Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Identity crisis for young Iraqis?

Today's NYT runs an interesting study by Sabrina Tavernise about young Iraqis who no longer accept the guidance of religious sheihks; indeed, religious leaders have now become figures to be mocked and scorned among many of the young, who blame them for many of the beheadings and other excesses of religious violence there over the last few years. Such criticisms hardly seem unfair, especially as they pertain to some of the local, minor sheikhs whose voices have undoubtedly incited violence against Muslims of the other sect. But I suggest that this shift in attitude on the whole bodes poorly for Iraq's future, for a number of reasons, if it persists.

For one thing, some of the major Shia religious leaders (the marjaya) - among them most notably the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - have been instrumental in restraining their followers from violence. If the five long years of death and instability in Iraq have indeed undercut their prestige and effectiveness as deterrents to future violence, then when US forces are eventually withdrawn and Iraq - if current predictions are accurate - splits wider apart at its many seams, the marjaya may no longer be able to act as rallying points against the chaos. And just as important . . . if shared adherence to a few respected religious leaders no longer provides a focus of common identity among the young of Iraq, and if (as seems increasingly likely at this point) there is no truly viable, unitary "Iraq" around which the young of Iraq can rally as an alternative, national basis of identity, then what's left? Local allegiances - to family and clan, or to local political structures, perhaps mixed with ties to local mullahs or religious organizations. Regional militias - perhaps of the kind spawned by the recent Sunni sahwa (Awakening). Centuries ago in Baghdad, urban quarters were sometimes dominated by local gangs of young men who provided a kind of local security, at the expense, of course, of any kind of more broadly based social and political cohesion.

Perhaps this kind of severely fragmented dog-eat-dog social order is the future that the young people of Iraq are facing; indeed, may need even to embrace in order to survive? For their sake, and that of the region as a whole, let's hope not.

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