Myths and Marginalization

FANAR HADDAD — Iraq’s sectarian competition has been much more about differences in national truths than religious ones.

Since the founding of the modern Iraqi state in 1921 until 2003, Shia populations were marginalized and discriminated against. Yet Iraq has also been shaped by a powerful nationalist movement that sought to forge an Iraqi identity irrespective of ethnic or confessional identity. How did these two strands of political experience interact — how has national identity shaped Shia sectarian discourse since 1921?

It is important to emphasize perceptions of Shia marginalization and sectarian self-awareness, and the ways in which this increasingly sect-centric identity fits into national discourse. Both narratives have co-existed: ethnic or sectarian identities do not preclude a sense of Iraqi patriotism. As for the issue of marginalization, I think Shias were not marginalized simply for being Shia. Upon state establishment, and throughout the existence of the modern Iraqi nation-state, the Shias had a sense of themselves as a differentiated sectarian group and this grated against the homogenizing impulse of the modern Arab nation-state — a state which sought to transcend sectarian identities not by including them, but by negating and silencing them. The Shias rejected this attempt at inclusion through dilution and their opposition led to confrontation with the state. Thus it was not so much that Shias per se were marginalized, rather it was that Shia identity was marginalized. In other words the middle-class, educated, and be-suited Baghdadi Shias did not experience this marginalization as strongly as their rural or their more impoverished co-nationals

Ultimately, the problem in Iraq has never been the weakness or absence of nationalist sentiment, but rather the diverse ways in which this nationalism has been imagined. Some of the most important issues driving tension between Sunni and Shia communities are competing senses of entitlement to claiming the “mantle of Iraqi nationalism.” Sectarian identities were always an issue in Iraq — though one of varying relevance over the years — but the thing to note is that sectarian competition has been much more about differences concerned with national truths than religious ones.

It seems that, although Iraqi sectarianism is often colored by Islamic dogma, underlying debates are not centered on religious differences at all, but rather competing visions of state principles. How can scholars deconstruct the dogmatic rhetoric to examine the national futures envisaged by competing entities in Iraq?

There is a critical difference between dogma and identity. Take, for example, the divide between sectarian parties in the Iraqi parliament: never are their differences founded on disagreement over religious tenets. These parties debate entitlement, economic and political rights, and representation. Sectarian identity is conceived both in a transnational, Islamic sense — which incorporates religious jurisprudence and history and so forth — and at the national level, where tangible, earthly political competition plays out within the borders of the nation-state.

Over the last 11 years a struggle has emerged in Arab Iraq between a Shia-centric state-building project and a Sunni-centric rejection of that project. Of course, this intransigence does not stem only from Sunni parties, but it is impossible to deny that there has been a very strong sectarian element to Iraqi state-building (and the opposition to it) post-2003. I should say that both concepts encompass a spectrum: for some Iraqi Shias, Shia-centric state building simply means having Shias in charge. For others, it could extend to endowing the state with a Shia sectarian identity. There is a very early example of this endeavor mentioned in Ali Allawi’s book, The Occupation of Iraq, in which he speaks of a memo passed around the Iraqi National Alliance in 2005. It argued that Iraqis must recognize that Shias were now the governing class and envisaged Iraq as a collection of lesser sects and ethnicities revolving around a Shia sun. As for Sunni-centric rejection, that too is a spectrum running from begrudging acceptance to violent insurgency.

Across modern Iraq, many valorize General Abd al-Karim Qasim (1959-1963) for ruling according to non-sectarian principles; he seems an example of an alternative to the Saddam-dominated reading. How do Iraqis conceive of their country’s history, and how are modern interpretations of pre-Saddam Iraq reconciled with developments post-1979 and post-2003?

