Iraq came shuddering back into the news this summer after the spectacular conquest by ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, now preferring the term ‘The Islamic State’) of Mosul, the country’s second city. This was closely followed by the fall of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, and threats to a petrified Baghdad itself.
As Village went to press it was being reported that 500 of the majority ethnic Kurds had been slaughtered in Sinjar with some buried alive and 300 women kidnapped as slaves. The region is bracing itself for further US and possibly British intervention in defence of displaced and murdered minorities, including many stranded on the slopes of Mount Sinjar.
The scale of the carnage is untold. The New Yorker quotes an Iraqi named Karim: “In one day, they killed more than two thousand Yazidi in Sinjar, and the whole world says, ‘Save Gaza, save Gaza’.
ISIS has laid claim to global leadership of the Muslim ‘Umma’, declaring its elusive leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi the new caliph, a position relinquished by the Ottoman Emperor in 1924. The organisation also sought to repudiate the nefarious 1916 Sykes-Picot Treaty, long viewed by Arabs as the first, among many, betrayals by Western powers of the region’s right to self-determination.
Sykes-Picot was a secret Anglo-French agreement signed during World War I which agreed to the dismemberment of the former Ottoman Empire and its apportionment between the British and French at the expense of their erstwhile Arab allies.
The violent contagion of Syria’s internal conflict spread beyond its borders, reviving Iraq’s seemingly immutable sectarian division between Sunni and Shi’a. But simplistic Western analysis of these conflicts often serves to reinforce destructive sectarian identities.
In Iraq as elsewhere, identity is plastic. 75% of Iraq’s population of over 31 million is Arabic-speaking with Kurds constituting the bulk of the other ethno-linguistic groups including, for example, 650,000 Yazidis.
Muslim Arab Iraqis may in different circumstances define their identity as Arab in common with other Arab people. They could also assert an Islamic identity but this is complicated by the division between the Shi’a majority and Sunni minority. They could also claim to be simply Iraqi in common with those living within the borders of Iraq.
To complicate matters further many Iraqis actually identify most clearly with their tribe. The artificiality of Iraq’s borders has made the task of maintaining the integrity of the Iraqi state a bloody business.
ISIS seems to be skilfully forging an Arab-Islamic identity more focused than Al-Qaeda’s global pretensions. But ISIS is unlikely to advance much further in Iraq due to the presence in that country of a substantial Shi’a majority.
In terms of the Sunni-Shi’i divide a survey of Iraqi history reveals shifting allegiances. The foremost historian of early twentieth century Iraq, Hanna Batatu records how “under the Ottomans Iraq consisted to no little extent of distinct, self-absorbed, feebly interconnected societies”.
This social stratification was given legal recognition by the Millet system of communal representation, though unlike Jews and Christians the Shi’a, who were considered heretical Muslims, were not accorded this privilege, and were forced to operate under Sunni sharia law.
Nonetheless, firm social boundaries divided the Sunni and Shi’a communities: “Socially they seldom mixed, and as a rule did not intermarry. In mixed cities they lived in separate quarters and led their own separate lives”.
After the First World War, the British became rulers of the new state of Iraq whose borders were an artificial construct born of imperialist designs on the country’s oil reserves, and cloaked by a League of Nations Mandate.
The first colonial administrators regarded the Sunni as a more rational branch of Islam and a Sunni King, Faysal, was installed as king after independence was finally granted in 1932. According to the historian David Pool it was believed that “the result of Shi’a involvement in political office could only be theocratic, fanatical, xenophobic rule”. The British thus carried over Ottoman social stratifications into the post-colonial era by keeping the Shi’a at a remove from the resources of an increasingly oil-rich state.
As a result, despite amounting to 55 percent of the population, during the monarchy the Shi’a filled a mere 22 percent of government posts, while only four of 23 of Iraq’s prime ministers were Shi’a. Moreover, invisible obstacles were mounted to exclude Shi’a from membership of the Military Academy making it impossible for them to become officers.
But despite the persistence of Sunni dominance Iraqi society was moving away from the legacy of empire and colonialism: by the 1940s Sunnis were giving their daughters in marriage to Shi‘a “when only a few decades before the impediment to such intermarriage seemed insurmountable”.
