A Sectarian Awakening: Reinventing Sunni Identity in Iraq after 2003

By Haddad, Fanar | Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, August 2014 | Go to article overview

A Sectarian Awakening: Reinventing Sunni Identity in Iraq after 2003


Haddad, Fanar, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology


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 margin- alization 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. …

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