Since 2003, sectarian identities and sectarian relations in Iraq and the broader Arab world have undergone previously unimaginable changes.1 New realities have been created and a key question is whether this is a temporary quagmire awaiting resolution or a new socio-political reality that needs to be recognized and managed accordingly. This essay is concerned with the emergence among the Arab Sunnis of Iraq of a clearer sense of themselves as a sectarian group. To understand this phenomenon, one first has to understand sectarian relations before 2003 and by extension the implications of 2003 for Sunni and Shia identities in Iraq and sectarian relations in the region generally.
The Definitional Free-for-all
One of the most widely peddled fallacies regarding Iraq and the Arab world is that they were strangers to “sectarianism” before 2003. Here, a definitional problem presents itself. If by “sectarianism” we mean violent sectarian conflict, widespread sectarian hate, or the empowerment of sect-centric political actors, then yes 2003 undoubtedly becomes the moment separating a “sectarian” Middle East from a “non-sectarian” one. However, “sectarianism” can entail much more than just these extreme manifestations of sectarian dynamics. To illustrate, if we take “sectarianism” to mean, alongside sectarian hate and violence, sect-centric bias, prejudice, or stereotypes, then “sectarianism” in Iraq and the Arab world dates to far earlier than 2003. Hence, in the case of Iraq, Shia activists felt the need to mobilize, as Shias, for Shia rights and better Shia representation since the establishment of the modern state. It makes little sense, therefore, to restrict our understanding of “sectarianism” to the sectarian violence witnessed in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, or to the radical preacher ranting about the evils of sect a or b, or to the enshrinement of sectarian identities in national politics.
The term “sectarianism” and its Arabic equivalent, ta’iffiyah, are so ill-defined and so loosely used that, depending on one’s whims, they can cover just about anything relating to sectarian identity. As a result, commentary on the subject has turned into a definitional free-for-all. For many people, “sectarianism” basically refers to manifestations of sectarian hate. But this has proven unhelpful as it ends up criminalizing all manner of sectarian expression. Indeed both “sectarian” and “sectarianism” have often been used as synonyms for sectarian hate. Given the relevance of sectarian identities and hence the prevalence of sectarian discourse today, should we not take “sectarian” to mean that which relates to a sect(s) or that which is sect-specific – sectarian symbol, sectarian speech, sectarian hate, sectarian ritual? And should we not, by extension, discard the term “sectarianism” altogether? At the very least we would then have a vocabulary that allows for legitimate forms of sectarian expression rather than clinging to the pre-2003 legacy that impractically vilifies most if not all assertions of sectarian identity.
Indeed one of the problems with this legacy is that an illusory a-sectarian ideal was upheld by successive regimes that sought to transcend sectarian identities not through inclusion but through negation. In many ways, the ostensibly a-sectarian ideal was not restricted to the withering away of sectarian identity’s relevance in the mid-20th century. It also entailed the suppression, censorship, and marginalization of such identities and of sectarian expression wherever they persisted. It can therefore be argued that the post-2003 environment is linked to the cumulative effect of decades of mismanaging sectarian relations. It is similar to any number of pent up social tensions across the Arab world that were suddenly given voice after the Arab uprisings starting in 2011. The increased sectarian entrenchment of post-2003 Iraq and the broader Middle East was in no small part the cumulative result of two legacy issues. The first was failed nation-building. The second, a counterproductive and ultimately futile attempt to negate sectarian identities in the name of coercively enforced and restrictively defined notions of national unity. This partially explains how places such as Iraq have seen multiplicity – something that exists the world over – turn into division. Different imaginations of what “we the people” represent inhere on individual political and social perceptions to the extent that clearly identifiable and politically relevant opposing narratives of state, society, politics and history become salient enough to be easily activated and utilized in politics.
Sectarian Relations in Pre-2003 Iraq
Throughout much of the 20th century, whatever political zeitgeist existed in Iraq did not seem too perturbed by sectarian identities. Anyone subscribing to such a zeitgeist was similarly oblivious to, unconcerned by, or dismissive of the issue of sectarian relations. However, this should not be taken to mean that there was no “sectarian issue,” or that the past was simply “a-sectarian.” Instead, and particularly in the latter half of the century, this issue was easily marginalized because, in Iraq and the Arab world, it was an issue of the marginalized: namely, Shias and more specifically those among them whose lives and identities are embedded in Shia social and religious structures. What those who dwell on the supposedly a-sectarian past overlook is that while sectarian identities were indeed barely relevant for much of 20th century Iraq, there nevertheless existed a differentiated Shia Iraqi identity that grated against the nation-state’s homogenizing tendencies and increasing authoritarianism. In many ways, therefore, “sectarianism” in pre-2003 Iraq was an issue of state-Shia relations rather than one of Sunni-Shia relations. Put differently, prior to 2003, Iraqi governments never had to contend with a Sunni identity or autonomous Sunni social or religious structures simply because there was no such thing as an Iraqi Sunni identity in any meaningful sense. In contrast, there was, since modern Iraq’s establishment, a Shia identity and Shia structures that struggled for inclusion or autonomy rather than dilution in a state-sponsored, homogenizing, a-sectarian national project. Herein lies the crux of the matter: prior to 2003, Sunnis did not see themselves as a sect or as a differentiated group whereas many Shias did; therefore, censoring sectarian identity and sectarian expression—even if carried out with the best of intentions such as upholding an a-sectarian ideal—was inevitably seen as more coercive to Shias than to Sunnis. More tangibly, the paraphernalia of sects—symbols, leaders, rituals, myths and so forth—barely existed among Sunnis whereas they were to be found in abundance among Shias; hence, in the 20th century, to control or subvert these in the name of secularism or “anti-sectarianism” was not to equally censor Sunnis and Shias.
Three inferences can be made at this point. First, as a result of the foregoing and many other deeper historical reasons, Iraqi Shias had a more developed sense of themselves as a sect that required consideration as such, with no discernible Sunni equivalent. As a result of the latter, there was a common and reductive conflation of Sunni identity with the pre-2003 state. Second, prior to 2003, the contentious subject of “sectarianism” and the vocabulary of sects came to be associated in Iraqi politics with the Shia. That stands to reason given that, in Iraq at least, the subject had little to do with Sunni-Shia relations and everything to do with state-Shia relations. Finally, given that Iraqis have been so thoroughly socialized into viewing “sectarianism” in irredeemably negative terms, the term’s association with Shia activism lent Shia identity an at times apologetic bent borne out of the need to deflect accusations of “sectarianism.”2 This was in stark contrast to Shia activism and Shia politics since 2003.3 Underlining and perpetuating these dynamics was a system of power relations that lasted until 2003. Its violent demise fundamentally changed how sectarian identities and sectarian relations were framed. Most noticeably it ushered in a more assertive Shia identity and led to the emergence, as well, of a distinct Sunni sectarian identity.
