Violence, Sectarianism and Division: symptoms of a deeper illness?
With the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq many are asking if the conflict was ‘worth it?’ In terms of American strategic interest it is doubtful whether there is a net gain that would justify over 35,000 casualties and a trillion dollars in spending. As for the Iraqi point of view, ‘was it worth it?’ is a far more difficult question that may well be a fool’s errand. Firstly, is the question valid? After all, the American withdrawal might be a definitive end for, say, an American soldier returning to his/her loved ones; but for Iraqis in Iraq, whatever conflict was keeping the Americans in Iraq in 2011 remains very much a work in progress. Hence, a retrospective, ‘was it worth it?’ might be misplaced from an Iraqi point of view. Secondly, ‘was it worth it?’ has a tendency of descending into an even more meaningless question, and that is ‘were the Iraqis better off under Saddam?’ I say meaningless because firstly it is an entirely subjective question that only Iraqis who had lived under Saddam and who had experienced the post-2003-era can answer – and even then they can only speak for their individual selves. Secondly, it is yet again a retrospective question that is being asked prematurely and, as such, makes no allowance for future developments in post-Saddam Iraq. Given that Iraq is still struggling with the emotional and socio-political detritus of the war and regime change, any holistic evaluation of the still infant, at most adolescent, post-Saddam era is particularly ill advised – it is like looking at the turmoil of partition and asking if India was better off under British colonialism. Perhaps more importantly, the insistence of some on relating and comparing today’s Iraq to Saddam’s Iraq has, more often than not, silenced debate or reduced it to pro/anti-regime/war polemics: criticise the current order in the presence of one of its supporters and the debate-killing response is, ‘were Saddam’s days any better?’ Equally, any critical comment of the Saddam era (or praise for the post-2003 order) will often attract an indignant response defending the good old days of the previous regime.
I pity a nation that holds the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein as its benchmark for political development – and indeed, Iraq and its people today are a deserving subject of pity just as they were under much of Saddam Hussein’s rule, albeit for entirely different reasons. Let us leave the emotionally charged competition of conflicting historical memories aside and agree on what, to my mind at least, is the blindingly obvious: in 2003 Iraq exchanged one set of catastrophes for another. As such, if we must speak of pre and post-2003 eras then, for the sake of both historical memory and current understanding, we must evaluate each era on its own abundant faults and limited merits.
We heard Barack Obama speak of a, ‘sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq with a representative government that was elected by its own people.’ To varying degrees every one of those descriptions are false. Iraq is lacking in both negative and positive sovereignty: it is anything but free from external interference and its ability to provide political goods for its citizens is severely limited. As for stability, the use of that word today is a reflection of just how horrendous the past eight years have been; it is only when we consider the highs of 3,700 dead Iraqis per month that 2011’s 250-400 deaths per month lead us to speak of stability. Nor is it just about body counts: the entire political edifice is in crisis with ingrained structural weaknesses being compounded by hopelessly corrupt, divided and inefficient political leaders. Which brings us to the, ‘representative government that was elected by its own people,’ that President Obama spoke of.
If 2003 has taught us anything it is that regimes can be changed in a day but changing a political culture takes generations. Continuing a tradition spanning the entire 91-year history of the Iraqi nation state, politics in Iraq today revolve around individuals rather than parties, ideologies or political programs. Another venerable political tradition that continues unabated is that major policy decisions are the preserve of shady back-room deals rather than representative political organs; political decisions affecting the fate of the country are still made behind closed doors by a tightly knit political elite with little accountability or transparency (who can outline the details of the Erbil Agreement upon which the current Iraqi government is based?) and the people remain chronically dependent on a state that consistently fails them.
With entrenched political elites (another constant in Iraqi political history), reforming the structural problems of the ‘new Iraq’ is made more difficult. Yet without a concerted effort to address the intrinsic flaws of Iraq’s political system, solutions to more immediate and apparent issues will remain all but impossible. For example, without long overdue constitutional revision Iraq will continue to produce unwieldy governments that are more concerned with placating rivals than formulating policy (how many cabinets paradoxically include the opposition?). Likewise, without constitutional revision, federalism will continue to be seen as an existential threat rather than the administrative procedure it should be. Without a truly independent and professional judiciary, centralisation of power and marginalisation of others will continue to be a source of division and instability. Without a complete overhaul of the muhassasa system of ethno-sectarian power sharing, politics will always be susceptible to sectarianization.
These are far more threatening issues than, say an ill-defined ‘sectarianism.’ Today’s sectarian tensions are the manifestation of a system that enshrined sectarian identity as a core component of its DNA, thereby elevating sectarian identity, and with it, extant sectarian animosities to prominence. To put it simply, every political system has to have winners and losers but when the system is based on sectarian divisions, political loss and gain will be significantly linked to sectarian identity thereby perpetuating its politicisation.
Take the most recent crisis regarding the formation of federal regions in Sunni-majority governorates and the accompanying rise in sectarian tensions. Why has this become a sectarian issue? After all, not all Sunni majority governorates sought federal status and those that did were doing so completely within the law and as individual governorates rather than as a Sunni union. However, the Prime Minister’s unconstitutional opposition to the most recent federal projects ensured the issue would be mired in sectarian politics and would bring to the fore a host of problems relating to competing sectarian Iraqi nationalisms – the subsequent arrest warrant against Vice President Hashemi scarcely helped matters.
Sectarian tension and division in the ongoing crisis – as with several other recent ones – is the most damaging symptom of a deeper illness: the profoundly flawed political system upon which the ‘new Iraq’ is based. As the above example illustrates, it is not sectarianism per se that is the problem in this case but the selective application of constitutional law that then feeds on a host of extant issues relating to sectarian identities. An independent judiciary, an impersonal administration, more transparency in policymaking and other structural measures would prevent elite-led sectarian mobilisation and would sap the appeal of sectarian politics amongst the electorate. Similarly, the sectarian violence of bygone years – not to be confused with broader issues relating to competing sectarian identities – was largely a product of state failure and profound group insecurity rather than a supposedly innate sectarian hatred. Sectarian relations are not always pleasant and there is no shortage of divisive issues animating sectarian competition; however it is very rare for this competition to turn violent.
The politicisation of sectarian identity seems destined to be a feature of the political landscape for many years to come. Socially, sectarian identities are perilously salient in Iraq and beyond. Yet none of this mandates a slide back into sectarian violence. Mistrust, suspicion, even outright disdain exist between sectarian groups but, as argued by Nir Rosen, the key ingredient that led to sectarian civil war was fear; a fear of the other that is now gone due to the Iraqi security apparatuses’ relative ability to ensure a minimal level of personal safety (and minimal it indeed is). As Rosen put it, despite bitterness and suspicion bred by years of violence, Iraqis, ‘… are no longer afraid of the other sect. Fear is what led to the militias taking power and to the political and military mobilization along sectarian lines. That fear is gone and the Iraqi security forces fill the security void, even if its not pretty.’
Will similar structural improvements be seen in other areas of Iraqi politics and governance? Given the wanting calibre of political leadership in Iraq, any such change seems highly unlikely in 2012. It is unfortunate that the British Ambassador’s description of Iraq in 1954 remains so applicable today: ‘… a country with all the material means for progress at its disposal but with an administration so rotten and chaotic that it is more than doubtful whether it can take advantage of them.’