Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sectarianism in Iraq: a Review

The following review of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity by Fanar Haddad, published by Columbia University Press, will appear in the winter 2012 issue of The Middle East Journal (vol. 66, no. 1).

Iraqi officials often deny the existence of sectarianism in Iraq. Conversely, Western analysts often view Iraq as an artificial nation comprised of an amalgam of mutually conflictual ethnoconfessional groups. A binary that presents Iraq as either devoid of or consumed by sectarian identities is obviously conceptually flawed. In Sectarianism in Iraq, Fanar Haddad seeks to expand our understanding of this difficult and complex topic.

Drawing upon symbolic anthropology, cultural analysis and post-modernism, the author develops a sophisticated analytic framework that emphasizes the impact of the post-Gulf War Uprising (Intifada) of 1991, the 2003 American invasion, and what the author terms the “civil war” that developed in the wake of the invasion to frame his study.

Sectarianism in Iraq is particularly insightful when examining the changing nature of social and political identities. The negative legacy of Saddam Husayn’s political manipulation of ethnoconfessional identities, especially during the 1990s UN sanctions regime, was compounded after 2003 by a weak state that has consistently failed to exercise the leadership needed to promote social trust and national reconciliation.

The author deftly analyzes how Shi'i identities following 2003 have come to reflect the obverse of Sunni Arab identities prior to 2003. The once dominant Sunni Arab political community now expresses themes of marginalization and victimization similar to those formerly expressed by Shi'a.

Sectarianism in Iraq exhibits conceptual parallels with Kanan Makiya’s Republic of Fear. While offering a trenchant critique of Ba'thist rule, Makiya presented Saddam’s regime as so powerful as to create an aura of its invincibility. In the process, Makiya inadvertently provided Saddam’s regime with support since his analysis suggested that efforts to overthrow it were futile.

Likewise, Sectarianism in Iraq presents a picture of post-1991 (and especially post-2003) Iraq in which sectarian identities have paralyzed state and society. The volume leaves the reader with the feeling that Iraq suffers from a social disease that can never be cured.

In presenting a partial analysis, the author proffers a theory that is conceptually monochromatic, half of the dialectic as it were. On the one hand, he is extremely thorough in demonstrating state discrimination against the Shi'a since the modern state’s founding in 1921. However, the study says virtually nothing about the powerful nationalist movement that emerged after WW I which fought to promote a national sense of Iraqi identity and to unite Iraqis of all ethnic and confessional origins.

The historical memory of that movement still lives. As the author himself notes, a Rwandan style genocide could never occur in Iraq (p. 54). Yet he never explains what factors lead some Iraqi to construct what he aptly terms a “myth-symbol complex” based in sectarianism as opposed to one that is grounded in a sense of national Iraqi identity.

Consequently, Sectarianism in Iraq cannot explain why Iraqis celebrated en masse Iraq’s unexpected victory in the 2007 Asia Cup, or why Iraqi Shi'a and Sunnis (and even Arabs and Kurds) still intermarry. It offers little insight into why public opinion polls consistently show that Iraqis view unemployment and lack of social services as far more important problems than sectarianism. It cannot tell us why Rashid al-Khayyun’s Against Sectarianism (Didd al-Ta’ifiya) was one of the most popular books at this past summer’s Baghdad Book Fair.

The author cannot expalin why so many Iraqis still keep a photograph of Gen. Abd al-Karim Qasim in their home or work. Qasim, the only modern Iraqi leader to rule in a non-sectarian manner (1959-1963), is still beloved for his commitment to social justice for all Iraqis, regardless of ethnoconfessional background. Clearly, the Qasim's continued valorization provides insight on what Iraqis desire in a ruler today.

Nor does the author analyze the role of cross-cutting cleavages - based in social class, education, gender, generation, or ideology - in creating conflict within ethnoconfessional groups. For example, the mercantile middle classes, that form the social base for Nuri al-Maliki’s Da'wa Party/State of Law Coalition, fear their fellow Shi'a in the populist Sadrist Movement, which is rooted in the urban and rural poor, much more than any Sunni Arab political movement.

Despite being viewed as anti-Shi'i, the Ba'th Party’s first two leadership cadres were dominated by Shi'a, under Fu’ad al-Rikabi in the 1950s and Ali Salih al-Sa'di (a Fayli Kurd) in the 1960s. If sectarian identities were as pronounced as the author implies, it is difficult to explain why 50% of Saddam’s praetorian guard, the Fadayeen Saddam, were Shi'a.

What Sectarianism in Iraq fails to adequately clarify is the distinction between secular and religious Shi'a, as well as between middle and upper class and poor Shi'a . The author demonstrates that hostility to the Shi'a - under Ba'th Party rule and prior regimes - was based in the fear that the Najafi Hawza represented a “fifth column” intent on promoting Iranian influence in Iraq, especially after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Historically, regime discrimination against the Shi'a seems to have been more directed against the clerical class than educated secular Shi'a, many of whom were Ba'th Party members.

This study fails to focus on the contestation between Iraqis who view sectarianism as socially destructive (evident in my research with Iraqi youth, in the activities of many civil society organizations, and in the arts, such as the film, Baghdad High), and sectarian entrepreneurs (elites) who promote sectarian identities to advance narrowly defined political and economic agendas. As such, it tells us little about the possibilities for change, whether leading towards national reconciliation or towards further social and political decay.

By ignoring the inner dynamics of Iraq’s main ethnoconfessional groups, we cannot understand how cross-ethnic political coalitions might develop in the future, such as the al-Iraqiya Coalition that won the March 2010 parliamentary elections with support from secular Sunni Arabs, Shiites and even a significant number of Kurds.

Finally, a more appropriate title for this study would be Sectarianism in Arab Iraq. While 20% of the population, the Kurds (and minority groups) are given no voice in this volume. As is well known, Saddam’s genocidal “Anfal” campaign against the Kurds (not mentioned at all) was couched in a sectarian discourse.

Fanar Haddad has tackled one of the most difficult aspects of Iraqi politics and society, providing numerous insights and a rich empirical data base. What this study underscores is both the complexity of the question of sectarian identities in Iraq and how much research is still needed on this critical topic.