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Lukman Faily

Social Harmony: An Iraqi perspective

An already fragile national identity has increased in fragility [Getty]

Date of publication: 24 December, 2016

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Since the regime change following the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule in 2003, the Iraqi state has not been able to meet many of its citizens’ needs, writes Lukman Faily.
Ethno-sectarian conflict in Iraq has its origins in the lack of cohesion between the three pillars supporting the Iraqi nation: state, religion and culture.

The more aligned these pillars are, the greater the likelihood of social relationships based on respect, cultural, religious and political pluralism and tolerance.

To address the increase in tensions between Iraq’s majority and minorities, we must redistribute power between the three pillars. After decades of dictatorship, the Iraqi state must regain its influence in a positive way that is beneficial to its citizens.

Since the regime changing following the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule in 2003, the Iraqi state has not been able to meet many of its citizens’ needs.

Since the regime changing following the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule in 2003, the Iraqi state has not been able to meet many of its citizens’ needs

An already fragile national identity has increased in fragility, and other identities have emerged as threats to national development, cohesion and stability.

Tolerance within and between groups and subgroups is weak. The state’s core political authority and legitimacy is based on an ethno-sectarian foundation – known in Iraq as mohasasa or quota – rather than a cross-national one.

The state is the weakest institutional component in Iraqi society, suffering in comparison with religious and cultural institutions.

The State as a Pillar

The post-2003 political system in Iraq is republican, representative, federal, multiparty parliamentary and democratic. Executive powers are exercised by the Prime Minister as Chair of the Council of Ministers, with the President as formal head of state and legislative power vested in the Council of Representatives. 

Since 2003, Iraqis have successfully held four general elections, one referendum and three cross-country governorate elections. However the state is characterised by incoherence and slow decision-making.

The majority of political groups adhere to constitutional procedures, manage to defuse political tensions and reach constructive decisions, but the process is lengthy. Political wrangling is a manifestation of the country’s new-found democracy. Some describe the regime as a hybrid, between a flawed democracy and a transition from authoritarianism.

The importance of the state in fostering social harmony cannot be understated, but harmony is only achievable if legislation and policy reflect the ideals and beliefs of citizens and respond to their needs and aspirations.

In a country in which the pillars of religion and culture can overshadow the state’s authority, the state benefits more by focusing its attention on influencing religious and cultural institutions to implement and embrace change, rather than on being the sole institution advocating that change.

Since 2003, Iraqis have successfully held four general elections, one referendum and three cross-country governorate elections. However the state is characterised by incoherence and slow decision-making

Religion and Iraqi Diversity 

The major religion in Iraq is Islam, followed by 95-97 percent of its approximately 35 million people. The majority are Shia and Sunni. Iraq is home to important religious sites for both Shias and Sunnis, including Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad and Samarra, as well as key sites for minorities in the north, mainly in the governorate of Mosul.

Sunnis are a majority in Islam but a minority in Iraq. The Kurds are mainly Sunnis from the Shafiʿi school of Islamic law.

Other small Islamic sects are also represented, such as the Shia Shaykhist communities in Basra and Karbala. The majority of the Shia community follows the various Grand Ayatollahs based in Najaf, Baghdad, Karbala, Samara or Iran’s Qom and Mashhad. This diversity of religious sources, within Iraq, Islam and Shiaism, enriches discussions. It also makes consensus politics an important requirement for social cohesion.

Over the last 50 years, migration has significantly reduced the size of Iraq’s religious minorities. Christians are concentrated in the north, in the Dohuk and Ninewa governorates, and are principally divided across the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church.

Until the mid-20th century, Iraq had a sizeable Jewish community, mainly in Baghdad. This is now virtually non-existent.

Who are the Yazidis? Click to enlarge

Yazidis, whose religion dates back to pre-Islamic times, live in the Mosul governorate in the north. Mandeans have been present in Iraq for nearly two millennia, concentrated in the southern Maysan governorate, with a significant presence in Basra. Other religious minorities, such as Buddhists, Bahaists, Shabaks, Yarsans and Zoroastrians are also present.

The importance of a society or its individual members adhering to a certain religious or ethical school of thought should not be underestimated. These perceptions become articles of faith and are central to defining national or regional identity.

The importance of a society or its individual members adhering to a certain religious or ethical school of thought should not be underestimated

Culture as the Third Pillar

Cultural behaviour is the third foundational pillar of social harmony. People acquire shared culture from their immediate network of influence – family, friends and society at large.

A tolerant society allows its members’ cultural beliefs to influence their actions in a positive way. Culture can be the glue that binds the behaviours, beliefs, ways of life and core assumptions of a society’s members together. 

Iraq’s economy was formerly based on agriculture, which meant a large rural population, however oil production and the economic boom of the 1970s resulted in large-scale migration towards urban centres.

Iraq’s economy was formerly based on agriculture, which meant a large rural population, however oil production and the economic boom of the 1970s resulted in large-scale migration towards urban centres

This rapid urbanisation has had a major effect on social class development. The social map of the country is complicated by the fact that large kin groups tend to form the most fundamental social units, with higher importance than ethnic and sectarian identities. Family and tribal loyalty is considered an essential part of social belonging.

A historical factor promoting disharmony in Iraq has been the various attempts by the state at social engineering. Examples include the mass migration of farmers to cities and rapid urbanisation that began after 1945; the mass deportation of communities like Iraqi Jews during the late 1940s and early 1950s; the ethnic cleansing of the Faily and the Kurds in the 1970s and 1980s and the disappearance of Christian and other minority communities.

Perhaps one of the most destructive factors has been the diminishment of the middle class from the 1980s onwards, due to wars, international economic sanctions and mass emigration.