An illustrative parallel that highlights the importance of power relations in identity and inter-group relations and explains the invisibility of Sunni identity in Iraq prior to 2003 can be found in the study of “whiteness” in race relations. It has been argued that previously white identity was “raceless” in that white people did not see themselves as having a race but, rather, they were “simply people.” They believed that their viewpoint was not a white one but a “universally valid one – ‘the truth’ – what everyone knows.”4 As such, white becomes the standard, the norm so to speak, against which all others are differentiated.5 This phenomenon is the result of relative empowerment that enables dominant groups to influence what is regarded as “the norm”; this in turn blinds them to the facts of their own empowerment and the realities of the other’s marginalization. Furthermore, the reification of a dominant group as “the norm” can be internalized by outgroups who, more often than not, will seek approval and acceptance by trying to measure up to society’s standards of acceptability as influenced by the dominant group.6
The parallels with sectarian relations are clear: given that, prior to 2003, Sunni Arabs did not perceive themselves to be victimized on the basis of their sectarian identity and barely had a sense of themselves as a sectarian group, there was little awareness of, or concern for, issues relating to sectarian identity among them. In the 20th century, many Sunni Arab Iraqis saw themselves as “simply Iraqis” whose viewpoint, like the white one alluded to above, was not that of a Sunni Arab one but rather a universally valid one. In other words, they were “sectless” in a manner similar to the “raceless” whites.7 It is crucial to note that the empowerment that causes this is not necessarily direct material or political power. How much of either do working-class whites or Iraqis have? It is more a sense of identity-security that arises from the conviction that “we” are the Staatsvolk whose identity is validated in the daily reproduction of power relations.8
These dynamics were not exclusive to Iraq but can be glimpsed across parts of the Arab world. Prior to 2003, Sunni identity was only relevant in Iraq and the broader Arab world in so far as it was the taken-for-granted underpinning of an Islamic identity and in some cases the assumed marker of national identity. Its centrality to widespread conceptions of what it meant to be a part of the Arab and Muslim worlds was such that it required neither representation nor validation. As such, the Afghan jihad for example was an Islamic cause rather than a Sunni one and the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) was framed by the Iraqi regime and was perceived by many as a national and ethnic cause rather than a sectarian one. One of the reasons that this remained the case until 2003 was that the relations of power underpinning relations between the sects were never seriously contested.9 As a result, there was rarely a need to formulate, assert, or dwell on a distinct Sunni identity. As far as one’s own identity is concerned, dominance brings transparency, and it is only “others” who are, depending on the context, tribalized, ethnicized, racialized, or indeed “sectarianized.”10 Hence, the otherness of Shia Arabs and the entrenchment of skewed, unfavorable power relations meant that Shia identity prior to 2003 was the exact opposite of its Sunni counterpart in terms of its social and political relevance, capacity to be mobilized, content, visibility, and expressiveness.
Regime Change and Sectarian Politics
Since 2003, Sunni Arab Iraqis, like other Iraqis besides them, have struggled to square their generations-old aversion to anything that can be labelled as “sectarianism” with the inescapably sectarian reality of post-2003 Iraq. The centrality of communal identity to the very foundations of the new Iraq meant that it was always going to be difficult to separate ethno-sectarian identity from political interest after 2003. What may have begun as a phenomenon of elite politics with a residual popular echo has metastasized over the past 11 years into the most inescapable and defining feature of the new Iraq. Whatever their personal preferences, Arab Iraqis today simply cannot ignore the sectarian prism due to its centrality to social and political life. They have to either perpetuate or, far more challengingly, confront a socio-political environment built around a narrative of sect-centricity that all too easily intrudes upon many aspects of daily life. Existential fear, the ongoing cycle of violence and revenge, the increasingly sectarian character of politics and security, and the weight of 11 years of violence and division have effectively forced Arab Iraqis to view themselves primarily as members of sect a or b for practical reasons of self-interest and self-preservation if for no other.
The elevation of sectarian identity in post-2003 Iraq as a defining feature of politics disadvantaged Sunnis vis-a-vis their Shia counterparts. Obviously one reason for this was demographics. But the Sunnis also lacked the sect-specific institutions, representation, imagination, political consciousness, and sense of themselves that Shias had long before 2003. Upon regime change, Sunnis were simply not equipped to participate or compete in the politics of communal victimhood because they did not yet have a sense of themselves as a distinct communal group, much less as a uniquely victimized one.
More profoundly, the ethno-sectarian nature of the major oppositional forces that came to be empowered after 2003 affected views toward the legitimacy of the entire post-Saddam order. This order from its earliest days had a distinct sense of Shia ownership, at least in Arab Iraq. The legacies of the Ba’ath and the profound sense of Shia victimhood (real or perceived) under Saddam Hussein meant that Shias regarded the downfall of the Ba’ath as their salvation as a sectarian group as much as it was Iraq’s. Conversely, there was no element of sub-national communal identity in whatever desire existed among Sunnis to be rid of Saddam Hussein. Even if they were glad to see the former regime’s demise, Sunni Arabs were hardly likely to subscribe to a celebration so heavily tinged with someone else’s feeling of victimhood and entitlement—and especially since the logic of “the Shia revival” often held Sunnis to be guilty by association.
Thus a divergence in historical memories regarding the Ba’ath manifested itself as a divergence in views towards the downfall of the regime, the occupation, and the legitimacy (not to be confused with popularity) of the entire post-2003 order. This divergence has been one of the drivers of identity politics and of the sectarianization of post-2003 Iraq. Little has happened since 2003 to assuage this divergence or the suspicion that the new Arab Iraq is essentially a Shia Arab Iraq.
The Emergence of Sunni Identity
Unsurprisingly, the past 11 years have mandated the historically novel emergence of an explicitly Sunni mass-group identity. In Iraq, Sunni Arabs were compelled to reinvent themselves as a sectarian group because of the empowerment of Shia-centric political actors, the institutionalization of identity politics, and the fixation of both the Coalition and most of its Iraqi interlocutors on ethno-sectarian identities. There were other factors as well, including the assertion of a triumphalist Shia identity and a distinctly Shia brand of Iraqi nationalism. In the words of one Sunni politician: “we awoke one day and suddenly discovered that we are all Sunnis.”11 In short, Sunnis had to develop a politicized sense of themselves as Sunnis to be relevant in a system that was fundamentally based on identity politics.
Yet “Sunni identity” is no more a fixed or all-encompassing concept than “Shia identity” or any other mass-group identity is. Whatever observations we may make about Sunnis or Shias, it bears emphasising that nothing can be said about all Sunnis or all Shias. Like any collective, Sunni Arab Iraqis are never any one thing and, whatever the issue at hand, they will form a spectrum of views, attitudes, and behavior. Nevertheless, as with any group with a salient sense of itself, one can identify common points of reference and shared group-specific issues that nourish a sense of “we-ness”. At heart, the emergent and still evolving sense of Sunni identity is rooted in the dislocation and disenfranchisement felt by Sunni Arabs in 2003 and, consequently, in a sense of ambivalence toward the legitimacy of the entire post-2003 order. Generally speaking, this manifests itself in a spectrum from begrudging acceptance to armed insurgency with the balance between the two being influenced by perceptions regarding the stability and permanence of the state and perceptions regarding the prospects for political reform and progress. Even among those who have chosen to work within the system, there exists a latent resentment toward the post-2003 order that Baghdad has done little to alleviate. This latent resentment is central to Sunni Iraqi conceptions of self and is the bedrock of many of the definitional aspects of emergent Sunni identity, not least of which is a profound sense of communal victimhood.
Through much of the past 11 years, Sunnis have been plagued by the twin pressures of needing to accept political realities on the one hand and on the other, having to struggle against a political order that often seems stacked against them and which they consider illegitimate. Underlining these contradictions has been a sporadic effort to discard the pre-2003 legacy and its now seemingly out-dated and redundant conceptions of Iraq and Iraqi nationalism. While this is a process all Iraqis have had to undergo, it has been particularly slow and painstaking amongst many Sunnis due to the resentment that underlines their views towards regime change and the post-2003 state. The particulars of Sunni rejection and political participation over the past 11 years need not detain us here just as the intricacies of Sunni politics and the intense divisions that so characterize them are beyond the scope of this essay. Rather than attempting a detailed history of post-2003 Sunni politics, our focus on Sunni identity is better served by trying to identify key features of the emergent Sunni sense of self, be it during periods of widespread rejection, boycott, and insurgency such as in the years 2003-2008, and unfortunately at the time of writing as well, or during the period marked by widespread acceptance, no matter how begrudging, of the political order from 2009 to 2011 or during the Sunni protest movement of 2012-2013.
Effigies of executed inmates at a Sunni protest camp in 2013. The sign on the effigy on the right reads, “terrorist,” while the one on the left reads, “and finally [a] Sunni.”
To state the obvious, a pronounced sense of victimhood is perhaps the most clearly discernible and most defining feature of Iraqi Sunni identity. In many ways, the Iraqi state that was born in 2003 was one based on communal victimhood wherein the more the claimed suffering, the more the sense of political entitlement. Although Sunnis were late entrants, they are today capable contestants in the Olympics of suffering (to borrow a phrase from Ian Buruma) that so characterize Iraqi sectarian relations.12
The root of Iraqi Sunnis’ newly found politicized sense of self is the conviction that the post-2003 order came and now exists at their expense. This Sunni sense of victimhood is juxtaposed against Iraqi Shias, and this leads to a dynamic of competing victimhoods: Shias and Sunnis each consider themselves to be the prime victim of the tragedies of the past decade and hence the most deserving of the political capital that is presumed to accrue from unique suffering. As such, Sunnis will often claim that the violence of the past 11 years has disproportionately targeted their community and that all the violence against civilians is sponsored by Iran, the Iraqi government, and Shia militias.13 While there is no denying that Sunnis have been the victims of political and even social marginalization in the new Shia-dominated system, feelings of communal victimhood are seldom free from exaggeration, particularly when they are so directly related to demands for political entitlement and when they dominate the self-perception of a group.
An extreme example of exaggerated communal victimhood from the Sunni Popular Movement’s Facebook page. The comment says that most pictures published of the toppling of Saddam’s statue were taken with the 14 Ramadhan mosque in the background. The comment concludes: "the targeting of Sunni symbolism was clear from the first hours of the American occupation."
With hindsight it is difficult to see how the ascendancy of identity politics could have been avoided or how Sunni suspicions could have been assuaged given the manner in which the new order was born and given the caliber and political predispositions of much of the newly empowered political elites. The ethno-sectarian basis of the new state was something that aroused deep concern among Sunnis, who feared that the politics of unique communal victimhood implicitly vilified them. For example, according to Yehia al Kubaisi of the Iraqi Center for Strategic Studies, the first draft of the Iraqi constitution presented to the National Assembly on August 15, 2005 mirrored the sentiments expressed in the highly sect-centric “Declaration of the Shia of Iraq” of 2002, which many post-2003 Shia politicians had signed.14 To illustrate, Kubaisi notes that the first draft included an article that implicitly vilified Iraq’s Sunni Arabs in the following terms: “remembering the pains of the despotic clique’s sectarian oppression of the majority.”15 While the drafters may well protest that the intended majority could mean the majority of all Iraqis, Kubaisi is correct in pointing out that the ethno-sectarian basis of the new Iraq leaves little doubt about what is implied by minorities and majorities in the heated context of 2005.
The Paradoxes of Sunni Identity
Beyond the core sense of victimhood within Sunni sectarian identity, the emergence of Sunni identity since 2003 has been animated by several inner paradoxes or tensions relating to the difficulties that Sunnis have faced in trying to deal with and adapt to the unfavorable political realities of post-2003 Iraq.
