By Tareq A. Ramadan | –
(Informed Comment) – The fall of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist dictatorship in March of 2003 was a cataclysmic political event for the Iraqi state. Sixteen years later, the fallout continues to shape and re-shape its political, religious, social, cultural, judicial, and economic life. Over the years, and as a result of invasion, internecine conflict, rampant sectarian upheaval and political decisions over the future course of the country, its citizens have been forced to re-think the very meaning of nationhood.
Benedict Anderson, in his 1983 book, asserted that nations represent an “imagined political community”: imagined because the members of the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” While different historical periods saw varying degrees of national cohesion amongst Iraq’s multiple ethno-linguistic and religious groups, reconciliation and national unity have become rather unimaginable in recent years.
The very question of Iraqi nationhood is intimately connected to its founding by the British after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WWI. The British post-war strategy to create a contiguous stretch of territory from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea included the creation of a national entity known as ‘Iraq’ which represented a conflation of three distinct former Ottoman vilayets (provinces) whose disparate populations had no previous sense of political unity. While some regimes in Iraq’s history were more inclusive in their political representation of its diverse populations, a collective sense of national unity has always remained rather elusive from the beginning.
The allocation of power by British overseers during its formative years had the long-standing effect of creating a foundation for future internecine strife between various national actors vying for power. Iraq’s demographics and the distribution of political resources has further entrenched political infighting amongst and between various groups who have attempted to impose their vision for Iraq, mainly through violence, coercion and the courts. Competing visions for a unified Iraq remain hampered by the fact that many Iraqi groups have been subjected to discriminatory policies by the state or by violence by both state and non-state actors. Until relatively recently, Shi’ites who constitute the majority of Iraq’s population had largely been elided from the corridors of power in Baghdad under previous regimes, its clerical and political leadership now play the greatest role in fomenting a quasi-nationalism predicated upon a subscription to Twelver Shi’i Islamic culture.
While the bulk of Iraqis are Arabs belonging to the Twelver, Ja’fari Shi’ite sect of Islam (60-65%), it is also home to Arab Sunnis (~15%) as well as several other ethno-linguistic and ethno-religious groups such as the Kurds (15-20%), Yazidis, Shabaks, Turkmens, Mandaeans, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians, Persians, and other smaller groups. The dividing lines between these groups has, in many ways, intensified over the last several years as smaller, more vulnerable minorities have had to seek out allies, often becoming victims of coercion and capitulation in order to survive, as the Iraqi government appeared incapable or unwilling to competently or effectively intervene on their behalf.
Furthermore, the mechanism that has been most influential in the past five years, and which has profoundly affected Baghdad’s nationalist disposition are Iran’s broad ties to the Iraqi clerical establishment as well as the Hashd al-Sha’bi (predominantly Shi’ite militias known as the ‘Popular Mobilization Forces’ which are on the verge of being integrated into Iraq’s standing army). Together, these measures will be critical to the dispensing of an Iraqi Islamist agenda, redefining, in many ways, what it means to be an Iraqi.
These, coupled with the state’s parliamentary decisions such as a ban on alcohol sales as well as the introduction of a 2015 national identification law, which mandates that the children of any convert to Islam must also be become ‘Muslim’ has helped to conflate Iraqi citizenship with a subscription to Islam (article 26/2 reads “a non-Muslim may switch his religion and the minor boys must embrace the Islamic faith of their parents”.)
According to Iraq’s constitution, drafted in 2005, Iraq is a federal state that is a democratic republic, but simultaneously guarantees the ‘Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people.’ While it claims to secure the rights of religious freedom, specifically for its Christian, Yazidi, and Mandaean communities, Iraq is undergoing a period of Islamification- that is, successive governments (Al-Maliki, al-Abadi, and Abdul-Mehdi) have articulated, through parliamentary provisions or otherwise, the Twelver Shi’ite Muslim character of the modern Iraqi state. The decree to integrate all PMF forces issued by Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has been seen by some as a capitulation of the Iraqi government to the more effective, well-armed, and ideologically zealous PMF groups (some of whom refer to themselves as al Hashd al-Sha’bi al-Muqaddas or ‘The Holy Popular Mobilization Forces)- many of whom have an outsized affinity towards Iran’s clerics. There is also concern, on the other side, that allowing the PMF too much autonomy may further complicate Baghdad’s relationship with Washington. While the PMF already answer to Iraq’s PM, a full integration into Iraq’s armed forces may also been seen as an attempt to de-politicize some of the militias although it will likely have the direct effect of instilling an even stronger sectarian ardor among its soldiery, and thus validating the ideologues that see Iraq’s future in exclusively Islamic terms. The former is mostly wishful thinking, considering that there is great public support for PMF groups who staved off the ISIS offensives and terminated their administrative powers in Iraq. Thus, the Islamification of Iraq’s military, too, seems inevitable.