Aligning Harmony and Leadership

The three foundational pillars of a nation state can only align when the values and practices of each complement rather than contradict the others. When a society’s leadership is aligned across all pillars, the leaders and those they lead will share the same discourse. The opposite can be seen when, for example, a military dictatorship is introduced via control by the state, producing a conflict of interests between the state’s policies and the religious and cultural laws and customs uniting its citizens. 

Dictatorial Consequences for Iraqi Democracy

Democratic systems allow for the acceptance of the ‘other’, whether that be an ethnic or religious minority or simply someone who doesn’t hold the beliefs (political, cultural, ideological or ethical) of the majority of society. Diversity supplies a unique set of human resources which, under the right institutional and cultural conditions, can enhance a state’s economic, social and political development.

However, democracy alone cannot promote harmony; it must be supported by the rule of law and an institutional structure that promotes dialogue between the three foundational pillars and their associated institutions.

Continuous repression by a dictator who governs through fear and control leads to demoralisation and a culture of mistrust. Citizens emotionally distance themselves from state institutions and look inwards for personal survival.

Continuous repression by a dictator who governs through fear and control leads to demoralisation and a culture of mistrust. Citizens emotionally distance themselves from state institutions and look inwards for personal survival

Self-centrism or egocentrism are enhanced. When a dictator’s repressive tools are removed, reprisals against those who controlled the state apparatus occur. People regain power and influence once the state’s control has weakened, and seek support through increased reliance on religious and/or cultural institutions.

Thirteen years on, it is time to evaluate Iraq’s democratic project. Regaining legitimacy and power for the state has not been easy, nor has it been helped by the failures of the various post-2003 governments in the provision of security and services.

It is fair to ask whether a generic democratic model can be imposed on a country like Iraq, with a weak democratic experience, surrounded by other countries with non-democratic systems. Iraqi people expect a positive outcome from democracy – better services, governance and security – but they are used to dictatorships in which decision-making is straightforward and in the hands of a few, and security is not usually challenged for fear of punishment. They wrongly associate security with social stability.

Social Harmony

Harmony can only prevail if a number of key factors are promoted and embraced by a significant portion of society across its three foundational pillars. The rule of law is paramount.

Iraq has three competing legal systems: traditional state secular law, religious law (sharia) and tribal law (fasl). The latter two grew in prominence due to the weak implementation of state laws over 35 years of Baath rule.

In theory, laws are set out by the judicial system; however, not every Iraqi trusts or follows this system. Instead, they fall back on traditional tribal and/or religious laws. Iraqi society has thus splintered into social and political factions rather than remaining united around the central state’s national legal system.

Iraqi society has thus splintered into social and political factions rather than remaining united around the central state’s national legal system

Nation vs. State

Iraq’s different communities have different viewpoints on the contract between citizens and state. This has led to a rupture in inter and intra-community relationships, making them more transactional than harmonious. As long as these intra-community relationships are unstable, the notion of having one nation-wide Iraqi identity will be constantly challenged.

During the post-2003 US project, the concept of nation-building took centre stage, while state-building was neglected. Iraqis developed high expectations of nation-building, hoping the outcome would be comparable to the rebuilding of Germany and Japan after the Second World War.

But the US occupiers were unclear about the requirements and resources needed. Planning was inadequate and short-term solutions were prioritised over long-term vision.

Iraqis developed high expectations of nation-building, hoping the outcome would be comparable to the rebuilding of Germany and Japan after the Second World War

The root causes of inter- and intra-community conflict were not properly understood. This was coupled with operational naivety by stakeholders around the implementation of key state redevelopment projects.

Remedies for Iraq

For Iraq to be rebuilt, the country’s leadership (state, religious, and cultural) must acknowledge the scale of damage done to the fabric of society, and focus on redrawing the social contract between citizens and state.

A movement away from egocentrism, towards a sense of belonging and ownership of the key challenges and the nascent democratic state must be implanted in the Iraqi people.

They must feel pride, rather than shame, in the adoption and implementation of laws and regulations for their welfare and benefit. This will not happen without the co-operation of cultural and religious leadership and tribal and civil society institutions.

People must be shown that democracy, and the institutions associated with the state, do not threaten the religious and cultural aspects of society, but can support and complement them. This is a challenging task given the complex religious and cultural elements woven into the fabric of Iraqi society.

Legal, religious and cultural narratives need to align on issues like the roles and responsibilities of state and citizens, human rights, the educational curriculum and the constitution.

Legal, religious and cultural narratives need to align on issues like the roles and responsibilities of state and citizens, human rights, the educational curriculum and the constitution

A key challenge is the scale of change being sought. Corruption is deeply rooted in the state and change needs to occur at all levels.

Some argue that change at the top is sufficient, while others question the abilities of the political class. Some, through nostalgia or a conviction that democracy is not suitable for Iraq, call for the return of the executive presidential system.

Agreeing on a vision regarding the scale of – and the roadmap for – change is an important prerequisite for political and social development.

For Iraq to achieve social harmony, the state must regain its authority as the source of the nation’s democratic institutions, within which all religious and cultural institutions can have their voices heard and respected.

Democracy must be introduced slowly.

The state should focus on security, stability, economic development and better services, creating breathing space for further social development. Progress towards state stability will depend to a large degree on how quickly the middle class can be rebuilt. Support from international partners is crucial.

Only when leadership within the three societal pillars is aligned will the state attain a positive social environment, in which citizens are not threatened by the forces of power and social harmony can be enhanced.



Lukman Faily was the Iraqi Ambassador to the United States in 2013-2016. He also served as Iraq's Ambassador to Japan from 2010-2013. He has more than 30 years of experience in community work and activism among the UK Iraqi diaspora.

Follow him on Twitter: @FailyLukman

This is an abridged version of his full paper, given at UCL's Middle East Centre.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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