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Sunni Centrism and the Shi’a of Iraq

by Norvell B. DeAtkine

In following the Iraq conflict of the past year, both from Iraq and since returning, I believe the greatest void in analytical reporting has been the lack of in-depth reporting on the Shi’a. There seems to be a studied disregard or indifference to the Shi’a. While there is also very little reporting on the Kurds or Turkoman, the number of Shi’a in Iraq would seem to require a great deal more attention. Why this lack of attention?

It is not a new phenomenon. In his book Shi’a Islam Heinz Halm wrote, “Most people understood very little of the religious beliefs of the Shi’ites and their more than thirteen century-old tradition. At best there were pictures of flagellants, scourging their backs till they bled or beating brows with swords.”1 Robin Wright’s book, Sacred Rage, and a popular BBC film called “The Sword of Islam” popularized the idea of revolutionary Shi’ism. After a short period of a more favorable view of the Shi’a following the 1991 Gulf War, Halm goes on to write, “Western politicians and commentators soon resumed their familiar, vague fear of Shi’a expansionism: the image of a weakened Saddam who held Iraq together was still preferred over that of an Iranian dominated Shi’a state in southern Iraq.”

As Yitzhak Nakash states in Shi’as of Iraq, the best book yet written on the subject, most observers and even many experts confuse Iranian Shi’ism with Iraqi Shi’ism and therefore do not understand the significant and vital differences. Iraqi Shi’ism has very little in common with the Iranian brand.2

In their book The Arab Shia: The Forgotten Muslims, Graham Fuller and Rende Rahim Franke recounted the reluctance of Arabs to even discuss the issue. Many refuse to accept that it is an issue.3 In my own experience Sunni Muslims in a Western audience will always insist that there is no real division. When asked whether he was Shi’a or Sunni, a Sunni translator I worked with in Baghdad replied he was “non-denominational” because “there are only Muslims, not Sunni and Shi’a.”

Of course one other current reason for the lack of reporting on the Shi’a community is the relative lack of violence in the south or in Kurdistan, yet from reading the daily reports which speak of attacks “throughout Iraq” it seems that Iraq consists entirely of the Sunni Triangle and Mosul, the latter a long time hot bed of Sunni Arab nationalism. Except for brief periods when Muqtada Al-Sadr sends his thugs out to get killed, the Shi’a receive very little notice. But I think there are deeper and more pervasive reasons for the lack of interest or informative analysis. I think the answer to this lack of interest is in the way the Shi’a community is viewed by both scholars and journalists in the West, and the United States in particular.

Not only have journalists been influenced by the media portrayal of the Shi’a, but also the majority of Western scholars of Middle East studies have very little on-the- ground knowledge of Shi’a, and very few Western scholars of Arab origins are of a Shi’a background.4 Moreover, many of the American scholars who are called upon by the media to talk and write about the situation in Iraq have not been there since the war, or many…for decades. Professor Juan Cole has been frequently identified by the media as “America’s leading scholar on Shi’ism”5 and yet in a recent article in The New Republic it was revealed he has never been to Iraq.6 They are speaking and writing about an Iraq which no longer exists. In fact many of the cherished shibboleths about the Middle East need re-examination. For decades the Western academic community has been absorbed by the Arab-Israeli conflict, with nearly every issue or conflict in the Middle East seen as an adjunct or symptom of this issue. It is a community that has viewed the problems in the Middle East as primarily a consequence of the existence of Israel and/or American support for the state of Israel. They have tended to overlook the many symptoms of a much wider and deeper problem that the late great Foreign Service Arabist Hume Horan called “the Arab historical baggage.”7 It is a predilection to live in the past, mythologizing history and a failure to face problems that are internal and not a result of colonialism, imperialism or Zionism.

A particularly cherished tenet of Western academics is the importance of Arab nationalism or pan-Arabism. The point here is that pan-Arabism is almost exclusively a Sunni movement with a smattering of Greek-Orthodox Christians such as George Antonius, who saw it as an alternative to Islamist movements. It has always been identified with the elite of the Arab world. The Neo-Arabists brought up academically in a post-modernist world of Edward Said and the Arab Nationalist Movement have never been much concerned with those ethnic groups that did not fit into the image of the Arab World they mentally constructed. Hence, as writer Kenan Makiya (Republic of Fear) has so vividly pointed out, the intellectuals of the Arab World were never outraged by Saddam’s use of chemicals against the Kurds or systematic butchery of the Shi’a.8 They were far more incensed by the U.S. assault on Falujah, an operation that was welcomed by most of the Shi’a community and seen as long overdue.

