The Middle East Channel

Can a ‘Sunni Spring’ turn into an ‘Iraqi Spring?’

When protesters recently erupted into the streets in western Iraq, many quickly hailed them as the beginning of either a Sunni or an Iraqi Spring — a telling difference in the perceived significance of sectarian identity. The protests were triggered by the arrest of Minister of Finance Rafi’i al Issawi’s security detail on terrorism charges ...


When protesters recently erupted into the streets in western Iraq, many quickly hailed them as the beginning of either a Sunni or an Iraqi Spring — a telling difference in the perceived significance of sectarian identity. The protests were triggered by the arrest of Minister of Finance Rafi’i al Issawi’s security detail on terrorism charges but are in fact reflective of much broader and long-standing grievances some of which are Iraq-wide others more specific to Sunni Arabs. After a decade of misery, rare is the Iraqi — of whatever background — who is satisfied with the current government; yet despite that, the protests are struggling to escape the confines of Sunni-majority areas. 

When the near-obligatory nationalist reference to the rebellion of 1920 came up in a poem at a recent demonstration in Salah al Din I found myself wondering what the odds are on today’s movement mirroring the joint Sunni-Shiite demonstrations of May 1920 that so alarmed the British and that Iraqi nationalists never tire of recounting. I was not alone in drawing the parallel: indeed, the poet who referred to 1920 was doing so as part of his plea toward the southern governorates to join their compatriots in protest. Another speaker explicitly called upon the Shiite marji’iya to, "come out of their silence," and support the protesters. In short Shiite symbolism, in a nationalist and religious sense, was deployed firstly to try to dispel accusations that the protests were sectarian and secondly to appeal to Shiite Iraqis to join the demonstrations. The reasons Shiites by and large have not responded to these calls, nor are likely to, are to be found in the paradoxes surrounding Iraqi nationalism, Iraqi sectarian identity, and ultimately views toward the current political order.

Victimhood and the role it plays in the framing of perfectly legitimate, and often cross-sectarian, grievances is the major obstacle standing in the way of Arab Iraqis uniting in protest. This very same issue goes a long way toward explaining why Arab Iraqis differed in their reactions to regime change in 2003. To go back to the parallel with 1920, what united Sunni and Shiite Arabs was firstly a common enemy and secondly common grievances. Goals and grievances were not framed along sectional lines hence it was easier to form cross-sectarian solidarities. 

However, 83 years later in 2003, Arab Sunnis were, by and large and contrary to their Shiite and Kurdish compatriots, anxious rather than celebratory at the demise of the Ba’ath Party. The crucial point to note is that this was not because they were particularly fond of the previous regime; rather, it was because they were excluded, intentionally or not, from a celebratory validation of myths of exceptional identity-based victimhood. To put it in plain terms: there was no element of sub-national group identity in whatever desire existed amongst Sunnis to be rid of Saddam Hussein and his regime; however, for many Shiites and Kurds, Saddam’s demise was their deliverance as much as it was Iraq’s. This stood in the way of cross-sectarian solidarity in 2003 and it is doing so again — in reverse — today.

Over the last decade Sunni Arabs have developed a sense of victimhood of their own through which they can now compete in the ever-prevalent post-2003 "Olympics of suffering" — to borrow a phrase from Ian Buruma. It is this newly formed Sunni Arab victimhood that has driven the current protests: the downfall of Nouri al-Maliki, or even the entire post-2003 Iraqi political order, would be celebrated by many Sunni Arabs as their deliverance as much as it would be Iraq’s. As a result, and in spite of intentions, the protests have acquired an unwanted sectarian identity.

Much as was the case with Shiites throughout Iraqi history, Sunnis today cannot help but have their activism linked to their sectarian identity in the perceptions of others. To illustrate: in the same way that an anti-Saddam rebellion in southern Iraq was framed as a "Shiite" rebellion whilst its parallel in western Iraq was framed as a "tribal rebellion," an anti-government protest in western Iraq today is a "Sunni protest" whilst its southern parallel is more likely to evade sectarian categorization. It would be naïve to deny that the rebels, or protesters, feel that their sectarian identity accounts for the injustice they face or that sectarian identity is one of the drivers of action; however, reducing complex issues to their often minor, even at times incidental, sectarian component is not only inaccurate, it stifles political progress.

This unfortunate auto-sectarianization of political issues, a process readily aided by political elites and sectarian entrepreneurs, is not just a feature of Iraq but of several countries in the region from Bahrain, to Syria, to Lebanon, and elsewhere. It seems that if a grievance, no matter how legitimate, is related to sectarian identity (we suffer from x because we are from sect y), then few beyond the single sect are likely to sympathize let alone actively work toward addressing the grievance. Needless to say, this dynamic is all the more pronounced when sectarian relations are marred by a climate of mutual suspicion.

For many Shiites, despite whatever sympathy they may have toward the protesters, and despite many shared grievances relating to matters such as security and services, active solidarity is hindered by the fact that protests have been framed as "Sunni protests." As a result, suspicions abound that the demonstrations may be a veiled threat against Shiites or, at the very least, that their success would come at Shiites’ political, if not existential, expense. Such suspicions are nurtured by the protesters’ choice of symbolism. To illustrate, the commonly heard anti-government chant, "Iran barra barra, Baghdad tubqa hurra," (Iran out out, Baghdad will remain free) will often be regarded as "sectarian" by Shiites regardless of, and sometimes in contradiction to, the demonstrators’ intentions. To many Sunnis, such a stance is incomprehensible: why, especially given that many Iraqi Shiites are no less resentful of Iran’s role in Iraq than their Sunni compatriots, should an anti-Iranian message bother Iraqi Shiites? The answer relates to the decades long charge accusing Arab Shiites of Iranian sympathies and the way this has been manipulated by successive Iraqi regimes to exclude and marginalize sections of Iraq’s Shiite population. As a result, Iraqi Shiites are extremely sensitive to anything that might be construed as a conflation of Iraqi Shiites with Iran. Such sensitivities and exclusionary symbolisms run both ways and in some cases Sunni suspicions toward Shiite symbolism can seem similarly pathological.

In addition to the inescapable fact that there is an identity element to the protesters’ grievances, cross-sectarian solidarity has been forestalled by the unfortunate timing of the demonstrations, coinciding as they did with the Arbaeen — a major Shiite religious event. So while Sunni-majority governorates were protesting against Maliki’s government, the prime minister was bolstering his Shiite credentials by joining the Arbaeen commemorations in Karbala where he was warmly received. In one clip of Maliki’s tour of the holy city he is joining a processional tent full of worshipers and well-wishers; meanwhile, in a near-tragicomic illustration of Iraq’s social contradictions, amidst the adulation heaped onto the prime minister, a loudspeaker is heard in the background proclaiming, "kalla kalla Wahabiya," (no no to Wahabis). Sunnis demonstrating against Maliki in neighboring Anbar would most likely regard this in much the same way that many Shiites would regard, "Iran barra barra:" unfortunately, and particularly since 2003, Sunni Iraqis are all too prone to viewing anti-Wahabi rhetoric as code for anti-Sunni rhetoric. 

In short, the symbolisms employed by organized Shiite and Sunni groups are completely at odds with each other. How is a Sunni politician to attend a gathering where "no no to Wahabis" is voiced? Or indeed even the far less controversial "Ali wiyak Ali" (Ali be with you)? Given Shiite prejudices against the Free Syrian Army (FSA), how is a Shiite politician to attend a rally where the flag of the FSA is hoisted? More pertinently, how is a Shiite politician to attend a protest where the old Iraqi flag is raised? The tragedy is that, in all of these examples, the symbol in question is not exhibited for the purposes that the other discerns. In fact, whilst the protests have seen the use of some questionable symbols the dominant symbolism seems to be of a more cross-sectarian brand of Iraqi nationalism. Indeed without the general backdrop of toxic sectarian identities, there is little in the current protests that would be viewed as controversial or as necessarily alienating toward Shiites.

Perhaps the greatest problem facing Iraqi sectarian relations lies in views toward the legitimacy of the current political order: whilst no one is pleased with its performance, there is a significant body of Shiite opinion that accords the new Iraq the highest legitimacy, despite readily acknowledging its failures, on the basis that it is the guarantor of Iraqi Shiism. The alternative in this Shiite-centric narrative is none other than the dreaded Ba’ath; hence, whatever the current order’s faults, it must be defended as it is our order. One could say that for such people, Shiite political ascendancy trumps all else including good governance.

Iraqi politics seem to be in perpetual crisis: tensions rise, warnings of civil war and partition abound, but in the end disaster is averted by elite backroom deals rather than through any meaningful change. It is conceivable that the current crisis could break this pattern due to the unprecedented peaceful mass mobilization. Furthermore, this crisis could potentially become a turning point if some Shiite governorates were to hold sustained protests of their own in solidarity with the current demonstrations; however, whilst such an eventuality is not inconceivable, there are many factors militating against it.

It is difficult to see how the disentanglement of sectarian identity from Iraqi politics can be achieved. In addition to the identity entrenchment witnessed socially over the past decade, there are too many political actors with a vested political or ideological interest in the perpetuation of the current order. As a result, meaningful efforts from above to distance politics away from identity are unlikely; far from it: it seems that every election further entrenches sectarian identities and this electoral round is set to be no different. In a recent sermon by Sheikh Salah al Tufaili, the dynamics of Iraqi identity politics were laid on shamefully bare display. Commenting on the voter apathy caused by the repeated failures of Iraq’s political elite he addressed his congregation: "should I hand it back to Izzat al Douri and have Umayyad rule return? … As bad as the government is … God bless them! At least it [the government] proclaims ashhadu anna Ali wali Allah [the Shiite addition to the standard proclamation of faith] even if insincerely." The essence of this most remarkable of sermons is that the Shiite should be grateful for that Shiite identity and Shiite ritual are now freely expressed in Iraq and enjoy political patronage.

The Issawi crisis is symptomatic of the broader dysfunction of Iraqi politics and the depth of Iraqi social contradictions. One of the lessons the crisis seems to impart is that an Iraqi political dispute will inevitably be seen through the prism of group identity unless the protagonists share the same ethno-sectarian background — such as was the case in the Shabibi episode of October 2012. If that is indeed the case then by the same logic opposition to the government will only ever be divorced from ethno-sectarian identity if it emanates from Shiite quarters. This hardly makes for healthy politics. It is perfectly legitimate, indeed it is perhaps inevitable, for sub-national groups to have group-specific grievances; that such grievances prove so divisive is indicative of the identity-based divergence of political aims, fears, imaginations, and ultimately the failures of Iraqi nation-building.

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).

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