Thursday, January 23, 2020

Review Imagining The Nation, Nationalism, Sectarianism and Socio-Political Conflict in Iraq


Al-Qarawee, Harith, Imagining The Nation, Nationalism, Sectarianism and Socio-Political Conflict in Iraq, Lanchashire: Rossendale Books, 2012

Imagining The Nation, Nationalism, Sectarianism and Socio-Political Conflict in Iraq is an academic book by Harith Al-Qarawee who now goes by Harith Hasan, about how Iraq’s Arab population has struggled to form a national identity from the foundation of the country to the present. The book is organized like a thesis with an introduction where the main argument is laid out, followed by a review of the literature on the topic, and then two broad sections. The first covers the Ottomans to Saddam Hussein, and the second is about Iraq post-2003. The book was largely shaped in response to Western commentators that argued Iraq has been beset by sectarian divisions since its origins. Hasan believes that is mistaking current political struggles as historical ones. The thesis is that Iraq’s identities have been shaped by socio-political conflicts over power and resources, which have changed over time.

Iraq had a difficult start being created by the British who placed elites into power that were not connected to the population, and pushed pan-Arabism rather than Iraqism. Iraq was created as a British mandate following World War I by the League of Nations. Its first ruler King Feisal who was from what would become Saudi Arabia was surrounded by a group of former Ottoman army officers. Instead of using nationalism to try to bring the country’s various communities and classes together, it was used to ensure power for the new elite. They also exploited divisions such as the land owning sheikhs versus the peasants and Arab Muslims versus Assyrians. When oil was discovered in Kirkuk that only separated the rulers from the populace more because now they were not reliant upon the people for revenues via taxation. The monarchists and many military officers who became a major figure in politics also promoted pan-Arabism, which focused upon a mythical Arab nation instead of creating a unique Iraqi identity. General Abd al-Karim Qasim who seized power in 1958 took a more Iraq centric approach, but his main priority remained controlling the state, and he was overthrown by a new set of Arab nationalist officers in 1963. Hasan argued the consolidation of power by the country’s new rulers was the major issues for pre-2003 Iraq, not sectarianism. The elite used Pan-Arabism to help justify their rule, and the country’s petroleum wealth to expand their influence. This is the heart of Hasan’s argument, and he makes a convincing case with his retelling of events. Unfortunately, it is still largely ignored by many who would say from the Ottoman times to the present the government was always run by Sunnis over a Shiite majority and that was Iraq’s original sin. That largely comes from an ignorance of Iraqi history, which Hasan was trying to correct.

Even when sect was becoming an issue for Iraqis such as after the 1991 uprising Hasan has his own take. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, southern Iraq rose up against the government leading to massive repression. Afterward, many Shiites felt they were facing collective punishment. The author argues that even then it would be wrong to call Saddam’s rule sectarian. That was because Saddam used families, tribes, loyalty, and repression to stay in power not an ideology based upon Sunni rule. The Baath also still pushed pan-Arabism as well. After the Gulf War, the uprising and the biting sanctions placed upon the country for invading Kuwait in 1990 staying in power was even more important, which again goes back to the book’s thesis. Hasan doesn’t deny that sect became a more important issue during this time. For instance, social disparities between rich and poor began to be connected to sect with the Shiites being on the bottom, and Islamism amongst that community pushed a religious identity. Yet ensuring Sunni power was not what Saddam was about. He was focused upon his own rule via familial and patronage networks, which happened to be mainly Sunni due to his origins in Salahaddin province. That was also shown by the growing cult of personality around Saddam.

Hasan makes the same argument for the post-03 period when sectarian politics came to dominate the country. Shiite parties came into office arguing that they were the victims of Saddam’s sectarian rule. They pushed identity politics and a system where they claimed to represent the community. The Sunnis were at a lost initially because they were faced with being a minority, believed that the Americans had targeted them with policies like disbanding the army, and were being purged from the government. That led to widespread rejection of the new Iraq and a turn towards the insurgency. This was not a conflict over sectarian doctrines, but again, a struggle over who would control the state and its resources with sect being used to define who would be in and out of power. This competition increased divisions and led to civil war. Many would agree with this history, but where Hasan is different is that he doesn't believe these sectarian identities have always existed in Iraq. Rather they are more recent in origin, and were centered around dominating the new government. This created an undemocratic system where parties claim to represent their sect rather than individual voters, and institutionalized identity politics.

Harith Hasan was part of a new wave of Iraqi scholarship that emerged post 2003. He added new and original ideas to the discussion of nationalism, identity, sect and politics in Iraq from its creation to the present day. He argued that Iraqi history has been shaped by different groups struggling to control the state and its resources. These parties used pan-Arabism, sect and other ideas depending upon the period to justify their rule, and exclude others. Imaging The Nation therefore should be a must read for those interested in Iraqi history and how it shaped Iraqi politics.

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