New York- Last Friday I attended an event at New York University’s School of Law’s Center on Law and Security that was an all day affair discussing a number of highly relevant topics relating to the United States Constitution and the overall constitutionality of many controversial issues within the war on terror. The final panel of the day, moderated by keynote speaker Noah Feldman, was titled “Protecting the Rights and Liberties of Americans: The Case of Islam.” This group debated issues related to so-called “Muslim-Americans,” and possible, real, and potential infringements on the rights of ordinary Americans (as well as a much higher degree of immigrant Americans) in a vaguely understood time of war.
Feldman stated that the term “Muslim-American” was ill suited in its very construct because Americans describe themselves mostly by their ethnicity than religious identity. In comparison, he highlighted an obscure example from history, in this particular case, an anti-Catholic premise in the presidential election of 1876 whereby government funding would have been cut from non-secular educational institutions meant as a discriminatory dig at the burgeoning Catholic schools of the era. The Republican wedge issue of its time, the bill put forth sought to conflate the Democratic Party with the Catholic Church and align the Republican Party with anti-immigration/catholic voters (see “The Blaine Amendment,” Encyclopedia of American civil liberties, Volume 1 By Paul Finkelman, p.152). Feldman said identity issues became confused when the term Jewish-American came into common usage because Jews, save for the very rare converts, are both an ethnic as well as a religious grouping unlike the Catholics of 1876 or the Muslims of today and as such the term “Catholic-American” never came into being then as “Muslim-American” should not now. As Catholics and Muslims are both faiths with strong missionary strains, adherents of these religions stem from a host of different ethnic and linguistic groupings across different continents and describing either as if they were an ethnic group and part of a coherent polity is not only highly inarticulate but laughable in terms of social science.
I approached Feldman after the conference’s conclusion to ask his opinion on something that has been bothering me for the last seven years. The American government and military has marketed Iraq since March 2003, well since August of 2002 really, as being comprised of three groupings. Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds the American people were told. Sunnis and Shi’ites are denominational groups within the house of Islam while the Kurds are a linguistically Indo-Iranian ethnic group that is made of a Sunni majority with a Shi’ite minority. But Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq began to sound like ethnic groups in America’s very confused political discourse regarding the Islamic world. The precedent for discussions about Iraq was Afghanistan which was invaded with an initially light footprint less than a year and half before the invasion of Iraq. Afghanistan was and is constantly talked about in terms of the cultural and linguistic divisions rather than religious ones. That blueprint was then sloppily applied to Iraq where instead of Arabs, Kurds and lest we forget the beleaguered Assyrians who are Christian, Iraq was talked of as Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurd while for reasons I won’t take the time to get into in this post, the Assyrian minority was never spoken of outside of Iraq’s borders in the war until now. Feldman was a facilitator and enabler of the occupational administrations of both Jay Garner and Lewis Paul “Jerry” Bremer III in, at only 33, working on Iraq’s post-Saddam Hussein Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) in an advisory role. Feldman was quoted in the Village Voice in 2004, when asked about his somewhat controversial role in the creation of the TAL and subsequent criticism by the late Edward Said, “One of the things that always impressed me about the U.S. is that we choose people for jobs based on skill sets, not ethnicity.” I couldn’t agree with him more on this point but the occupation of which he was undeniably a part, helped very much to enshrine denominational differences among Iraq’s Muslims that educated classes found humiliating and patronizing.
As I love to say, there was no such place name in Iraq as the “Sunni Triangle” before the United States occupied the country with massive military force. I approached Feldman in a friendly attempt to make common cause over the issue and he quickly and dismissively brushed me off repeating, “there are very few Shi”ite Kurds.” Like the forgotten Assyrians for whom the whole “Islamic law as the inspiration for legislation” bit was actually a loss rather than a gain, the Assyrians were free people who were suddenly less free from both free roaming insurgents and the government, Iraq’s Fayli (Shia) Kurds were perhaps irrelevant as Feldman’s defensive sounding quip suggested. I won’t even get into Sunni and Shia Turkmen, Mandeans, Nestorians, Yazidis or any of the other free people that were left out because they weren’t strong enough numerically to matter much. Western powers, in Iraq’s case primarily the United States, love to describe post-imperial “failed” or “failing” states as false constructs rife with ethnic and sectarian division which the West can step into to help “reconstruct” in classic divide et impera. Feldman could not be any more right about the aims of a constitutionalist, virtuous, post-ethnic American ideal employed in the present day (which I share) but he and others like seem have no problem projecting even deeper sectarian divisions into already fractured societies in the Dar-ul-Islam otherwise known as Central Command (CENTCOM). Though Iraq was already divided along bitter ethnic lines between Arab and Kurd following decades long civil conflicts between the two, and reinforced by an American no-fly zone after 1991, the extreme religious divide that has destroyed much of Iraq since April 2003 was not always so. Now we have an Iraq where the West insists the Prime Minister must (for all intents) be a Shi’ite. Funny how that works.