How did Iraqi sectarianism emerge?

Fanar Haddad: Sectarian identity for most of the 20th century was not particularly relevant in political terms. Obviously, this is something that ebbs and flows, but there were other frames of reference that were politically dominant. Come 2003, plenty changes.

Zack Beauchamp: How did things change in 2003?

FH: You can chart a course to 2003 from the mobilization of Shia parties in the mid-20th century, the Iranian Revolution [of 1979], the Iran-Iraq war [of the 1980s], the rebellion of 1991, 13 years of sanctions. These are all part of a cumulative process.

Come 2003, the main opposition forces against Saddam Hussein were ethno-sectarian parties. That’s a really important point. Yes, we can blame — and we should blame — occupation forces and the promises that they pursued, particularly enshrining identity politics as the key marker of Iraqi politics. But that was something that these ethno-sectarian parties, the ones who were the main opposition force, advocated before 2003. This, to them, was the answer.

From a Sunni Arab perspective, the Shia parties and personalities that came to power weren’t just politicians who happened to be Shia. They were politicians whose political outlook was firmly rooted in a Shia-centric, sect-centric view of things. I would say there were a number of prejudices, Sunni suspicions of the new regime. These were unfortunately validated by the nature of the new political elite, and their subsequent decisions and policies.

Post-2003 Iraq, I’d say identity politics have been the norm rather than an anomaly because they’re part of the system by design. The first institution that was set up in 2003 under the auspices of the occupation was the Iraq Governing Council — which was explicitly based on sectarian apportionment. You know, 13 Shias, six Sunnis, or whatever it was, based on what were perceived as the correct demographics.

Not to muddy the water further, but we don’t actually have anywhere near an accurate census for these things. They’re just sort of received wisdom — that Sunnis are increasingly rejecting. The idea that they’re a minority, that they’re only 20 percent: this is something that Sunni voices since 2003 have been rejecting. Whether that’s rational or not is not the point. The point is that they basically look at the demographic claims as Sunnis being marginalized and accorded second-class status on the basis of a lie. They do not accept that they are a minority, and this is a system that’s based on ethno-sectarian demographics.

ZB: How do these sectarian divides affect people’s view of the Iraqi state — not just the Maliki government, but the entire set of political institutions themselves?

FH: I’d say this point is crucial to pre- and post-2003 Iraq: the idea of the legitimacy of the state. It’s also sort of crucial to what’s going on now.

When 2003 came along, a lot of Shias and certainly a lot of Kurds welcomed it. They saw it as their deliverance as Shias and Kurds as much as it was the deliverance of Iraq. On the Sunni side, there was no such sentiment because there barely existed a sense of Sunni identity before 2003. It simply didn’t exist in Iraq.

Now, what you see is the reverse. The Iraqi government is not popular with anyone, the popularity of the government is rock bottom, I’d say, but Shias are more likely to accord the state, the post-2003 order some level of legitimacy. Whereas there is a body of opinion of among Sunnis who just do not ascribe any legitimacy to it whatsoever. [Continue reading…]

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