their people in the name of one deity, faction or another.

It’s also fashionable these days, even for some so-called anti-colonialists to take up the cudgel of capitalism and blame the victim, when I read about ‘dependency’ and corrupt rule and ‘failed states’ etc, without looking to the crucial role of imperialism in the process. It’s the hypocrisy that pisses me off so, when I read the words of these smug, self-satisfied bastards telling me ‘I told you so, you can’t trust the natives. You need the civilised white man to sort it all out’. And this is from the ‘civilisation’ that gave us Adolf Hitler, My Lai, lynchings and Hiroshima. ‘Mississippi Goddamn!’ as Nina Simone told it.


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