Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for January 24th, 2011

On Lions and Other Mesopotamian Creatures

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 24 January 2011 15:19

It was a pity the Iraqi soccer team, aka “The Lions of Mesopotamia”, lost by an extra-time goal to Australia in this weekend’s quarter-final in the Asian Cup. After a nervous beginning, the Iraqis played a lot better as the match progressed and once more demonstrated that the country has got word-class potential also beyond the oil and energy sector.

The reason the Iraqi football team does so well is utterly simple: It maximises its potential by putting together the nation’s best talents regardless of their ethnic and sectarian backgrounds. Careful investigations based on a Paul Bremer paradigm for understanding Iraq would show that the number of Shiites in the team is disproportionately high compared with the national demographics and there are too few Kurds and Sunni Arabs. But the bigger point is this: No one cares. Most players are known only by their first name and their father’s name, with no family names indicating place or tribe of origin; TV commentators frequently use first names only during matches. During substitutions, Kurds are exchanged for Shiites and vice-versa, but no one is protesting even as the ethno-sectarian balance gets even more distorted during the course of a match: Only talent counts.

The obvious contrast to the Iraqi national soccer team is the Iraqi political scene. Here some still believe that ethnic and sectarian affiliations are more important than talent: The distribution of key leadership positions almost invariably replicates a scheme in which ethno-sectarian affiliation, rather than ability, is centre stage. Once a Kurdish president had nominated a Shiite premier, the speaker of parliament “had to be” a Sunni. Once a Sunni had become speaker, his two deputies “had to be” a Shiite and a Kurd. In this setting, there is no dynamism and no meritocracy; hence it is unsurprising that the performance of the Iraqi political institutions is invariably substandard.

The practice of allocating top jobs on the basis of ethno-sectarian criteria is a collaborative enterprise in which incompetent Iraqi politicians collude with ignorant Westerners and strong-minded Iranian strategists in order to hide the fact that they are not really qualified for their jobs. In actual fact, their task is simply to provide the best possible services for the Iraqi citizens; yet their inability to do this makes them resort to ethno-sectarian demagoguery instead of admitting that they are not really qualified to be part of the squad. The question Iraqi voters should ask themselves is why the notion of a “Kurdish” or “Shiite” or “Sunni” quota should be any more legitimate in government than on the soccer pitch.

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative | 21 Comments »