ECLIPSE OF THE SUNNIS: POWER, EXILE, AND UPHEAVAL IN THE MIDDLE EAST


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by Deborah Amos

Publisher: PublicAffairs

 

Deborah Amos, who covers Iraq for National Public Radio, is out with a new book that examines the effect the Iraq War has had on the four million Sunnis displaced by the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

 

An award-winning NPR correspondent illuminates the flipside of the Shia revival-the dislocation and destabilization of the Sunni Muslims-and its impact on the Middle East

The Middle East is experiencing Post-Traumatic Shock-and-Awe Disorder, roiled by the unintended after-effects of the removal of a geopolitical cornerstone: Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Iraq.

 

Four million Iraqis were displaced by the conflict; two million of them left the country. Iraq’s demographic balance shifted and it became a Shiite-dominated state. Jordan’s Sunnis found themselves isolated and without a strong regional ally, and Lebanon’s Sunnis faced an internal challenge from Hezbollah’s Shiites, emboldened by the new power shift in Iraq.

 

The rise of Iranian-backed Shiite parties and militias was predicted; the consequences of the Sunni eclipse almost entirely overlooked. Yet it is this newly displaced population that is likely to determine the future complexion of the region.

 

Deborah Amos is a distinguished and expert reporter. In Eclipse of the Sunnis she gives voice to the experience of exile and the ongoing trauma of the dispossessed and displaced. She shows how individual stories have combined to create a new political dynamic in the Middle East that, no matter that it is of our making, we have almost no idea how to manage or control.

 

The critic of The Washington Post - Thomas W. Lippman:

Amos is a skillful writer and a perceptive analyst…Eclipse of the Sunnis is persuasive and very well written, filled with deft turns of phrase…a powerful antidote to any lingering optimism about the Middle East.

 

Biography:

Deborah Amos covers Iraq for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR’s award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She spent a decade working in television news, including ABC’s Nightline and World News Tonight and the PBS programs NOW with Bill Moyers and Frontline. She lives in New York City.

 

PRESS REVIEW:

 

 ”Deborah Amos stuck around to trace the fallout from the Iraq War after most other journalists had moved on. And she already had decades of experience in the region under her belt. This commitment to the story has allowed her to see the war in its true historical context: as a Middle Eastern earthquake that will forever change the power equation between Sunnis and Shia, and as a vast human tragedy. These are not abstractions in ‘Eclipse of the Sunnis’: Amos’ intelligence and heart as a reporter make the fate of Iraq’s millions of refugees unforgettably intimate.”

- George Packer, author of The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq and Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade

 

“A compelling book. Deborah Amos documents the collapse of a rich culture and society and violence behind the creation of a global diaspora. Amos movingly details the human toll of the war. She gives a face and a voice to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are the forgotten collateral damage of the conflict.”

- Bob Carey, vice president of Resettlement and Migration Policy at the International Rescue Committee; chair of Refugee Council USA

 

“Memo to President Obama: Take this book with you to Camp David for the weekend. Then insist your foreign policy and national security teams read it, and schedule a time to test them orally on their retention. The reporting here contains the seeds of our future in Iraq and the Middle East.”

- Bill Moyers

 

“Millions of Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, [have] fled the country, creating a refugee crisis that has only recently been acknowledged as such by the U.S. government…. Amos deftly examines the political and cultural consequences of the marginalization of the Sunnis while focusing on individual Iraqis who have fled to such countries as Syria and Lebanon in the wake of a new sectarian and tribal-based order in Iraq…. Amos’s breathtaking work implicates not only shortsighted American policy but the age-old schism between Sunni and Shia and the cagey maneuverings of such meddling neighbors as Syria. The weight and complexity of the Iraqi problem is on full display, with shreds of hope pushing through the layers like scrub in the desert.”

- Publishers Weekly

 

Excerpt: The Introduction

Watching President Barack Hussein Obama stride across the stage at Cairo University on June 4, 2009 it was easy to believe that a new era was about to begin between the United States and the Middle East. The campus was a symbolic backdrop. Founded in 1908 as a secular center of learning, the university serves as an intellectual bridge between East and West. The campus had boiled with anti-American sentiment during the U.S. led invasion of Iraq, but on this day the keen anticipation of the audience was palpable as it waited for an American President to give what was expected to be a historic address to the Muslim world.