Naturally, minority groups, many of which have been subjected to the violent wrath of the fundamentalist Salafist extremists that dominate ISIS’s fighting force, continue to live in fear of both an ISIS resurgence (which experts believe is coming) as well as the imposition of the PMF’s Islamist political and cultural agenda in areas they live. In fact, reports have circulated that in several areas, PMF militias have imposed their will in places whose residents are largely non-Muslim. A market in multi-cultural Mosul has been renamed ‘Suq Imam Hussein’, while, in Bartella (to the east of Mosul), residents have witnessed the construction of Shi’ite monuments aimed to dwarf Christian ones and the public library there has become the home of a loudspeaker used for the Muslim call to prayer. In the Nineveh Plains region, Muslims have been ordered to boycott Christian businesses, while some Shabaks (a distinct ethno-linguistic minority, about 70% of whom identify with Shi’ite Islam and 30% with Sunni Islam but whose religious practices, rituals and beliefs are quite distinguishable from popular Islamic forms and primarily live in the Nineveh Plains region) have begun to gradually settle in formerly Christian areas (many Christians evacuated their towns and villages after the ISIS incursion in 2014). While nothing compares to the utter destruction of human life and the desecration of cultural history by the Islamic State who saw Christians as disbelievers, Yazidis as devil-worshippers and Shi’ites as heretics, the actions of the PMF signify, today, a more official transmogrification of the physical, cultural and religious landscape. Thus, the proliferation of militant, populist Shi’ite Islamism can be seen as part of a larger ideological current seizing upon an opportunity to redefine the meaning of Iraqi nationhood.
The issue of who constitutes an Iraqi, today, is more than just a juristic question rooted in legal provisions that define citizenship, but rather the object of a national discourse predicated upon a political dynamism and a frequently shifting landscape that has politicized the very notion of what it means to be an Iraqi.
For the Kurds, national identity has been defined primarily in ethno-linguistic, historical and cultural terms. The fact that Kurdish Iraq is demarcated (geographic and territorial boundaries exist) makes it distinguishable from Arab Iraq by virtue of its semi-autonomous political status and the fact it is governed by its own representative political body (Kurdistan Regional Government). Collectively, this has all helped to facilitate a sense of distinct extra-Iraqi, national identity. For decades now, Kurds have seen themselves as part of a broader, transnational nation that transcends geographic and political boundaries and are connected through language, historical memory, religion, and culture, largely. Today, the Kurds increasingly see themselves and Iraqi Kurdistan as culturally and physiographically distinguishable from Arab Iraq.
The Yazidis, who faced Saddam’s ‘Arabization’ program have also long been subjected to pressure by the Kurds to assimilate into Kurdish culture and to convert to Islam. The Yazidis (numbering between 70,000 – 500,000) are a distinct ethno-religious group in Iraq whose religion is monotheistic with an Islamic flair, although it is believed to be rooted in some of the ancient faiths of Mesopotamia. To ISIS, they unambiguously represented an enigmatic outlier who were certainly not Muslim and who, in their minds, represented something totally averse to their conception of Islam, referring to them as ‘devil-worshippers’). Islamic State waged a merciless, indescribable assault on Yazidis including the sexual enslavement of thousands of Yazidi women and a campaign of utter violence that left 3,000-5,000 Yazidis dead with many more missing. The viciousness of ISIS towards Iraq’s Yazidis and Christians was even recognized as a ‘genocide’ by the U.S. Congress in March of 2016. Today, Iraqi Yazidis remain concerned about their safety and long-term future in a country that has utterly failed them.
For its Chaldean and Assyrian Christian populations, being an Iraqi has lost its practical and legal qualities, as they have been subjected to violence by ISIS and continued harassment, and in some cases, assault, by PMF groups operating in the north. Even though Saddam’s Ba’athist regime tried to detach its non-Arab minorities from their ethnic and cultural heritage, it sometimes tolerated minorities that did not dissent. Since then, Baghdad, once emblematic of Iraqi pluralism, has been demographically re-engineered under the watch of the past three Iraqi governments and homes and properties of Christians there have been illegally confiscated, seized, or re-settled. Baghdad’s Christian neighborhoods have largely become Arab Shi’ite Muslim neighborhoods today.
The Iraqi Turkmens, who may number as many as 3 million (calculating statistics based on ethnicity has been difficult and problematic in Iraq for decades because of the political nature of the census and recognition of minority rights), adhere to both branches of Islam and represent another non-Arab, albeit, Muslim minority. Turkmen belong to both sects of Islam, although, until relatively recently, they have largely lived rather secular lives. Amidst the attempt to re-acquire formerly ISIS-held territories, Turkish President Erdogan warned Iraqi PMF militias against attacking the Iraqi Turkmen community in Tal Afar in October 2016. However, one group of Shi’ite Turkmen formed a militia associated with the pro-Iran Badr Brigade. Like other minorities in need of powerful allies to maintain a profile in a divided Iraq, the Turkmen have also been subjected to the political fallout from a country unable to foment any sense of long-standing cohesion that goes beyond immediate political impulse.
Iraq, an artificial instrument created by British design was built upon a short-term strategy rooted in imperial grandeur and global economics, but its diverse population lacked the shared historical memory, shared cultural outlooks and worldviews, linguistic habits, religious traditions and organic social, economic, or political bonds that often tied the peoples of many contemporary nation-states together, thus helping to accelerate its demise as a pseudo-nation. For nearly a century, Iraqis too were subjected to discriminatory regimes who banked on identity politics and directly or inadvertently managed to sew dissent between its ethnic and religious factions without much aforethought.
Today, the future of Iraq’s minorities is uncertain, considering that state institutions have been instrumental in transforming Iraq’s identity from an exclusively Arabist one to an exclusively Islamist one. An increased sense of alienation, marginalization, and otherness has continued to preoccupy Iraq’s minority groups and their civil, religious, economic, and political future in Iraq remain uncertain. Suspicion, vengeance, paranoia, and mistrust have become emblematic of Iraq’s body politic causing the country to become a volatile, hostile, tempestuous, almost dystopic geo-political construct that lacks a basis for nationhood. Iraq never truly enjoyed political unity during its tumultuous existence, nor has it ever been a state for all of its citizens, but a sense of national cohesion appears to be a figment of the imagination and if current trends continue, Iraq will become a state without a nation.