Beyond the Sect

HARITH HASAN — A misguided discourse hides the deep secular and political roots of Iraq’s dramatic dissolution.

Although sectarian conflict is today considered a reality of political discourse across the Middle East, the way in which these tensions have played out in Iraq have been especially violent. How has the fighting in Iraq affected sectarian ideology across the region, that is, how central is Iraq to understanding regional sectarianism?

It is true that sectarianism is becoming a very powerful force in Iraq and the Middle East, but it is important to realize that the heightened sectarianism is not necessarily about the existence of different confessional groups in Iraq and the region. The tensions are born from political conflict – they are about power, control of the state, control of resources, geopolitical concerns. It is impossible to explain sectarianism by looking to the past or trying to understand doctrinal principles of Shiism or Sunnism. Of course these histories are important, but they will not sufficiently explain the conflict across the region today. 

The problem is not about having different sectarian groups as much as it is about the way in which these sectarian identities have been politicized. In Iraq and the region, social identities have been sectarianized. It is possible to trace this phenomenon back to the 1960s. It is related to the failure of the post-colonial state in countries like Iraq and Syria, and the emergence of political Islam as a new ideology that presents competing notions of society, identity, and just rule. Exclusionary policies adopted by authoritarian regimes – especially in Iraq and Syria — intensified these social divisions. As a result, people started sought sanctuary in their religious and confessional identities.

An example of this process can be found in the increasing dominance of Sunni elites in Iraq. In the 1960s and 1970s, Sunni elites arrived from Ramadi and Tikrit to take control of the mechanisms of state through nationalization of industry and agriculture. Saddam Hussein solidified and intensified this process. His regime built a very exclusionary power structures that led many Shia to interpret their position as sectarian-driven. Their exclusion was not, necessarily, sectarian. Saddam’s regime was controlled by Sunni Arabs but it was not a Sunni regime in the sense that it was a regime that adhered to a Sunni ideology or to the idea of the supremacy of Sunni communities. Saddam himself was not sectarian, but the structure of his regime was exclusionary based on tribal and regional alliances that eventually led to ethnic and sectarian exclusion. As a dictator, Saddam could only trust those from his family or tribe – this is the reality of holding dictatorial power. He chose his government based on whom he could trust, not based on sect.

The majority of Kurds and Shias were thrown of the power structure, or marginalized. Therefore, opposition groups found strength in these communities. The Shias are the majority in Iraq, and it is thus unsurprising that the main opposition to Saddam would be mostly Shia.

The Iranian Revolution in 1979 was also deeply symbolic for this story. For the first time in modern history there was a new model of government based on Shiism. Khomeini brought an ideology that showed it was possible for Shiism to lead a state, reframing centuries of tradition in which Shias could never govern a country. Khomeini declared that it was possible for the grand Shia cleric to lead the nation of faithful. With this ideology, there was a feeling that Shia communities would find a new answer to handle their political exclusion in Iraq. In the 1960s a number of Shia groups, including the Dawa Party, emerged with idea of how to reform the state. After the Iranian Revolution, these groups became more organized and powerful.

Later on during the 1990s in Iraq, like in all Middle Eastern societies, there was increasing religiosity. The reasons for this phenomenon are themselves not necessarily religious. Social and economic changes in the region go a long way to explain this transformation. The Iraqi state eventually withdrew from the social sphere. The Authoritarian state previously had an undeclared contract with the societies over which they governed. Their objective was to demobilize people from challenging their power and prevent the population from participating in politics. In return, they provided social services and economic opportunities through a welfare state. In the late 1970s, in Iraq for example, when this strong authoritarian state was being built, the economy flourished with oil revenue; the government used this money to create jobs, expand public sector, and give loans to farmers.

Several factors contributed to the destruction of this system. First, oil prices dropped. Combined with the huge cost of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, Iraq accrued huge external debts. Second, after the fall of the Soviet Union of liberalization – the withdrawal of government from society – became very influential. Finally, the 1990-1991 occupation of Kuwait and subsequent international sanctions sparked intense religiosity as well. These sanctions had no historical precedent. For a country like Iraq, which was highly dependent on oil export, these sanctions were crippling.  The regime started to focus on its own survival, on keeping the budget tied to security, intelligence, and military. It began to rely increasingly on patronage politics, while the majority of Iraqis were left to fend for themselves. A schoolteacher, before sanctions, would have earned around $2,000 per month; during sanctions, this figure would drop to $10-15. The food rationing system did not provide people with enough calories or quality food.

