Published: 03 March 2007
Why are we trying to divide up the peoples of the Middle East? Why are we trying to chop them up, make them different, remind them - constantly, insidiously, viciously, cruelly - of their divisions, of their suspicions, of their capacity for mutual hatred? Is this just our casual racism? Or is there something darker in our Western souls?
Take the maps. Am I the only one sickened by our journalistic propensity to publish sectarian maps of the Middle East? You know what I mean. We are now all familiar with the colour-coded map of Iraq. Shias at the bottom (of course), Sunnis in their middle "triangle" - actually, it's more like an octagon (even a pentagon) - and the Kurds in the north.
Or the map of Lebanon, where I live. Shias at the bottom (of course), Druze further north, Sunnis in Sidon and on the coastal strip south of Beirut, Shias in the southern suburbs of the capital, Sunnis and Christians in the city, Christian Maronites further north, Sunnis in Tripoli, more Shias to the east. How we love these maps. Hatred made easy.
Of course, it's not that simple. I live in a small Druze enclave in the west of Beirut. But my local grocer and my driver are Sunnis. I suppose they have no business to be in the wrong bit of our map. So do I tell my driver Abed that our map shows he can no longer park outside my home? Or that the Muslim publisher of the Arabic edition of my book The Great War for Civilisation can no longer meet me at our favourite rendezvous, Paul's restaurant in east Beirut, for lunch because our map shows this to be a Maronite Christian area of Beirut?
In Tarek al-Jdeidi (Sunni), some Shia families have moved out of their homes - temporarily, you understand, a brief holiday, keys left with the neighbours, it's always that way - which means that our Beirut maps are now cleaner, easier to understand. The same is happening on a far larger scale in Baghdad. Now our colour-coding can be bolder. No more use for that confusing word "mixed".
We did the same in the Balkans. The Drina Valley of Bosnia was Muslim until the Serbs "cleansed" it. Srebrenica? Delete "safe area" and logo it "Serb". Krajina? Serb until the Croats took it. Did we call them "Croats"? Or "Catholics"? Or both on our maps?
Our guilt in this sectarian game is obvious. We want to divide the "other", "them", our potential enemies, from each other, while we - we civilised Westerners with our refined, unified, multicultural values - are unassailable. I could draw you a sectarian map of Birmingham, for example - marked "Muslim" and "non-Muslim" (there not being many Christians left in England - but no newspaper would print it. I could draw an extremely accurate ethnic map of Washington, complete with front-line streets between "black" and "white" communities but The Washington Post would never publish such a map.
Imagine the coloured fun The New York Times could have with Brooklyn, Harlem, the East River, black, white, brown, Italian, Catholic, Jew, Wasp. Or the Toronto Globe and Mail with French and non-French Canadian Montreal (the front line at one point follows the city Metro) or with Toronto (where "Little Italy" is now Ukrainian or Greek), and colour the suburb of Mississauga green for Muslim, of course. But we don't draw these Hitlerian maps for our societies. It would be unforgivable, bad taste, something "we" don't do in our precious, carefully guarded civilisation.
Passing a book stall in New York this week, I spotted the iniquitous Time magazine and there on the cover - and this might truly have been a 1930s Nazi cover - were two cowled men, one in black, the other largely hidden by a chequered scarf. "Sunnis vs Shi'ites," the headline read. "Why they hate each other." This, naturally, was a "take-out" on Iraq's civil war - a civil war by the way, that America's spokesmen in Baghdad were talking about in August 2003 when not a single Iraqi in his worst nightmares dreamt of what has now come to pass.
Buy Time magazine, dear reader, turn to page 30, and what will you find? "How to Tell Sunnis and Shi'ites Apart." Helpful, uh? And after this, are columns of useful, divisive information. "Names," for example. "Some names carry sectarian markers... Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman ... men with these names are almost certainly Sunni. Those called Abdel-Hussein and Abdel-Zahra," (I have never in met an "Abdel-Zahra" by the way) "are most likely Shi'ite." Then there are columns headed "Prayer", "Mosques", "Homes", "Accents" and "Dialects", even - heaven spare us - "cars". The last, for those readers not already reeling in disbelief, tells us which car stickers to look out for (spot a picture of Imam Ali and you know the driver is Shia) or which licence plate (Anbar province registrations, for instance) means a probable Sunni driver.
Thanks again. I don't know why the American military doesn't just buy up this week's edition of Time and drop the lot over Baghdad to help any still ignorant local murderers with easy-to-identify targets. But will Time be helping us to identify America's deeply divided society (who has most rubbish in their gardens in Washington, which bumper stickers to look for in Dearborn, Michigan)? Will they hell.
I, too, am guilty of playing these little sectarian games in the Middle East. I ask a Lebanese where he or she comes from, not to remember the mountains or rivers near their home but to code them into my map. But I easily come unstuck. The man who tells me he comes from the Lebanese south (Shia) turns out to live in the southern Druze town of Hasbaya. The woman who tells me she's from Jbeil (Christian) turns out to be from the town's Shia minority. Oh, if only these pesky minorities would go and live in the right bit of our imperial, sectarian maps.
And we go on talking to our Sunni monarchs in the Middle East - we listen to their raving about the "Shia crescent" - no wonder we hate Shia Iran so much. And we go on dividing and scissoring up the lands, and printing more and more of our racial maps and I do wonder most seriously if we wish to promote civil war across this part of the world, and you know what? I rather think we do.