In a bloody 1958 coup King Faisal II, along with other members of family, was executed. The resolution of Iraq’s internal contradictions seemed to express itself in the half-Arab-Sunni, half-Kurdish Shi‘i parentage of General Qasim, prime minister of Iraq from 1958-1963.
This period, however, represented a false dawn as the genuine and widespread hopes for a radical break with the past and for the creation of a more open society that were awakened by the events of 1958 were gradually disappointed in the following decade.
During the monarchy and beyond, many Shi’a had identified with the pan-Arab cause. Arab Nationalist parties contained Shi’a. So did the Ba‘th Party, which as late as 1963 had a majority of Shi’a in its top command and probably among its active membership.
However, the prevalence of Shi’a membership of the Communist Party was taken by many Sunni propagandists as evidence of their opposition to the pan-Arab cause. The popularity of Marxism was connected to the decline in religious participation in the 1950s among the Shi’a.
This decline can be discerned in both the ‘popular’ and the ‘juristic’ forms of the religion; with the decreased fervour of the ritual Muharram observances, and a drop in the numbers of religious scholars.
Under Qasim there was evidence that the state was taking a ‘secularising’ path: family law reform, which included equal inheritance for women and the imposition of monogamy, for example, was a shock to the clerical class and conservatives in general. Thus, the demise of the monarchy threw the clerical class into a headlong encounter with secular change in social, economic and legal areas.
Moreover, some of Qasim’s socialist measures were to the detriment of Shi’a landed interests, giving rise to a convergence of interest between certain politically minded clerics (the ulama) and wealthy Shi’a. The politicisation of the ulama was also linked to the example of the stand of Ayatollah Borujerdi (the supreme Shi’a authority at the time) against the Shah’s land reform in Persia. It was in these circumstances that the Shi’a Da’wa Party emerged in 1958.
The bloody overthrow of General Qasim eventually gave way to the era of the ‘Arif brothers who ruled Iraq from 1963-68. This epoch witnessed a reassertion of vested interests, as the ‘Arif openly relied on established systems of patronage.
Thus the politicisation of religion and the open sectarianism of the government created the climate for political allegiance based on religious adherence, and it was the Dawa party, among other Shi’a political movements that provided the main opposition to the Ba’th under Saddam Hussein who formally came to power in 1979 after almost a decade being the power behind the throne. Political Islam was given further impetus by the rise to power of Ayotallah Khomeini in neighbouring Iran.
However, the sectarian divide was never entirely straightforward. Thus, rates of Shi’a desertion from the army during the Iran-Iraq were probably little different from those of their Sunni compatriots, and considerably less than those from largely Kurdish units. This has led Batatu to argue that the war brought the Sunni and Shi’a closer together “if only by dint of their common suffering, and assisted the progress of Iraq towards national coherence”
During the 1990s and into this century Saddam’s regime attempted to connect with a general rise in popular piety, that led to the launching of faith campaigns. In Baghdad alone, more than 100 grand mosques were built for a starving nation, under sanctions. However, religion is a difficult instrument of power to control, and once the genie had been let out of the bottle it derived an energetic life of its own. Nonetheless, with many mixed marriages and areas a sectarian clash was not inevitable after the invasion of Iraq.
To explain Iraq’s continued troubles it is worth examining more pertinent failures in the aftermath of the American invasion that replicated the damage caused by Britain’s colonial policy. Reversing the British policy of supporting the Sunni, the invasion was styled as a liberation of the Shi’a as opposed to of all Iraqis.
Moreover, the anarchy that resulted from insufficient troop numbers left a power vacuum that religious leaders such as the Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr were only too happy to fill. Also, a failure to address Sunni grievances after rapid de-Ba’thification created the conditions for the arrival of leaders such as Al-Zarqawi and of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the descent of Iraq into horrific sectarian conflict. ISIS is exploiting these tensions and offers the promise of a radical re-drawing of the Middle Eastern map under the rule of a divinely-ordained caliph.
But it seems highly unlikely that any re-drawing of borders will be allowed to occur if only because of US political sensitivities. Maps of course are also generally re-drawn in blood.
No obvious solution exists to Iraq’s continued troubles, but at least Western observers should recognise the complexity of Iraqi society. It is also apparent that without resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict the role of Western powers, the US in particular, will continue to be viewed with suspicion. The manifold Israeli abuses in Gaza, undeterred by the US, will not help. •