It is important first to note that the post-1979 era weighs far more heavily on Iraqi minds than anything that came before. Iraq has a very young population; the majority of Iraqis have no recollection of life before Saddam Hussein. The “Qasim myth” is one cherished by communists and ex-communists, and left-leaning fellow travelers. He is also very popular with working-class Shias: he built what is today known as Sadr City, which was previously a makeshift slum. There is a great deal of exaggeration, however, with regards to the Qasim legacy. I think the valorization of Qasim speaks to the complete dearth of Iraqi heroes for nationalists to espouse.

There is massive divergence in the way Iraqis remember their nation’s history, and a lot of that divergence falls along sectarian lines. Of course, not every Sunni will agree on one historical reading, and every Shi’i on another. However, there are particular readings that are favored by the sect-based political powers, and it is very easy to identify narratives that would appeal to either Sunnis or Shias. Take the Shia political classes today: these people have a radically alternate interpretation of history than your average Sunni. Perhaps these differences are at their starkest with regards to the Saddam era and this is something that is shaped to a considerable degree by views towards the current order. It is depressingly common to find individuals who, in their opposition to the mess created after 2003, will endow the pre-2003 Iraqi state with more legitimacy and credibility than it deserves.

It is crucial to remember, when considering historical memory in Iraq, that in 2003 Iraqi and foreign politicians were attempting to build a new Iraq, complete with fresh heroes, villains, and national narratives. The newly-empowered elites probably did not think that there would be a problem with this. But the exile mentality of “Iraqi people versus evil regime” — and that Iraqis would come together in a combination of joy and relief at being rid of the Baath regime — was tragically flawed. Iraqis turned out to be extremely divided as to what the Saddam era constituted for the Iraqi people. 

After 2003, many previously unknown figures employed sectarian and communal-based rhetoric to establish political legitimacy in the Baath regime’s wake. Yet their actions formed part of Iraq’s post-2003 sectarian development. How did the legacy of Saddam Hussein’s political manipulation of ethno-confessional groups compound problems inherent to the post-2003 weak state?

In 2003 ethno-centric and sect-centric forces were clearly empowered in Iraq. The real question is: Why did these groups exist in the first place, and why were they so central to the opposition movement? The answer is rooted not only in the Saddam era but also the nature of the state that was established in 1921. The pre-2003 state had decimated avenues of political participation and voluntary participatory organization — it had atomized political society. The issue of communal plurality was severely mismanaged and suppressed. By 2003, Iraqi politics where dominated by the Baath regime and the sect-centric and ethno-centric oppositions. Issue politics and grand ideologies were simply irrelevant by that point leaving the path open towards identity politics. Many of the actors empowered in 2003 had long careers as advocates for sect-centric or ethno-centric issues. While this is a perfectly legitimate form of political organization, the problem is that, come regime change, these political forces were not able to make the transition from sect-centric advocacy to national political.

An added complication is that many of the newly empowered Shia political classes represented a particular brand of Shi’ism that had been demonized by successive regimes as Iranian stooges and in some cases as not Iraqi at all. Entities like the Dawa Party had been portrayed as existential threats to the Iraqi nation-state for several generations. Their empowerment in Iraq after 2003 thus proved incredibly divisive. In a way, you could say that these political organizations were the “last man standing” in a much longer conflict with the pre-2003 state. It is important to note that these groups reflected notions had considerable currency amongst many ordinary Iraqi Shias not least of which is the idea that Iraqi Shias are the majority in the country, and therefore must rule. This is why many Shias regarded the 2003 invasion as not only Iraq’s liberation but as their moment of deliverance as Shias. Of course this sect-centricity only deepened over the years as a result of the violence that followed the war, the failures of post-2003 politics and the entrenchment of identity politics. One wonders how long Iraq can sustain this dynamic of division and mistrust.

Iraq’s sectarian divisions have been presented as a binary conflict between Sunni and Shia blocs. Yet this interpretation ignores crosscutting cleavages — based on social class, education, gender, age, or political ideology — that create divisions within ethno-confessional groups. What are the roots of intra-bloc rivalries, and how have they shaped political discourse within both Sunni and Shia populations?

