Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sectarian Identities and the Arab Spring

Will sectarian identities derail the Arab Spring? Many observers fear that, were Bashar al-Asad to fall from power in Syria, the outcome would not be a transition to democracy but an outbreak of confessionally based violence, pitting the country's constituent religious groups against one another. The continued clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt likewise has led to fears that Mubarak's removal may represent a pyrrhic victory if religious based violence spreads. In Tunisia, threats against women by radical Islamists for not wearing "appropriate" Islamic dress has raised the specter of intervention by the army if these forces appear to be gaining too much power.

The problem of sectarianism continues to raise its ugly head in Iraq as well. Ethnically based violence persists, albeit at much lower levels than during the height of such strife between 2004 and 2007. The efforts of the Baghdad city council to ban alcohol earlier this year was seen as the beginning salvo in an effort to place constraints on, if not eventually close, Baghdad's famed social clubs and artist ateliers which are known not only for serving alcohol but for their avowedly secular cultural and political orientation and as venues where Iraqis from all ethnic and religious groups gather.

In an effort to better understand sectarianism in Iraq, I organized a special issue of the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies. The topic of the special issue is "the question of sectarian identities in Iraq." In addition to editing the issue and writing a theoretical introduction, I asked nine top scholars on Iraq to contribute to the issue.

The contributors include Adeed Dawisha, Peter Sluglett,Abbas Kadhim, Reider Visser, Orit Bashkin, Dina Khoury, Tareq and Jacqueline Ismael, and Bassam Yousif. The topics range from British efforts to manipulate sectarian tensions for purposes of colonial control, the impact of 1920 Revolution on sectarian identities, the position of Iraq's Jewish community in relation to sectarianism, Shi'a attitudes towards creation of a separate confessionally base state, the impact of the Iran-Iraq and Gulf wars on sectarian identities, the impact of expatriate politicians who returned to Iraq in the wake of the 2003 US invasion on sectarian identities, and the political economy of post-2003 sectarian identities in Iraq.

These historically and contemporary based essays emphasize that the dynamics of sectarian identities in Iraq are very complex. Nevertheless, the essays convincingly demonstrate that sectarian identities are a function of crises and the manipulation of these crises by political elites who seek to promote their narrow political and economic interests. Such elites have been historically referred to by Iraqis as the "merchants of politics" (tujjar al-siyasa). I prefer to call them "sectarian entrepreneurs."

At the same time, the journal essays underscore that sectarian identities cannot be seem as simply "socially and politically constructed." In Iraq, as in any nation-state, there are many histories, some of them tolerant and some of them politically divisive.

The Shi'a and Kurds, as well as other ethnoconfessional groups, have experienced social and political marginalization if not violence during the course of Iraqi history. That historical memory is always available in times of crisis for sectarian entrepreneurs to exploit needs to be recognized. While sectarian identities are rarely if ever "primordial" - so-called "ancient hatreds" - there is always a broad tableau of historical events that can be mobilized if the political and socioeconomic conditions are right.

What those who analyze sectarian identities often forget is the obverse, namely that ethnic groups can cooperate to achieve impressive political results. Indeed, the research by James Fearon and David Laitin shows that in ethnically divers societies, cooperation not conflict is the norm. The Iraqi nationalist movement, that began in the late 19th century but came into its own after the 1920 Revolution until it was viciously suppressed by the first Ba'thist regime that seized power in February 1963, was characterized by cross-ethnic cooperation. As I document in my Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq, all of Iraq's ethnic groups - Sunni and Shi'i Muslims, Kurds, Christians, Jews, Turkmen and other ethnic groups participated in the nationalist struggle.

If we look at Egypt, we see that it too developed a nationalist movement that, like Iraq, included Muslims, Christians and Jews. Tolerance and cross-ethnic cooperation have been the rule in Iraq's modern history. Only during the UN sanctions of the 1990s did sectarian identities begin to spread in Iraq and only during the immediate post-2003 period did Iraq experience persistent sectarian violence.

And we need to remember that, in Iraq, ethnically based violence was facilitated by the ill-advised US decision to dissolve the conscript army and the national police in May 2003. If that decision had not been taken, it is highly unlikely that the Ba'thist and al-Qa'ida sponsored insurgencies would have gotten off the ground.

In a future posting, I will report on my findings with focus groups of Iraq youth between the ages between 14 and 30. The positive findings are that these youth are not supportive of sectarianism. Young people realize that sectarianism threatens their future. They know that. all too often, they are the ones who suffer from ethnically based violence.

To purchase the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studiesspecial issue on sectarian identities in Iraq go to:

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