After Sectarianism

FANAR HADDAD — Iraqi sectarian and political identities have changed fundamentally since 2014. 

Since ISIS seized Mosul in June 2014, Iraq has undergone tremendous demographic and socioeconomic transformations, due in part to large-scale displacement of populations in the country’s northern and western provinces. Has the expression and importance of sectarian identity changed over the past three years as a result of interrelated pressures from communal upheaval and existential conflict against an enemy like ISIS?

 It is undeniable that 2014 was a pivotal year in Iraqi history, as well as for the country’s political and social development. The extent to which events in 2014 have reshaped sectarian relations in Iraq and the way in which sectarian identities are perceived and imagined continues to be under-appreciated by outsiders. It appears that the upheaval in 2014 may have done to Arab Iraq what 2006-2007 did to Baghdad: It may have put an end to any serious existential challenge to the country’s political system and reified the deeply dysfunctional and deeply flawed post-2003 order.

It is important to recall that the events of 2014 occurred 11 years after Saddam’s ouster and the transformation of the Iraqi state. The context for the expression of sectarian identity was thus quite different when ISIS swept across western and northern Iraq from the context that animated these issues in, say, 2004-2007. The main driver of instability in Arab Iraq between 2003 and 2014 was the dynamic between Shia-centric state-building and Sunni rejection. The 2014 moment may have seen the culmination of this dynamic with the ascendance of the former and the demise of the latter. It is important to note here that the concept of Shia-centric state-building is not meant to describe any long-term or grandiose project; rather, it describes an extremely limited set of efforts and goals, particularly the empowerment of Shia-centric political actors and the privileging of various forms of Shia identity. This effort focused on taking command of the remnants of the pre-2003 state, and ensuring that the central levers of political power in Arab Iraq revolved around Shia (and, more specifically, Shia-centric) figures. Ultimately, these aims represent a fairly low bar for Shia politicians and leaders, and they had essentially cleared it by 2014. Likewise, 2014 may have seen the uppermost limit of Sunni rejection.

The events of 2014 transformed the political fortunes and options of Sunni populations within Iraq. The Sunni political classes were cast into disarray, both inside and outside the country, and much of the non-ISIS Sunni opposition to the Iraqi state was neutralized. In the post-2014 period, new local-level political actors emerged in Sunni-majority provinces. Unlike previous Sunni leaders (who operated within the above-described framework), these local actors have been happy to secure their interests through Shia and Baghdad-aligned actors, including, most interestingly, the predominantly-Shia paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Although the PMU was initially viewed as an existential threat to Iraqi Sunnis, the organization was largely normalized in popular perceptions (within Iraq) over the course of 2015-2016. It is not that Sunni communities wholeheartedly embraced the PMU. Instead, the zero-sum existential fears that characterized Sunni views towards the PMU in 2014 gave way to something more nuanced and more grounded in personal experience. Local-level Sunni actors view the PMU as a reality of contemporary Iraqi politics, they understand that the organization’s leaders are significant powerbrokers in the country, and are willing to secure their interests through these figures.

For Iraq’s Shia communities, the conflict against ISIS transformed modes of political and identity expression away from the pre-2014 dialectic. Gone are the days when Shia political actors could stoke fears of recalcitrant Sunnis, murderous takfiris or closeted Ba’athists. As the politics of Shia-centric state building reaches the extent of its tether, a more mature form of Shia politics is emerging – one not as bluntly sect-centric as was often the case in previous years. For example, despite broad support for the war against ISIS, the exigencies of the war effort could not prevent the emergence of a robust protest movement against perceived government failings in Baghdad and other Shia-majority cities. When a mass-casualty bombing occurred in Baghdad’s Karradah neighborhood in July 2016, killing nearly 350 people, popular anger was directed at the government, not at Sunni neighborhoods or Sunni individuals despite war time mobilization against ISIS. Compare that sentiment with the reactions to similar attacks against Shia-majority targets a decade earlier, which would often result in retaliatory strikes against Sunni communities. After 2014, this kind of identification of violence with an entire sectarian group was no longer prevalent among many Iraqi Shia populations.

Between 2014 and 2016, an increasingly clear differentiation between the mass group (Sunni communities) and the minority group (ISIS) developed; anger for security lapses became directed at policymakers and not at the sectarian other. This transformation represents the culmination of Shia-centric state-building, as well as its limits. Today, Shia leaders cannot distract from their governance failures by blaming Sunni populations or by portraying these communities as an existential threat.

The war against ISIS has been fought by the entire country, pushing Iraqi state to mobilize human, security, and economic resources in each of its provinces. Has there been a transformation of nationalistic expression as a result of this struggle since 2014? 