The middle class was absolutely crushed during this period. I am from a middle class family. As early as 1992 it was difficult to secure our basic needs, starting with food.  In this situation, people began to look for other ways to sustain their lives. Religion was best at providing this service. Only the public sector was functioning, and there were no good salaries to be found there. The majority of Iraqis were disillusioned with the regime, and looked for other interpretations for their identity. In this context, religious figures were able to fill this vacuum – both Sunni and Shia. In the second half of the 1990s, there was a mobilization among Shia youth behind Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who revived political Shiism in Iraq. This was very challenging for Saddam’s regime, as all Shia political parties had been banned, and managed to attract many young Shias. Something similar was happening, though, in some Sunni sectors. An example of this is increased Salafization. More students at the universities began growing long beards and dress in Salafist styles. 

What happened after 2003 is a result of this long history. A political system was established based on the idea that Iraqis were divided into categories – Sunni, Shia, Kurd. Any Iraqi democratic process must be about including these three factions into the system. Shia opposition groups, who did not hide their Shia identity, came to power. This provoked a strong reaction from the Sunni community, which did not know any political organization outside the Baath Party. The Shia groups in exile were organized and knew how to play politics.

Most Shia, though, did not know these new leaders – they had been in exile for 30 years. The Dawa Party, the Supreme Council, Ahmed Chalabi, and Ayed Allawi were all unknown. These groups needed to build a constituency. The easiest way to do that was to play the sectarian card. These arrivals claimed that they had been prevented from ruling their country by the Baath minority, and that a new country should be constructed in which the majority Shias would govern. This rhetoric managed to attract followers. This was the politicization of the Shia identity that heightened sectarianism in Iraqi politics. A process of Sunnification took place as a natural response in Sunni communities. These groups reinvented their identities against the other. The Shia victimhood that existed under Saddam was thus replaced by Sunni victimhood after 2003. Radical Islamist groups flourished in this environment which lacked any inter-communal communication. These groups of thugs presented themselves as defenders of Sunni or Shia communities.

The effects of this complicated history are being felt outside Iraq. For example, the speed with which the Syrian conflict has descended into a sectarian conflict is directly related to sentiments brewing across the Iraqi border. Actors, like Iran and Saudi Arabia mobilize these sectarianized identities to expand their regional influence. All these groups use sectarianism as a tool – they are not necessarily sectarian in their thinking.

Although sect has become perhaps the most important factor in Iraqi politics, this reality was not necessarily inevitable. Why did other divisive social elements — region, class, ideology – become subject to religiously-based conflicts in Iraq?

The answer is rooted in the sectarianization of political processes. Several dynamics emphasized the sectarian identity. The majority of Shias are Shia Arab – they have a hybrid identity. Many of them started, in this environment of sectarianization, to behave more like Shia and less like Arabs. This happened because they felt that being Shia made them the majority in Iraq, and therefore it is useful to be Shia. They felt targeted by radical groups like Al Qaeda merely for their religious, not ethnic, identity. They reacted by becoming more Shia. The same principle applies to the Sunnis.

After 2003, the simplistic United States narrative of Iraqi history accelerated this sectarianization. American leaders grouped the country, essentially, into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish blocs. When the Coalition Provisional Authority established the first Iraqi governing body – the Interim Governing Council – they chose members based on their proportion of the Iraqi population. The other identities were ignored – economic, professional, or regional. Of course, all the problems are not due to US policy, but it was certainly significant in perpetuating the problem.  The US had the power to influence the problem if they had realized their mistake, but no action was taken in this regard.

Those who consider themselves the victors of the invasion, those who came from exile, as well as those Kurdish parties that were strengthened after their liberation in 2003, had an interest in emphasizing this sectarian view of Iraqi society as a way to create constituency. By strengthening a sectarian identity, they were able to establish legitimacy. They were successful.

Yet their success was very funny, because those people had been extremely detached from Iraqi society. They did not live with Iraqis in very difficult conditions during the two decades before 2003. Iraqi society had changed drastically in this timeframe. These exiles arrived, saying that Iraq had a strong middle class, good education, an excellent healthcare system — these were all facts that belonged to the early 1980s. Between sanctions, the first Gulf War, and the Iran-Iraq War before that, the changes exerted on Iraqi society were radical and deeply scarring.

In 2014, ten years after the fall of the Saddam regime, these people are the majority in the Iraqi government. The power structure is mainly composed today of those politicians who came from exile: the Prime Minister, the President, the Foreign Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, for example. The source of their legitimacy is that they present themselves as the communal representative for their given sect. It does not matter whether they have real interaction with the communities, but instead how well they represent the abstract idea of the community. The US should have played a better role in de-emphasizing these communities.

When one thinks in terms of communities, one forgets that there are citizens within those communities. Today in Iraq the system is governed by identity politics, not citizenship politics. There is just no interaction between people, only between ideological notions of sect and community.

