Views on a new Near East
Monday April 21st 2014

Identity politics in Iraq: how much of it is about identity?

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Fanar Haddad





By Fanar Haddad


Fanar Haddad is Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. He has published widely on identity, identity politics and modern Iraqi social history. He is author of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity(London: Hurst & Co/New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).


Reading Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms one cannot help but feel that people’s belief in the nation-state may be slightly overstated. The tenuous and fragile existence of states that is so lucidly illustrated by Davies makes our belief in their eternal mountain-like permanence rather absurd. Yet the mere suggestion that Iraq may fragment is met with either howls of protest or hand-wringing approval – the former driven by an inflated sense of nationalism and/or solidarity; the latter driven by an insistence on viewing less developed countries in ethno-sectarian/religious terms.

The cold fact is that state fragmentation, failure, collapse and even reincarnation are far from atypical in history. One is reminded here of Ismail Kadare’s The Palace of Dreams in which a dream describes a hell inhabited not by people but by dead states: “… their bodies stretched out sprawling side by side: empires, emirates, republics, constitutional monarchies, confederations…”1

Iraq, like any other state, can one day find itself amongst the dead states of Kadare’s hell. If the United Kingdom’s boundaries may have to be redrawn by a future independent Scotland why should the prospect of reconfiguring much younger and far more unstable states like Iraq be so unthinkable? The fact remains that Iraq’s breakup or reconfiguration is neither inevitable nor impossible. To take the most likely challenge to Iraq’s boundaries, Kurdish independence, the current de-facto independence of Iraqi Kurdistan may be unsustainable in the long term. Coupled with the structural weaknesses of the federal state, Kurdish independence may well be viewed by some as an inevitability.

However by the same token, given mutual interests between Baghdad and Erbil and the geostrategic bulwarks standing against Kurdish independence, the awkward autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan may continue indefinitely eventually yielding an Iraqi version of Finland’s Aland Islands.2

Are identity and identity politics necessarily the driver behind a hypothetical failure or collapse of the Iraqi nation-state? Kurdish separatism is most certainly grounded in ethnic identity: an ethnic group seeks to give political expression to a historic homeland and seeks as much autonomy as possible to better separate themselves from a historically dominant other. However, the other identity-based scenarios for Iraq’s demise, namely those grounded in sectarian identity, are less clear-cut. Take the moves towards federal status by some, not all, Sunni-majority governorates in 2011. That episode, which some feared would herald the first step towards the breakup of Arab Iraq, can conceivably be seen as an administrative issue driven by discontent at mismanagement and neglect and pursued along perfectly legitimate lines that was then turned into a crisis by the central government’s unconstitutional efforts to block the legitimate demands of the governorates in question.

Yet in the new Iraq, the shadow of sectarian identity lurks seemingly around every political corner. No sooner had the crisis begun than the lines between the tangible and the perceptual, the lines between power politics and sectarian identity, were blurred beyond recognition.

In researching sectarian politics in Iraq, one of the most confounding pieces of the puzzle is trying to identify the line separating politics from identity. The two are so often overlapping in Iraq with preconceptions, perceptions and ideology influencing and distorting both. Adding to the complications is the toxicity of Iraqi sectarian identity amongst Iraq-experts and indeed amongst Iraqis themselves.

Leaving the infantile debate as to whether sectarian identity is relevant in Iraq (it is relevant in some situations and not so relevant in others), discerning the constantly shifting line between identity and politics and between perception and reality and wading through the undeniable overlap is, I believe, the most pressing task facing those interested in identity politics in Iraq today.

I find few issues more illustrative of this problem than references to Iraq’s ethereal ‘reconciliation process’. Who are the belligerents that need to be reconciled? And what era of horrors is the process addressing? The Saddam-era, the new Iraq or is it aimed specifically at the civil war? Most importantly, is this a reconciliation aimed at bringing Iraq’s major ethno-sectarian groups, namely Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, together along the lines of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Rwanda’s top-down ingando re-education camps? Despite the problems with the South African and the Rwandan approaches,3 they are both, ostensibly at least, aimed at society and social groups: they bring together victims and oppressors, black and white, Hutu and Tutsi – in a word, they are aimed at the people. Iraq’s reconciliation process – complete with a ministry of its own – lacks that social element.

The displaced are offered aid, victims are given compensation, competing claims to religious sites are mediated, some former militant commanders are encouraged into mainstream politics but there is no concrete, pro-active attempt to bridge a gap between social groups – indeed the existence of such a gap is often underplayed. This is only to be expected given the continuing sensitivity and lingering disagreement over recent history and the identity of its victims and oppressors and what reconciliation ultimately seeks to promote beyond an ill-defined unity. This is perhaps due to the fact that the violence in Iraq has been even more ambiguous than is inherently the case in armed conflict generally.

As a result, today’s reconciliation process does not involve representatives of clearly identifiable belligerents of a resolved conflict. Reconciliation in Iraq, far from fostering unity or representing and involving significant social groups, is more akin to a prolonged negotiation amongst elites about access to the national pie. The positive impact of this on society is questionable as reflected by the lament of a director at the Ministry of National Reconciliation who regretted the fact that much of their efforts are expended on settling competing claims to religious sites; a process he condemns as elitist, materialistic and with no discernible impact on ‘reconciliation’ beyond settling the commercial and property disputes of a small elite.4

Yet, despite the ambiguities, ‘reconciliation’ in Iraq is often portrayed as a process that is aimed at bringing Sunnis, Shias and Kurds together. Which brings us back to the task of discerning the line between politics and identity. I would regard reconciliation as a process aimed not at bringing social groups together, but one that aims at resolving quarrels between political groups that, importantly, and despite their frequent utilisation of sectarian identity in rhetoric and practice, are not neat sectarian blocs nor do they command the loyalty of the sectarian groups that they are often perceived to represent.

Clearly the political relevance of ethno-sectarian identity is undeniable in a system based on ethno-sectarian apportionment. Yet politicians are not always acting as ethno-sectarian agents nor are they perpetually in congress with an exclusively ethno-sectarian audience – particularly if we are focusing on Arab Iraq. Political alliances, especially since 2008, and including those involving Kurdish leaders, do not always follow a clear identity-based logic. Yet this did not stop many from viewing the abortive attempt to hold a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as another case of Sunni versus Shia politicians – despite Sadrist involvement in the attempt to unseat Maliki. Similarly, the arrest warrant and death sentence passed against Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi pose similar problems when trying to distinguish politics from identity. How relevant was Hashimi’s sectarian identity in the decision to issue an arrest warrant and consequent sentencing of him? In other words, was this a case of Sunni marginalisation – which undoubtedly exists – or was it more a case of Iraqiyyah marginalisation? Those who regard the two as synonymous (i.e. Iraqiyyah equals Sunni) overlook Iraqiyyah’s, and indeed all Iraqi political blocs’, internal fissures, lack of consistency and many alliances of convenience.5

In short, the nature of the system has meant that Iraqiyyah – or what remains of it – is more likely to champion issues relevant to a Sunni constituency but this should not be viewed as their defining characteristic. Whilst the sectarian card is often played by Iraqiyyah and others this has been done so in a highly selective, opportunistic and inconsistent way. Politicians’ sectarian colours are on intermittent display: we should not reduce individual politicians to their sectarian identity nor should we deny that many of them are in the habit of displaying their sectarian plumage when convenient.

Having said that, and leaving instances of political expediency aside, a politician’s biases and preconceptions are often influenced by their identity – sectarian or otherwise – and this is particularly consequential in institutionally weak political systems like Iraq. We each have something akin to a ‘worldview’ and people are susceptible to presuming the correctness, validity, even universality of their position. The problem arises when a sectional worldview is propagated in the political sphere by ostensibly national politicians. Jalal al-Din al-Saghir’s recent lecture6 on the Kurds’ role in Shi’a messianic prophecy is illustrative in that regard as are views on the Baathi past, education reform and the conflict in Syria to name but a few examples. Whether a politician’s position on these issues is based on genuine conviction as influenced by identity and to what extent political opportunism and strategy play a role are questions that are open to debate.

