North Africa, West Asia

The challenges of building a shared Iraqi identity

If we take the fracturing of Iraqi memory to be an indicator of the direction Iraq is headed, then it is clear that reconciliation will also entail reconciling such competing narratives of Iraqi history, and thus identity.

Christopher K. Lamont Mieczysław P. Boduszyński
5 November 2017

A poster of General Abd al-Karim Qasim in Samawah. April 2017. Christopher Lamont. All rights reserved.The recent independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan and its fallout is another reminder of the challenges of building a shared identity that Iraqis face as the Islamic State threat recedes.

With deep Sunni alienation, tensions rising over the fate of Kirkuk, and a myriad of Shia militia gaining increasing sway over the Shia heartlands of southern Iraq, there seems little reason for optimism for the future of an Iraqi state.

Under the shadow of an impossibly fractured polity, post-ISIL imperatives such as reconstruction and refugee and internally displaced person return will take years, but dealing with what it means to be Iraqi is perhaps just as much an imperative as bricks and mortar reconstruction if Iraq is to emerge from the shadow of conflict as a viable state.  

Our conversations in Iraq’s Shia heartland and beyond suggest that the question of how to reconcile competing sectarian and ethnic narratives of state legitimacy and historical memory is one that needs to be urgently addressed. Or more simply put, what does it mean to be Iraqi in today’s Iraq?

Rather than being framed in simplistic sectarian terms, answers to this question betray a complex tapestry in which sectarian and national identities overlap and are riddled with internal inconsistencies. Worryingly, however, events and individuals in Iraqi history who promoted non-sectarian ideologies and identities are now re-imagined through a sectarian lens. 

This is why current developments, like Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) liberation operations, are seen so differently by Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds. While sectarian revisions of history began after 2003, they have intensified in the age of ISIL.

Many ordinary Iraqi Shia saw the war on ISIL as an existential battle to save the Iraqi state, whose unity they perceive as under assault from not only ISIL but a host of hostile outside powers such as Saudi Arabia, the United States, Turkey, Qatar, and yes, despite sectarian allegiances, even Iran. 

They saw the seemingly almost effortless ISIL takeover of Mosul as further evidence that at best their Sunni brothers and sisters do not accept the post-Saddam Iraqi state, or at worst that their Sunni brothers are advancing foreign interests to destroy the Iraqi state.

Therefore, Iraqi Shia are genuinely moved by appeals to Iraqi nationalism, as it is the Iraqi Shia who have been entrusted to defend the Iraqi state against a myriad of real and imagined, and foreign and domestic adversaries.  

These appeals are visible in PMF messaging, which makes pains to paint the PMF as an Iraqi nationalist mobilization force, not beholden to foreign (read: Iranian) interests. Of course, this messaging is muddled, as some PMF leaders such as Kata’ib Hezbollah’s Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq’s Qais Khazali made their allegiance to Iran quite clear.

A very public Shia identity, one that many Sunnis and Kurds see as a threat (Ashura processions, self-flagellation, etc.), from the perspective of many Shia is perfectly in line with Iraqi nationalism.

Iraqi Shia with whom we spoke do not understand why Sunnis and Kurds would see it as a challenge to Iraqi national cohesion. As illogical as it may appear from the outside, Sunnis, and to a lesser degree Kurds, see public displays of “Shiite-ness” as evidence of Iranian influence and thus as a threat to their livelihood in Iraq.  

In short, Sunnis and Kurds perceive the Shiite nationalist narrative as a thin cover for Shia claims to exclusive ownership over the Iraqi state, and their perceived intention to use this claim to marginalize and repress other groups. 

More than anything else, this is reflected in how many Sunnis in particular see the PMF, the supposed vanguard of the fight against ISIL: as sectarian militias, as Iranian puppets (indeed, epithets such as “Safavid” are thrown about freely) and tools of Shia domination.

To be sure, not all PMF groups are closely tied to Iran: in the past three years, a number of armed groups backed by the Najaf-based “nationalist” Iraqi cleric Ali al-Sistani have also emerged.

Moreover, a small but significant contingent of Sunni fighters have joined the ranks of Sunni PMF units in the fight against ISIL. While many Kurds may have given up on Iraq, this is not true of Sunnis, who after all were among the most fervent believers in Iraqi and Arab nationalism. But they cannot identify with an Iraqi nationalism expounded by the dominant Shia groups. 

