Is religious sectarianism Iraq’s fatal flaw?

Ten years after the U.S. war in Iraq, one will be hard pressed to find any positive evaluation of the … Continued

Ten years after the U.S. war in Iraq, one will be hard pressed to find any positive evaluation of the 2003 intervention that toppled Saddam Hussein. The dominant consensus is that this intervention was costly and, at the end, not productive. Some go so far as saying that it has set back prospects of democracy in the region. Against this negative backdrop, it is however possible to see a few positive albeit fragile signs like belief in democracy and shared political concerns across all the religious and ethnic communities.

Since 2003, the death toll for both Americans and Iraqis has been considerable: an estimated 190,000 deaths including 4,488 U.S. service members and 134,000 Iraqi civilians, not to mention indirect deaths — due to disease or injury.

The consequence on American economy has been far reaching. In 2011, the Watson Institute at Brown University estimated the cost of U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to $3.2 to $4 trillion. Sure, removing Hussein created the conditions for democracy but Iraq is divided by sectarian politics, crippled by violence, and ranks 169th out of 174 countries on the corruption index.

It’s no wonder why the cost-benefits analysis is so negative.

It would be wrong however to think that the U.S. intervention created the sectarian divides. Like in Syria with the Assad regime, the reality is that Saddam Hussein forged it by building a political fiction: a Sunni Arab Iraq where Islam was acknowledged as religion of the state. Saddam built his power by privileging the Sunni minority over the Shia majority. In 1994 he even embarked on a “faith campaign” to capitalize on the rise of political Islam and the anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East. This campaign led to the abolition of alcohol in restaurants, the support of radio stations dedicated to Koranic readings and the construction of several large mosques. Mandatory Islamic classes in school were also instituted teaching a “tuned-down” version of Sunni Islam (to a Shia population), along with the establishment of several higher institutions of Islamic learning. At the same time, the Shia continued to be oppressed and subjected to summary executions, arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and mass-killings. In addition to physical brutality, nearly all Shia schools were closed or pillaged, forcing religious leaders to relocate their centers of learning outside of Iraq’s borders.

In these conditions, it is no surprise that the end of the Saddam regime opened a Pandora’s box of sectarian divides, since religious and ethnic diversity was negated at the very foundation of modern Iraq. In other words, democracy could be nothing else than sectarian by allowing groups previously persecuted to express themselves and compete for power. Since 2005, Iraq has followed a federal system, which provides for regional and provincial autonomy: Kurdistan is a federal territory with control over its internal administration, and Arabic and Kurdish are both official languages of Iraq. The government is not completely decentralized and since the 2005 election, the potential for regional autonomy along sectarian lines is ferociously under debate, not to mention the conditions for power sharing over government, security forces and oil wealth. The tensions have intensified since the 2010 elections by pitching the victorious Shia coalition (Maliki State of Law) against the Sunni Iraqiyya of Ayad Allawi. Since December 2012, the Sunni/Shia confrontation has reached another peak, with repeated demonstrations against the Maliki regime each Friday in Sunni majority cities. These protests are seen as the sign of an increasing “sunnification” of Sunni politics; they are an unprecedented alliance between religious, secular and leftist Sunni leaders.

But sectarian politics does not cover all politics in Iraq. It is certainly a tool for political competition but it does not accurately reflect the more pragmatic and down to earth preoccupations of the majority of Iraqi across sects and ethnic groups. According to a 2011 Zogby polling, across the board, six-in-10 Iraqis want their country to be a democracy, (even if six-in-10 Iraqis don’t believe that democracy will work in Iraq because of the sectarian divides). When asked about the importance of a series of issues facing Iraq today, the most significant issue to emerge is expanding employment opportunities, followed by combating extremism and terrorism. These two issues are, by far, the most important to Shia and Sunni Arabs alike. Protecting personal and civil rights is the most important issue for Kurds, followed by improving the education system. These data not only contradict the dominant consensus that the U.S. policy has discredited rather than advanced the cause for democracy in the region, but also reveal the gap between the sectarian politics and the expectations of citizens of Iraq.

One way out may be the emergence of non-sectarian political forces that could address directly the pragmatic concerns of Iraqis. That is the main goal of the recently-created “Democratic Front” whose leaders project a more positive view of Iraqi politics. They place their hope in the 2012 law which for the first time allows the representation of smaller parties in provincial elections, to give a better chance to non-sectarian parties to win seats. They also believe that the failure of sectarian politics will, in the end, lead to its rejection by the people of Iraq.

Jocelyne Cesari is Senior Research Fellow at the Berkley Center for Peace, Religion and World Affairs, Georgetown University and Director of the Islam in the West Program at Harvard University.

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