On the other hand the popular image of the Shi’a is, as Halm observed, one of fanaticism, engaging in bloody religious rituals, and a backward mysterious people. This bias or indifference toward the Shi’a has been particularly pronounced in Iraq. The western written history of Iraq is the history of the Sunni. It remains so today. In Iraq, for instance, the majority of the Iraqis employed by western journalists as translators and assistants are Sunni and many worked for the Ba’athi regime.9 The reason is very simple. Under the Saddam regime very few Shi’a became journalists. In fact the International Journalist Center under Saddam was well known as a superficial cover for the Intelligence apparatus of the Saddam regime. The few who were professionals were either Sunni Ba’athis or others considered “reliable” by the regime. Most of the people qualified with any journalistic experience to provide assistance for Western journalists after the war were in fact Sunnis and/or Ba’athis.

As any honest journalist will readily admit, these translators are not mere word processing machines. They guide the journalists, point them in certain directions, lead them to selected people to interview, and basically influence what the journalists hear. They are the filters through which journalists see and hear Iraq. Recently this situation has become more pronounced as it has become more dangerous for Western correspondents to wander about in Ba’athi/Sunni areas. Speaking of the security situation, journalist Vivenne Walt told an interviewer in the Columbian Journalism Review, “…Western journalists are really too much at risk to operate here.” She says all this makes her incredibly reliant on fixers and translators. She goes on to say, “A translator is much more than a translator here.”10 She also adds “translators have not lived in a vacuum for the past thirty years. They are just as much the product of Saddam’s culture of fear as the subjects they help journalists interview.” It is only slightly less dangerous for journalists of Shi’a backgrounds to report from the Sunni heartland (Iraqis can tell within a few minutes from a name and the accents what village or city a person comes from). Certainly the old problem of accessibility to insurgent leaders is always predicated on how the previous story portrayed them. Therefore the use of Sunni stringers has become more prevalent.

In the past month several incidents have surfaced the reality that many of these stringers or local journalists are indeed at least sympathetic to the Sunni Ba’athist cause. The not-so-mysterious ability of Al-Jazeera journalists to arrive just as an ambush or other attack takes place should convince all but the most naïve that there is a working relationship between Al-Jazeera and the Ba’athis and the pan-Islamists. Moreover, the purchase of these videos and photographs by U.S. media is an indicator of the lack of in-depth balanced reporting which has characterized the Western media in Iraq.

Western journalists of Arab origin are generally Palestinian or Levantine and very often present the same bias I found so prevalent in Lebanon when I lived there, among not just the Sunnis, but Christians as well. Most have a decided bias in favor of Sunnism, which to the Arab world elite (and Western elite), represents a more secular, sophisticated version of Arabism and Islam. According to my Shia Lebanese friends who frequently visit Lebanon, this attitude remains in vogue, and the Shi’a still face a great deal of discrimination within professional and political circles in Lebanon from both Christian and Sunni Muslim.

One of the very few journalists who is reporting accurately on the Iraqi Shi’a today is Michael Rubin11 whose articles I frequently send to the Shi’a I worked with in Baghdad, and they are very laudatory of his insights into their community. He has been very critical of the U.S. Government’s lack of access or apparent unconcern for the aspirations of the Shi’a community and their lack of understanding of their community, their traditions, or their aspirations. The repeated and rather simplistic equations of Iraqi Shi’ism to Iranian or the Iranian version of a Wilayat a Faqih (rule by a religious authority) continues to surface.12 The truth is quite the opposite. The tombs of several Shi’a imams, as well as the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, will diminish the importance of Qum in Iran as the center of world Shi’a study and pilgrimage. In fact the future Iraqi Shi’a state will be a competitor to Iran, politically and religiously.

On the world political scene there is also a certain animus against the Shi’a. It was the French president who is recently reported to have said he could deal with Sunnis, but not Shi’a. His recent lavish reception of Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a state whose attitude toward a new Iraqi government is cool at best, is illustrative of this feeling. King Abdullah of Jordan has also weighed in on the danger of a “Shi’a arc” from Iran to Lebanon.13 He has since couched that in more diplomatic terms, but in the coded language of the Middle East everyone knows what he means. Throughout the Arab World and particularly in the Sunni Fertile Crescent there is contempt and perhaps some fear of an Iraqi Shi’a Arab government. To a large extend this is based on the expectation that a Shi’a dominated Iraq, despite some obligatory anti-Israeli and pan-Arabist bombast for public consumption, will in fact turn away from the Arab World as constructed by the Pan Arabists. As mentioned above, Shi’a interest in the Arab–Israeli conflict is minimal.

