Thursday, September 4, 2014

Interfaith marriage shows how sectarian divide in Iraq is unprecedented

There are many gauges to determine why the current sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq is unprecedented, but one of them strikes me and makes this pretty clear: the record low intermarriage between Shias and Sunnis.

If some 50 years ago an Iraqi Sunni and Shia couple - whether Kurd, Arab, or Turkmen - decided to get married, nobody would have even known that it was an intermarriage between the two sects. This is because it was totally normal and such occasions.

Today, however, these rare occasions, like the recent marriage of a Sunni girl to a Shia man, seem to make headlines as an act of bravery, interfaith tolerance, and patriotism as well. 

Mohammed Hares Yousef (25) and his bride Reem (20) both were among the families who fled the northern city of Mosul after it fell to the militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) -  now known as only Islamic State or IS - in a lightening fast offensive that routed Iraqi Army in June. 

The couple got married in a ceremony in Baghdad's al-Saeedea neighborhood on Monday. According to the reprots, and Iraqi MP Ahlam al-Husseini also attended the wedding ceremony. 

The story made headlines across not only Iraqi media, but also Arab countries as "Shia man and Sunni woman challenge ISIS with their marriage in Baghdad". Arab media outlets also wrote that with the intermarriage the couple wanted to "stand in the face of the violence that threatens to tear Iraq apart"

"... I challenge sorrow, I challenge terrorism.." they quote the young groom as saying. 

I know this is supposed to be a good sign that Iraqis are fighting sectarianism, but I am afraid it can be seen in more than one way. I believe it means the divide between Sunni and Shias is beyond bridging with all the fighting and bloodshed going on in the country since 2003. 

The tensions between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq started when the Baath regime held power in Iraq and it peaked under Saddam Hussein in the 1980 when he banned Shia religious rites in public and started to jail Shia leaders. Shia soldiers rebelled against the Iraqi Army in 1991 after Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait and much of the army was damaged by the coalition forces in the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein clamped down on the Shia with an iron fist. 

But even then intermarriage was a lot more common than the years after 2003. According to unofficial figures from a judge from Baghdad in an article published in 2009, with the title: Life Goes On: Mixed Sunni-Shi’ah Marriages in Iraq roughly 50% of marriages in Baghdad before 2003 that the judge signed on were intermarriages. 

The judge says that an estimated 40 percent from that figure dropped with the 2003 war that toppled Saddam which still left a good percentage of intermarriages. But why do intermarriages make headlines these days? I believe because they have dropped even more dramatically since the 2009 article, and that's exactly why they make headlines. 

Some of the online media outlets that ran the story from Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, UAE, Saudi Arabia,  as well as USA and UK based Arabic language media outlets: