Monday, June 10, 2013

The Changing Face Of Sectarianism In Iraq, An Interview With Research Fellow At National Univ of Singapore Fanar Haddad

Sectarianism is a constant point of discussion when talking about Iraq. Many in the west interpret everything that happens in the country in sectarian terms. Iraqis in general do not like identity politics, yet fall back on it again and again. Fanar Haddad is a research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore. In his book Sectarianism In Iraq, Antagonistic Visions of Unity, and in various articles he has attempted to break down the origins and changing nature of sect and politics in Iraq. It is his theory that sectarianism is not a constant in the country, but rather an ever changing set of symbols and interpretations that ebb and flow given the sociopolitical situation. What follows is an interview with Haddad about his general concepts, and how they apply to post-Saddam Iraq.

1. You’ve said that there are two general ways that people view sectarianism in Iraq. One you called alarmist, and the other reductionist. Can you explain the difference between the two?

The prevalence of these polarized positions might actually be the reason I started researching sectarian identity in the first place! I was frustrated by the fact that discourse on the subject of ‘sectarianism’ in Iraq, with few exceptions, tends to adopt one of these two equally simplistic and frankly preposterous approaches. As the labels suggest, ‘alarmists’ will inflate the relevance of sectarian identity in all things Iraqi as if ‘sectarianism’ is the driving force of Iraqi history and Arab Iraqis are little more than Sunni and Shi’a automatons fueled by the power of sectarian passions! On the other hand, what I have labeled ‘reductionists’ do the exact opposite: sectarian identity is denied any relevance in Iraqi society, history or politics. Indeed according to this view ‘sectarianism’, if acknowledged at all, is often presented as a completely extraneous phenomenon; an alien virus introduced into the Iraqi body politic circa 2003.

Both approaches have their all too familiar templates, arguments and selective readings of Iraqi history with which to embellish their arguments. Both employ a snapshot vision of history to present a slideshow implying Iraqis are either forever at each other’s throats or perpetually in each other’s embrace! The very fact that Iraqi history contains enough examples of harmony and discord to sustain an alarmist-reductionist debate, tedious though it might be, into the early hours highlights the crucial point missed by both camps: that communal identity – any communal identity – is not fixed; not in its meaning, social relevance, political salience or content.

What we often see is an observer reflecting on today’s near-pathological sectarian entrenchment and holding that as ‘the real’ of Iraqi identity that is then projected onto his/her reading of Iraqi history. Conversely there are those who see orientalist stereotypes, Islamophobia and simplistic reductions at the mere mention of sectarian identity. Here, credence is given to an older generation’s reminiscences about the irrelevance of sectarian identity back in their day; that is then held as ‘the real’ of Iraqi identity hence, according to this view, what is being witnessed today has to be the work of something nefarious and invariably alien – a conspiracy, the occupation and American manipulation, Iran, Safavids, Wahhabis, politicians with external agendas and so forth.

For the researcher working on sectarian identity, both camps pose a problem: alarmists will selectively read your work and latch onto what they will regard as validation of their view whilst reductionists, being allergic to the mere mention of sectarian identities, will presume that the very fact that you are researching sectarian identity means that you are in effect what I have labeled an alarmist. The latter problem is a very common one both in and out of academia: in the name of Iraqi nationalism, solidarity with the Iraqi people or fighting the good fight against orientalist and neo-imperialist stereotypes the researcher examining sectarian relations is often guilty until proven innocent!  

2. Rather than seeing identity politics in Iraq as being a constant, you’ve written that it is always in transition. In general terms, can you briefly explain how sectarianism has changed in Iraq from just before the U.S. invasion to the present?

I have argued that the sanctions-era (1990-2003) is crucial to understanding the beginnings of sectarian entrenchment in post-2003 Iraq. Few things are quite as ahistorical as holding 2003 as the divider between a sectarian and a non-sectarian Iraq. That is not to say that identity politics were inevitable or that sectarian entrenchment was unavoidable in 2003; rather, due to the realities of the sanctions-era, these were always likely outcomes of regime change. It would have taken considerable will, vision and statesmanship to curb the slide towards sectarian entrenchment; unfortunately for Iraq these were sorely lacking amongst both the Coalition authorities and the newly empowered Iraqi elites.

