Is it sectarian violence, communal fighting or civil war?
By William Safire
NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE
Sunday, Apr 09, 2006,Page 9
"Is It a Civil War, or Something Else?" was a New York Times headline last month over a series of quotations characterizing the killing in Iraq. In this space, we have examined the Long War, a locution favored at the patient Pentagon, and the related global war on terror, as well as Gulf War II. But the focus of late is becoming narrower, limited to the fighting within Iraq: Some call it sectarian violence or its synonym Sunni-Shiite fighting; others who see it as more political than religious call it an insurgency or an internecine (in-ter-NEE-sin) struggle.
Sectarian is a word long associated with religion that has a nastier connotation than its synonym denominational. The latest Oxford English Dictionary research puts the first use of the term in 1583 in Stephen Batman’s Golden Booke of the Leaden Goddess: "A Recapitulation of the Sectarian Gods, by whose Heresies, much harme hath growen, to Gods true Church."
Within Islam, fundamentalist Sunnis consider Shiism to be a heretical sect. In February 2004, a courier was intercepted by Kurds, as he was reportedly carrying a message from the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to his leader in al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. The letter laid out a strategy to inflame Sunnis in Iraq by murdering Shiites and thereby provoking them to counterattack Sunnis.
"If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war," wrote Zarqawi about the Shiites, according to the English translation, "it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger."
As the number of Iraqi civilian deaths mounted in terrorist-fomented fighting between Sunnis and Shiites, sectarian was more frequently used. The New York Times reported that US President George W. Bush’s officials were complaining that "the news media’s focus on bombings and sectarian violence had given a skewed view of the progress being made in Iraq."
To avoid using the same phrase in successive sentences, an Associated Press dispatch from Dubai last month equated sectarian violence with ethnic clashes. That’s not precise; ethnic strife would be predominantly between ethnic groups, like Arabs and Kurds (both mainly professing the Sunni branch of the faith), or between ethnic Persians in Iran and Arabs in Iraq (both Shiite). When the violence is within one religious group, like the Arab Shiites and Arab Sunnis, both Muslim, it is properly called sectarian violence.
In English-language publications overseas, a more general phrase avoids this error. In Baghdad, for example, different ethnic groups as well as religious sects mingle in the same city. Both the Manila Times and the Australian reported that the attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra triggered "communal fighting" — that is, within a community, geographically defined.
"When people of different ethnicities, religions or sects fight each other locally and spontaneously, with no organization," says Edward Luttwak, author of The Dictionary of Modern War, "the correct term is communal fighting. When organized groups — political, ethnic, religious, it doesn’t matter — fight within the recognized borders of a single country, the correct term is civil war, even if there are many groups and no central direction, so long as the groups are pursuing political projects, such as the re-establishment of Sunni supremacy. Otherwise, they would be just criminal gangs."
Here is where political views affect political terminology. President Bush’s view is that terrorists from both outside and inside Iraq — criminal gangs allied with former Iraqi president Saddam loyalists hiding from prosecution — are seeking unsuccessfully to foment civil war. Because the largest group in Iraq — roughly three-quarters of the population — is Arab Muslim, the Zarqawi plan is to use sectarian violence between Arab Shiites and the smaller segment, Arab Sunnis, as the trigger for all-out civil war, with the non-Arab Kurds — Sunni, but largely secular — joining in.
Success for Zarqawi — and a major setback for Us policy — would be a widening of sectarian violence into civil war. Success for the coalition forces — and a major setback for the terrorist-insurgent forces — would be the prevention of that violence from escalating into civil war.
Critics of the Bush policy and opponents of the current elected government in Iraq are using the term civil war to show that the military campaign is in deep trouble. Ayad Allawi, an Iraqi leader who did not fare well in the elections, told the BBC, "If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is." The Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid argued that the policy had "left Iraq on the precipice of all-out civil war." The Republican senator Chuck Hagel, often described as "a frequent administration critic," also used a qualifier: "a low-grade civil war."
Contrariwise, US Vice President Cheney said of the terrorists: "What we’ve seen is a serious effort by them to foment civil war, but I don’t think they’ve been successful." Bush told reporters that "there were some people trying to, obviously, foment sectarian violence. Some have called it a civil war. But it didn’t work."
Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution shows how the linguistic battle lines are drawn: "`Iraq is now at civil war’ means `we have already lost the battle and we should get out now’; `Iraq is now experiencing sectarian violence’ means `Iraq’s natural propensity is toward civil war, but thank God for the presence of American forces that are preventing it.’"
But Charles Krauthammer, the most powerful conservative-internationalist columnist, had noted in 2004: "There already is a civil war. It is raging before our eyes. Problem is, only one side is fighting it." Recalling this recently in the Washington Post, Krauthammer updated his point: "Does not everyone who wishes us well support the strategy of standing up the Iraqis so we can stand down? And does that not mean getting the Iraqis to fight the civil war themselves?"
War-namers, stand down: What was euphemized after the US Civil War as "the late unpleasantness" will not get a name until it’s over.