This sectarian process strengthened the notion of sectarianization in the region. Even as the whole Middle East seems to be revolving around sectarian identities, I would argue that these identities are not rooted, they are not the organic state of being for people. People do not wake up in the morning to remind themselves whether they are Shia or Sunni or Kurdish. These things do not matter to the majority of people. The type of politics that is taking place in the region, does matter.   Regional, local, urban, economic, tribal divisions still exist, just hidden under the surface of broader sectarian whitewashing. Iraqi society is much more sophisticated than the sectarian narrative suggests.

Does the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and subsequent escalation of sectarian division throughout the coalition occupation, signal a dividing line between a sectarian and non-sectarian Middle East?

What happened in Iraq after 2003 is very significant in creating this line between a non-sectarian and sectarian Middle East. It is important to say that sectarianism was always present in Iraq, and the region. It was a relevant force, not the most relevant, in shaping power politics. It did not draw the fault lines.

In the Iraq of 1950, for example, the competition was between the Communist and Socialist Left and the pan-Arab Right. Of course, when one looks at the constituencies to which these two trends belong, one will see that most Shias supported the Communist Party. Yet the reasons for this are deceiving. Shias are the majority of Iraq, and mostly poor. And poor people are attracted to socialistic or communistic policies. Pan-Arabism was always a strong force amongst Sunni elites, because through pan-Arabism they were able to disguise their dominance in Iraqi society. Without looking carefully, it would have been impossible to discern this Sunni dominance, by the very nature of the pan-Arabist ideology.

It is also important to remember that during Saddam Hussein’s rise to power, most of his rivals were Sunni. There was immense conflict between the Tikriti wing and the Anbari wing. Both were Sunnis, but the Tikriti wing managed to emerge ahead. Sectarianism was a force, again, but not the most relevant one.

What happened in Iraq after 2003, the change of power balance when Shia groups that identified themselves as Shias, that adhered to an ideology of political Shi’ism, that are so close to Iran, took power. That was a huge shockwave, and it triggered heightened sectarianism in the region. Within Iraq, the Sunni community reacted through the insurgency — it was their way to register discontent with the Shia government. The Sunni Arab countries reacted by supporting these Sunni groups, perpetuating the narrative of Sunni victimhood. Middle Eastern regimes realized how useful sectarianism was to expand their influence abroad, and to legitimize themselves at home.

For example, during the protest movement in Bahrain, protestors used slogans expounding a Bahraini identity, demanding equal rights under the law. Yet the Bahraini government portrayed the events as a Shia uprising supported by Iran to topple their regime. They were so successful at marketing this narrative that the Saudi army crossed into Bahrain to crush the protest movement. The same has happened in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria. These sectarian portrayals occurred, and became so divisive, as a result of what happened in Iraq.

How have the characters and identities of respective sects and sectarian groups changed, splintered, or coalesced?

When it comes to political conflict there are always dynamics that force groups to change according to the political context. On the one hand, the idea of separated sectarian groups has been rooted into Iraqi society. During the 2010 Iraqi election, there were large political blocs claiming to represent Iraqi nationalism. Those do not exist today. Now the sectarian constituencies have split further. Political competition today is thus taking place within these sectarian groups, not necessarily between them.

This competition takes two forms. First, it revolves around which group represents the given local community better, provides better protection. This trend reinforces sectarianism. Second, it is being complicated by trends that are not related to sectarianism at all, like the emphasis on the failures of Maliki’s government and improved security. The conflict is no longer about defining the Iraqi nation, but about winning over local communities.

How has sectarian sentiments changed the idea of what it means to be an Iraqi, and the definition of a national identity?

One important phenomenon is transnational sectarianism. The more the sectarian identity is emphasized, the more people will become attached to it, compared to their national identity. Everyone knows that national identity is a very weak idea in the region. The nations are not strong enough, some would say they are not natural, and many say they are artificial. The problem is not the artificiality of the state, but the difference between successful and unsuccessful nation-building processes. In general, one could say that the Middle Eastern nations were subject to unsuccessful nation-building.

In Iraq, there is a sense of Iraqi identity. There were changes to Iraqi society since 1921 — the foundation of the Iraqi modern state — that created such an identity. There was a national curriculum, a national education system, national army, national economy, national bureaucracy and legal system. These are integrationist dynamics, no matter who is in power. They create some sort of belonging to one entity, and eventually, identity.

Despite the strong polarization of their country’s politics, most Iraqis will describe themselves as Iraqis first and foremost. The differences start when Iraqis are forced to define what this national “Iraqism” means. The conflict is more about the content of Iraqism, not its existence. Of course, I use the word “national” with an important caveat — the territorial states created some sort of identity.   


HARITH HASAN is a political analyst who has served as an advisor for governmental and non-governmental organizations in Iraq, and is a former Assistant Professor of Political Science at Baghdad University. He is the Robert G. James Scholar at Risk Fellow at Harvard University and a regular contributor to Al-Monitor.

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