Iraq is more like N. Ireland than Lebanon, Reconciliation is Possible

By Jocelyne Cesari

The attack of The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) on Mossul and its march on Baghdad has taken the international community by surprise and raised the possibility of another US intervention in Iraq, with the hope it could prevent the downfall of the country into a sectarian war. Such a scenario is highly improbable because of the nature of the Iraq crisis that is first and foremost political and not religious.

The rise of ISIS to preeminence is not due to its religious ideology but to the structural deficiencies of the Iraq state. As tempting as it can be to compare Iraq to Lebanon in the 1970s, the political reality is different.

First, sects or religious communities are not engrained in Iraq national history unlike Lebanon. While Lebanon was built on the explicit recognition of different religious communities, this has not been the case of Iraq. In my book, The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity and the State, I describe how Saddam Hussein held his power through the Sunni minority over the Shia population, which implied an explicit denial of the religious diversity of the national community and even worse, a discriminatory use of religious groups and interests in the building of the state institutions. In these conditions, it is no surprise that the end of the Saddam regime opened a Pandora’s box of sectarian divides, since religious and ethnic diversity was negated at the very foundation of modern Iraq. As a consequence, after 2003, Shias previously persecuted, took on the power in a classical scenario of revenge.

In this regard, the Iraqi situation bears resemblance with the tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland that were caused by the discrimination of one religious group (Protestants) over another (Catholics) as well as divergent views of the national community. It means that the conflict is about power sharing between different religious and ethnic groups and the inability and unwillingness of the successive Maliki regimes to create federal institutions that would allow the political inclusion of all groups.

The 2003 U.S. intervention in Iraq did not create the sectarian tensions; they were already simmering under the iron fist of Saddam. But it can be argued that the American strategy post-Saddam did not facilitate better relationships between Sunnis and Shias. In fact by siding with the long time oppressed Shias and not working efficiently on a reconciliation process between the communities and a more equitable redistribution of power, the U.S. has exacerbated the suspicions and hostility between the two groups without gaining any real allies in the process.

In sum, the main reason for the rise of ISIS is the growing disillusion of the Iraqi Sunnis with the government of Al Malki who has marginalized Sunni in different areas of politics and public life. In other words, the main issue that fuels the influence of ISIS is not religion, even if the war is couched in religious terms, but the unbalance in the distribution of power between Shia and Sunni.

Although ISIS aims to establish a Caliphate across Iraq, Syria and beyond, it is not the main goal of the Sunni population of Iraq. In fact the political violence of Sunnis in Iraq is governed primarily by tactical and strategic choices rather than by religious motivations. No doubt that communal antagonism plays a significant role but is the outcome, not the cause, of the discriminatory political mechanisms in Iraq.

Successful conflict regulation requires the recognition and accommodation of the core cause ‐ in this case effective power sharing ‐ rather than a containment of the violent symptoms of the conflict. In this case, defeating ISIS is certainly necessary but not sufficient. It is imperative for the Iraqi rulers to create the conditions for a national reconciliation between Sunni, Shia and Kurds and devise a constitutional compromise which offers each community sufficient protection which eliminates the resort to violence. It is probably easier said than done, especially in the current regional environment and the transnational ideology of ISIS. But its is where the international community, including the US, could positively influence Iraqi protagonists: all of them.

Jocelyne Cesari, Harvard and Georgetown University, author of The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity and the State, Cambridge University Press, 2014.


Related Video added by Juan Cole

The Telegraph – “Iraq crisis: on the frontline of the battle against Isis insurgents”


7 Responses

  1. Juan, talk to just about any Irish-Catholic about the war with Britain and they’ll tell you the struggle is one of nationalism, not religion.

  2. So in the analogy, who gets to play the Brits and the Irish-Americans that sent money and weapons to the factions and all that? Which leader is Paisley, who’s Gerry, and which holy bunch takes credit for mass graves of infants and children and stuff?

  3. “the main reason for the rise of ISIS is the growing disillusion of the Iraqi Sunnis with the government of Al Malki who has marginalized Sunni in different areas of politics and public life.” This is borne out by an interview with the chief of a large Sunni tribe that claims the conquest of Mosul, Tikrit, etc. is due to the Sunni tribal fighters, only aided by ISIS. However, this chief says aim is to have a separate Sunni state, now more equitable Sunni representation in a united Iraq. See There is a “tribal revolution” in Iraq: Anbar tribal chief <a href="link to;

  4. Lets also face the fact that Sunni Gulf States will ultimately have to be stakeholders if the US and the International Community will not hold them accountable for funding foreign and local Islamist extremists globally and in Iraq. Reconciliation is almost impossible to achieve with such suicidal actions when there are like even Canadian Sunni extremists in suicide missions in Iraq, way before ISIS even came onto the scene.
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    And here’s another link on how Al-Maliki has created the sectarian environment by employing brutal monsters. Despite his political cunning, given his track record and history, its difficult to see how he can be a miraculous unifier in such a crisis. Even if that somehow is achieved, should look for another leader for true reconciliation.
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  5. “The rise of ISIS to preeminence is not due to its religious ideology but to the structural deficiencies of the Iraq state.”

    How do you explain the large volume of foreign fighters that have joined ISIS? I have no idea how reliable these figures are, but many sources claim as many as 3000 foreign fighters out of the 5000-7000 that constitute the whole group. While Sunni marginalization in Iraq and Syria no doubt played some role in the rise of ISIS, I am not convinced that scores of foreign Islamists would join if not for its extreme religious ideology. And without religion inspiring these fighters to swell the ranks of ISIS, would they have been able to assert themselves so strongly?

    • 3000, or even 7000 fighters are enough to imperil a nation of 32,000,000? Sounds like a very dysfunctional state to me. Unless their threat is exaggerated, in which case the foreign fighters don’t matter that much anyway.

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