Like any mass group identity that is perceived as ‘primordial’, meaning ones that are large scale, intergenerational, hereditary, and often perceived as being in a sense immortal, sectarian identity will always have the potential to be utilized, inflamed, and politicized. It is not that people are inescapably driven by this or that identity nor is it that such identities are completely incidental to people’s perceptions of self; rather, such identities have the potential to shift from being latent, largely irrelevant, tucked away in the background to something more immediate in people’s perceptions of themselves, others and the world. These ‘immortal’ group identities, race, religion, sect, ethnicity and so forth have such immense emotive power that they can shift from irrelevance to inflamed centrality and politicization over very short periods of time.  

To illustrate, even in London where many think that we have permanently transcended these ‘primordial’ identities, the gruesome murder of a soldier on the streets of London saw an almost immediate invigoration of English/white identity in some quarters. To be sure, this was a very limited phenomenon. and far right groups like the English Defense League and others who thrive on identity entrenchment in the UK remain marginal; but imagine how relevant they would be if we had ten years’ worth of such identity-coded attacks as Iraq has had?

In Iraq, sectarian identity has been an issue since state establishment in 1921. To be sure it is an issue of varying relevance over time and between different people, but it is an issue nonetheless that has been accumulating symbolic baggage since 1921. Nevertheless what happened in 2003 was unprecedented. For one thing, you had the empowerment of Shi’a, in itself a problem in the Arab world. The fact that this triggers such wild fears and vehement rejection amongst Sunni Arabs not just in Iraq is part of a deeper problem relating to failed nation-building and, perhaps consequently, the inability to accept the organized expressions of outgroup identities much less their political mobilization. In 2003 Iraqis and the wider Arab world were forced to confront the realities of sectarian plurality and had to seriously think, as never before, about sectarian relations.

An absolutely vital point to note is that whilst the empowerment of Shi’as, even in the best of circumstances, is a tough sell in the Arab world, 2003 made this empowerment all the more controversial and all the more likely to activate and politicize sectarian identities, because it marked the empowerment not just of Shi’as but of Shi’as who defined themselves as such, and whose Shi’a identity was central in their political makeup and their public personas. To such people sectarian identity, far from being incidental, is central to their view of self and other. Their empowerment in 2003 ensured that identity politics would thrive, and hardened the rejection of the post-2003 order by many Sunnis in Iraq and beyond. The point here is that a politician who happens to be Shi’a may face some unfair skepticism from Sunni quarters, but this is not a bar to him/her eventually gaining a Sunni constituency as the case of Ayad Allawi clearly demonstrates. However, Sunnis are very unlikely to ever truly accept a Shi’a politician whose Shi’a identity is on display. To illustrate with an American parallel, a white voter might vote for Barack Obama, a politician who happens to be black, but would be most unlikely to vote for someone like, say, Louis Farrakhan, a black nationalist! 

Whilst sectarian identity in Iraq has always been an issue of fluctuating importance, 2003 was unprecedented in that ethnosectarian identities were codified into the political system. Far from being just a tool of neo-imperialist divide-and-rule tactics this was a reflection of the proclivities of many of the newly empowered political elites, and also some significant sections of Iraqi society. There is no denying that vast swaths of Shi’a Iraqis regarded 2003 as their moment to right historical wrongs as seen by them as a communal group. The basic building bloc of this approach holds an ethno-sectarian majority as a de facto political majority. In such a view, and regardless of intentions, how else were post-2003 Iraqi politics to develop other than along identity lines? Furthermore, since righting historical wrongs took the form of recognizing sectional communal victimhood, how were Sunni Arabs to compete in such a system when they had no such notion regarding themselves? With hindsight none of this seems particularly odd given the orientation of many of Iraq’s former exiles who, throughout their considerable careers in opposition, acted more like communal advocacy groups rather than national movements.

The fact that all of this was happening in an atmosphere of acute lawlessness, political drift, occupation, horrendous violence, an intense lack of internal and external sovereignty, and concomitantly intense external interference exacerbated what would perhaps otherwise have been manageable issues.

So the short, and rather obvious answer to your question is that 2003 accorded sectarian identity, which was by no means irrelevant prior to 2003, and sectarian relations, which were by no means completely tension-free prior to 2003 an entirely unprecedented social and political relevance to the point of reifying sectarian identities in politics and society. A more interesting side note would be to consider the extent to which 2003 had similar effects upon the rest of the Mashreq, but that is an even more complicated story.

