The Rise of Sunni Identity in Iraq

April 5, 2013 Topic: Civil SocietyHistoryIdeologyReligionSociety Region: Iraq

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.

Maliki formed a new regional military command in the ethnically mixed, disputed areas to appeal to the Sunni population living in those areas. He wanted to emerge as an Arab leader who is willing to stop Kurdish encroachment. Barzani, by his side, supported demands by Sunni leaders and protesters and on several occasions stressed that Kurds and Sunni Arabs have a common cause against the increasing authoritarianism of the prime minister. While Maliki was trying to revive Arab solidarity under his leadership, regional Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar were urging the Kurds (who are predominantly Sunni Muslims) and the Sunni Arabs to join forces against the Shia-dominated government.

In fact, Sunni Arabs in Iraq were exposed to two conflicting forces that sought to separate their “Arabism” from their “Sunnism.” Yet the current dynamic appears to affirm their distinctiveness from the coethnic Shias and cosectarian Kurds. Anti-Maliki slogans escalated to a point where it becomes unlikely for him to win over any serious portion of the Sunni constituency. In fact, anti-Malikism has become a significant element in the process shaping Sunni discourse.

At the same time, disputes over land and a legacy of mutual suspicions will make any potential alliance with the Kurds a tactical one (as was the case with the Shia-Kurdish alliance which was undermined despite the absence of any legacy of hostility). In Iraq, identity politics is an instrument used by political actors as they engage in the more fundamental conflicts over power, status and resources.

What is coming?

Sunni political, religious and tribal leaders use sectarian mobilization to revive their support base and prevent Maliki from making inroads to their constituencies. Similarly, Maliki is using this confrontation to appear as the strong Shia leader who is defending Shia community and the “rule of majority,” which is targeted by regional Sunni powers and their local proxies. With the deepening sectarian divide, the previously rejected idea of turning Iraq into a confederation of three ethno-sectarian groups seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, the future might prove to be gloomier if the confrontation turns into a new civil war.

The exploitation of ethnic and sectarian identities by political entrepreneurs is a way to manage the conflict over power and resources. To a large extent, this conflict in Iraq is taking place between centripetal and centrifugal forces. On one level, the conflict is manifested through the clash between Maliki’s emphasis on state building and rule of law, and his opponents’ complaints about authoritarian and exclusionary policies. In fact, this reflects a dilemma Iraq has always faced: how to consolidate state power without excluding disloyal social forces.

Maliki appears to be confusing state authority with governmental power, and governmental structure with his own personal authority. His project of state building is based on maximizing his authority and monopolizing “legitimate” violence without creating the proper conditions to legitimize his authority.

State building is also about creating frameworks that persuasively organize the state-society relationship and induce the necessary sense of inclusion. The political process in Iraq was built on a conceptually confusing formula. While the constitution has mentioned concepts such as the “Iraqi Nation” and “Iraqi people,” there was stress on seeing Iraqi society as one composed of ethnic, religious and sectarian components. This resulted in more perplexity about where politics is supposed to go: toward more integration or more disintegration? In practice, the whole process seemed to have lacked a clear vision, paving the way for the current conflict.

Sunni Arab leaders were historically in favor of central rule when they controlled the government. Even after 2003, the ideas of decentralization and federalism did not appeal because of the then undisputed influence of the skeptical attitude that viewed as the political process generated by the U.S. invasion as illegitimate. Today this attitude seems to be changing. Maliki and his Shia allies have strengthened their control over central-government bodies. They led a massive process of sectarian replacement inside those bodies, through de-Baathification and clientelism, leaving Sunni Arabs with a feeling of being excluded and targeted. There is no way to know if state jobs are proportionally distributed between the two communities, but the Sunni feeling of alienation is unquestionable.