Between Accepting and Rejecting the New Iraq
As already mentioned, there is a latent resentment underlining views towards the post-2003 order among a considerable body of Sunni opinion. As a result, Sunnis have struggled with the paradox of needing to work within a system that they regard as broadly illegitimate. Early on, this led to a division in overall Sunni Arab political opinion that still persists on whether to participate at all in the political system or to reject it outright through either boycott or insurgency. Even those Sunni politicians participating in national or regional politics have had to be mindful of Sunni grievances and, particularly in times of heightened tension, have had to balance their role in government against their constituency’s disdain of the government.16
Some argue that a significant body of Sunni opinion has simply not been willing to accept the post-2003 order. The criminal negligence and the discriminatory and heavy-handed policies of post-2003 governments have rightly been highlighted in many a commentary on Iraqi politics. The marginalization that Sunnis so often complain of is undoubtedly real and inevitably serves to perpetuate Sunni alienation from the state. However, an overlooked feature of Sunni politics has been the predisposition of a considerable body of Sunni opinion to reject the new order and deny it any legitimacy whatsoever. As one commentary recently put it:
The most significant factor behind Iraq’s problems has been the inability of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and its Sunni neighbors to come to terms with a government in which the Shias. . . hold the leading role. This inability was displayed early on, when Iraq’s Sunnis refused to take part in Iraq’s first parliamentary elections, and resorted to insurgency almost immediately after the US invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein. All along, the goal of Iraqi Sunnis has been to prove that the Shias are not capable of governing Iraq.17
In effect, Shia political actors –through their incompetence and their own sect-centricity– validated many preexisting Sunni prejudices that made them distrustful of the post-2003 order. This saw some Sunni political actors working towards or aiding the failure of the post-2003 order, thereby accentuating the already severe shortcomings of the newly empowered non-Sunni political elites. It also nurtured an ambivalent relationship between Sunnis and anti-state violence. As is evident now in the ongoing crisis,18 many Sunni leaders, even those who are personally involved in the political process, are nevertheless prone to voice their support to anti-state (and not just anti-government) insurgents.19
In many ways the sectarian divide in post-2003 Iraq and the emergence of Sunni identity are issues rooted in the controversy surrounding the legitimacy of the state. Both Shia and Sunni politicians have supported violent non-state actors—except that in the case of the former, these actors have been aligned with, or at least were not in opposition to, the state whereas in the case of the latter these have been anti-state actors. This unfortunate equation reflects the broader divide over views regarding the legitimacy of the post-2003 order. The point to make is that for Sunnis and particularly for Sunni leaders and representatives this presents an inescapable contradiction: how do you seek greater representation in or fairer treatment from a state that is deemed illegitimate and rejected by many Sunnis? This leads to a vicious cycle that shows no sign of abating: anti-state sentiment among Sunnis feeds into anti-state insurgency that then nourishes the discriminatory, heavy-handed, and sect-centric aspects of post-2003 governance. This further exacerbates anti-state sentiment among Sunnis by again validating widespread Sunni grievances (real or perceived).
The drastic disconnect of Sunnis today from the Maliki government and from the state more generally is the result of a cumulative process going back to 2003 and the establishment of the new Iraq’s first institutions. A pertinent illustration comes by way of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) appointed in July 2003, shortly after regime change. In the name of creating a representative Iraqi governing body, the composition of the IGC was strictly based on the assumed demographic weight of Iraq’s ethno-sectarian communities; hence, 13 Shia Arabs, 5 Sunni Arabs, 5 Kurds, a Turkoman and a Christian were appointed. Regardless of intentions, this crystallized and reinforced identity politics (which naturally disadvantaged Sunnis circa 2003) as the basis for the new Iraq. Second, intentionally or otherwise, this overlooked how contentious Iraqi demographics would prove to be in the absence of a reliable census.20 As the foundation of the ethno-sectarian apportionment that Sunnis feel has disenfranchised them, demographics have become a common point of reference in the new Sunni sense of victimhood. From the earliest days of the new Iraq, many Sunnis have rejected the notion that they are a numerical minority. This by extension meant rejecting many of the foundational bases of the new Iraq.21 Until a census is conducted – and assuming that all sides accept its results – this issue will remain a contentious one. For the Shia, their majority status is the bedrock of their sense of political entitlement and a central component of the Shia sense of victimhood as the long-suffering majority. Sunnis on the other hand seem ever more resistant to any notion that they are a minority, thus nourishing their own sense of victimhood as a people who have essentially been cheated into second-class status by nothing more than a lie.
The practical implications of the controversies surrounding demographics are obvious. Sunnis who subscribe to the idea that Sunnis are not a minority will have unrealistic expectations that, when not met, will only deepen their sense of injustice and victimization. This applies, among other things, to electoral politics, elite bargaining positions, popular expectations, and political demands. Nowhere is this more relevant than in the question of sectarian balance within state institutions, long a grievance of Sunni activists and politicians. Yet to take sectarian balance to mean Sunnis should have 42 percent representation in higher offices is impractical, given current configurations that are based on the assumption that Shias alone are anywhere between 55-65 percent of the population.
The controversy over demographics is one example of issues that prolong Sunni resentment against the post-2003 order and deepen their sense of victimhood. To many Sunnis, the new Iraq was first an American-occupied and subsequently an Iranian-occupied one that targets them as a community.22 Whatever the validity of such views, the inability to accept the political realities of the post-2003 order have led Sunni leaders to adopt positions that have often done more harm than good to the cause of easing the undeniable, even if sometimes exaggerated, marginalization of Sunni Arabs and the sectarian discrimination they face. The most notable examples would include their boycott of the 2005 elections and the constitutional drafting process and, more damagingly, their ambivalent stand on Sunni militancy. The state’s continued failures and its endemic weaknesses have encouraged the rejectionist trend, particularly when recurrent crises make the state seem fragile to the point of transience.
Between “Being” Sunni and Being Non-sectarian
Throughout the 20th century, Iraqi Arabs were thoroughly socialized into rejecting “sectarianism.” Even today, outside militant circles, it is not easy to find Iraqis expressing unambiguous sectarian hate.23 For Sunnis, the aversion to “sectarianism” has often entailed an aversion to the mere expression of sectarian identity. Indeed, until recently, Sunni leaders have seemed loathe to make reference to “Sunnis” in public discourse, opting instead to use easily decoded metaphors such as “mukawin“ (component) or “shariha mu’ayanah“ (a certain section). The past 11 years have seen a gradual easing away from this now dated political correctness, and today Sunni politicians and Sunnis in general are less likely to show such impractical aversions to using the political vocabulary of the day. This is the result of a reactive process triggered in 2003 by the political empowerment of an assertive brand of Iraqi Shiism and the consequent sectarian coding of the previously “sectless” Sunnis.
After the 2003 regime change, the Sunni Arab allergy to even the vocabulary of sects clashed with the need to find themselves as a sectarian group and compete in a system defined by ethno-sectarian politics. As others have noted, there were two broad tendencies within the Sunni Arab community: one that held on to the sect-averse political frames of the pre-2003 world and another that essentially tried to catch up with Shias in terms of building a sectarian political identity. In other words, the former tried to, “de-confessionalize the political system,” while the latter, “sought to confessionalize the community itself through the assertion of its identity.”24 Although this divergence still exists to some degree, the latter trend very quickly gained ground. The Sunni vote in the December 2005 elections was an early indication that a considerable body of Sunni opinion was quickly forming a politicized sense of themselves as a sectarian group.25 As should be clear by now, it could scarcely have been otherwise given the domination of Shia-centric political actors in the state, the realities of identity politics, and the ever-rising tenor of sectarian entrenchment and sectarian violence.
Today, Iraqi Sunni leaders rarely shy away from speaking as Sunnis and in the name of Sunnis. The past decade has seen a gradual and unmistakable shift away from earlier forms of political correctness that deemed references to sectarian identity unacceptable. So while such statements may have been unlikely from Sunni leaders in 2003, it was perfectly natural and on par with broader Sunni political discourse in 2013 for Osama al Nujaifi to say that, “victimhood has been concentrated in particular provinces and on a particular component and that is the Arab Sunnis.”26 By the time the Sunni protest movements of 2012-2013 had emerged, the taboos surrounding sectarian expression had all but vanished as a result of the events of the preceding nine years. Since 2003, Sunni political actors have had to be seen to be standing for Sunnis and Sunni issues and in this they have had to compete against each other and against their militant and their more openly sect-centric opponents for popular Sunni support.27 Thus, in the elections of 2014, most Sunni candidates campaigned on little else besides Sunni identity and Sunni victimhood. Candidates and their media outlets incessantly pushed the line that Sunni Arabs faced an existential threat in Iraq with phrases such as “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” typically punctuating Sunni electoral campaigning.28 This trend has only been augmented by the renewed insurgency in 2013 and the fall of Sunni provinces out of government control beginning in June 2014.
Consciously or not, Sunnis have in effect had to mimic their Shia competitors to confront the assertion of a distinctly Shia Iraqi nationalism, Shia symbolism, Shia victimhood, and ultimately a politicized Shia sense of self. In the realm of symbolism, Sunnis were at a distinct disadvantage in 2003 and lacked anything resembling the rich pantheon of symbols and icons that the Shias have both as Shias and as specifically Iraqi Shias. Since then, with the waxing of a politicized Sunni Iraqi sense of self, and the development of a narrative of Sunni victimhood no less potent than its much older Shia counterpart, Sunni Iraqis today have discovered and created symbols from Iraqi and Islamic history with which to assert themselves and formulate frames of Sunni Iraqi nationalism unknown in pre-2003 Iraq.
Often this has been done in direct juxtaposition to Shia symbolism and in some cases there is an element of borrowing, intentional or otherwise, from Shia practices. For example, just as Shias have long framed their Imams and the House of the Prophet as group-defining symbols or icons, Sunni Iraqis have begun doing the same with regard to the Prophet’s Companions. One can find many instances of poems and odes dedicated to Omar ibn al Khattab29 to rival the long tradition of such practices among the Shia with regards to Ali ibn abi Talib or Hussein ibn Ali.30 In addition to that, many Sunni Iraqi groups, from Facebook groups to individuals on Twitter to militant groups, name themselves after the Companions and particularly the first two Caliphs as a way of signifying and asserting a Sunni identity. Today, one often comes across instances of Iraqi Sunni activists referring to themselves as “the sons of Omar” in response to the more familiar term of Shia self-reference “sons of Haidar.” It is also interesting to note that just as Shias have blended Shia Islamic symbolism with Iraqi symbolism to assert a sect-centric Iraqi nationalism, Sunnis in post-2003 Iraq have often done the same.31
Image published online in early 2014. A handheld note reads: “oh descendants of Kisra [Persian Sassanid king Chosroes or Khosrau] here are the descendants of Omar.” Signed, “the sons of Fallujah.”
The creation of group-specific symbols is essential to group coherence, particularly when faced with a competitor with an elaborate iconography. It is interesting to note in that regard that this is hardly without precedent. In the 1980s, for instance, Pakistani Sunni militants are reported to have actively sought the creation of new symbols and rituals to rival Shiism’s rich symbolism.32 An interesting medieval parallel comes from Basra in the year 998, when Sunnis invented a mourning ritual mimicking and coinciding with the most important date on the Shia religious calendar, Ashura.33 As 14th century chronicler Ibn al Kathir informs us, in that year, Sunnis confronted Shia mourners with a mourning ceremony of their own for Mus’ab bin al Zubair,34 alleging he was killed on the 12th of the Islamic month of Muharram (meaning two days after the date of Ashura), “and this was in the name of confronting an innovation with an innovation similar to it.”35 In a similar vein, to counter the assertion of Shia iconography on the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere, Sunnis now have banners of their own such as the ones displaying the “Muhammad is our role-model” logo that can be seen in Sunni areas of Baghdad.36
“Muhammad is our role-model.”
Such symbolism – and this applies equally to most Shia symbolism – is meant neither to disparage nor attack the other; rather, it is a means of defining the group by clarifying the boundary separating “us” from “them.” While some symbols are more explicitly aggressive and are designed to accentuate, rather than simply highlight, the divide between “us” and “them,” in general symbols serve as “border guards” of a group’s identity; they are instruments of differentiation, cohesion, and reproduction.37 The appearance of such Sunni “border guards” highlights the fact that a politicized Sunni sense of self has emerged in Iraq in recent years. Today there are Sunni issues, Sunni causes, Sunni organizations, and Sunni constituencies that do not fit the pre-2003 aversion to the sectarian prism.
Importantly, neither the emergence of a Sunni identity nor the adoption of sectarian issues by Sunni politicians is a negative development in and of itself. These developments may be novel in the modern history of Sunni Iraqis, but there is nothing inherently nefarious in embracing or asserting a sectarian identity. Unfortunately, the manner in which this has unfolded in post-2003 Iraq—one of assertion and counter-assertion, belligerence and counter-belligerence—has proven destructive and divisive to Arab Iraq and recalls Buruma’s observation that communal victimhood “becomes questionable when a cultural, ethnic, religious, or national community bases its communal identity almost entirely on the sentimental solidarity of remembered victimhood. For that way lies historical myopia and, in extreme circumstances, even vendetta.”38
Between An A-Sectarian Tradition and Anti-Shiism
Another paradox facing Sunni conceptions of self is the balance between opposition to the post-2003 order and sectarian hatred. After all, the notion of a united, pluralistic Iraq is still one that carries weight in the Arab Iraqi imagination and one to which almost all political actors and leaders at least have to pay lip service. The centrality of anti-state sentiment to Sunni sectarian identity and the sect-centric nature of much of the new Shia political elite mean that it is often difficult to separate assertions of Sunni identity from perceived anti-Shiism. Successive Shia-dominated governments in Baghdad have manipulated this feature of post-2003 Iraqi political life to their advantage.
The inescapable fact is that the post-2003 state has often carried, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, a Shia identity. As such, opposition to the state can very easily be framed as anti-Shiism (be it of the secular or the religious variety) and indeed it sometimes is. Furthermore, the violence that engulfed Iraq after 2003 quickly acquired a sectarian element.39 In the early days, to fight the occupation necessarily entailed fighting the Shia-dominated state; indeed, above all it entailed ensuring the failure of the new state. To vilify the state was to vilify its supporters and, as already discussed, a considerable body of Shia opinion accorded the post-2003 order a measure of legitimacy whatever their views were on the occupation and on the dismal performance of Iraq’s new political elites. Just as in many Shia minds Sunnis came to be associated with the Ba’ath, terrorism, and extremist Islamism, in many Sunni minds – in Iraq and beyond – the Shia came to be associated with the occupation, the post-2003 state, and sectarian oppression. The cycle of violence, mobilization, fear, and revenge that unfolded after 2003 created a reality of sectarian division that has been deepening ever since with only brief periods of respite.