Despite their reputation as a backward people in Iraq, the reality does not bear it out. The people I worked with in Baghdad were extremely well educated and reasonable. In many ways they are more open to Western ideas. Their acceptance of Ijtihad (interpretation of Islamic legal doctrine) is far more progressive than the traditionalist Sunni view that the doors to Ijtihad closed in the 10th century.14 One need only read the English version of Al-Sistani’s website in the Frequently Asked Questions section to see a surprising modernist view of morals and manners.

The fear of Shi’a power in Iraq extends to the Christians and Kurds. The Christians see them as religious fanatics…after all Saddam had the Chaldean Christian, Tariq Aziz, as one of his top henchmen, and the Kurds, while they detest Sunni Arab Nationalism, also fear the specter of Shi’a Islamic fundamentalism, a fear played to by the Ba’athis to keep the oppressed and disenfranchised from forming a coalition. The much more secular Kurds made it a point to show me pictures of their women taken in the 1950’s and the fact they are all wearing western clothing. Their view is that the Arabs forced Islamic practices upon them. (More bars than mosques are in Suleimaniya, several young Kurds proudly told me.) Nevertheless these people are unlikely to join forces with the Sunni Arabs against the Shi’a because they view Arab Nationalism as simply a preserve of Sunni Arabism with a few storefront minorities. The fate of the Palestinians who were living in Shi’a areas of Iraq is ample testimony to the attitude of the Iraqi Shi’a toward Arab Nationalism, a sacred cause among the Palestinians, whom they identified with the Saddam regime and Pan-Arabism, the mantra of the Ba’ath Party. After the war, many were displaced from their homes by returning Iraqis who had been previously displaced by Saddam to provide apartments for Palestinians. Our U.S. Army civil affairs people in the south took care of many of them in makeshift refugee centers after the war.

This strong bias against the Shi’a is fully reciprocated by the Shi’a. To the Shi’a, especially of Iraq, Arab Nationalism translates into Arab Sunni domination. The Arab media networks, in particular Al-Jazeera (Shi’a in Iraq call it the Wahhabi network) and to a lesser extent Al-Arabiya, are seen simply as mouthpieces for Sunni Arab Nationalism. There are no internationally known Shi’a Arab networks of equal funding or stature. One Shi’a satellite network, Fayhaa, is on the air about 12 hours a day and another one called al-Furat has just come on the air.

Outside Shi’a networks like Al-Manar, the Hezbollah network, and Al-Alam, the Iranian network, have little following in Iraq. Yet Al-Jazeera is seen in the West as presenting a valid reflection of the attitudes of all the people of the Arab World, including the Iraqis. Despite the fact that Al-Jazeera was not seen in Iraq under Saddam, there is a convincing case that Uday was funneling funds to that network to go easy on Saddam, and that was fully reflected in their reporting. In terms of Press, the Shi’a in Iraq have only two under-funded and low circulation newspapers, both published in a desultory manner, one by the Dawa Party and another by theSCIRI organization.

Moreover, it is the nature of the Shi’a community, which lends itself to being misunderstood or ignored. The Shi’a, especially of Iraq, have had a history of domination and oppression, not just under Saddam but dating back to the Ommayad Dynasty of the 8th century. It was the Shi’a who provided the impetus and foot soldiers for the overthrow of the Ommayad Dynasty in Damascus by the Abbasids of Baghdad in 750AD. The first betrayal of the Shi’a was the immediate persecution of the Shi’a by the new Abbasid regime, which was also Sunni. This domination of Shi’a by Sunni continued through the Ottoman regime and was institutionalized by the British. The Ottoman Sunni Turks were despised because of their treatment of the Shi’a but the British chose to ignore this animosity toward the Turks in World War I. Freya Stark laments the lack of British cultural intelligence in WWI during the ill-fated Mesopotamian campaign to take advantage of this Shi’a antipathy to the Turks.15 But in fact the British diplomats and officials who served in Iraq were even more enamored with Pan Arabism than the Iraqis themselves. From Lawrence of Arabia to Gertrude Bell to Freya Stark there is an obvious antipathy or indifference to the aspirations of the Shi’a. As she wrote, “The Shia are all fanatics here and one cannot enter their mosques. I should like to get in touch with them but it is a toss up as one cannot very well combine Shi’a and Sunni and I do not know which my fate will be.” 16 Like Gertrude Bell before her, Freya Stark was an avid supporter of Arab Nationalism. 17 The only aberration in this history was the brief Abdel Qassim regime that drew its support from the Shi’a and Communists (who were largely Shi’a or other powerless minorities). Qassim was overthrown and the Sunni Ba’ath has ruled ever since.

