Iraqi activist Raed Jarrar spoke to students in Oak Park and River Forest High School history teacher Steve Goldberg’s Modern Middle Eastern History class the Friday before last. Jarrar, who was born in Baghdad and now consults with the American Friends Service Committee, questioned the American media’s portrayal of the war as a conflict between religious sects, recasting it as a battle between nationalists and separatists.

In class, Jarrar argued that the prevailing Iraq War narrative of Sunnis fighting Shi’ites is misleading. The United States government, he said, has been trying to foster these differences since 2003. The American media has been part of the problem, too: “I haven’t seen a place so mainstream media-controlled,” he said.

The conventional wisdom here is supposed to have its roots in history, Jarrar said. Sectarian violence is thought to be “something that those crazy Muslims have been doing for thousands of years,” absolving the United States of blame. According to Jarrar, “the media usually portray the Hussein government as a Sunni government oppressing Shi’ites,” when in fact the dictator was a “secular fundamentalist.” Instead of being at each other’s throats, he said, “Iraqis have maintained a unique example of how sects could live in peace.”

But the identities of Iraqis have been made more complicated by the fact that their nation’s borders were drawn in the 1920s by the British government. The communal identities, on the other hand, date back thousands of years. Thus, Jarrar said, some Iraqis are now arguing that Iraq is not a real nation.

According to Jarrar, the most important conflict in Iraq is not between American troops and insurgents, or between sects of Islam, but between nationalists and the nation-denying separatists. This is a political conflict, not a religious one, he said, and both groups include Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds. The nationalists want to keep the country together and centralize control over oil, while the separatists want to split the country into three parts along religious and sectional lines.

Jarrar argued that the Iraqis are ready to negotiate this political conflict on their own. “Complete withdrawal,” he said, “is just the first step.”

Students found Jarrar’s ideas relevant to what they’d learned in class. For Misha Slavin, the American government’s attempts to divide Iraq recalled the division of the Ottoman Empire. Simon Robertson contrasted the violence in Iraq with the conflict in Lebanon, where, he said, the fighting has been going on longer.

Goldberg began teaching the class last year because he thought the high school should offer more classes in area studies; the Middle East was a logical choice because of the media attention it receives. Last summer, he traveled to Egypt and Israel on a Fulbright scholarship. He has taken members of his class to hear talks from experts on the region such as Oak Park resident Stephen Kinzer, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt and Lawrence Wright.

Jarrar came to the high school by way of Oak Parker Jennifer Bing-Canar, the American Friends Service Committee’s Middle East Peacebuilding Program national coordinator. AFSC is a Quaker-affiliated pacifist organization.

Before starting work with the service committee, Jarrar worked with two humanitarian organizations. The first was CIVIC Worldwide, where he helped keep track of casualties in Iraq. He founded the second, Emaar, which provided humanitarian and political aid to internally-displaced Iraqis.

According to the Chicago Tribune, 11 OPRF students, some of whom had heard Raed Jarrar speak that Friday, traveled downtown the following day to participate in a large anti-war protest that featured a talk by Jarrar.

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