"Eclipse of the Sunnis," by Deborah Amos, reviewed by Thomas Lippman

By Thomas W. Lippman
Sunday, March 14, 2010



Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East

By Deborah Amos


230 pp. $25.95

If I were developing a reading list for newcomers to the Middle East, it would not begin with Deborah Amos's poignant and disturbing "Eclipse of the Sunnis." Her book is not for beginners; it requires some knowledge of the region's history, personalities and neuroses.

Rather, my list would begin with David Fromkin's "A Peace to End All Peace," in which the victorious powers of World War I carve up the carcass of the Ottoman Empire and create the modern states that cause so much trouble today. Amos's slim but powerful volume would be the last assigned book, the perfect sad coda to the century of tragedy that has followed the events recounted by Fromkin.

Amos, a journalistic veteran of the Middle East, is not much interested here in the palace coups, rigged elections, official corruption and failed negotiations that make up standard histories. Her thesis is that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, whatever its justification, has had a catastrophic effect on the people of the region, unleashing sectarian hostilities that had been bottled up for centuries, not just in Iraq but in Lebanon and other Arab states as well.

She did most of her interviewing in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, where she found tens of thousands of Iraqis driven from their country by the violence that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein. These unfortunate people, she reports, are the very citizens who would have been essential to the creation of a modern, democratic Iraq: doctors, scholars, artists and government workers, Christians and Sunni Muslims, deemed unworthy by the Shiites now running the country. It is a measure of their desperation that they found Syria, of all places, to be a refuge of cultural freedom.

Amos is a skillful writer and a perceptive analyst. She is especially good on middle-class Iraqi women driven to prostitution to survive in Damascus, and on the "lost generation" of promising young people who have given up hope of a peaceful return to Iraq: "They were toddlers when the Iran-Iraq war began, adolescents when Saddam invaded Kuwait, teenagers in the 1990s during the disastrous years of privations following the UN sanctions, and young adults by the time the Americans arrived." In their view, which Amos clearly shares, the appeals for the exiles to return emanating from the Shia-dominated Baghdad government of Nouri al-Maliki are hollow and insincere. To Maliki, Amos writes, the plight of the exiles is merely an "inconvenient public relations problem" because he derives his power from Shiite thugs and Iran-sponsored Shia militias to whom Christians and Sunni Muslims are unwelcome.

In one telling episode, Amos reports that when Maliki made his first official visit to Syria in 2007, he carried a list of 65 dissident Iraqi artists and writers living in Damascus and asked the Syrians to arrest them. Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, who tolerates no opposition in his own country, refused. Throughout this book, in fact, Amos provides an intriguing portrait of Assad that requires a reassessment of his role in the region and of Washington's view of him.

Amos concludes that it is no longer possible, if it ever was, to construct a tolerant, multicultural Iraq. Returning there in 2009, she found that "Iraq was effectively a different country, transformed by the sectarian civil war. The Shiites had won, the Sunnis had lost. There was no getting around that. In the current political environment there was little hope of restoring Baghdad's historic character, a city where Iraq's rich sectarian mix once lived side by side." Even the non-Shiites who remain, she found, live separate lives, hunkered down behind protective walls, cut off from their former compatriots.

"Eclipse of the Sunnis" is persuasive and very well written, filled with deft turns of phrase such as her description of a Lebanese imam who sympathizes with jihadists because he is pious and "the modern world was bearing down on his soul." Amos can be faulted for an analysis that at times flirts with nostalgia for the Saddam Hussein regime, and for ignoring the demographic fact that the vast majority of Arabs are Sunni Muslims and thus the ascendancy of the Shiites may be temporary. And she plays down the extent to which Iraq's Sunnis brought the wrath of the Shiites upon themselves. These quibbles do not detract from the overall value of her book, which is a powerful antidote to any lingering optimism about the Middle East.

Thomas W. Lippman is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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