Can Iraq end sectarianism?

Salah Nasrawi , Saturday 20 Oct 2018

The Shia-Sunni divide remains the greatest challenge that faces Iraq despite the rhetoric that a new government might bring sectarianism to an end

Iraqi parliament
Iraqi parliament (Photo: Reuters)

Shortly after Mohamed Ali Zeini, the temporary speaker of the Iraqi parliament, handed over his position to a newly elected speaker, the parliament erupted in uproar after a Shia lawmaker asked for a point of order to denounce Zeini over remarks he had made to glorify the Abbasid caliphs who ruled the Islamic world for centuries from their capital in Baghdad in modern-day Iraq.

“He [Zeini] has just marked Baghdad with a stigma instead of glory by linking it to those [caliphs] who killed and persecuted the imams of Ahl Al-Bayt,” declared Shia MP Ammar Tuma amid shouts and accusations of sectarianism from several Sunni members.

Tuma was objecting to Zeini’s reference to Baghdad as the city of Al-Rashid and his son Al-Mamoun, two of the greatest Abbasid caliphs who are known for expanding the Abbasid Muslim Caliphate (750-1258 CE) and turning Baghdad into a world centre of science, literature, art and philosophy.

The Abbasid rulers were Sunnis whom Shia history books villainise as the persecutors of Shia Muslims. The Shias also accuse Al-Rashid and Al-Mamoun of killing two of their most venerated saints whom they call Ahl Al-Bayt (People of the Household) because they are descendants of the Prophet Mohamed.

Iraqi politics and the parliament floor are familiar with similar sectarian diatribes, but things did not unfold this time in quite the same way as they have done before. The timing of the bizarre bickering over a centuries-old Shia-Sunni schism was more unexpected this time round.

Before the parliamentary elections in Iraq on 12 May, the leaders of the country’s contending groups promised to alter the dynamics of Iraq’s political system by pursuing nationalist and non-sectarian policies that would serve all Iraqis.

The ruling Shia political groups also pledged to abandon confessionalism and to form a cross-sectarian government following the elections in order to establish long-lasting stability.

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled the Sunni-led regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraqi politics have been explicitly organised around sectarian identities.

Iraq’s post-Saddam political system established confessional power-sharing arrangements that energised the country’s long-marginalised Shia majority and boosted its religious identity.

Though they have called it a power-sharing and consensus democracy, Iraq’s post-Saddam governments have been built on the unwritten protocols of a quota-based system that gives power to Iraq’s different communities according to their population numbers.

Under this informal power-sharing arrangement, the prime minister has always come from the Shia majority, and there has been a Kurdish president and a Sunni speaker of parliament.

Yet, the Shia leaders have been unable to share power in a stable way that can satisfy the Sunnis, the Kurds and even many in the Shia community.

Soon, Sunnis who considered the Shia empowerment following the American occupation as the end of their decades-long rule over the country felt they had been marginalised and excluded by Iraq’s new Shia rulers.

In addition, the ethnic and sect-based quota system that was initiated after 2003 has created a social environment favourable to political sectarianism, and this has deepened communal divisions and triggered continued conflicts.

However, the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) terror group, according to the perspective of so-called experts on Iraq, has altered the mood of Baghdad politics significantly in recent months.

This conclusion has been based on assessments that the election campaign saw Iraqis turn towards issues unrelated to sectarianism and the low turnout could demonstrate that many were disenchanted with the confessional system.

Such assessments were bolstered by promises from the country’s political groups that they would be seeking a government that was not sectarian in order to manage the post- IS environment.

Hence, the change, if it happened, would breed hopes that Iraq would shift away from the sectarian system that had shaped Iraqi politics since Saddam’s fall and that the country would finally enter a period of real transition as it faced the daunting challenges of post-IS rebuilding.

Yet, divisions like the one over ancient religious issues clearly underline how deeply sectarianism is entrenched in Iraq and how it can fuel the resurgence of conflicts in the beleaguered country.

Soon after the parliamentary episode, Iraqis woke up to another row over new currency notes brought into circulation by the Iraqi Central Bank that also drew criticisms of sectarianism.

The front side of the new 1,000 Iraqi dinar note will carry the motif of an ancient Assyrian star instead of an older motif of a golden dinar dating back to the Sunni-dominated Islamic Caliphate.

Local and Arab media noted last week that many of the ancient Islamic sites in Iraq from the Abbasid era have been left to crumble.

One of these is Samara, 100 km north of Baghdad, with its Great Mosque famous for its landmark spiral minaret dating back to the Abbasid period that is now reportedly threatened by ruin.

Such controversies could shed light on the underlying issues that are shaping Iraq’s sectarian conflicts, which have been largely described as political and susceptible to settlement through standard conflict-resolution.

For a long time, the literature on the rise of sectarianism in Iraq has focused on power struggles and argued that the sectarian politics in the country do not reflect the preoccupations of the majority of Iraqis across sectarian and ethnic lines.

Advocates of political sectarianism argue that the Iraqi political groups are competing for leadership and that they have been using the sectarian divide to further their ambitions.

They further suggest that greater democracy could resolve the conflicts by allowing all Iraq’s communities to express themselves and compete peacefully for power.

The problem with this argument lies in the theory and practice of sectarianism in a politically, socially and historically complex country such as Iraq.

It is related to the nature of identity politics and how the Shia-Sunni rivalry in Iraq is shaping the political landscape and the balance of power between the two main communities.

The recent heated argument in parliament over the Abbasid caliphs, for example, has demonstrated how the schism in Islam that has been simmering for 14 centuries can still shape politics and underline sectarian sentiments deepening the divide.

As far as the practice is concerned, the shifts in the Iraqi polity since regime change in 2003 have been very deep, and analysts have not even started to decipher all or even most aspects of Iraq’s sectarian politics.

The main pitfall in the sectarian politics theory is that while its proponents emphasise the political, economic and geostrategic factors involved in Iraq’s conflicts, they fail to explain the religious discourse fuelling the underlying tensions.

Amid all these uncertainties, the question now is whether the Iraqi political groups that had claimed a desire to change to non-confessional government after the May elections can end the sectarianism and secure the desired breakthrough in Iraq’s conflicts.

While the elections demonstrated significant developments in terms of cross-sectarian alliances, they are unlikely to produce major shifts in the distribution of power among the Iraqi communities.

The Shia groups, which have not only preserved their parliamentary majority but have increased it from 153 to 187 seats, are expected to pursue the hegemonic policies they have exercised since 2003.

Moreover, there are multiple signs that the political alliances that the Shia groups have forged with the Sunni political leaders do not reflect any broad-based power-sharing accords between the two communities.

Many Sunnis believe that their politicians who joined the Shia lists have only done so to benefit from the seats of power and the funds that they hope to be allocated for the reconstruction of the Sunni areas affected by the war against IS.

In sum, whether Iraq’s current sectarian conflict is about politics or piety, it is clear that it is being manipulated and exploited by ruling cliques using the “sectarian card” in jockeying for political influence and control of the country’s enormous wealth.

Therefore, it is hard to see an end to Iraq’s communalism until drastic changes are made in the country’s political system and the sectarianism of its current political leadership is attenuated or ended.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Can Iraq end sectarianism? 

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