From today's Boston Globe--religious militias are on the rise in Iraq. The article quotes Juan Cole, an expert on Middle East Studies and a contributor to Religion and Nationalism in Iraq: A Comparative Perspective, a new book from the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. Below we've reprinted the first part of introduction to the book so you can get a sense of what it's about and what it covers.
By David Little and Donald K. Swearer
Whatever else is true about it, present-day Iraq represents a potentially volatile mixture of the forces of religion and nationalism. As a result of the countrywide elections of January and December 2005, the three largest groups—the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds—are locked in a sharply divided contest over the definition of national identity and the distribution of national power, as well as over the control of territory. The nationalist contest looks all the more ominous, of course, against the backdrop of a relentless insurgency and the continuing threat of civil war. The Shiites, who comprise some 60 percent of the population, were big parliamentary winners in the elections. They have advanced various versions of a religious agenda and have encouraged a divisive debate over, among other things, the place of religion in Iraqi national life. That development has, in turn, tightened the connection between ethnic identity and religious outlook in respect to all three of the groups and, as a consequence, has intensified ethnoreligious sectarianism throughout Iraq. These divisions have been played out recently in the complicated processes of drafting a new constitution and forming a government. They are also evident in the increasing violence, which is escalating toward civil war.
Because the situation in Iraq exhibits some of the standard symptoms of religious nationalism, it seems appropriate to compare it to other cases, like Bosnia and Herzegovina (henceforth B&H), Sri Lanka, and Sudan, where the impulses of religion and nationalism have also come together—in those places in a highly lethal way. Such an enterprise can be of value, both from an academic and a policy perspective. Scholars are anything but agreed about the causes and character of nationalist conflicts, or about the meaning and role of religious and ethnic identity. Careful efforts by noted students of such conflicts to think together comparatively might yield interesting and informative results. Certainly, the endeavor would be worth trying, if only better to learn where similarities and uniformities among the various examples begin and end.