Shia-centric state building and Sunni rejection represents a “master cleavage” that has animated political violence in post-2003 Iraq. Yet there are deep divisions within the Shia and Sunni communities. With regards to the Shias, there has been intense competition since the fall of the Saddam regime between various movements. Most famously, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s Badr militia clashed in 2008. There may well be increased intra-Shia violence with the emergence of more empowered militia groups since the summer of 2014 who will no doubt be jockeying for power and position in post-ISIS Iraq. This competition seems a perfect recipe for further Iraqi political dysfunction. Division is an even more acute problem amongst Sunnis whether in politics, tribal leaderships or religious leaderships.

Intra-Shia rivalries were closely related to socioeconomic and class-based cleavages in Iraqi society. For example, the Sadrists portrayed themselves specifically as the champions of working class Shias who had long been ignored not just by the state, but also by traditional clerical authorities and the urban middle classes. At the political level, this rhetoric represented competition with organizations like Dawa or Badr over political position and power. Tensions are indeed apparent even within single political parties. Nouri al-Maliki’s position within the Dawa Party is particularly illustrative. Since he lost the Prime Ministership this summer he has done his utmost to undermine new PM Haidar al-Abadi, a member of the same political party.

Although Sunni-Shia rivalry has defined commentary on post-2003 Iraq, this contest seems rooted in Arab Iraq — the Kurds (which constitute 20 percent of the population) and other minority groups complicate this interpretation. Do non-Arab communities fit into the sectarian political discourse?

It seems that these minority groups do not fit into the sectarian narrative. One of the many negative consequences of regime change in 2003 was that minority groups had to subsume themselves within larger sectarian blocs to really be relevant. The political field was dominated by the “big three” — Sunni, Shia, and Kurd — and smaller groups found themselves ignored. By conceiving of Iraq as a tripartite entity, the interests of other communities were forgotten. As a result Iraq is losing its diversity, either through emigration, assimilation, or elimination. This loss constitutes one of the greatest tragedies in Iraq over the last 11 years.

Iraq’s sectarian divisions were underscored as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured large swathes of primarily Sunni territory in Nineveh and al-Anbar. Yet the coalition in ISIS-controlled territory comprises a strange alliance of ex-Ba’athists, Islamist militants, and shaky tribal relationships. How can ISIS be placed inside Iraq’s inter-communal sectarian framework?

ISIS is the extreme end of Sunni rejection to the new Iraqi order. The Islamic State has insisted on being in charge of the insurgency, and they appear to have the muscle to accomplish this goal. They have sidelined groups like the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN), which many analysts had hoped could rival the Islamic State. Whatever differences may have existed between entities like JRTN and ISIS and their supporters, it is often the case that the latter is not seen as a genocidal movement that poses an existential threat to Iraq; rather, it is seen as a tool with which to confront and deconstruct the post-2003 order. And JRTN has been clear about this perspective from the beginning of the current crisis — the recently deceased JRTN leader, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, praised ISIS for its role in precipitating in the fall of Mosul in June 2014.

Although ISIS militants have swept through Iraq’s Sunni regions, significant differences distinguish Nineveh from al-Anbar. How have varying compositions of Iraq’s Sunni regions been manifest in the current conflict, both in terms of intra-confessional discourse and relations with the government in Baghdad?

One of the major differences between Nineveh and al-Anbar is that the former never experienced an awakening movement. Al-Anbar’s experience of awakenings meant that the Baghdad government already had experience working there with provincial partners. On the other hand, the post-2003 government’s control of Mosul has always been shaky; it never seemed to have consolidated its rule in the city. Whether this situation can be resolved is an open question. Yet it is important to remember that some of the most important front lines against ISIS are manned by Sunni tribes, in areas of Salahaldin, Anbar and even in Nineveh itself.


FANAR HADDAD is a Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore. He is the author of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity.

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