The Rise of Sunni Identity in Iraq

How entrepreneurial politicians helped make sectarian affiliation a big deal.

Some years ago, few Iraqis identified themselves in sectarian terms. This was particularly true with the Arab Sunni population. Even though sectarianism has always been a powerful force in Iraqi society and politics, it has never been explicit and public as it is today. Sectarian identities are used by political entrepreneurs to achieve political goals. Although cultural symbolism and collective narratives are a part of this process, the real objectives are political—and largely calculated.

Process of Sunnification

The so-called Sunni rule of Iraq before 2003 was not Sunni in the sense that the ruling elite’s ideology was based on a sort of solidarity against the Shia. This is an oversimplification that led some to think of Iraqi history as a story of permanent sectarian conflict. In fact, the national ideology that ruled Iraq was based on the centrality of “Pan-Arabism,” which legitimated or justified an exclusionary power structure in which people from Arab Sunni areas, the majority of whom were not religious, had controlled its core.

Sectarian exclusion was coincidental in a system built on networks of clientelism, and one in which criteria of loyalty were derived from kinship and tribal-regional links. As those who belong to Arab Sunni tribal-regional congregations were favorably treated, subsequent regimes were defined as Sunni ones.

Although the ideology of Baath Party was more Sunni than Shia, it was originally articulated to emphasize a cross-sectarian and cross-religious Arab unity. For example, millions of Shias were members of Baath party (whose Iraqi branch was initially led by Abdul Khaliq al-Rikabi, a Shia from the southern city of Nasiriyah).

Today, the Arab Sunni community is subjected to strong dynamics of Sunnification. This is a result of deep alienation in post-Saddam Iraq and also is inspired by the uprising in Syria. Sunni leaders and protesters appear to be less reserved when they speak about their sectarian community. Sectarian symbolism is present in the ongoing protests in Anbar, Mosul, and other Arab Sunni cities. Flags of the “Sunni” Free Syrian Army, mottos attacking Iranian “occupation” of Iraq, and slogans denouncing Bashar al-Assad and Nuri al-Maliki imply that Iraqi Sunni protesters are joined with their Syrian counterparts in the struggle against two “Shia,” pro-Iranian governments.

These events use similar rhetoric to those of 2003, when clerics of the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), led by Harith al-Dhari, played the role of defender of Sunni community. Yet unlike the current dynamic, AMS was not an outcome of a public sociopolitical mobilization. Its main concern was to oppose and delegitimize foreign occupation. Today, foreign occupation is over and many Iraqi Sunnis seem to think that the United States should play a role in pressing the Shia-dominated government. In a letter addressing President Obama, increasingly popular cleric Abd Al-Malik al-Saadi claimed that the United States has an ethical obligation to save the country and to “reform what has been corrupted by the wrong decision of invading Iraq in 2003.”

Some Sunni politicians have started to speak publicly about Baghdad as a Sunni city, and some protesters call for a “march on Baghdad.” Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujeifi told al-Jazeera in an interview that the Iraqi Sunni population is the majority in Iraq, denying Shia claims that they are the majority.

Sunni politicians who seem less committed to the cause, like Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlaq, face rejection and accusations of treason. Last December, protesters in Fallujah expelled Mutlaq as he tried to join them. Mutlaq was a fierce critic of Maliki, but his nonsectarian approach and recent tendency to compromise did not help him build inroads to the young, angry demonstrators who feel no sympathy with politicians that place one foot in the government and the other one in the opposition. Like most youth movements, there is a tendency toward a sort of puritanism that the current political class fails to provide. But with puritanism often comes radicalization.

More Arab or More Sunni?

This mobilization process is building a Sunni political agenda and a new communal discourse. Electorally, it can help produce a stronger leadership with broader communal legitimacy that could claim a better position in any future negotiation with Shia and Kurdish leaders. The Iraqi constitution was written at a time when Sunni areas were isolated by the uprising and Sunni representatives in the constitutional committee lacked a real constituency. The new political system was mainly a product of the Shia-Kurdish alliance of the moment.

Many Sunni leaders seem to have accepted sectarian categorization and have even called for including sectarian identity in any future census, as did Nujaifi. Those who argue that there is a Sunni majority in Iraq tend to include Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen in their calculation, but ethnic differences might prove more powerful than any sect-based solidarity.

Both Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Massoud Barzani, sought to take advantage of the absence of a united and powerful Sunni leadership in order to promote their political agendas. When the Shia-Kurdish alliance started to crumble as a result of the confrontation between Maliki’s tendency to consolidate power and Barzani’s tendency to emphasize the independence of his semi-autonomous region, Sunni Arabs became a target for their competition.

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