The president’s name alone had resonance: some Cairo newspapers even went so far as to suggest that he was America’s first Muslim President, in keeping with the Arab tradition that a father’s religion is conferred upon the son. Of course, in American tradition, identity is a much more fluid concept. We wear our identities lightly, easily adding or shedding to suit the circumstances. So it was that an American President with a Muslim pedigree addressed the most deeply disruptive question of identity in the region where identity colors politics most. In his message to the faithful, President Obama exhorted that “the fault lines must be closed among Muslims” and he especially noted the fault lines between Shia and Sunni, a historic chasm, often dormant, newly prised open by the U.S. led war in Iraq. The divide that has seeped into the social fabric of the region is not principally about religion, but about power and the vacuum created when an American army toppled a Sunni tyrant. The immediate opportunity this offered to Iraq’s Shiite community was well understood. Ever since the failure of the George H. W. Bush administration to support the Shiite rising against Saddam in 1991, Americans had recognized the potential for an alliance with the Shiite majority against Saddam. Those same Americans failed to consider the ripple of consequences that Saddam’s removal would create across all Sunni communities in the Middle East. That is the subject of this book.

 

Closing the fault lines between Shiite and Sunni must begin in Iraq, but in Cairo, Mr. Obama hardly mentioned the place where the Sunni-Shiite divide is the most acute. Elsewhere, the signs in the region were much more uplifting: The Lebanese dented Hezbollah’s popularity by voting for a publicly pro-American political coalition in a parliamentary election. Millions of Iranians bravely took to the streets to challenge the rigged election of a radical president. Syria celebrated the announcement of the return of an American ambassador after a four year hiatus, a concrete sign that America was offering an open hand to adversaries. But the Iraqis were not yet part of the recovery. Despite an overall reduction in violence in Iraq, one statistic is troubling and barely changed. Of the two million Iraqis who fled the country, only about 5 percent have returned. The fundamental problems that fueled the insurgency and the civil war are unresolved as the exiles know all too well. An estimated sixty percent of the refugees are Sunni Arabs. Fifteen percent are Iraqi Christians. Secular Shiites, Mandaeans, Yazidis and Kurds are adrift too, the losers in a brutal civil way that sealed the power of Shiite nationalists. Yet the sectarian nature of the exodus has been largely overlooked. This shifting population is a huge loss to Iraq, a vast problem to neighboring governments, a collective tragedy for many caught up in it, and a significant indicator of the health, stability and viability of the Middle East. The new stateless have become the most important indicator of the next phase of the region’s history. In these individual stories are found the religious, tribal and sectarian challenges and conflicts that must somehow be settled for the wars to end.

 

While five million Iraqis had left or been driven out of Iraq during Saddam’s three decades in power, theirs was a slow-motion outflow of political dissidents. With the U.S. occupation, the collapse of the Iraqi state and the violent power struggle that followed, almost as many millions were displaced in under five years, across borders and inside the country. The migration began as a trickle in 2004 when the driving force was criminal kidnapping gangs and Sunni insurgent attacks. The movement accelerated in 2006 with the bombing of the Golden Dome in Samarra, the attack on a revered Shiite religious site by Al Qaeda in Iraq, which unleashed a wave of Shiite revenge attacks against Sunnis across the country. Displacements rose again through 2007 in a final spasm of sectarian cleansing even as 30,000 additional U.S. troops deployed in Iraq.

 

The only way to explain the calamity was in the daily details, the particular threats that propelled the politics of displacement and make the bigger picture understandable. I began a journey in 2007 to document the mass departure, traveling to Damascus, Amman, and Beirut to interview the growing exile population.

 

There are no camps of any kind in this latest wave of the dispossessed. The largest numbers quietly settled in the poor suburbs surrounding Arab capitals. I had seen them at the Baghdad airport in tearful goodbye embraces, well dressed families struggling with luggage that was now the sum of their lives. Others drove west out of the capital along the desert road, the 500 heartbreaking miles to Jordan’s border. When Jordan sealed the border against the human tide, the exodus turned north for the fourteen hour drive to Syria. The Iraqis exiles brought money or gold, or, relied on extended families to support what many believed would be a short stay until the storms of violence passed at home. They waited long past the time when the money ran out.

 

It was an exodus of the professional class: the doctors, scientists, poets, professors, actors, even artisans-all of whom were the best hope to remake Iraq into the democratic and prosperous symbol of America’s most ambitious early dream. An unprecedented brain drain in the oil industry created an expertise deficit when more than half of the top 100 managers fled. Iraqi government ministers began to complain of a shortage of workers able to write contracts. Scientists left the country, preferring unemployment in exile rather than joblessness and fear at home. The exodus continued down through the ranks of the middle class, including the workers in the vast government bureaucracy. The overwhelming majority of exiles, more than 70 percent, were professionals and technocrats from Baghdad. Their departure crippled the government back home.

 

http://www.deborahamos.net/eclipse_of_the_sunnis/

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