There has been a reinvigoration of Iraqi nationalism in Arab Iraq. The conflict over the past three years has given rise to a new narrative that posits a process of national salvation arising organically from the Iraqi population against an irredeemably evil foe. This narrative presents a good-and-evil story that is designed to transcend sectarian boundaries. The PMU plays a central role in this emergent narrative: Iraq was saved not by American airpower or Iranian support but by the “salt of the earth” young men from southern Iraq, who demonstrated a love of country and obedience to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call to arms. Many analysts have under-estimated this idealized narrative’s importance and currency in Iraq today. While this narrative is not hegemonic, it is important and to some extent and in some cases does cross sectarian boundaries.

It is, again, instructive to compare this process of narrative construction to similar trends in 2005-2007, during the early phases of Iraq’s civil war. It was nearly impossible to fashion any sort of nationalist mythology from those early bouts of violence. Events in that period were too fratricidal and too ugly an affair to act as a glorious myth in the service of the narrative needs of nationalism. In 2014, however, ISIS represented an enemy so cruel, so clearly identifiable, and so beyond the pale that few could object to the war against it. In many ways, ISIS could serve as the same type of galvanizing foe that animated other wars of national salvation, such as the Iraqis did for the Iranians (and vice versa, though to a perhaps lesser extent) during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War or as the Germans did for the Soviet Union in World War II.

These changing depictions of enemy and nationalism are reflected in Shia cultural outputs like anthems and poetry. In 2006-2007, Shia anthems focused either on Shia pride or on Sadrist pride – revolving around the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, his Sadrist movement, and its paramilitary offshoot the Mahdi Army. Anthems today, especially those tied to the PMU, are far more likely to emphasize Iraqi pride. Some may argue that today’s PMU anthems represent a heavily Shia-centric take on Iraqi nationalism. Nevertheless, the vocabulary used is very much focused on asserting an identification with the Iraqi polity rather than a distinct sectarian community. More to the point, even as examples of Shia-centric Iraqi nationalism, today’s PMU songs and anthems are distinctly different from earlier variants of Sadrist and Shia anthems from back in 2006-2007. At the very least, comparing the two iterations offers some clues as to the evolution of Shia centric Iraqi nationalism from a more insecure and introverted stance to a more confident and extroverted one.

How has this Shia-centric narrative been received and understood by Sunni communities? It is useful to address this question by looking specifically at how Sunni communities view the PMU, around which the narrative of national salvation partially revolves. After the fall of Mosul and Sistani’s fatwa, the PMU were initially regarded as an existential, implicitly anti-Sunni threat by many Sunnis. By the end of 2014, however, many Iraqi Sunnis had developed a more nuanced view of the PMU’s role and character, and understood the differences between various factions under the PMU umbrella – each with varying degrees of influence, foreign-backing, or potential to commit abuse. This complex perspective is a result of direct experience with the PMU within Sunni-majority territories. While the average Iraqi Sunni civilian may not be as receptive to the above-described nationalistic sentiment as his Shia counterpart, direct experience with the PMU has allowed this narrative to nevertheless cross sectarian divisions. Recent public opinion polling reflected this changing perspective of the PMU – and Shia powerbrokers – among Sunni civilians. For example, of Sunni residents surveyed in western Iraq between March 2016 and January 2017, there was a 22 percent increase in the number of people in western Iraq who viewed the PMU in a positive light. Again, this does not mean that Sunnis are full-on supporters of the PMU; however, it does mean that they no longer see them as an existential threat. This change reflects a broader transcendence of the sectarian issue in Iraq (something on which the rest of the region has a long way to go). In Iraq today, the sectarian “other” may be loved or hated, but he is no longer seen as an existential threat.

The extension of the PMU franchise beyond Shia circles is indicative of this development. There is today a significant non-Shia, Sunni presence within the PMU. The PMU brand has had two main non-Shia force-multipliers: firstly, the realities and necessities of the post-2014 environment and, secondly, the legal and financial benefits that come with PMU affiliation.

The sheer scale of the calamities visited upon Sunni-majority governorates left locals with few options, let alone the luxury of being able to pick and choose allies in the fightback against ISIS. Whatever fears and reservations they initially had, many Sunnis had little choice but to work with and try to secure their interests through the PMU. Over the course of the past three years this situation has led to a process of normalization through first hand contact an experience. Many groups or actions that were controversial or contested back in 2014 have since been normalized.

As for the financial benefits gained from cooperation with PMU forces, these were only enhanced with the PMU’s official institutionalization in 2016. People of many backgrounds would join the PMU to access PMU funds and to build patronage ties to key Shia powerbrokers.

