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Dividing lines: Sectarianism in Iraq Open in fullscreen

Badr al-Ibrahim

Dividing lines: Sectarianism in Iraq

The sectarian quota was set after 2003 [AFP]

Date of publication: 16 July, 2014

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A country-wide strategy is needed to unite the fractured nation.

Iraq’s sectarian quota system is producing one crisis after another. A fragile balance between communities has changed from a war for influence inside political institutions into full-blown fighting on the streets.

The seeds for this were laid more than a decade ago, when the US-led occupation set up the informal quota system, which has created ever-regenerating civil strife and instability threatening to fragment the country itself.

Officially, the Iraqi electoral system only sets quotas for women and smaller minorities, including Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans and Shabak. Unofficially, it amounts to an implicit if unequal power sharing agreement between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds – and was designed by US diplomat Paul Bremer, who headed the US occupation authority in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The arrangement allowed Shia parties to dominate the political scene and use the US-led occupation as a bridge to power.

       The sectarian quota system allowed Shia parties to dominate the political scene and use the US-led occupation as a bridge to power

Politicising religious identity

The discussion here is not about “Shia Iraq” – an expression used by some to denounce Iraq’s sectarianism, and a phrase which itself has sectarian connotations – and the subsequent conflict. The discussion is about sectarian Shia parties such as the Dawa Party and its allies in the Supreme Islamic Council, politicising Shia religious identity and setting out to represent the country’s Shia sect as a whole.

The Shia parties have put forward two reasons for their dominance of the current regime: the historic sufferings of the Shia throughout the history of modern Iraq and their previous exclusion from power under the rule of the minority Sunnis. They claim that the Shia have the right to rule Iraq as they form the majority of the population. The Shia parties speak of historic Sunni hegemony - especially under the sectarianism of Saddam Hussein - to explain their use of sectarianism to regain their empowerment.

But history undermines the credibility of those claims. There never was “Sunni rule” in Iraq - those in power, from the Hashemites through Abd al-Karim Qasim to Saddam, did not present themselves as representatives of the Sunnis, but rather as secularists. The Shia were participants in political life even if their religious authorities in Najaf kept their distance. They were the backbone of nationalist and leftist parties in Iraq, helping to form the Baath party itself.

The first two cells of the Baath party were formed in Shia areas, with Naim Haddad forming a group in Nasiriyah and Sadoun Hammadi – known as the first Baathist in Iraq – doing the same in Najaf. When the first regional leadership of the party was formed in 1953 most were Shia, including Secretary-General Fuad al-Rikabi and co-founder Jafar Hammoudi.

Saddam’s era

The Shia were not banned from assuming senior positions even in Saddam’s regime. Sadoun Hammadi and Mohammed Hamza Zubeidi held high positions in government. Shia soldiers also managed to reach the highest echelons of the military, even though, when it was set up in the 1920s, the community was originally not enthusiastic about joining. Commander-in-chief Sadi Tumah al-Jabouri eventually became minister of defence under Saddam.

Today’s Shia parties use incoherent arguments to demonstrate the sectarianism of Saddam’s regime. They say that he killed many Shia clerics. He did kill Shia clerics, but only those who rebelled against his leadership. He did not touch Shia not opposed to him. The ban on some Shia rituals such as tatbir - striking oneself with swords in acts of self-flagellation most often seen during the time of Ashura - was not aimed at Shia Islam, indeed, the Lebanese Shia movement Hizbollah has also banned the ritual. It was banned because the regime was convinced that these practices were “uncivilised”. Saddam likewise outlawed the Rifai Sufi custom of beating their stomachs with swords.

The suppression of the 1991 uprising did not target the Shia for being Shia. It was the Shia Baath party militias in Amara, Nasiriyah and Basra who put down the uprising, as there was no time to send for fighters from Sunni areas. In Karbala, more than half the soldiers who put down the uprising were themselves Shia.

Saddam’s regime was tyrannical and criminal in its elimination of its opponents - but it was not driven by sectarian motives. On the contrary, Saddam marginalised the Baath party to the benefit of own his family and tribe.

     What the Shia parties have done is to transform governance from dynastic rule to majority sectarian rule

Sectarian rule

What the Shia parties have done is to transform governance from dynastic rule to majority sectarian rule, even though the logic of the democratic game does not necessarily recognise the right of a majority sect to rule. Democracy relies on fluctuating majorities and minorities that base their discourse on political programmes of action through which politicians seek the confidence of voters to represent the whole national community, not one portion of it.

The dominance of Shia parties and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in particular have produced nothing but a degradation of the security environment and an obstruction to development, as well as a catastrophic increase in corruption. This in turn has opened the door to foreign intervention, while squandering the country’s independence and stoking a sense of Sunni marginalisation that has helped create an environment in which armed groups such as Daish (also known as ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) can flourish.

One cannot be critical of the Shia parties’ politicisation of religious identity and their facing towards allied foreign powers such as Iran without also recognising the similar politicisation of Sunni Islam and its leaders’ orientation towards countries such as Turkey. Marginalised Sunnis are right to reject their isolation, but a sectarian fight against regime sectarianism can only perpetuate the crisis. In Lebanon, the civil war began as a leftist revolution against the isolationist right and turned into a sectarian struggle. It ended with an adjustment of the sectarian balance and the preservation of the quota system. The systemic crisis there has still not been resolved.

Iraq needs a national project that transcends the sectarian divide and challenges the quota system to realise a state based on citizenship. Without that we face civil war and the break-up of the country.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Al Araby Al Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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