3. Another part of your argument is that sectarianism is both related to the idea of the nation state, and a threat to it. Can you explain this ironic relationship?

What I was trying to say here was that modern sectarian identities in Iraq and elsewhere are framed through the prism of the nation-state. In many ways they are products of the nation state largely divorced from what sectarian identity was in previous centuries. However, even whilst being a product of the nation-state they obviously carry the potential of undermining national cohesion should they become salient enough.

In my answer to your previous question my point of departure was 1921 rather than say the battle of Karbala, why? 1400 years of Islamic history may provide the symbolic foundations, the backdrop, of sectarian identity, and it certainly furnishes the details of sectarian doctrine, but it seems rather secondary to sectarian dynamics in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East today. It is crucial to distinguish between sectarian identities before and after the advent of the nation-state. With the nation-state comes rights, feelings of entitlement, a sense of political ownership, national identity, and so forth. These concepts alter how a community views itself, and change the framing of communal competition. In addition to competing for ownership of doctrinal/religious truths, you now have the more immediate, tangible and consequential competition over national truths as well. To illustrate, when ‘sectarian violence’ flares up in Iraq how much of the violence is about sectarian doctrine? Even when sectarian doctrine or more commonly sectarian readings of Islamic history is invoked, it is usually done to in essence conscript an emotive figure/event from history in order for it/him/her to be projected onto the present; to dress a national issue in religious garbs: for example, Maliki becomes Al Mukhtar, Wahhabis become Bani Ummayah, Shi’as become Ibn al Alqami, and so forth. However, in essence, what is ultimately being fought over is the nation-state rather than the faith. More often than not, the intricacies of faith and theology are about as relevant in Iraqi sectarian dynamics as ‘Christianity’ is in the rhetoric of European far-right groups. It is religion-as-identity rather than religion-as-faith that is being mobilized, and it is done so with reference to and in the name of the nation-state.

I should say that doctrinal sectarians undoubtedly exist however in Iraq these have been mercifully marginal. To illustrate, anti-Shi’a rhetoric in Iraq has traditionally revolved around ethnic and national issues namely accusing Shi’as of being Iranian or at least pro-Iranian, and questioning their Arab pedigree and loyalty to Iraq. Compare that to sectarian dynamics in say Saudi Arabia where doctrine/Islamic history has always been central to anti-Shi’a polemics. This is why I have always felt that there are few things more damaging to sectarian relations than sectarian doctrine. I would argue that sectarian competition is far more manageable when it is framed through the prism of the nation-state rather than the prism of religious dogma. Unfortunately, the latter has been gaining relevance in Iraq and elsewhere over the past 10 years. Indeed, sectarian dynamics in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere do seem to be changing in a way that is fostering the politicization not just of sectarian identity, but of sectarian doctrine as well. It just might be the case that the unprecedented regionalization of sectarian relations that has been caused by Iraq, new media, the cumulative effects of decades of sectarian propaganda, and the fact that the entire sociopolitical order(s) of the Middle East seem to be in flux today will transform sectarian identities into something that is no longer as wedded to and contained by the nation-state as has previously been the case.

4. Part of identity politics in Iraq is based upon the belief in victimhood, which then gets translated into a perceived right to compensation and power. Generally, how do Shiites see themselves in these terms?

Victimhood is central to Shi’as’ self-perception of themselves as a group. Much the same as other out-groups across the world, Shi’ism tends to see itself as history’s righteous martyr. This view is rooted in both fact and fiction relating to Islamic as well as modern national histories. A central plank of Iraqi Shi’as’ victimhood complex is that of the oppressed majority or the majority that was denied power or even access to power for 82 years of Iraqi statehood. This Iraqi Shi’a victimhood is given an almost sacred aura through its projection as a continuation of the trials and tribulations of the House of the Prophet and the Shi’as throughout Islamic history. As already mentioned, this allows for current issues relating to national dynamics to be projected as continuations or at least parallels of conflicts from Islamic history.

These notions remain potent today despite the empowerment of Shi’a political forces. Given that this empowerment, the righting of a major historical wrong in the eyes of many Iraqi Shi’as has aroused such a violent rejection from within Iraq and beyond, the Shi’as’ victimhood complex, far from being assuaged by 2003, was nourished by it due to the resulting feeling of encirclement felt by Iraqi Shi’as on a national and regional level.