As is often the case with inter-group relations, perceptions can count more than reality. For example, is accusing the post-2003 state of being a “Safavid state” or calling Shia politicians “Majus“ a form of anti-Shiism?40 For most Shias it undoubtedly is. But some of the Sunnis who use these terms make the rather trite argument that these terms apply only to pro-Iranian and Iranian Shias thereby excluding “patriotic” Arab Shias. The fact is that the charge against Iraqi Shias of having Iranian sympathies or of being Iranian was one used by successive Iraqi regimes in the 20th century to silence opposition and neutralize threats emanating from Shia quarters; hence, to Shias this smacks of an all-too-familiar elitism and oppression. It combines class-based prejudice with regional discrimination that excludes rank and file Shias, who are denigrated en masse with terms like shroog and mi’dan41 from the upper echelons of state and society. Regardless of whether religion and sectarian dogma are the driver, there is an historical context that makes the empowerment of Shia Iraqis on the one hand and the conflation of Shia Iraqis with Iran on the other profoundly sectarian issues.
We can see this twin dynamic at play with the Sunni rejection of the state as an Iranian puppet. From the beginning, extremist Sunni Islamist insurgents attacked Shias in word and deed on the basis of religious dogma. But perhaps more widespread was the opposition to the state on the basis that it was, and still is, widely seen as an Iranian proxy. The insurgency eventually became more openly anti-state and anti-Shia with one insurgent commander telling the Guardian in 2007, “There is a new jihad now. The jihad is against the Shias, not the Americans.”42 That was in the context of the civil war following which Iraq saw a short period in which identity politics seemed to be in decline; unfortunately, the retreat of sectarian politics and sectarian entrenchment around 2009 was derailed by the controversial elections of 2010 that saw a reformulation of sectarian alliances.43 This was followed by Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki’s disastrous second term in office, which did anything but allay Sunni resentment against the state and his government. By the time of the Sunni protest movements of 2012-2013, anti-state sentiment and Sunni entrenchment were perhaps at an all-time high, with the line separating anti-Shia from anti-Iranian sentiment becoming thinner than ever.44 This has presented Sunnis with a problem in that the inescapably sectarian cast of Sunni activism has repeatedly clashed with Arab Iraqis’ sincere desire for a non-sectarian pluralistic Iraq.45
This medley of symbols is perhaps reflective of Sunni protestors’ desire to express a cross-sectarian nationalistic image. In the center is a model of Ali ibn abi Talib’s characteristic two-pointed sword with “Ali” and “Omar” written on it. Unfortunately the effect of such efforts was overshadowed by other symbols, not least of which is the old Iraqi flag clearly visible in the background.
Another cause of anti-Shia sentiment among Sunni opponents of the regime is Salafism. In the face of an aggressive, empowered, triumphalist, politicized Shiism, Salafism with its ingrained visceral hatred of all things Shia may seem particularly attractive to Sunni opponents of the new order, particularly those with a religious bent. This does not necessarily mean that Sunnis have turned into card-carrying Salafists en masse, but the anti-Shia vocabulary of Salafism has clearly made some headway in Iraq and indeed beyond. This is only to be expected given that Salafism offers one of the few explicitly Sunni and unabashedly anti-Shia options for Sunnis resentful of Shia power or of Sunni marginalization. As Harith al Qarawee argues: “Following the Iraq War and as a result of the heightening sectarian hostilities in the region, Sunni identity has been subject to a process of “reinvention” that evoked some Salafist beliefs, especially those that deemed Shiism as “deviance” and a major enemy.”46
One new conundrum for Sunnis therefore is how to frame their opposition to a system that, openly or not, is rooted in Shia identity without being anti-Shia and thus carrying on the a-sectarian tradition that frowns on “sectarianism.” Complicating matters further is the fact that, in terms of military strength, it is jihadi Salafism with its genocidal stance toward Shias in the form of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham, or today’s Islamic State that have proved most effective against Iraqi forces. Sunni opponents of the Iraqi state have often had to balance the military and mobilization effectiveness of jihadi Salafists on the one hand and jihadi Salafism’s decidedly anti-Shia and anti-nationalist positions on the other. This contradiction was perhaps best captured in the comments of one former Iraqi officer-turned-insurgent who found himself having to work with, as it was then called, the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, he proclaimed: “I’m not exaggerating when I say I’m a living schizophrenia case. On the one side, I refuse Al Qaeda’s ideology, but on the other I miss military life and hate the government that commands this army.” He went on to proclaim: “today I will prove to Maliki… that I deserve to be an army commander. Today I am absolutely with Al Qaeda.”47
As with the paradox of needing to “be Sunni” while respecting the ideal of the non-sectarian tradition, the relationship with and distance from anti-Shiism presents Sunnis with a clash between the frames of social and political reference inherited from pre-2003 Iraq and the realities and exigencies of the past 11 years. If the enemy frames one in sectarian terms, then the enemy automatically sectarianizes itself. If the enemy in question happens to be Shia, and if the most effective counterweight to them is the rabid anti-Shiism of Salafists, completely avoiding the perception of anti-Shiism becomes exceedingly difficult.
Between Centrifugal Tendencies and the Central State
Sunni opinions on federalism perfectly illustrate the issue of ingrained paradoxes in emergent Sunni identity and the struggle to shed dated frames of reference. It remains a divisive issue among Sunnis, but over the past 11 years we see an easing of the restraints that were so much stronger in the early years following regime change.
Leaving the Kurdish case aside, Arab Iraqis have had a meandering relationship with the concept of federalism. To begin with, federalism was viewed with suspicion by many Arab Iraqis who feared it to be a precursor, if not a byword, for Iraq’s division. Despite that, there were many Arab Shia Iraqis who championed a federal Iraq: Shia politicians helped enshrine federalism in the Iraqi constitution in 2005, plans for a Basra region have been unsuccessfully floated by some Basrawi politicians since 2003, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq pursued a nine-governorate super-region referred to as the “region of the center and the south” that likewise failed to materialize.