The following example begs that very debate: In a recent televised interview, Anbari politician Ahmed al-Alwani described Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, Qassim Suleimani, as an enemy and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as a liar. What followed was a spirited defence of Nasrallah by politicians from the National Iraqi Alliance, led by Ibrahim al-Jaafari who, in a parliamentary session, demanded that Alwani apologise. This ‘Shia position’ was met by a ‘Sunni position’ that countered by demanding that, if insulting Nasrallah warrants an apology, then so too should the insults levelled at Sunni clerics Yusuf al-Qaradhawi and Harith al-Dhari.7

This ridiculous episode encapsulates the ease with which Iraqi politics are entangled with sectarian identity. It seems that, in the new Iraq, sectarian identity is forever lurking in the political background ever ready to inhere on political perceptions. The parliamentary bickering described above is a microcosm of a larger problem in Iraq today. Whilst the vast majority of Arab Iraqis are united in their belief in and loyalty to the Iraqi nation state, this unity is paradoxically characterised by division: A division of memory, a division of political perception and ultimately a division as to what the unshakeable belief of belonging to Iraq entails in terms of identity, history and worldview. The above exchange between Alwani and Jaafari reflects differences over who Iraq’s heroes and villains are and ultimately who ‘we the people’ are; a conundrum that is unfortunately not confined to a bickering political elite.

Whilst any society in the world will have a multiplicity of identities, worldviews and social groups, cases like Iraq see multiplicity turning into division: Where different imaginations of what ‘we the people’ represent inhere on individual political and social perceptions to the extent that clearly identifiable and politically relevant opposing narratives of state, society, politics and history become salient enough to be easily activated and utilised in politics. It is this process that allows ethno-sectarian identity to intrude on issues that have little to do with them.

Part of distinguishing between politics and identity and assessing when identity drives politics and when it is merely incidental is the equally difficult task of differentiating between perception and reality. An excellent example in that regard can be found in views on deteriorating school examination results. For several years, residents of A’adhamiyah, and other Sunni-majority areas have alleged that their children have been given poor grades due to sectarian discrimination.8 A historian at the University of Tikrit complained that Karbala had attained the highest average passing grades in Iraq while Salah al-Din had ranked among the lowest. She indignantly asked: “Nobody in all of Salah al-Din gets good grades? All good grades are in Karbala and Najaf – Najaf is [ranked] first in all of Iraq [despite being] busy with latmiyat?”9

At face value there is a strong case to be made for sectarian discrimination impacting students’ educational attainment; however, according to the Deputy Minister of Education for Scientific Affairs, Nihad al-Jiburri, there is another less sensational explanation. He pointed to the fact that the state of education in Iraq as a whole, in all governorates, is such that poor educational attainment and falling standards are a national problem. To illustrate, despite nourishing a sense of sectarian discrimination among Sunnis, Karbala achieving the highest average passing grade in Iraq does not tell us what the pass rate actually is among Karbala’i students. According to Nihad al-Jiburri, it stands at a meagre 28 per cent – hardly a sign of favouritism.10

However, as is often the case, perception trumps reality and the past nine years have fostered a hyper-alertness to sectarian identity in the self-perception of many Iraqis; hence a sectarian reading of a particular situation is often given more credence than it deserves. In this particular case we see the effect of the reversal of roles that has taken place between Sunnis and Shias as the self-perceived victims of ‘sectarianism’. Because they view themselves as the victims of sectarian discrimination, Shias under the previous regime and Sunnis today are more likely to view political misfortune and the shortcomings of the state through the prism of sectarian identity thereby strengthening the conviction that they are the targets of sectarian discrimination – a conviction that is the product of the cyclical relationship between perception and reality.

The permeability that today characterises the relationship between sectarian identity and political interest/perception in Iraq is neither inherent nor preordained. There are specific drivers that led to the current state of affairs and others that are helping sustain them into the future. Of the latter, the regional climate and the Iraqi political elite’s legitimacy-deficit rank high on the list. There are too many political actors in Iraq whose careers and prospects depend on the perpetuation of identity politics. If politician x or list y realise that they have little or no chance of winning votes from any but one ethno-sectarian group then the incentive to try to transcend identity politics and nurture a truly national programme is diminished. This was recently illustrated in remarkably candid terms by one Iraqiyyah representative who condemned Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for what she viewed as his attempt to split the ‘Sunni street’ in order to gain support – in other words for engaging in electoral politics in a manner transcending sectarian boundaries.11