What makes this problematic is that with feelings of victimhood come feelings of entitlement; as such, communal victimhood attains political value. In Iraq this has been highly divisive because a communal, sectional victimhood has been given a national platform. Yet by definition, a communal sub-national victimhood cannot act as a myth of nationhood in contexts of significant communal plurality, because it excludes so many and, in the case of Iraq, it implicates and vilifies others. Victimhood has the potential to unite a group and foster feelings of group-loyalty, which is why a national victimhood alongside a national enemy is conducive to national cohesion, Israel being the example par excellence here. Unfortunately for Iraq, and despite the immense suffering that all Iraqis have undergone for decades, the realization of this potential is more distant today than ever.

5. Sunnis on the other hand, were in power pre-2003, and therefore lacked that type of identification. How have they started to adapt to the new politics?

Remarkably well in my opinion! In 2003 Iraqi Sunnis were forced to consider themselves as Iraqi Arab Sunnis and, for the first time ever, had to form a coherent sectarian identity. Essentially they have had to play catch-up with their Shi’a compatriots in identity formation, and in the formation of group-specific myths, symbols, and narratives. Ten years on, there is a far more coherent sense of Sunni identity in Iraq. This of course does not equate to Sunni unity anymore than a well-developed Shi’a identity equates to Shi’a unity; it simply means that more and more Sunni Arabs see themselves as such today and frame their perceptions of self and other through a previously non-existent Sunni Arab perspective. As such, whatever coyness existed with regards to sectarian labels amongst Sunnis seems to have largely evaporated. Today, and for some time now, Sunnis are willing to openly campaign as Sunnis for Sunni issues.

I am most interested in how Sunni symbolism is developing, and I deal with this subject at length in a forthcoming chapter in Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf. Being a product of the post-2003 environment, Iraqi Sunni identity revolves around the past 10 years both in content, and in symbolic representation. It has been quite remarkable to witness the birth of a group identity; surely a rare phenomenon in history and one that usually takes far longer than ten years! For example, over the last decade, and especially since the civil war we have seen the birth of Sunni symbols, Sunni organizations, and even the beginnings of a Sunni lexicon. I remember interviewing someone from the Sunni waqf who interrupted me when I mentioned Sunni victimhood (madhlumiyah al Sinniyah): “We have no victimhood, that’s Shi’a talk! What we have is exclusion and marginalisation [iqsa’a wa tahmeesh].”
"Mohammed is our example" pin that highlights the growing use of Sunni symbolism in Iraq (Fanar Haddad)
Sunni flags flying over border of Mansour district in Baghdad (Fanar Haddad)
The past ten years have also seen the birth of new forms through which Sunni identity is asserted. One of the most notable examples of this can be found in the remarkable transformation of the mawlid celebrations, the celebration of the birth of the prophet. Whilst it has always been an event associated with Sunnis it was never about Sunni identity per se since none existed in any meaningful sense prior to 2003. To illustrate, the mawlid today sees larger attendances than ever, and is marked by a carnivalistic assertion of Sunni symbolism such as the Muhammad qudwatunna banners (Muhammad is our role model). In the past the mawlid did not have so pronounced an identity element as it does today for the simple reason that Sunni identity, such as it was back then, had no need for assertion, and hence did not have the symbolic tools such as Muhammad qudwatuna with which to express itself. The other prominent site of Sunni identity assertion is of course the ongoing protests, and watching the symbolism employed has been very interesting. Once again, none of this means unity: as is the case with Shi’ism or any other identity, the symbols are not universally subscribed to in equal measure, but there do seem to be generally recognised boundaries within which ‘our’ symbols are created, contested, and asserted.

A central facet of Sunni identity today is victimhood or what our friend from the waqf insists on calling exclusion and marginalisation: the new order is perceived to have come at their expense, and to be aimed against them. Like similar cases of group victimization from other contexts, Sunni victimhood in Iraq has morphed into a myth of unique victimhood based on reality, but inflated by perception. One of the interesting things that I have found is that Sunni victimhood is formed almost in imitation of and directly in competition with Shi’a victimhood. I have lost count of the number of times that Sunni interviewees, unprompted, would derisively mention the Shi’as’ pronounced victimhood complex, and dismiss it as nothing in comparison to what Sunnis have had to endure. This attitude stands to reason: in a state that is founded on the glorification of mythologies of ethnosectarian victimhoods competitive advantage is gained by inflating one’s own victimhood at the expense of the other’s. 

