Iraq's Sectarian Divide Deepens Amid Syrian Conflict

Sectarianism is back on the rise in Iraq, largely due to the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria. Spending time with Sunni families and Shiite families reveals how varying versions of that conflict — and of the violence in Iraq — deepen the divide. It's as if the two sides are consuming two totally different versions of reality — versions they find on TV and, increasingly, social media.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

The conflict in Syria is becoming more sectarian by the day, and this is having an effect in the region.

In Iraq there has been a spike in violence, much of it sparked by the war next door in Syria, where a largely Sunni rebellion is fighting against the government that's aligned with Shiite militias.

NPR's Kelly McEvers reports on how Iraq's own Sunni/Shiite divide is growing, with sectarian hatred finding a new outlet.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: To understand how the sectarian dynamic is playing out around the Middle East, you just have to turn on your TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Saudi-funded channels are sympathetic to Sunnis, Iranian channels favor Shiites. Inside Iraq, the divide is more nuanced. The state TV channel Iraqiya is seen as by and large Shiite, while the opposition Sharqiya is viewed as Sunni.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: If it's a pro-Sunni channel, like this one, the news out of Syria will be spun to favor the rebellion, a noble cause of heroic fighters battling an oppressive regime. If it's Shiite, it favors the Syrian government, a noble cause of heroic soldiers battling jihadi terrorists.

But worse than the TV channels is social media. Once the darling of the Arab uprisings, a place where long-oppressed people were finally free to speak out, sites like Facebook and Twitter are now a place for sectarian hatred.

Our first stop in Baghdad is the living room of a middle-class Shiite family. The eldest son comes home from work to find his mother, his brother, and his aunt staring at Smartphones and iPads.

We're all looking at Facebook.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: Up until 2003, most Iraqis didn't even have cell phones. Now they're online like never before. The family matriarch doesn't want to give her name. In 2006, at the height of the sectarian war, her husband was gunned down in the street by Sunni militants. She says people she thought were her friends are now becoming sectarian online.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through translator) Our friends look different from what they used to be. Now they start to post more radical things, either mocking our own like beliefs or as Shiites.

MCEVERS: Or spreading stories about how Iraq's Shiite-led government is deliberately killing Sunnis.

Our interpreter, Isra' al Rubei'I, is a longtime employee of NPR. She says even her friends have become more sectarian lately, like one Sunni who she's known for years. These days he's been posting pictures of Sunni protests that insult Shiites, and statements by clerics calling for violence against Shiites.

ISRA' AL RUBEI'I, BYLINE: OK, I'll tell you a secret. I hated him for that. I really started to hate him for that. Yeah, he's my friend, but sometimes you really cannot tolerate what they are saying. You really think that they are just looking at things with one eye.

MCEVERS: A few days later we visit a Sunni family. One son is a blogger. The other is at university. The blogger says increased sectarian violence in Iraq and a lack of jobs, means young Iraqis are spending too much time at home and online. His brother, the student, says he recently was in a kind of digital war with a young Shiite guy on Facebook. The Sunni liked a page for a Shiite militia, just to learn more about the other side. Then the page administrator tried to send the Sunni a virus.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through translator) So instead of respecting me for what I was doing, he tried to hack my page. Look how stupid how this ignorant mentality works.

MCEVERS: On to another Shiite household and the message from a young father is the same.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: He says this, then proceeds to tell the story of how he heard on Facebook from a friend of a friend that a Sunni cleric in Saudi Arabia is openly recruiting Sunnis to go kill Shiites in Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: He admits, though, that he doesn't really know if this story is true.

Marwan Kraidy studies Arab media at the University of Pennsylvania. He says he was always skeptical of social media here in the divided Arab world. He calls it Plato's Digital Cave, a place where people see shadows, not reality. In the digital cave that is the Arab social media space, Kraidy says these false shadows can be dangerous.

MARWAN KRAIDY: And I think what we're finding out now is, in fact, they have the potential to be kind of a vicious instrument for very, very, very, very ugly speech.

MCEVERS: Kraidy says to really know what's going on here in the region, you have to come out of the digital cave, step away from the biased TV channels and verify the news for yourself. But as things get more sectarian, he says, even that's getting harder to do. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.