360° Analysis

Sectarianism in Iraq


March 18, 2012 22:50 EDT
Nine years after Saddam, Iraq still finds itself in the midst of corruption and political negligence. For too long, politicians have blamed their shortcomings on sectarian issues, marginalising the needs of the Iraqi population.

Today, the most common way Iraq is referenced in political commentary is as an example of what states would resemble if they failed catastrophically. The term “Iraq” no longer just describes that particular region in the Middle East, but rather embodies a variety of negative political connotations.

Serious political analysis into the Iraqi state has become quite reductionist and often fails to explain why problems continue to emerge. Corruption and lack of progression are often expounded with the reasoning that Iraq will always be stuck in a sectarian predicament. Furthermore, the flaws in the Iraqi state are often seen simply as an outcome of poor US state-building policy.

Essentially, a certain nonchalance has emerged around the topic of Iraq. While Iraq was at some point a trend in the political sphere, it has quickly been swept under the rug of the Arab Spring and forgotten.

This is why little was really known about the background of the nation's problems, when there was a political fallout after the US departure. Instead of discussing Iraqi politics as the central factor, analysis focused on the manipulation Iraq may now face from the outside. Therefore, discussions centred around US policy post-withdrawal, the renewed role of Iran, and very rarely on Iraqi political progression.

It was interesting then to observe the manner in which analysts viewed the political scandal that occurred in Iraq. Most people had never heard many of the names that were now being channelled through the media, such as "Tariq Al-Hashimi", but quickly recognised the sectarian discourse that was being used to explain the turmoil. Immediately, one issue that involved the Iraqi government was constructed as a serious reflection of deep-rooted sectarianism in Iraqi society. The use of sectarianism as an explanation for all problems has become so powerful, politicians have even adopted it as a means of protecting themselves.

This particular issue emerged one day after the US departure from Iraq on December 19, 2011. An arrest warrant was publicly declared for Tariq Al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice-president, who is a part of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc. Hashimi was accused of partaking in several acts of terrorism and an attempt to assassinate the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Al Maliki. This was by no means the first time Hashimi was accused of being involved in criminal activity. In 2005, and again in 2011 when the accusations were renewed, he was accused of attempting to cover-up another assassination attempt against a fellow Sunni MP, Mithal Al-Alusi. Alusi survived the assassination attempt, but both of his sons and his bodyguard were killed. 

Despite the accusations made by Alusi, Hashimi contends that all the allegations against him are a part of a plot by Maliki to weaken Sunni representation in the Iraqi parliament.  Following the arrest warrant, Hashimi fled to the Kurdish region of Iraq where the central Iraqi government has no judicial power, and therefore no power to enforce the arrest.

Media coverage of the situation has been filled with negative rhetoric and predictions of a sectarian fallout between Iraqi politicians, and within Iraqi society. Within the context of Iraq, and perhaps the greater Middle East, it has become the case that sectarianism is used to analyse problematic events. Criminal accusations, especially at a political level, can often be undermined if the victim of the accusations adopts the defence of being victimised because of their particular sect. Such a form of “sectarian” victimisation, because it has become so familiar, gains incredible resonance. People understand the language of sectarianism when it is used to explain problematic situations.

In terms of this particular case, Maliki has been depicted as the big "Shia dictator" that is working to tear Iraq apart. This 'scandal' has been portrayed as an attempt to undermine and marginalise Sunni representation within Iraqi politics. Essentially, Maliki has been depicted as Iraq's next Saddam Hussein, except a Shi'a one.

This problem with one individual has been used to portray Maliki's policy in the entirety of Iraq. Therefore, Hashimi is no longer seen just as an individual; he represents the totality of Sunni Iraq, and an attack on him is an attack on them. Ultimately, this situation has penetrated Iraqi politics, and has acted as alleged proof of the sectarian rife within it.

The most important thing to recognise from this is that, a familiar Orientalist discourse has re-emerged that continuously assumes that at the sight of any political error, Arab societies will disintegrate into sectarian warfare. This sectarian discourse has been used and over used in such situations and is weakening the political process.

Instead of the speculation and the weak attempts to provide reason to the situation, it should rather be viewed for exactly what it is; political infighting at the cost of Iraqi interests.

The problem is that the contenders, Maliki and Hashimi, are a part of the same coalition that is meant to be working to represent the people of Iraq, but is instead caught up in political in-fighting based on who should have more power than the other. This situation is not a matter of whether someone is Sunni or Shi'a, it is a matter of politicians craving power that they feel they deserve or are entitled to. This is a representation of a political system that has not yet grasped or enforced the core values of democracy. Rather, Iraqi politics epitomises a gang culture, with no reference to the needs and the requirements of the people it governs. This does not begin with the mere problem of representation of sects, but instead the ethics of politics in Iraq.

Instead of asking whether this Maliki-Hashimi political battle will lead to a sectarian conflict, we should instead wonder: If Iraqi politicians are stuck in political games, corruption, terrorism, assassination attempts and acts that should only be associated with gangs and not political parties, what will become of the Iraqi people?

The persistent pleas from Iraqis have been about access to water, and continued access to electricity and security. There is an ever-lasting confusion as to why politicians seem not to be addressing basic human needs, and rather are wasting time with in fighting.  The only apparent improvement has been within the security realm, and this improvement is still debatable.

If we are to speculate about forms of conflict emerging within Iraqi society, they should not be sectarian ones. Instead, we should worry about conflicts arising because of the economic deprivation within Iraq. We should be concerned about the Iraqis' lack of trust in their government.

Nine years after the fall of Saddam, Iraq is still witnessing corruption within politics. We should therefore be worried about the youth who are growing up in this period of Iraqi failure. This youth may not have experienced Ba'athist tyranny, but have experienced the on-going failures of a political system that promises so much and delivers so little.

If no change is made to this system and if we are left to witness yet more political in fighting and excuses wrapped up in sectarian rhetoric, we should not concern ourselves with hollow explanations and the allegory provided by Iraqi politicians. Instead we should fear the wrath of deprived Iraqis: the Sunni, Shi'a and Kurdish alike. It will not take too long for this wrath to profess itself.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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