Another problem with such intense feelings of group victimization is that they tend to dominate perceptions. As such whilst discrimination undoubtedly exists, disadvantaged groups will blame identity-based discrimination for much that befalls them, and not always with good reason. With regards to Iraqi sectarian dynamics we clearly saw this previously amongst Shi’as just as we are seeing it today amongst Sunnis. An issue affecting all governorates, say poor services and delivery as a result of corruption will today be seen as an example of yet another political and administrative failure by Shi’as, but may be perceived as an example of sectarian discrimination by Sunnis thereby further validating Sunni victimhood.

6. Can you give some specific examples of this new Sunni identity in the on going protests in Anbar, Ninewa, and other provinces?

Yes, and in online activism as well. The protests are, amongst other things, a mobilization of Sunnis and Sunni identity. And yet again I must stress that this does not mean unity or uniformity. If anything, the protests have shown the diversity, contradiction even, within Sunni identity. This does not mean that Sunni identity is wanting or that the identity formation process is not yet complete. Diversity and contradiction are an inherent part of group identities, and there is no end to identity formation; rather it continuously evolves and accumulates symbolic baggage and new meanings. Identity is not any one thing; it is a spectrum within broadly defined and rather vague boundaries that mark out what is ‘us’. This spectrum has been on full display in the protests; indeed its strong assertion has created fissures amongst the protestors between federalists and centralists, militants and those who want to continue peacefully protesting, those who accord the system enough legitimacy to favor negotiation with Baghdad and those who do not and so forth. The symbolism that has been employed has been similarly varied. It is very interesting to see instances where symbols from pre-2003 Iraq are used alongside ones born in the last ten years, for example the old Iraqi flag and the glorification of the martyrs of Fallujah. Likewise some continue to use specifically Sunni symbols alongside sect-neutral Iraqi nationalist symbols. In short you have the symbolism of Sunni Iraqi nationalism mirroring in many ways that of Shi’a Iraqi nationalism.

7. Shiites on the other hand, have gone on to express their new feelings of freedom after Saddam throughout major cities like Baghdad. What are some examples of that, and how does it conflict with the idea of Iraqi nationalism?

The importance to many Shi’as of expressing Shi’a identity through Shi’a symbolism and ritual can scarcely be exaggerated. I have often wondered how the Ba’ath’s relationship with the Shi’a would have been had the former not foolishly targeted Shi’a ritual, symbolism, and religious figures. I would go as far as saying that for many Shi’as 2003 was a moment of deliverance, because it allowed for the expression of Shi’a identity, and the organization of Shi’a ritual as much as for its deliverance of political power to Shi’a political forces. The emotive power and the importance of long-censored ritual and symbolism to Shi’as was aptly illustrated in the Arba’een commemorations of 2003 that came just ten days after the fall of the Ba’ath. It is estimated that something in the region of 3 million pilgrims descended on Karbala that day. Needless to say, coming just 10 days after the fall of the Ba’ath such a mammoth assertion of Shi’a identity nurtured many fears and suspicions amongst Sunnis about what the post-2003 order entailed.

Shi’a political actors have dealt most immaturely with this issue. Firstly, I would say that Shi’as, like anyone else, have every right to celebrate their occasions, perform their rituals and display their symbols without having to justify it or to have their ethnicity/nationalist credentials questioned. Furthermore I would add that Sunni Arabs have to overcome their irrational fears of assertions of Shi’a identity, which in the Mashreq can be paraphrased as needing to get over the childish myths of unity and uniformity that seem to characterize their perception of what ‘we the people’ are! However, having said that, in the case of Iraq this perfectly legitimate desire to assert one’s identity has been abused and politicized and has exacerbated sectarian tensions by validating what may at one point have been irrational suspicions.
Poster of Mohammed Baqi al-Hakim of the Supreme Council and Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr in Baghdad. Since 2003 Shiites have not only displayed such signs in their homes, but in public places like this street, which gives the impression that Iraq is a Shiite country (Fanar Haddad)
The common charge of ‘they want to Shi’ify Iraq’ (tashyee’e al Iraq) may have been easily dismissed as the stuff of paranoid sectarian polemics in 2003; however today the charge carries more credence, albeit rarely to the full extent that is usually entailed by those making the charge! Shi’a iconography is prominently displayed across Baghdad today much to the chagrin of everyone else and to those Shi’as who do not really buy into the pageantry – and these do exist of course. Now some may argue that the majority of Baghdadis are Shi’as hence it stands to reason that you will see their symbolism in the city in much the same way that you are more likely to see Irish flags in Boston than in Houston. I partially agree with this view: again, people have the right to display whatever symbolism they like in their homes and businesses. The problem in Iraq is that these displays of sectarian symbolism are not confined to individuals or private property and businesses; they are asserted by and in organs of state and public spaces. Were I a Shi’a I should be allowed to hang a picture of say Ali ibn Abi Talib on my house and not have to answer to anyone; however it is a very different matter when pictures of Ali ibn Abi Talib are used as public monuments as is the case in Iraq today. Indeed, in Baghdad and elsewhere, the omnipresent murals of Saddam Hussein were simply painted over with pictures of Shi’a saints or religious figures. Shi’a identity or a Shi’a bias is also clearly discernible in state television and in politics. In short, and despite the rhetoric, Shi’a political actors have done little to foster the idea of a secular sect-neutral Iraq; on the contrary they seem intent on endowing Baghdad and Iraq with a sectarian identity. At the very least this serves to politicize Shi’a symbols, alienate non-Shi’as from the state, and raise sectarian tensions and resentments. 