After a brief, unsuccessful revolt against the British after World War I, the Shi’a of Iraq retreated to their normal “quietist” practice of religion, staying out of politics and maintaining their tradition of “taqiya,” dissimulating ones religion in order to survive. In other words, they are unaccustomed to the reins of power, never having had it in their hands. A member of a community that has survived by being unobtrusive does not simply seize the mantle of leadership and take charge. Hence one finds that even in areas where there is mixed Shi’a and Sunni population, such as Diyala, the Shi’a hold back and the Ba’athist “insurgents” operate (even in Basra where there is a 30% Sunni population). In short there is a culture of submission among the Shi’a even when the reins of power are within reach.18 For instance, Imam Al-Sistani, by far the most followed Shi’a cleric in Iraq, has consistently stayed out of the political limelight and, except for Al- Sadr whose following has diminished, most of the Shi’a clerics have kept a low profile. Ironically it was the Shi’a who boycotted the elections under the British and paid for it by becoming disenfranchised.

The recent example of the fate of the Shi’a in the Salman Pak area is an example of the reticence of the Shi’a to fight back. For months Sunni Arab thugs robbed and killed Shi’a in the area with impunity. Finally in desperation the Shi’a asked Muqtada Al Sadr to send some of his militia to defend them.19 This finally got the attention of the Coalition forces and the Iraqi Government, whose Interior Ministry, responsible for security, is seen by the Shi’a as a Ba’athi infestation. Even now, however, the Western media sources have largely ignored the daily depredations of the Sunni gangs on a historically subjugated Shi’a community. Strikingly different though, is the attention given to the very recent reported killings of several Sunni clerics

The amazing restraint shown by the Shi’a community in the face of a campaign of deliberate Sunni/Ba’athist/Islamist terrorist outrages against the Shi’a people is a facet of their quietist sentiments. To an extent this passivity can be compared to the history of the American Blacks during reconstruction in the South. This is changing now, partially because of the large numbers of Shi’a who have and are working with the Coalition or the new Iraqi government, Shi’a elite are becoming more comfortable with the tools and institutions of power, and their gradual assumption of instruments of government is taking place.

It is the opinion of the educated Shi’a in Iraq that, as the new Iraqi Government secures itself in power, the interim, and the one to be elected in December, the Sunni community, especially the merchant class, will show a more cooperative attitude toward the new government as the reality of a vastly different Iraq appears inevitable. Certainly, the power of the Arab State, contrary to the opinion of many academics, has proven itself remarkably powerful. As Charles Tripp has pointed out in his book, A History of Iraq, the patronage power of the Iraqi State has given it more unity than ideological movements.20

Most of the educated Shi’a dismiss the idea of a full-scale sectarian war as a result of the Sunni violence against them, despite the polarization of the Sunni/Shi’a communities. They point out widespread intermarriage between the communities, with all but two major tribes having Shi’a branches, and a very strong sense of Iraqi nationalism within both communities that will prevent a “Rwanda” type conflict. Obviously it is the primary goal of the “insurgents” to foment this conflict, apparently in the expectation that the Americans would withdraw and the Arab World would close ranks with the Iraqi Sunni to re-subjugate the Iraqi Shi’a.

However, there can be no doubt that the positive trend in Iraq (and despite the daily recitation of bomb attacks by the media there is a continuing process of rebuilding a broken society)21 is largely dependent on the Shi’a community remaining in harness and not retaliating on a massive scale against Sunni Arab outrages. Among the educated Shi’a there is a decidedly strong view that the Coalition continues to be uncomfortable with the obvious fact that one way or another the Shi’a will rule Iraq, and that continued attempts to placate a Sunni community and give them far more power than their 15-20% population warrants, and emboldens them to continue the insurgency. My recent correspondence with Iraqis indicates a jaundiced perception of what they view as a Sunni-centric orientation of Western influence on the Iraqi Government, including the recent remarks of American officials that were taken as a defense of the Sunni-dominated Defense and Interior Ministries of the Iraqi Government. The educated Shi’a put much of the blame for the security situation on the Ba’athist infiltration of those ministries. In contrast to conventional wisdom, which has become almost an axiom among the western cognoscente, the Shi’a view the demobilization of the army and de-Ba’athization program as the right policy22 but that it was incomplete and only temporary. They claim that many Ba’athis are now back in the security forces or in the government. Moreover our demonization of Ahmad Chalabi has irked many urbanite educated Shi’a among whom he has a wide following.

With the loss of Ambassador Hume Horan, who was popular among the Shi’a ulama23 and took pains to understand them, we have been unable to produce an official who has empathy with the Shi’a viewpoint. I vividly remember one of the Arab advisors to the Coalition, an Arab American, who daily evoked an apocalyptic vision of a Shi’a Iranian State, as many of the talking heads at that time envisioned (and still do).

