[Update, 06/21/2014, 11:20 a.m. EDT: The Washington Post on Friday reported that this photo appears to be at least six months old. The text also appears to have been altered to "I am Sushi" from "We are Muslim."]
Iraq is being overrun by jihadist fighters. On social media, lots of people have had plenty to say about it all, as usual. Others had plenty to say about International Sushi Day yesterday. You might think that the relationship would end there, but this is the internet, and an image that combined both echoed through many Twitter timelines this morning:
The sentiment couldn't be more timely, straightforward, or shareable as Iraq wrestles again with the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict. Predictably, the origin and veracity of the image are unclear. Luay Al-Khatteeb, a visiting fellow in Brookings Institution's foreign policy program, helped spread the image with his tweet above (with other prominent assists). In a phone interview, he said that he got the image out of a listserve-style email and put it on Twitter because it struck him as poignant.
"I just thought to share it with my followers," Al-Khatteeb said, though he knows little else about how it started spreading. "I cannot claim that I'm the first one."
Al-Khatteeb is right about the image's power, and perhaps also about leaving his followers to analyze it on their own. If you have a politically minded, send-happy relative (and who doesn't?), you've learned to eye such things skeptically. But context and a timeline can't hurt. The "sushi" idea is nothing new, and the image itself may also be a knock-off. After the bombing of the Iranian embassy in Lebanon last November, a similar - and definitely doctored - image entered social media circulation and sparked calls for unity. The image resonated even more as civil marriages became legal there.
Whenever and wherever today's #Iraqi #Sushi image began (Facebook takes us back to Tuesday), the response is worth noting. It might smack of hashtag activism, but if it encourages more than just retweets and invective, and even some deeper reading into the blurry divisions of a state in crisis, there's some #win in there.
The image gets at the personal struggle of Sunni-Shiite Iraqi families from mixed marriages, estimated at two million of Iraq's 6.5 million families in 2013.
"While the picture itself might be fake, the phenomenon has been very common in Iraq. Many 'Sushi' families fled after 2003 when sectarianism increased in Iraq," said Professor Nadje Al-Ali, co-chair of the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, via email. "Many many Iraq families are Sushi. Until quite recently it was relatively common, especially for middle class urban families. Intermarriages were very common. My grandmother was Sunni and my grandfather Shia."
Al-Ali sees the "Sushi" construct as useful and accurate, especially for those who think everyone in Iraq is on one side or another of a religious battle. "I myself have been referring to Sushi couples over the past decade when giving public talks," she said. "I think it is a nice way to make it clear to western audiences that Iraq is not only understood in terms of sectarianism."
Levity is in short supply right now as well, Al-Ali said. "I personally think it is good to keep some humour in the midst of all this horror."