8. Iraq’s ruling parties helped create sectarian politics in the country even before the 2003 invasion. How did they organize themselves in the 1990s, and how did they use identity politics after the fall of Saddam?

I think this accounts for much of what I mentioned in answer to your previous question. From the beginning of their careers most of today’s Shi’a political elites were Shi’a-rights advocates not national politicians; needless to say none of them had the Mandela-esque ability to switch from one to the other! When they entered national politics they brought their sectional advocacy, and sectional mentality with them into national politics. These sect-centric mentalities exist at street level so we cannot blame elites for ‘creating’ them, but we can certainly blame them for nurturing, inflaming, politicizing, and reifying them.

With hindsight it seems hardly surprising. Most of the opposition and throughout their careers operated as representatives of and advocates for communal groups. In many cases, cases I knew personally it was clear that their entire view of Iraq and Iraqi history was so dominated by communal identity. Incidentally, I am not making a value judgment here: advocating for a communal group is a legitimate endeavor, and it stands to reason that many would become obsessed by group identity if they believed that it was group identity that resulted in their persecution and exile. However, right or wrong, this did not translate well into national politics. The starkest example of course is the ethnosectarian apportionment so characteristic of and damaging to the new Iraq. Yes the Coalition must shoulder some responsibility for this abysmal policy; however, it was the brainchild of the Iraqi opposition, and can be dated back to the early 1990’s. One finds references to the supposedly healing qualities of ethnosectarian apportionment in the writings of the opposition from across the 1990’s and right up to 2003. What the opposition in exile neglected to ask is firstly how will this be done in the absence of a reliable census and secondly how can ethnosectarian apportionment be instituted without politicizing and reifying ethnosectarian identities and ultimately nourishing that which they were trying to fight, namely ‘sectarianism’?

Once in Iraq the former opposition in exile faced a serious problem in the form of a crushing legitimacy deficit: not only were they empowered by an invasion, they were unknown quantities in Iraq who, most importantly, failed to deliver. It has been said that this legitimacy deficit pushed Iraqi politicians to fall back on communal identities and to actively nurture sectarian entrenchment for political gains. I think there is much truth to that, however, in my opinion this strategy was based on a pre-existing political orientation that viewed Iraq in an ethno-centric or sect-centric, and hence necessarily exclusionist way.

9. Iraq just had provincial elections in April 2013, and parliamentary ones are due in 2014. How does campaigning for office affect the sectarian tone in the country?

Given the conditions of the new Iraq, from flawed constitution to poor governance to lawlessness to violence to communal mistrust and so much more, elections have been a disaster for sectarian relations. In fact if we look back, with the sole exception of the 2009 provincial elections, every single electoral round has been accompanied by sectarian entrenchment, and heightened tensions. As we saw in the elections of 2013, next year’s elections will likewise be accompanied by a rise in sectarian rhetoric and sectarian mobilization. The shape this takes is often to raise the banner of victimhoods past and present, and in that context take a harder stance be it against ‘Ba’athists’ or against today’s ‘marginalization and exclusion’. Some actors take a more direct approach: in the most recent elections a number of Shi’a clerics explicitly urged their followers to vote regardless of how flawed the system is because they were voting for a Shi’a state. Likewise, neither the ongoing protests nor the arrests that initially sparked them off were divorced from the most recent elections. The fear is always that political actors will eventually lose control of the entrenchment they foster in every election.
Competing sectarian identities in Iraq, a Sunni flag flying before a large mural of Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr and Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr a the Baghdad Railway Station (Fanar Haddad)

10. Finally, how do you see identity politics progressing in Iraq? Can you see a time when Sunnis and Shiites begin to find common symbols or events to rally around, or do you think the present situation will be the status quo for the near future?

