Sadly, sectarianism has been a prominent feature of the Middle East, and the media’s coverage of the region, for the last decade. The invasion of Iraq is arguably where the trend began, and recent events there - as well as how they are being reported - show that sectarianism is still present, on the streets as well as in newsrooms.
Large-scale protests against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have been ongoing since December, following the arrest of Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi’s bodyguards. It would be naive to deny that there has been a sectarian element to this saga.
Protests have centred around Sunni areas, opposing a Shiite prime minister acting against one of the government's most senior Sunni officials, with both sides resorting to sectarian language, claims and counter-claims. This is reminiscent of the attempt one year ago to arrest Sunni Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi, who is now in exile and was subsequently sentenced to death in absentia.
However, events have developed in a way that has crossed the sectarian divide, although this has not been picked up by the media, which continues to irresponsibly and inaccurately portray the situation in purely sectarian terms.
Powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has come out in support of the mainly Sunni demonstrations. While he has predicted an “Iraqi Spring,” there have been references in the media to a “Sunni Spring” - similar to its much-loved but overused term “Shiite Crescent” - as if Iraqis, and Arabs in general, define themselves by sect above nationality.
Three days later, just before midday Friday prayers, Sadr visited one of Baghdad’s most prominent Sunni mosques, and reiterated his backing for the protesters: “We support the demands of the people, but I urge them to safeguard Iraq’s unity.” Maliki’s former ally was reportedly greeted by chants of “the unifier of Sunnis and Shiites” and “the patriot,” while women ululated and showered him with candy.
Ayad Allawi, the Shiite former prime minister whose secular al-Iraqiyya coalition of Sunnis and Shiites defeated Maliki in the last parliamentary elections, has called for the prime minister’s resignation. The Majlis al-A'yan (council of tribal sheikhs) in the predominantly Shiite province of Basra has also expressed solidarity with the protests.
Demonstrators, too, have chanted “no to sectarianism,” and carried banners warning the government “not to draw the country into sectarian conflict.” Leaders of the protest movement have made clear that they are not on the streets because Maliki is Shiite, or just because of policies they deem sectarian.
They are against corruption, economic mismanagement, the politicization of the judiciary, lack of security, human rights abuses, and the prime minister’s increasing authoritarianism - grievances that are not limited to Iraq’s Sunnis. As such, protesters have also directed their anger towards Sunni officials whom they accuse of contributing to these problems, mindful of the fact that Maliki's government is a coalition of Shiite and Sunni parties.
Bodyguards for Iraq’s Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq wounded two people after protesters pelted his convoy in Ramadi with bottles and stones. “Leave!” demonstrators shouted. “It’s only now Mutlaq comes to attend the protest and after seven days,” Saeed al-Lafi, a spokesman for the protesters, told Reuters. “He came to undermine the protest.” Mutlaq had travelled to Ramadi to address people in an attempt to defuse tensions.
Likewise, Maliki's authoritarianism has targeted Shiite figures and groups critical of him, including a military campaign in 2010 to quell Sadr's al-Mahdi militia, as well as arrest warrants against inidividuals. This has led to dissent from his own allies, and shows that the prime minister is not selective in acting against his opponents.
As is amply demonstrable, the crisis facing Maliki transcends sect. However, one would not know this from following news coverage, which has proven itself time and again to be ignorant or lazy in portraying the complexities of the Middle East in woefully simplistic terms, and explaining - or misrepresenting - the causes of certain events, either by exaggerating the role of sectarianism, or creating it.
This is to the grave detriment of the peoples of the region, and those outside it whose perceptions have become blinkered and skewed by the media’s insistence on a certain narrative that does not always reflect realities on the ground.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash