If ever there was an argument for secular politics, it was embodied on the streets of Baghdad last week, where hundreds of Muslims died in a series of horrific car bomb attacks in Sadr City. The suburb is controlled by the Mehdi Army, one of the Shia militias accused of carrying out attacks on Sunni targets, and most of the victims were Shia civilians. Shia fighters responded by attacking Sunni mosques in Baghdad and detonating a car bomb in the city of Talafar, which used to be a stronghold of Sunni insurgents.
Actually, the correct term for those who carry out these atrocities isn't fighters or insurgents; people who carry out indiscriminate attacks on civilians are terrorists. This isn't a fashionable view among opponents of the war, who appear to regard every atrocity merely as further evidence that George Bush and Tony Blair have blood on their hands. According to this view, everything that's happened since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is "our" fault and we should hang out heads in shame when we see the kind of horrific pictures that appeared on our TV screens after last Thursday's bombings.
The problem for me, as someone who argued against the Iraq war, is that I don't think "we" should bear all the blame for this ghastly sectarian conflict. That's not just my interpretation of what's going on, by the way; the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, responded to last Thursday's bombings by condemning "sectarian practices that aim to destroy the unity of the nation". Clearly, it's wishful thinking to talk about unity in the context of Iraq, but at least Mr Maliki understands what's going on in his country.
According to the UN, 3,709 civilians died in Iraq last month, mostly as a result of bombings and abductions followed by murders, and I don't believe for a moment that the majority were killed by British or American soldiers. Most of the killing is being carried out by Muslims, Shias murdering Sunnis and vice versa, in the kind of internecine power struggle that broke out in former Yugoslavia after the death of Tito. In that instance, Serbian nationalists who belonged to the Eastern Orthodox Church turned on their Catholic and Muslim neighbours with extraordinary ferocity, and it was left to Nato to intervene and protect Kosovan Muslims from the tyrant Milosevic.
This fact alone should give pause to those who continue to insist that "we" are currently killing thousands of Muslims in Iraq. If it doesn't, it's because justifiable loathing of President Bush combines with masochistic self-hatred to produce a rhetoric in which the West is to blame for the oppression of Muslims throughout the world. There's a bit of truth here, going back to the Western powers' division of the collapsing Ottoman empire after the First World War, and a far larger lie: however disastrous the West's interventions have been in the Middle East, it doesn't absolve individuals in those countries from moral responsibility when they set about slaughtering their fellow citizens. And most of them are doing it in the name of religion.
These are the conditions in which dictators and theocrats flourish. They also increase the likelihood of civil war, which threatens Lebanon again after the assassination of a Christian cabinet minister last week. What that tragic country needs, besides a period without interference from Israel, Syria and Iran, is a democratic politics that isn't based on religious affiliation - and the same is true of most of the Islamic world. Women would be a hell of a lot better off for a start, and I'm certainly not going to take the blame for the sectarian conflict in Iraq or apologise for upholding secular values.Reuse content