My view on this is a rather pessimistic one. There may well be a time in the future when sectarian identities lose political relevance and people in Iraq and elsewhere elevate other unifying identities at the expense of their sectarian identities. Let us not forget that people with such a frame of self-perception exist today but they are unfortunately marginal to the political forces driving sectarian dynamics in Iraq and the region. Towards the end of my book I considered how Iraqis might reflect on the civil war in the future: in times of sectarian tension they may conjure the brutal memory of the civil war to show what ‘they’ have done to ‘us’ throughout history; conversely however, at times when sectarian identity loses relevance Iraqis may point to 2006-2007 (avoiding the civil war label) to show how outsiders, despite their most ardently malicious efforts, failed to divide us for here we are united under the Iraqi flag! In other words, context will dictate how Sunnis and Shi’as view themselves and each other and how they remember their past.

Unfortunately the context today, and for the foreseeable future does not bode well for sectarian relations. It sometimes feels like most of the past ten years were a test run for what has begun to unfold across the Mashreq as a result of the Syrian civil war. If recent reports are to be believed, then the Syrian conflict has become, amongst other things, a Sunni-Shi’a conflict despite the ironic fact that the Assads are neither Sunni nor Shi’a. The cumulative effects of the past ten years plus what is happening in Syria today have endowed sectarian identity with an ill-deserved political relevance of unprecedented proportions. Today there are indications that the parameters dictating sectarian relations as we have known them for decades are changing; the ‘rules’ of sectarian relations are being altered. Back in 2006, not that sectarian relations were rosy in that fateful year, even Saudi Arabia and its nauseating clerics had to backtrack from their sectarian rhetoric against Hezbollah when the latter was at war with Israel. Today sectarian division in the Middle East is no longer the elephant in the room that went largely unnoticed by previous generations: today it is openly embraced as a fact of life in a most aggressive and confrontational manner by an increasing number of people.

The entire Middle East is in the midst of an epochal change that will take many years to fully unfold, and that will undoubtedly alter social and political dynamics. The changes in how communal identities are viewed are very much a part of that process: the current volatility and violence of sectarian dynamics will perhaps be remembered in the future as the interim between two periods; between the now moribund societal framework that marked most of the 20th century on the one hand, and whatever emerges after the current period of upheaval on the other. I think it is now obvious that the political change in 2003, the revolutionary changes in media and information flows and the consequent weakening of more familiar forms of authoritarianism in the Middle East mean that there can be no going back to the old way of doing things where outgroups maintained an apologetic, at times seemingly clandestine, stance vis-à-vis cultural majorities. Amongst other things what is happening today is a renegotiation of the norms of communal relations with outgroups asserting themselves in the name of their communal group as Shi’as or as Sunnis rather than as sectarian advocacy groups masquerading as ‘national’ or ‘reformist’ movements as was often the case in the past. In essence, the old way of formulating sectarian dynamics, basically silencing the expression of sectarian identities and expecting disadvantaged sectarian outgroups to accept their lot and maintain their sectarian identity in a very private manner no longer works, and Middle Eastern societies are trying to find a new formula that can manage newly exposed, invigorated, and hypersensitive sectarian identities. Where this will ultimately lead is anyone’s guess; but as with all such major societal transformations the process has been a traumatic one and will likely continue to be so in the near future. 


Chatham House, “Iraq’s Political Systems,” 3/19/13

Haddad, Fanar, “Can a ‘Sunni Spring’ turn into an ‘Iraqi Spring?’” Middle East Channel, Foreign Policy, 1/7/13
- “Identity politics in Iraq: how much of it is about identity?” Near East Quarterly, 3/9/13
- “Iraq’s sectarian inheritance,” Foreign Policy, 3/26/13
- Sectarianism In Iraq, Antagonistic Visions of Unity, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011
- “Sunni Identity in Post-Civil War Iraq,” 2013

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