Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1966

The BBC has a licence to divide

This article is over 16 years, 4 months old
The media’s first instinct is to fall back on false and dangerous stereotypes about Iraqi society, says China Miéville
Issue 1966
illustration by Tim Sanders
illustration by Tim Sanders

If there’s one thing the media can make sense of it’s a bit of “ethnicity”. Tracing the roots of conflicts might require some critical research, and who has time for that? So when the powers that be obscure their own complicity in catastrophe by explaining wars as all about Deep Seated Ethnic Hatreds™, you can almost hear sighs of journalistic relief.

As the insurgency continues against the occupation, much of the media is colluding to misrepresent Iraq, like the Balkans and Rwanda before it, as eternally sectarian. And, continuing its precipitous degeneration, the BBC is at the forefront of this misinformation.

The revolts that have shaken Iraq against the US-chivvied constitution are obviously too big to ignore, so what to do, what to do? Talk them up as a sectarian revolt! That’ll discredit them—and by extension the insurgency.

And voila, the recent report on the BBC news website, entitled “Sunnis rally against Iraq charter”. Like a theologically obsessive Rain Man, the BBC neurotically repeats the terms Shia and Sunni a preposterous number of times to underline just how sectarian the anti-occupation marchers are. “Thousands of Sunni Muslims have demonstrated in the Iraqi city of Baquba”, some carrying pictures of Saddam Hussein, sorry, “Iraq’s Sunni former leader, Saddam Hussein”; “The Sunnis object to several parts of the draft text agreed by Shia and Kurdish parties”; “the Sunni marchers in Baquba danced and sang chants”—and so it goes on.

Hold on, I forget—what kind of Muslims were they…?

The essentialism works on the other side too. You didn’t know bits of paper could have religious affiliation or ethnic identities, did you? Oh, yes. What’s on the table, the BBC explains, is a “Shia-Kurdish draft”. No wonder, to quote the title of a more recent story, “Iraq’s Sunnis reject the constitution”. All of them, presumably.

Short of sending an underpaid runner round your house to smack you in the face and shout “Shias and Sunnis hate each other!”, the BBC couldn’t make its point much less subtle.

This kind of essentialism is crass at the best of times. What makes this particular performance so outrageous is that, even more than usual, it is a gross misrepresentation. As several other media outlets—even the Voice of America online!—made clear, the same day as the Baquba protests, 100,000 Shias marched against the constitution and occupation too.

The BBC has to mention these southern protests, so it grudgingly mutters something about rallies “to show support for the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and to demand the government improve public services”.

That’s it. The marchers’ stated opposition to the constitution, let alone to the occupation itself, is written out. In fact the solidarity between the Sunni and Shia goes further. As Channel 4 News (increasingly the only watchable news on British television) showed in an excellent report, masked insurgency fighters—the ones constantly described as Sunni extremists, allies of the fundamentalist Al Qaida bogeyman al-Zarqawi – gave a surreal press conference specifically to praise Shia leader al?Sadr for his opposition to the charter.

Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported Sunni fighters in the overwhelmingly Sunni town of Ramadi fighting gun battles to protect their Shia neighbours from threats and armed attacks by sectarians, reportedly from al-Zarqawi’s group. In the bluff and brilliant words of one local Sunni leader, “We have had enough of his nonsense.”

None of this, of course, is to suggest that there’s no sectarianism in Iraq. However, the reduction of all politics to it is (i) a crude strategy to discredit the drive for self-determination, and (ii) a lie, that the BBC shames itself by collaborating with. It’s trivially obvious that the entirely legitimate desire to get the US out can and does cut across sectarian ties. The question is why does the BBC obscure that even when, as in this case, it’s so blatant?

Its report of the anti-constitution demonstrations doesn’t explain or even accurately describe them, so what is it for, except to consolidate the misrepresentative narrative of sectarianism? Which raises the question of who benefits.

The Washington Post describes Ramadi locals complaining about “attempts by foreign fighters to spark open sectarian conflict”. Some of them, perhaps, are the “foreign jihadis” we hear so much about. But there are other foreign fighters in Iraq, too, tens of thousands of them, whose leaders are also interested in entrenching sectarian distinctions.

And some sections of the media seem determined to help them with that.

China Miéville’s novels, including his latest, The Iron Council, are available at Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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