Politics and Policies are the Real Problem, Not Faith

[Note: This blog entry was originally submitted as an op-ed respond to Monica Duffy Toft’s article, “Why Islam Lies at the Heart of Iraq’s Civil War” in the Christian Science Monitor on June 2.]

Although we agree with the policy prescriptions of Monica Duffy Toft’s June 2 op-ed in the Monitor, we must point out that her principle premise, that Islam is at the heart of the bloodshed going on in Iraq, is fatally flawed. Starting with the plausible claim that the “evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the war in Iraq is a religious civil war,” she jumps to the unwarranted  “Islam is at the heart of it….” The reasons she offers do not stand up to scrutiny. Her evidence to support such claims are weak and distract the reader from what we see as the real cause: the destruction wrought upon Iraq by the American-led invasion and occupation.


The fact that some of the language framing the conflict employs religious terminology does not necessarily mean that the roots of the conflict are religious. In a July 2006 International Republic Institute poll 89% of Iraqis—across sects—saw a unity government as “extremely important to Iraq’s future.” Toft’s assertion that “Sunnis and Shiites themselves see the war in these terms” is contradicted by focus groups conducted in 2007 by the National Democratic Institute that found almost of the participants stating that politicians speaking the language of sectarianism were only doing so for political purposes. This polling was done during the height of internal violence and they are hardly indicators that Iraqis primarily self-identify along sectarian lines.


The allegation of the relevance of the notion of a Muslim “ummah” is a red-herring argument. Muslims cherish the idea of a unified spiritual community, but it has not been realized at this date. Muslims are not monolithic; they are extremely diverse and also politically fractured, due to different national and regional interests. Furthermore, since the second century of Islam, Muslims have not lived under a single polity. Like the current troubles bedeviling Iraq, early conflicts that split the ummah into different polities and sects were political, not religious.


Although Muslims do not have a single centralized religious authority, like Catholics do with the Pope, the Association of Muslim Scholars and Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani tend to wield the most religious influence among Sunnis and Shi’a in Iraq, respectively. Both are strongly against sectarian violence and both, admittedly to varying degrees, are opposed to US-led occupation of Iraq. It is also important to note thatthere have been long-standing divisions among Iraqi Shi’a parties,which have recently turned to bloodshed are not based on theological differences, but rather on essentially political ones.


It is true that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s political failures have made him deeply unpopular among most Iraqis of all sects and that he lacks religious credentials. However, it is the political failures rather than the lack of religious credentials that have earned him the ire of his compatriots.


Furthermore, Moqtada al-Sadr does not have much more religious authority to stand on either. He is at best analogous to a mid-level seminary student, which is why he has pursued continuing religious studies in Iran. His popularity skyrocketed during his first uprising against the US-led occupation in 2004 (which reminds many Iraqis of his father’s 1991 rebellion against Saddam Hussein). To keep his position within his prestigious father’s legacy, Moqtada needs to continue Muhammad Baqr’s politics of militant resistance and provision of extensive social services.


We have conducted a qualitative analysis Dr. Toft’s civil war dataset (PDF). We find her definition of a religious civil war to be troubling. She excludes conflicts with less than 1,000 deaths per year. This leaves out the protracted fighting in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics. In addition, her definition of a “religious” civil war includes cases where it was “peripheral” and not just a “central” cause. That being said, we wonder why conflicts in Latin America were not included. One could argue that civil wars in Latin America between Catholics that were supportive of or opposed to Marxist and other revolutionary movements (Liberation Theology vs. State-supported Catholicism) should fall under her “peripheral” category. Finally, we question why the bloody 1971 conflict between East and West Pakistan, which seems to meet all her criteria for inclusion, was left out.


Doubts about her dataset aside, the declaration that Islam is involved in “more than 80 percent of all religious civil wars” is too vague. For instance, “Islam” is “involved” in the India/Pakistan partition, but the historical record clearly shows that conservative hardliners like ‘Ala-Abul Mawdudi were opposed to the creation of Pakistan, while Ali Jinnah, who did not pray but did enjoy his whiskey, was its founder. This was a conflict over religious identity rather than religious beliefs or practice.


Further, the implication that Islam as a religion is at fault is worse than unjustified. Like Samuel Huntington’s famous phrase that “Islam has bloody borders,” it also obscures the fact that in most of the cases surveyed, Muslims were the principle victims. Strikingly, in every conflict in which Islam is a dominant religion, there were also lengthy periods of foreign political and military intervention due to their natural resource and/or geo-strategic importance during colonial and cold war periods. The impact of foreign intervention and occupation on countries’ politics, including Iraq, is at least as worthy of consideration as religion for any meaningful investigation of the causes of civil conflict.


Despite our concerns about her research, definitions, and analysis, we nevertheless agree with her policy prescription to have a “wisely executed withdrawal” of troops as “the surest path to peace.” Understanding that foreign interventionism, rather than religion, is the most significant root cause of the bloodshed in Iraq than religion only strengthens the argument for withdrawal. The problem and its solutions are political. Withdrawal will probably not in-itself lead to internal peace, and in the near term it may be accompanied by an escalation of violence; but it is certainly a necessary condition for any enduring peace.


Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.

Alejandro J. Beutel

Minaret of Freedom Institute









One response to “Politics and Policies are the Real Problem, Not Faith”

  1. […] article on Iraq’s clearly sectarian Sunni-Shiite Muslim civil war, Ahmad and his MFI coauthor wrote that the article’s “principle premise, that Islam is at the heart of the bloodshed […]

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