In other words (and this again illustrates the limits of the prism of sectarian identity today), there are financial, legal and political incentives for paramilitary groups – whatever their religious or ethnic composition – to be officially recognized as part of the PMU. In this way, the PMU has become yet another vehicle for the funneling of state resources to clients, be they Shia or not. As for the main powers within the PMU, far from the genocidaires they are imagined to be by many outsiders, they are in fact particularly keen on gaining non-Shia members and formations (tokenistic or otherwise) provided these fall into line and do not try to challenge power relations within the PMU or to disturb the balance of power amongst Iraq’s political elites. As far as the PMU’s major stakeholders are concerned, the more diverse the PMU are seen to be the better they can uphold the pillars of the PMU’s own messaging, which places quite a lot of emphasis on patriotism and cross-confessionalism (an interesting development to contrast with Sadrist rhetoric, and especially Mahdi Army messaging, back in 2006).

This positive atmosphere, however, is not guaranteed to persist – it may well be squandered, as similar opportunities have been in the past. Ultimately, any new political framework in Iraq will produce winners and losers. To prevent future violence, there must be an acceptable role for the losers within the political establishment, and a conduit for them to tap into the new patronage networks that are emerging across the country. Reconstructing damaged communities, many of them Sunni, is another critical step that must be taken to build on the current mood after ISIS’s defeat in Mosul.

Nearly 70 percent of Iraq’s population is under the age of 25 years; for many young Iraqis, the ISIS experience was an overwhelming, formative, and traumatic period. How have generational shifts within Iraq’s demographic landscape (particularly during a period of crisis) impacted sectarian identity-formation and inter-communal discourse – do younger Iraqis perceive identity differently from their parents?

This is an empirical question that must be examined further. Above all, the process by which identity formation takes place depends on context. Older Iraqis do not seem to be more prone to a sectarian-structured mindset than their children. The same person who harbored prejudices against the sectarian “other” in 2006, for example, could be more cognizant of nuances within sectarian discourse come 2014. However, the younger generation does seem more realistic with regards to sectarian divides in Iraq, mainly because of the intense violence to which the country has been subjected for over a decade. The taboo surrounding discussions of sectarian identity has been lifted, whereas among older Iraqis the topic generates far more discomfort, even today. Arab Iraqis appear to have transcended – for the moment, at least – previous perspectives that identify the sectarian “other” as an existential threat. It is difficult to see how such sentiments could re-emerge.

An interesting comparison can be made between Iraq and Lebanon – both countries that have fought terrible conflicts revolving around “sectarianism.” Despite a violent history of communal division in their country, sectarian plurality and its expression are a given in Lebanon and the Lebanese people are able to have difficult discussions regarding sect. Perhaps this ability in Lebanon, and now in Iraq, is a direct result of the fact that both countries have fought their battles over sect and brought these issues into public view in a traumatic fashion that has ultimately fostered the normalization of sectarian plurality and highlighted the futility of zero-sum sectarian conflict.

Today, as a result of the costly campaign against ISIS, nearly 81 percent of Iraqis view the Army favorably – a sharp contrast to the institution’s 59 percent approval rating in early 2014. Importantly, the Army enjoys strong support from majority-Sunni communities in places like Anbar Province. Has the re-development of the post-2014 Iraqi Army as a national institution with country-wide popularity shaped perceptions of identity, belonging, and security among previously-marginalized populations? 

The Iraqi Army’s popularity is indicative of the emergence of a salient political narrative revolving around nationalistic sentiment. Before 2014, the Army was often criticized (even by mainstream Sunni politicians) as jaysh al-Maliki (“Maliki’s Army”) or jaysh al-Safawi (the “Safavid Army,” referring to its Shia character and perceived patronage to Iran). Today, it is nearly impossible for Iraqi politicians, whatever their leanings or true feelings, to criticize the Army or its role in defending and liberating Iraqi territory. This shift occurred over the past three years as a direct result of the war against ISIS. For example, when the direction of the operation to liberate Mosul was being debated in Parliament in 2016-2017, the consensus among policymakers was – despite intense destruction wrought on areas as a result of fighting – to praise the Army.

This singular narrative is unprecedented in post-2003 Iraq. It will be critical for Iraqi leaders from all sects and communities to build on this positive sentiment, lest they squander the opportunities created by the bloody struggle against ISIS. Optimism among Iraq observers is warranted today but it needs to be very cautious. A similar moment developed in 2009, when numerous articles argued that Iraqi politics had “come of age” after six years of foreign occupation and state-building. At that time, the Anbar Awakening had scored major successes against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Maliki had struck both AQI and the Mahdi Army and was positioning himself as a nationalist figure, the politics of sect were in retreat, and democratic incentives were beginning to reshape Iraqi political discourse. There was justification then, as there is now, for optimism – particularly given that, today, improvements within Iraq are being matched by a more benign regional outlook towards the country. However, 2009 should also serve as a cautionary tale against complacency: The challenges today are arguably greater than those that faced Iraq back in 2009 and the state’s resources are not what they once were. Although there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the country’s future, Iraq has a long and very precarious road ahead of it.

***

FANAR HADDAD is a Senior 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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