Initially, Sunni opinion was vehemently against federalism. Whether this was a rejection of federalism itself or whether it was part of a broader rejection of all things associated with the new Iraq is open to debate. Either way, by 2005 Sunni leaders were framing federalism as an existential threat to Iraq; unsurprisingly, Sunni majority provinces voted against the constitution in the constitutional referendum of 2005 with Sunni leaders citing federalism, and a host of other issues, among their reasons for doing so.48 Regardless of whether this reflected an attachment to the centralized state of the 20th century or a distrust of the post-2003 order as a whole, it showed an inability to grasp the significance and permanence of regime change and an inability to accept new political realities and the redundancy of old ones. As in the case of the other paradoxes discussed here, Sunni Arabs to their detriment have been much too slow in accepting the federal framework—(particularly beyond the broadly recognized “special case” of the Kurdistan Regional Government.)
Since at least 2011, however, there has been a marked shift amongst Sunnis, or at the very least among some Sunni political leaders, toward a pro-federal stance. In the summer of 2011, for example, Osama al Nujaifi, the then-Speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, alluded to the possibility of Sunni federalism and even separatism if progress was not achieved on a number of political issues. That a mainstream Sunni politician was openly speaking in such terms was unprecedented. Later that year, Iraq saw three Sunni majority provinces (Salah al Din, Anbar, and Diyala) calling for federal status. But these calls were unconstitutionally blocked by the central government.49 Among the most important reasons behind the growing Sunni Arab calls were budgetary matters, services, and security issues underlined by a perception that these provinces were the victims of sectarian neglect and oppression. That sectarian element was inflated by the central government’s refusal to implement its own laws and constitutional procedures, opting instead to obstruct what were perfectly legal political ambitions and thereby nourishing Sunni feelings of sectarian marginalization, discrimination, and exclusion. This was a major miscalculation on the part of the Maliki government and a wasted opportunity. He could have helped further integrate Sunni Iraqis into the state and strengthen the legitimacy of the post-2003 order by taking advantage of a Sunni willingness to accept the state and resort to official channels to address grievances. As Najih al Mizan, the then-head of the Committee for the Formation of Federal Regions in Salah al Din, put it: “We, the provinces that rejected the constitution and who fought the government, now resort to their own rules and their own constitution and they close the door on us. What are we supposed to do?”50
The idea of Sunni federal regions has continued to gain traction as relations between the Maliki government and Sunni leaders and Sunni provinces have deteriorated. In 2012-2013, federalism emerged as something of a cause célèbre among some sections of the Sunni protest movement, though by no means all. There seemed to have been a sense that having failed with boycotts, taking up arms, and participation, the time had come for Sunnis to administer their own regions. However, there remains considerable opposition to the idea of Sunni federalism from within the Sunni Arab communities, and it is a rejection rooted in the same dated frames of reference that formed the basis of Sunni rejection of the idea in 2003-2005. Nevertheless, even if it has taken up to 11 years, taboos are being broken by the urgency of Iraq’s recurring crises and by the demands that these have imposed upon all Iraqis, including the Sunni communities and their political leaders. Where it was once nationalistic heresy to speak of federalism, today some of the previously most ardent opponents of the federal framework have openly begun advocating federal regions for Sunni majority provinces as the only solution left for Sunni Iraqis and for Iraq itself.51 This may signal the beginning of a much-delayed, and no doubt much-reluctant, Sunni acceptance of the irretrievable demise of the ideal of a strong central state in 2003.
The spectacular downturn of events beginning in June 2014 with the fall of entire Sunni-majority provinces to a new insurgency and the Islamic State has only strengthened the case for Sunni federal regions. Given all that has happened since 2003, advocating a strong centralized and sect-blind state is, in the short term at least, simply absurd. The increasing willingness to accept the idea of Sunni federal regions shows that even the need to pay lip service to the ideal of a centralized government has begun to wane. With the events of the summer of 2014, some analysts have argued that stitching Iraq back together in any shape or form will be difficult, let alone an Iraq with a centralized state. Indeed, the levels of mutual mistrust, suspicion, and resentment between Sunni and Shia political leaders and between significant sections of their constituencies seems to mandate far-reaching decentralization if Arab Iraq is to continue as a unified state. In the immediate aftermath of the fall of Mosul, the governor of Ninewa, Atheel al Nujaifi, expressed a fairly familiar position but one that seems to have received a boost of support – at least if judging by social media – namely, the formation of either a single Sunni region or multiple Sunni regions based on current provincial boundaries. Indeed, there seems to be a growing sense that something fundamental changed in June 2014; as Atheel al Nujaifi put it: “the project [federalism in Sunni areas] has become an urgent need for the region and Sunnis cannot stay within the previous contexts anymore.”52 One Iraqi commentator affiliated with the Sunni Popular Movement put it more bluntly: “We want to rule ourselves. . . I don’t want a Shia to rule me.” 53 This openly pro-federal stance was unheard of in the early years following regime change and such a blunt assertion of a Sunni sectarian identity and the rejection of the sectarian other were likewise considered taboo.
The Iraq Contagion
Iraq today is in limbo: in addition to resurgent militancy and the state’s loss of control of vast swaths of territory and major urban centers, a new government has yet to be formed following the elections of April 30, 2014. With regard to the future of Iraq’s Sunnis, their role in Iraq, and indeed the future of the Iraqi state, much will depend on the nature of the next government, on its composition, its policy toward the current crisis, and the vision that it ultimately attempts to implement for Iraq. The emergence of a Sunni Iraqi identity need not be detrimental to sectarian relations or to state-Sunni relations. As evidenced by the widespread Sunni participation in the elections of 2010, it is the context that dictates the nature of sectarian relations and how sectarian identity is manifested at any given time. External pressures, the weight of the past 11 years and a host of other issues mean that there will be no quick fixes for the impasse that Sunnis – and Iraq more broadly – find themselves in today. Nevertheless, a successful elite bargain with broad popular support on all sides will at least have a chance of beginning the long process of remedying Iraqi governance and politics and, by extension, remedying Iraqi sectarian relations.
Having said that, identity is not something that can be switched off at the signing of an inclusive deal: sectarian identity, be it Sunni or Shia, will continue to be a salient factor in Iraqi politics and society for the foreseeable future. What makes this worrying is not that sectarian identities are inherently poisonous; rather, it is the domestic and regional contexts in which sectarian relations are playing out that should give cause for alarm. 2003 was pivotal not just for Iraq but for the region. Many of the processes that have been witnessed in Iraq have had a significant echo in the Arab world, and this is particularly relevant to the changes that have happened to Sunni Arab conceptions of self since 2003.