In summary, we are dealing with a new Middle East, not one constructed in the minds of the Pan-Arabists and their facilitators in Western academia. Pan-Arabism is a dead ideology, however like Marxism, its legacy lives on in academia much to detriment of Middle East scholarship. Many of the cherished shibboleths of the neo-Arabists and post-modernists require vigorous re-examination. Nowhere is this more critical than in Iraq, starting with a re-evaluation of the Iraqi Shi’a influence on the Middle Eastern political environment.

1 Heinz Halm, Shi’a Islam; From Religion to Revolution, pp.vii-vii
2 Y. Nakash, The Shi’as of Iraq, (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1994), pp.6-9.
3 Graham E. Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke, The Arab Shi’a; The Forgotten Muslims, (New York, St Martin’s Press, 1999), p 4.
4 Fouad Ajami is one of few Middle East scholars of Shi’a background and his relentless attack on the illusions of Arab unity has made him immensely unpopular among the Sunni-centric US Middle East academics who predominate in Middle Eastern studies, particularly in organizations like the Middle East Studies Association.
5 “Iraq’s Political system under Fire” by Becky Branford in the BBC News. A memorable quote from Professor Cole in this article “In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if the two-thirds majority (speaking of Iraq) is characteristic of only one nation on earth, i.e., America Iraq.” An amusing quote in view of the current debate in the US congress.
6 “Juan Cole’ Bad Blog. Dear Diary,” by Efraim Karsh, in The New Republic on Line, 4/24/2005
7 Hume Horan, “The US and Islam in the Modern World,” American Foreign Service Journal, from the web at Also see Hume Horan, “Those Young Arab Muslims and US, Middle East Quarterly, Fall2002, found at
8 Kanan Makiya, Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World, (New York, Norton and Company, 1993. Makiya is of Shi’a origin.
9 This information is derived from a friend of mine with whom I worked in Iraq. The friend is a press attaché for a Western (non-US) embassy with many years employment in the Iraqi Press before Saddam’s ouster, and with extensive contacts among Iraqi and Western journalists in Baghdad.
10 Gal Beckerman, “In their Skins,” Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 2004.
11 See Michael Rubin, “Iraqi Shi’a See a US Betrayal, and Frankly They Should, NRO, August 19,
2004. See also “Learning From Sadr. Listen to the Iraqis.” NRO, April 8, 2004.
12 For Example, see Robin Wright, “Iraq Winners Allied with Iran are the Opposite of US Vision,”, February 14, 2004.
13 Robin Wright and Peter Baker, “Iraq, Jordan, See Threat to Election from Iran,” .
14 See Hume Horan, Interview with Kate Seeyle of PBS appearing in Religion and Ethics, December 19, 2003, from web ethics/week716/interview.html. Hume said, “The Shiite clerics are much more intellectually flexible and open and attuned to modernity, much less bogged down in the uncreative, constantly repetitive view of theology, religion, and the world.”
15 Freya Stark. , The Arab Island, New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1945.p, 223
16 Freya Stark. Beyond Euphrates, London, John Murray, 1951. p 96
17 “ The Unification of the Arab lands in however loose a form, with however many hitches and hesitations, is becoming increasingly probable as part of this general process.” Freya Stark, The Arab Island p.230
18 In Baghdad, the answer I always got from the Shi’a when I asked why they seemed so quiet in the face of blatant Sunni/Ba’athi provocation was “What can we do?” Saddam had methodically destroyed much of the leadership class among the Shi’a.
19 This from a friend of mine, no friend of Al-Sadr, who was telling me of the problem there weeks before the Coalition belatedly, made a quick in and out sortie into Madain.
20 Charles Tripp, A History of Iraq, second edition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002. pp.51, 194, and 205.
21 International Republican Institute: Survey of Iraqi Public Opinion. 11-20 April, 2005. Found at http;:// at The survey finds a great amount of optimism among the Iraqis.
22 Hume Horan, “Restoring a Shattered Mosaic”, Foreign Service Journal, March 2004.
23 See Rueul Marc Gerecht, The Islamic Paradox; Shi’ite Clerics, Sunni Fundamentalists, and the Coming of Arab Democracy, AEI Press, Washington DC, 2004.p. 19 and 20.

Norvell B. Deatkine
Norvell B. Deatkine


Norvell “Tex” De Atkine served eight years in Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt (in addition to extensive combat service in Vietnam). A West Pointer, he holds a graduate degree in Arab studies from the American University of Beirut. Currently he teaches at the JFK Special Warfare School at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.


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