Such identity entrenchment and the perception that Iraqi politics are a zero-sum sectarian game are, wittingly or not, nourished and perpetuated by the symbolism and rhetoric employed by the state. Beneath the state’s proclamations of an all-inclusive Iraqiness lies the fact that the state today is subtly endowed with a sectarian identity. In the inescapable logic of the nation-state, it is imperative for states that are home to competing groups to be perceived as being neutral with regards to group competition. Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews in Israel may trade in polemics, assertions and counter-assertions of identity without influencing their conception of themselves as Israelis precisely because the Israeli state champions neither side – if only the same can be said about the Israeli state’s approach to its Jewish and Arab citizens. In today’s Iraq, the perfectly natural competition between sectarian groups is lent an inescapable political dimension by, amongst many other things, the state’s not so implicit adoption of Shia identity.12 What is of even greater consequence is that this incapacitates the nation-state’s ability to act as the higher point of mutual reference amongst competing sub-national groups.


Iraqi nationalism or Shia Iraqi nationalism? Mural outside Baghdad Railway Station depicting Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr and Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr flanking the Iraqi flag. © Fanar Haddad


Iraq faces numerous challenges and there is much to alienate the citizen from the state: From the appalling failure to provide adequate services to the glaring lack of internal and external sovereignty to security lapses to rampant nepotism and corruption and so the list goes on. However, if we focus specifically on the problem of identity politics, the question of symbolism and the sectarian identity of the state become paramount: Not only does it alienate segments of society, it does so in a very divisive way. In an ideal world, the state should appear and be perceived as being disinterested in sectarian identity opting instead to champion symbols and narratives that are relevant to all competing groups – and there is no shortage of such symbols when considering Shias and Sunnis in Arab Iraq.13

If, however, cultural production is clearly adopting a sect-specific narrative then it will inevitably create an alienated out-group who will likely become more deeply entrenched in the identity they feel is being excluded. In fact, in her comments on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, Judith Butler goes as far as arguing that even the adoption of both identities by the state would be problematic, concluding that: “State should not be in the business of expressing cultural identity.”14 Regrettably, that remains a tall order for a state like Iraq’s that is based on ethno-sectarian apportionment and where increasing authoritarian fiat, corruption and institutional weakness serve to perpetuate and amplify social divisions through politics. In a state as dysfunctional as Iraq’s, one wonders whether trying to discern the lines separating identity from politics and the lines between perception and reality are not ultimately a fool’s errand.





1. Ismail Kadare, The Palace of Dreams, (London: Vintage Classics, 2008).

2. This parallel has been suggested in the work of Liam Anderson. For a recent discussion on the difficulties surrounding Kurdish independence see Shwan Zulal, ‘Splitting Iraq: how likely is an independent Kurdistan?’ Available at:

3. See for example, Christopher Colvin, ‘Brothers and Sisters, Do Not Be Afraid of Me: Trauma, History and the Therapeutic Imagination in the New South Africa,’ in Hodgkin & Radstone (eds), Contested Pasts: Memory, History, Nation, (London: Transaction, 2005). Susan Thomson, ‘Reeducation for Reconciliation: Participant Observations on Ingando,’ in Straus & Waldorf (eds), Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011).

4. Interview with Jamal al-Badri, Baghdad, 2012.

5. For a comprehensive look at current Iraqi political configurations see the work of Reidar Visser and

6. Available at:

7. For more details see Ali Abdul Amir, ‘Hadathan fi isbu’u yakshifan ikhtilalat al Iraq al jaded,’ Available at:

8. For example demonstrations were held in A’adhamiyah and elsewhere in 2009 demanding revisions of recent examination results in which Sunnis were allegedly discriminated against. See

9. Interview, Baghdad, January 2012. Latmiyat refer to Shi‘a mourning rituals commemorating the death of Hussein.

10. Interview, Nihad al-Jiburri, Deputy Minister of Education for Scientific Affairs, Baghdad, January 2012. Mr. al-Jiburri also pointed to chronic inefficiency and corruption as the source of discrepancies between regions.

11. See:

12. I deal with this subject in detail in, ‘Sunni Identity in Post Civil War Iraq,’ in Laurence (ed), Sectarianism in the Gulf, (London: Hurst & Co., 2013).

13. State sponsored cultural production is constantly attempting to stress such symbols – the promotion of tribal identity can be seen as one such attempt. However, much of this is rendered hollow by the fact that state sponsored cultural production contradicts itself by frankly adopting the symbolism of one sect to the exclusion of the others’.

14. Udi Aloni, What Does a Jew Want?: On Binationalism and Other Specters, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011). Available at:


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