The Sunni-Shia divide and the awakening of a distinctly Sunni sense of themselves have shaped, and been shaped by, regional dynamics far beyond Iraq. Regional state actors have exacerbated Sunni-Shia tensions in Iraq and beyond due to worries about the extension of Iranian power triggered by the empowerment of Shia and Shia-centric political actors in Iraq. As noted by Mari Luomi, regional powers have reinforced the sectarian divide primarily due to geopolitical considerations. They want to contain Iranian power and manage domestic distributions of power. They also want to address external and internal security concerns, not the least of which are those relating to domestic Shia populations in some Sunni controlled states.54 While regional powers have exploited the sectarian divide as a foreign and domestic policy tool, this has been facilitated by the fact that it also feeds off latent but nevertheless extant sectarian fears and prejudices. As such, events in Iraq have triggered a Sunni identity-awakening of sorts that has aligned with the policy prerogatives of regional powers; in the process, Sunni identity at the societal level and the use of sectarian identity at the state level have acted in a mutually reinforcing and cyclical way. As Heiko Wimmen puts it in his study of sectarian relations and the Arab Spring: “While leaders certainly worked hard and in some cases applied brute force to herd their wayward flocks back into sectarian corrals, the quick and resounding success of these efforts relied on dispositions and dynamics already present in these societies.”55
Since the shock of 2003 and the rewriting of the balance of sectarian power relations in Iraq, a variety of factors has contributed to the normative effect that sectarian politics have had across the region. The factors include the cumulative effect of Iraqi sectarian politics, Hezbollah’s more robust stance post-2008, the unrest in Bahrain, and above all the civil war in Syria. Sectarian identities, both Sunni and Shia, are undeniably a salient factor in society and politics in Iraq and parts of the Arab world in a manner not seen in modern history. The reinvention of Sunni identity in Iraq has reverberated throughout the Arab world with transnational links and solidarities being strengthened and has augmented the salience of Sunni identity and its importance to conceptions of self among significant sections of Arab societies.
The sectarian prism’s ability to color perceptions regarding regional events today can scarcely be exaggerated. Fears of sectarian encirclement are so easily aroused that there have been instances of the Sunni-Shia divide becoming a contentious issue, even to the point of lethal violence, in some unlikely places. For example, in 2013 Egyptian Salafists embarked on a campaign to counter the “spread of Shiism” in Egypt despite the country having a miniscule Shia population.
At an anti-Shia event organized by Salafists in Egypt in 2013. The banner reads: “The Shia are the enemy so beware them. They are not welcome.” It is worth noting that in November 2013 Egyptian Shia polemicist Hassan Shehata and three of his companions were victims of a public lynching.
The Syrian civil war has had a devastating effect on sectarian relations and has further radicalized segments of Sunni and Shia societies—not just in the Arab world but beyond as well.56 Jihadi groups, who thanks to the ever-increasingly intertwined conflicts in Iraq and Syria are unfortunately enjoying an unprecedented Golden Age, seem far more focused on fighting sectarian war than with fighting Israel or “the West” and its Muslim allies. To a large extent, sectarian hate has displaced anti-Americanism or anti-Israeli sentiment in jihadi circles in the Arab world.57 Once again this has highlighted the rise of a salient Sunni identity in the Arab world and the spreading influence of Salafist frames of anti-Shiism.58 For example, Salafism in Lebanon has been making much headway among Lebanese Sunnis resentful of an empowered Hezbollah and concerned about developments in the Syrian civil war.59 As has been noticed among some Sunnis across the region, many Lebanese Sunnis see their fate in Lebanon tied to the fate of Sunnis in Syria and elsewhere as they try to resist what they fear will be encirclement by an Iranian-led coalition of Shia forces. As discussed in the case of Iraq, militant Salafism is seen as one of the more effective counterweights to any threats posed by Shia actors. Needless to say, this entails a Sunni sectarian self-conception that is overwhelmingly defined by its opposition to the Shia.
The inflammation of sectarian identities in Iraq quickly spread across the region with the aid of new forms of technology and communication, most notably social media and private satellite channels. They helped set a backdrop of toxic sectarian relations for subsequent developments in Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria and elsewhere. Bizarrely, the accentuated Sunni sectarian identity that this helped create can be witnessed as far as Southeast Asia. In the autumn of 2013, the Universiti Sains Malaysian held a seminar entitled “confronting the Shia virus“– this in a country where the Shia population officially stands at about 1 percent of Malaysian Muslims.60 This was followed by a similar public event in nearby Indonesia a few months later where a call for an anti-Shia jihad was made.61 Analysts believe that this was related to the electioneering that was underway at the time; however, it speaks volumes about the salience and transnationalism of Sunni identity today that anti-Shiism passes as a populist message in a country where Shias form less than 1 percent of the population. It is a sect-centric Islamic identity that is juxtaposed against the sectarian other as much as the religious other. In the Arab world, this sect-centric Islamic identity that appeals to transnational Sunni solidarity was, for example, very much in evidence at a conference held in Doha in support of the Syrian people in early 2013, where Sa’eed al Lafi, a spokesman of the then-ongoing Iraqi protests declared: “with this slogan Allahu Akbar we inaugurated a revolution in Iraq that completes what our brothers started in Syria. We say to them: we are not a sect, we are a nation ummah.” As if to underline the point, this was met with chants of, “one, one, one, Sunni blood is one.”62
Yearning for a supposedly a-sectarian pre-2003 past is futile in the short-term. What is required is, first, an acceptance and recognition of sectarian identities and the legitimacy of embracing a non-belligerent sectarian identity within the national framework. Secondly, the more regional powers are able to decouple geopolitical interest from the prism of “sectarianism”, the more benign sectarian relations will become. Third, the more sect-neutral a state appears, the more society can divorce sectarian identity from political interest thereby sapping the politicization of sectarian identities that has been underway for some time. Finally, there are sectarian grievances and competing forms of sectarian victimhood at play in several countries relating to contentious national historical memories and perceptions of sectarian oppression and entitlement. The means with which these can be addressed will differ according to context but will never be easy. And yet, without resolving these long-standing and group-defining differences, communal relations will always be flammable. As Steven Pinker argues with regard to violence and ethnic coexistence, communal relations get ugly when inter-mingled groups “keep long memories of harms committed by their neighbors’ ancestors while being unrepentant for harms committed by their own, and live under crappy governments that mythologize one group’s glorious history while excluding others from the social contract.”63
Meeting these requirements, and any others that have been suggested elsewhere, is exceedingly difficult in today’s Middle East. The sectarian climate in Iraq and parts of the Arab world is an inescapable, though not an all-encompassing fact. Unfortunately, in the places where it matters most, moderate or a-sectarian voices have become increasingly marginalized. This is not because they lack popular appeal but because the empowerment of sect-centric forces has proven self-perpetuating in that it has created the fear upon which it thrives. This cycle may eventually be broken, but it will take time and, given the gravity of the crises that it has spawned, may even require a generational change. Until then, the prism of sectarian identities will continue to be an era-defining feature of Iraq and other nations in the region.