|Finance Minister, Rafi al-Issawi, joining fellow Sunni demonstrators|
Guest contributor and Iraqi scholar, Dr. Harith Qarawee, is author of Imagining the Nation: Nationalism, Sectarianism and Socio-Political Conflict in Iraq
Until recently, few Iraqis identified themselves in sectarian terms. This was particularly true of the Arab Sunni population. Even though sectarianism has always been a powerful force in Iraqi society and politics, it has never been as explicit and public as it is today. Sectarian identities and discourses are used by political entrepreneurs to achieve political goals. Although cultural symbolism and collective narratives are functional in this process, the real objectives are mainly political and largely instrumental.
The Process of Sunnification
The so-called “Sunni” rule of Iraq before 2003 was not Sunni in the sense that the ruling elite’s ideology was based on a form of Sunni versus Shi’i solidarity.
This simplistic view of Iraqi society led some to create a narrative of Iraqi history as one of permanent “sectarian” conflict. In fact, the national ideology that ruled Iraq was based on the centrality of ‘Pan-Arabism’, which legitimated or justified an exclusionary power structure in which people from Arab Sunni areas, the majority of whom were not religious, had controlled its core.
“Sectarian” exclusion was coincidental to a system built on networks of clientalism whose criteria of loyalty were derived from kinship and tribal-regional links. As those who belong to Arab Sunni tribal-regional congregations were give preferential treatment by the state, the consequence was that the subsequent former regimes were seen as Sunni ones.
Although the Ba’th Party’s ideology was more Sunni than Shi’a, it was originally articulated to emphasize a cross-sectarian and cross-religious Arab unity. This is proven by the fact that millions of Shi’a were members of Ba’th party (whose Iraqi branch was founded and initially led by Fu’ad al-Rikabi, a Shi’i from the southern city of al-Nasiriya).
Iraq’s Arab Sunni community has been subject to strong dynamics of “Sunnification.” This process has resulted from a deep sense of alienation in post-Saddam Iraq and has also been inspired by the uprising in neighboring Syria. Sunni leaders and protesters appear to be less reserved today when they speak about their sectarian community.
Sectarian symbolism is present in the ongoing protests in Anbar, Mosul, and other Arab Sunni cities. Flags of the “Sunni” free Syrian army, mottos attacking the Iranian “occupation” of Iraq, and slogans denouncing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, imply that Iraqi Sunni protesters share with their Sunni Syrian counterparts a “common cause” in the struggle against two “Shi’i” pro-Iranian governments.
Certainly, there are some similarities with what transpired after 2003 when clerics of the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), led by Shaykh Harith al-Dhari, played the role of the defender of the Arab Sunni community. However, there are also significant differences between the two situations.
In contrast to the current dynamic, the AMS was not an outcome of a large-scale and public socio-political mobilization. Its main concern was to oppose and de-legitimize foreign occupation of Iraq by the United States. Today, that foreign occupation is over and many Iraqi Sunnis seem to think that the United States should play a role in exerting pressure on the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad.
In a letter addressed to President Obama, an increasingly popular cleric, ‘Abd al-Malik al-Sa’di, claimed that the United States has a moral obligation to save the country and to “reform what was corrupted by the wrong decision of invading Iraq in 2003”.
Some Sunni politicians have started to speak publicly about Baghdad as a Sunni city, and some protesters have tried to symbolize that through calls to “march on Baghdad”. Speaker of Parliament, Usama al-Nujayfi, told al-Jazeera television in an interview that the Sunni population constitutes the majority in Iraq, denying the Shi’a’s “claims” to be the majority.
Sunni politicians who are perceived to be less committed to the “communal cause,” such as Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlaq, face rejection and accusations of treason. Last December, he was turned away by protesters in Falluja when he was tried to join them.
Mutlaq has been a fierce critic of Maliki, but his non-sectarian approach and recent efforts at compromise did not help him make inroads among the young, angry demonstrators who feel no sympathy with politicians who have one foot in the government and the other one in the opposition.
Like most youth movements, there is a tendency for a sort of puritanism that the current political class fails to provide. In this context, the kind of speakers or leaders who are more likely to become popular are those whose representation of communal feelings has not been contaminated by the daily politics of one of the most corrupt political classes in the world. But with puritanism often comes “radicalization.”
More Arab or More Sunni
This mobilization process is a show of strength that is building a Sunni political agenda and a new communal discourse. Electorally, it can help producing a stronger leadership with broader communal legitimacy that could claim better position in any future negotiation with Shi’a and Kurdish leaders.
When the new Iraqi constitution was written in 2004 and 2005, Sunni areas were isolated by the uprising and Sunni representatives in the constitutional committee lacked a real constituency. Consequently, the new political system was mainly a product of the Shi’a-Kurdish alliance at the time.
Many Sunni leaders seem to have accepted sectarian categorization and have even called for including sectarian identity in any future census, as did Nujayfi. Those who argue that there is a Sunni majority in Iraq tend to include Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen in their calculation, but ethnic differences might prove to be more powerful than any confessionally-based solidarity.
Both the Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and the President of Kurdistan Region Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani, sought to take advantage of the absence of a united and powerful Arab Sunni leadership in order to promote their political agendas. When the Shi’a-Kurdish alliance began to disintegrate as a result of the tension between Maliki’s tendency to consolidate power and Barzani’s tendency to emphasize the independence of his semi-autonomous region, Sunni Arabs became a target for their competition.
