Amal Mukhtar

Senior Researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, and Editor-in-Chief of Al-Mashhad (The Global Scene) periodical


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Editorial Article - Issue/6-English (The Global Scene of Terrorism & Extremism)

The Arab Mashreq remains entangled in a cycle of violence and terrorism. Iraq, for instance, has been witnessing armed violence under the guise of sectarianism since the US invasion. Violence tinged with anger and thirst for revenge has become an Iraqi norm; envisioning the country out of this brutal sectarian chasm has become difficult.

The U.S. military, alongside its allies in Iraq, were able to overthrow the Saddam regime, as well as former powerful Baathists. It also dismantled all Iraqi security institutions and seized power from those affiliated with the former regime, or more broadly, the Sunni community. As a result, new groups rose to power with American and Iranian support. These groups were also the same ones harboring immense grievances against the former Baathist regime. The Iraqi Street thus witnessed unprecedented violence, especially during the first five years following the US invasion. Such violence was evident when dead bodies (which showed signs of torture) were scattered across the streets, bringing into question how something so traumatic became a daily familiar sight. 

Osama bin Laden sent one of his men, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to Iraq in 2004 to fight the American occupation and to represent al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The latter then established al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Zarqawi’s group targeted Shiite civilians, prompting Ayman al-Zawahiri to send him a powerful message in October 2005. The message conveyed that the tactics employed, such as targeting mosques and taking hostages’ lives, might lead to the estrangement of the Muslim community. Al-Zawahiri also spoke of the aspiration for an inclusive governance in Iraq that would embrace all Muslim Iraqis, both Sunnis and Shiites, while acknowledging that there had been efforts to drive a wedge between them. In the same month, Zarqawi responded in an audio recording, announcing the adoption of a policy to fight the “near enemy” and calling for an all-out war on the Shiites whom he deemed “heretics” who allied with the enemies of Islam to rule Iraq. According to this, many civilians were killed – on a sectarian basis – from both sides, with mosques, shrines and government headquarters bombed. 

Indeed, it was a power struggle camouflaged under a sectarian facade, in which neighborhoods, villages, and unarmed civilians were targeted based on their sectarian affiliations. This only served to intensify animosity, resentment, and thirst for vengeance within both camps. As such, Iraq remained engulfed in a sectarian-based cycle of hatred and violence. ISIS emerged and the world was taken aback, not by the organization’s military strength, but also by the popular support it managed to garner in the northern governorates of Salah al-Din and Diyala, where the slogan “A thousand ISIS and not a single Maliki” resonated. The slogan alluded to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who had been responsible for many exclusionary sectarian policies against the Sunnis.

Once again, the specter of sectarian violence is evident in ISIS’ brutal practices. While aggressively targeting extremist militias, the organization has been keen on adopting even harsher measures against other religious sects, such as the Yazidi community, as well as women. Nearly ten years later, a sectarian struggle unfolded in Syria. Even though the Syrian revolution initially targeted the Assad regime, in turn being inspired by the Arab upheavals in both Tunisia and Egypt, the protests swiftly devolved into civil strife. Demands for political freedom eventually turned into an internationalized civil war, in which violations of the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity were persistently witnessed.

It seems, then, that mobilization becomes easier when one adds a sectarian flavor to it, as it assures support and funding from both regional and international agents. It also helps in the construction of an imminent cycle of violence that hastens serious social disintegration; one which would be too grueling to recover from. Twenty years of sectarian violence in the Arab Mashreq claimed the lives of thousands, displaced millions, and effectively brought about social disintegration. Such violence is nothing but a social construct devoid of any historical foundations, and its repercussions are witnessed in states that were once at the forefront of Arab nations in terms of strength, culture and civilization. Iraqis have been demonstrating against sectarian violence and political sectarianism since October 2019, yet they remain ensnared in the enduring legacy of sectarianism. 

It is believed that the era of Arab sectarian violence is coming to an end, precisely because it has already inflicted enough destruction and claimed enough lives. If this is the case indeed, then it becomes imperative to think of ways through which this legacy of animosity and violence would be relinquished, thereby paving the way for a return to the nation-state, political competition, and the reconsideration of sectarian quotas. If not, the cycle of violence will persist.