For a glimpse into how post-Saddam Iraqi identity is being shaped and re-shaped, consider how Shia communities in the south of Iraq have appropriated figures from the past—even those who had little to do with modern sectarianism—to build and reinforce modern sectarian identity. Today, we are witnessing the sectarian fault lines of the present being projected back into Iraqi history.  

A street sign for Abd al-Karim Qasim street in Samawah. April 2017. Christopher Lamont. All rights reserved.For example, Shia have rehabilitated General Abd al-Kareem Qasim, who overthrew King Faisal II in 1958. One of us was recently in Samawah, Muthanna province, whose streets are covered in not just PMF posters of the present, but also of posters of General Qasim, who is seen today as a symbolic hero of Shia-Iraqi nationalism, despite having coming from mixed Sunni-Shia parentage and espoused a non-sectarian socialist ideology. He also focused on class, rather than sectarian, divisions.

Qasim attempted to put an end to Iraqi “aristocracy” and class division. He welcomed rural folk from the hinterland into Baghdad, to this dismay of urbanites. Similarly, most PMF volunteers hail from poor, neglected, or rural areas. In fact, perhaps the only thing that Qasim and Iraq's current Shia leadership have in common is that both have found themselves confronted with putting down two very different rebellions in the city of Mosul. Many Moslawis, of course, remember Qasim as the instigator of a brutal crackdown in Mosul that saw corpses hanging in the streets.

What then explains the appropriation of Iraqi nationalism, and historic figures, on the part of Shia Iraq?

In large part this is because Shia claim ownership over the post-Saddam Iraqi state, feelings of entitlement that are reinforced by popular victimhood narratives and fourteen years of politics dominated by religious Shia parties. Any expression of Shia identity was ruthlessly repressed under Saddam. Post-Saddam Iraq created an opening for a cultural and political renaissance for Iraqi Shia, and that identity is being reimagined in the face of the ISIL threat.

This does not mean that all Iraqi Shia embrace the PMF or armed groups operating outside of state control: indeed, many Basrawis have bad memories of the power these groups held over the city prior to Maliki’s “Charge of the Knights” operation in 2008. 

Sunnis, and to a lesser extent Kurds, react badly to any flamboyant displays of Shia identity. They argue that these are foreign, artificial imports from Iran, which they see as a hidden hand behind many policies and power structures. This, in turn, leads them to perceive Shia appeals to Iraqi nationalism as illegitimate.

They perceive that they stand before an impossible choice between an Iranian militia state on one hand and ISIL on the other. Many Sunnis remind foreigners that they never thought of sect under Saddam, and lived peacefully with their Shia neighbors.

Now, they claim that they feel like foreigners in their own country. The fight against ISIL has not emerged such sentiments, highlighting the challenges of post-ISIL reconciliation.

Rather than harnessing Iraqi nationalism as a binding force for building a shared purpose for post-ISIL Iraq, Iraqi memory is, like Iraq itself, fracturing along identity lines. Even non-sectarian ideologies, such as communism, are being recast along the lines of sectarian identity.

In fact, the Iraqi Communist Party is now seen the product of decades of Shia marginalization, and communist symbols and leaders, such as Ho Chi Minh, find themselves on posters dedicated to Shia martyrs who fell in the war against ISIL. 

A memorial poster to a fallen martyr with the Ho Chi Minh quote mentioned in the text. April 2017. Christopher Lamont. All rights reserved.If we take the fracturing of Iraqi memory to be an indicator of the direction Iraq is headed, then it is clear that reconciliation will also entail reconciling such competing narratives of Iraqi history, and thus identity.

Post-ISIL reconciliation will necessitate far more than the physical reconstruction of war ravaged cities such as Mosul (and negotiating the distribution of revenues from Iraq’s vast oil resources), but will also require sectarian narratives of Iraq’s modern history to be challenged by Iraqis themselves.

While some PMF members we have spoken to emphasize the Iraqi nationalist and humanitarian credentials of their respective PMF units, broad appeals to Iraqi nationalism will continue to prove ineffective in dampening sectarian tensions as long as Iraqi memory remains fractured along sectarian lines that blur conflicts of the past and present.

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