The strength of Rod Nordland’s lead story in today’s New York Times about the current state of the sectarian divide in Iraq is that it takes a big picture, broad-brush view of the situation. Unfortunately, that’s also its weakness.
Nordland’s article is rooted in one basic point: Iraq’s Shiites, who make up a majority of the population and now control its political institutions, have as a group decided not to retaliate against violent Sunni attacks. As a result, while deadly bombings remain a regular feature of Iraqi life, the country is avoiding the open sectarian warfare that marked its recent past. As Nordland writes:
It is a far cry from 2006, when a bomb set off at the sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra killed no one, but ignited a fury at the sacrilege that set off two years of sectarian warfare.
This year the equally important shrine of Kadhimiya in Baghdad, the tomb of two revered Shiite imams, was attacked by suicide bombers twice, in January and April. More than a hundred people were killed, but there was no retaliation.
Nordland seems to have flagged an important story here. And while this approach, in which a reporter takes a step back and attempts to take stock of a few years, inevitably leads to some blurring around the edge, it’s also tremendously valuable. By assigning a role and a motivation to different characters, reporters can provide readers with a sort of mental map that can be used to navigate future stories. There are limitations to constructing a narrative like this, but there are real merits, too.
The problem, in this case, is that Nordland tries to stretch his narrative too far—across a millennium, in fact—and that he assigns to his characters motivations that don’t really stand up to scrutiny. So, for example, we learn that the current period of Shiite control means that “power is theirs for the first time in a thousand years,” and that in the intervening period they were “habituated to suffering by centuries as the region’s underclass.” Then, at one point about two-thirds of the way through the story, Nordland sums up the sect:
Shiite Islam is all about patience and the long view, waiting for the hidden 12th imam, the Mahdi, to return and redeem the faith’s followers. And it is also about enduring suffering, as illustrated by the annual and always passionate commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the seventh-century Shiite saint, when many flagellate themselves in bloody displays of regret.
There’s reason to be wary of the whole idea of a national or sectarian character, but grant for the moment that that’s a fair description of Shiism. Even so, how much power does it have to explain the political actions of actual Shiites? If this inherent patience and appreciation for the long view explains the current restraint, where was it during 2006, which saw “tit-for-tat bombings of Sunni mosques after Shiite mosques [were] hit”? Where is it, for that matter, in Iran, a nation of Shiites, where it would be hard to describe recent events as the product of a willingness to “endure suffering”?
The resort to abstract cultural theorizing is especially odd because Nordland’s story contains plenty of other, more persuasive reasons for the shift in Shiite thinking: increased confidence in the Iraqi Army, condemnations of the latest round of attacks by Sunni leaders, and the recognition that an escalation in violence did not serve Shiite interests the last time around. Those explanations don’t carry quite the historical sweep or psychological resonance of the “thousand years of suffering” narrative, but they ring more true. And even when looking at a big picture, it’s important to get the details right.