Maliki formed a new regional military command in the ethnically-mixed disputed areas along the “Green Line,” which separates Kurdish and Arab areas. He based his appeal to the Sunni Arab population living in those areas as an Arab leader who was willing to stop Kurdish encroachment on Arab land.
For his part, Barzani expressed his support for the “legitimate” demands by Sunni leaders and protesters, and on several occasions stressed that Kurds and Sunni Arab share a common cause against the increasing authoritarianism of the Prime Minister. While Maliki was trying to revive Arab solidarity under his leadership, regional Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar were urging the Kurds (who are predominantly Sunni Muslim), and the Sunni Arabs to join forces against the Shi’a-dominated government.
In fact, Sunni Arabs in Iraq were exposed to two conflicting forces that sought to separate their “Arabism” from their “Sunnism.” However, the current dynamic appears to affirm their “distinctiveness” from the co-ethnic Shi’as and co-sectarian Kurds.
Anti-Maliki slogans have escalated to a point where it is highly unlikely that he will win over any serious portion of the Sunni constituency. In fact, “anti-Malikism” has become a significant element in shaping current Sunni Arab discourse.
At the same time, the continuing dispute over land and the legacy of mutual suspicions will make any potential alliance with the Kurds a tactical one (as was the case with the Shi’a-Kurdish alliance which was undermined despite the absence of any legacy of hostility). There is a simple fact about identity politics in Iraq and, perhaps, elsewhere: they are basically instruments used by political actors as they engage in the more fundamental conflict over power, status, and economic resources.
Sectarian mobilization is used by Sunni political, religious and tribal leaders to revive their support base and prevent Maliki from making inroads among their constituencies. Similarly, Maliki is his confrontation with the Sunnis and Kurds has attempted to appear as a strong Shi’i leader who is defending Shi’a community and the ‘rule of majority’ which is targeted by regional Sunni powers and their ‘local’ proxies. With the deepening sectarian divide, the previously rejected idea of turning Iraq into a confederation of three ethno-sectarian groups seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, the future scenario might prove to be gloomier if the confrontation turns into a new civil war.
However, exploiting ethnic and sectarian identities by political entrepreneurs is a way to manage the conflict over power and resources. To a large extent, this conflict in Iraq is taking place between centripetal and centrifugal forces. On the discursive level, the conflict is manifested through the clash between Maliki’s emphasis on state-building and rule of law and his opponents’ complaints about authoritarian and exclusionary policies. In fact, this reflects a substantial dilemma Iraq has always faced: how to consolidate state’s power without excluding disloyal social forces?.
Maliki’s actions appear to be confusing the state’s authority with government’s power, and governmental structure with his own personal authority. His project of state-building is one based on maximizing his authority and monopolizing “legitimate” violence without creating the proper conditions to legitimize his authority. However, state-building is also about creating effective frameworks that persuasively organize state-society relationship and promote the necessary sense of political inclusion.
The political process in Iraq has been constructed on a conceptually confusing formula. While the constitution mentions concepts like the “Iraqi Nation” and “Iraqi people,” there has been an increasing emphasis on seeing Iraqi society as one composed of ethnic, religious and sectarian components. This process has created greater confusion about where this political process is supposed to lead: more political and social integration or more disintegration. In practice, the overarching political process seems to have lacked a clear vision, consequently paving the way for the current conflict.
The Sunni Arab leaders were historically in favor of the central rule when the government was controlled by them. Even after 2003, the ideas of decentralization and federalism were not appealing to them because of the then undisputed influence of the skeptical attitude which viewed as illegitimate the political process generated by the invasion.
Today, this attitude seems to be changing. Maliki and his Shi’i allies have strengthened their control over central government’s bodies. They led a massive process of sectarian replacement inside those bodies, through de-Ba’thification and clientalism, leaving Sunni Arabs with a feeling of being excluded and targeted. There is no way to know if state’s jobs are proportionally distributed between the two communities, but the Sunni feeling of alienation is unquestionable.
It is these feelings of marginalization and alienation that have made it easier for the current mobilization to begin, intensified, of course, by the Arab spring. The comparison with Syria is inescapable as both the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad and the protesters in the Sunni Arab heartland look to Syria as an extension of their own conflict.
But this analogy can lead to miscalculations and illusions about the intentions and capabilities of the contending parties. The two conflicts are interconnected but they are not identical. The Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar al-Asad is facing a Sunni-dominated uprising in a country where Sunni Arabs constitute the demographic majority (approximately 70%).
This is not the case with Sunni Arabs in Iraq who constitute an estimated 15 to 20% of the population. A violent confrontation between Sunni groups and the Iraqi government would be very destructive, and only lead to more sectarianism and, probably, de facto partition of the country.
To avoid that scenario, the Iraqi government needs to give moderate forces more incentives to face radicalization. This might not be a policy that Maliki would to pursue if he perceives that posturing as the “Strong Shi’i” is the only way in which to appeal to his electoral constituency.
Nevertheless, as a rational leader, Maliki realizes that avoiding civil war must be a priority. If mainstream Sunni leaders and popular clerics manage to find a formula that can mobilize moderate elements while simultaneously isolating radicals, there will be better opportunity to negotiate a new pact between center and periphery after the next general election in 2014.
What Iraq needs is a clear vision and a formula that would solve the conceptual confusion about the relationship between the nation-state’s identity and those of its sub-national communities. As much as the increasing sectarianism has jeopardized the very existence of this national community, it might present the last opportunity to re-think the basis on which Iraqi state should be constructed.