Politico-linguistic intervention of the day: Listening to Terry Gross's meaty interview with WaPo's Thomas Ricks last week (web, iTunes), it struck me that serious, knowledgeable people have begun using the term ethnic cleansing to refer to what's going on in Iraqi cities and neighborhoods. Besides Ricks, the author of one of the most important books on the war so far, and Gross, who's usually pretty careful with her words, it's been all over the NYT in recent weeks, appearing in news stories and opinion pieces alike. David Brooks writes,

Second, the worst of the ethnic cleansing may be over. For years, Shiites and Sunnis have been purging each other from towns and neighborhoods.
But the problem, for once, is not Brooks's limited intelligence. Paul Krugman has this:
Oh, and by the way: Baghdad is undergoing ethnic cleansing, with Shiite militias driving Sunnis out of much of the city.
An early example is this Time piece headlined "Ethnic Cleansing in a Baghdad Neighborhood?"

The term ethnic cleansing originated, during the Balkan conflict, as a euphemism for genocide, often used by the English-speaking media with deliberate irony. It's a little strange to watch it turn into a legitimate, unironic term for mass displacement, especially since the word cleansing carries an ineradicable whiff of Nazi ideology.

But if we're going to use the term, can we at least use it accurately? Sunni and Shi'a are not ethnicities, they're religious denominations. For the most part, the people involved in homogenizing their neighborhoods, both Sunni and Shiite, are Arabs (although some are Turkmen, on both sides). The process is more properly called sectarian cleansing, or if you want to get really technical denominational cleansing, or if you want to lose the Nazi stuff sectarian homogenization. The best example of ethnic cleansing during the Iraq War is probably the expulsion of Arabs from Kirkuk, which seems to have calmed down a bit.

American ignorance about Iraq has done enough damage over the past five years; we shouldn't allow sloppy word choices to further cloud our understanding.