"Change and Continuity in Iraqi Shi’ism:
From Universal Islam to Shi’i
Identity Politics and Pragmatism "
Faleh A. Jabar
Unlike the widely accepted wisdom, Iraqi Shi’ism is sui generes. It differs from Iranian, Lebanese, Gulf or Yemeni Shi’ism(s). Differentials stem from dissimilar national histories, from varying forms of power structures in single countries, from varied socio-economic formations and social organization of modern classes, of tribes and clans, of urban versus rural and bedouin solidarities, or from the structure of religious authority and centres of learning (clerics and clerical informal institutions), from varying theological and jurisprudential traditions (theology, theo-suffism, jurisprudence, religious ceremonial dramas and rituals), and last, but not least, from political challenges and prevailing discourses.
These factors are, of course, not in the least exhaustive, but they point into the main direction of examining the politics of difference. In this logic there is Shi’ism in a general and loose sense, but there are as many Shi’isms as national settings exist in a concrete, palpable sense.
Imperatives of history:
Iraq is the cradle of early and mature Shi’ism. In it, the first Imam, Ali, incepted his seat of caliphate; and there he is buried (Najaf holy shrine); his second son, and third Imam, Husain, fought and lost his battle for power, and was buried in Karbala. The seventh Imam Musa al-Kazim, is buried in Kazimain, on the northern outskirts of Baghdad, while Samara (60 km north of Baghdad) is the burial place of the eleventh Imam, and the occultation cite of the twelfth, hidden Imam. Najaf, Karbala and Hilla (in Babylon), functioned as centres of Shi’i theology and Jurisprudence since the eleventh century, and Najaf is, to this very day, the intellectual Vatican of the Shi’i world. The density of Shi’i history, monuments, shrines, and symbolism, is no where richest. Many modern Shi’i writers take pride in this fact to stress the ‘Arabic nature’ of Iraqi Shi’ism, in contradistinction of its Iranian (or Persian) counterpart.
By contrast, Iran was Sunni (Hanfite and Shafi’ite) until the foundation of the Safavid dynasty in 1501, when dynasty and society at large converted to Shi’ism. There Shi’ism was a state official creed; in Iraq it never was, save the period of Imam Ali’s rule. Shi’ism in Iran blended with the rich mystical (sufi traditions) theo-sufism, classical theology and philosophy, going beyond the dry, arid jurisprudence. To this very day, philosophy and theology are part of the rich curriculum of religious colleges and seminaries in Qum, Teheran and beyond, in contrast to the narrow, traditional confines of dry jurisprudence taught in Najaf and other Shi’i centres of religious learning in Iraq. The clerical class in Iraq is not only thin but has also had limited financial resources, and limited relations with wealthy classes of property and capital.
While Shi’ism in Iran had to cooperate with or challenge against a ‘fellow’ Shi’i ruler and built a national ‘constitutional memory’ ; Shi’ism in Iraq had to challenge a ruler of different denomination, be it the Abbasid of antiquity, or the Ottoman, or the modern Sunni-led nation-state (since 1921). In the modern era, Iranian Shi’ism wedded with Iranian nationalism, cementing a variety of ethnic groups other than the predominant Persian community (Azeri, Kurd and Arab, but not the Bluchi in the south) into a fairly cohesive national identity. In Iraq by contrast, Iraqi nationalism was born like a Siamese twin, with a Shi’i and a Sunni heads. Much relied on the continuity of national integration, whose mechanisms were, more often than not, disrupted. Hence all opposition, irrespective of its ideology, be it liberal nationalism, or Marxism or Islamism, assumed a national character against the Iranian regime. In Iraq, by contrast, the Sunni-Shi’i (and by extension Arab-Kurdish) divide rendered Arab nationalism and Islamism problematic.
Throughout the 20th century, Shi’is in Iraqi embraced different ideologies, liberal monarchism, Iraqi nationalism, communism, Arab nationalism, and, lastly, Islamism. As political culture and discourses began to change in the wake of the Arab defeat in 1967 in larger Middle East, Islamism assumed growing importance. And the more Arab nationalism, and socialism of the ruling Arab elites and major social movements of the time declined, the more vibrant Islamic trends emerged, from Egypt 1967 to Iraq 2003. The rise of Khomeini to power in 1979 sealed this transformation. Iraqi Islamic Shi’ism (notably the Da’wa party) prematurely challenged the Ba’th formidable regime (at its peak), lost the battle and moved to exile together with other groups, only to fall under the spell of Khomeinism. And this shift changed them from a social movement militating against ‘group discrimination’ into a radical-fundamentalist outfit, fighting for Islamic state. The movement, however, developed several, sundry political groups and political discourses in the Diaspora: Khoemini’s version of clerical hierocracy was adopted by most groups (Hakim and others) save the mother Da’wa party, which developed a political liberal discourse embedded in Islamic jargon. At home, an underground social movement was taking shape under ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq Sadr as of early 1990s (d.1999). The predominant discourse of movement was Meesianic, i.e. stressing the notions of imminent re-emergence of the hidden Imam, the Iraqiness of clerical authority, and strong anti-US and anti-Israel motifs. The Native-Diaspora cleavage only added to the multitude of political, ideological, regional, familial, even personal, and other, fracture lines that fragmented political Shi’ism. The year 2003 changed the fortunes of all.
2003: New Turn:
The US-led invasion, occupation and regime change in Iraq, turned the Shi’i world in Iraq upside down. Not only Iraq changed hands at the helm; but Iran also changed hands from the reformer-moderate president Khatami to populist-aggressive Ahmadinajad. These two events led to the formation of a new political order in Iraq, and created a new neo-geopolitical context characterized, among other things, by the Sunni-Shi’i regional polarization as well as by a broader Shi’i resurgence extending from Teheran to the southern suburbs of Beirut, with stronger Iranian influence.
The reality of Iraqi Shi’ism also changed dramatically. As soon as the Diaspora groups returned, it met a new society, one that has lost much of its civil urbanism or secularism, or has lost its national cohesion, fragmented beyond recognition, and its Shi’is largely influenced by the moderate authorities of Najaf that embrace a non-political, though not apolitical, form of theology which does not allow for ‘government by clerics’ ; and whose poor are rallied around a radical, populist movement of young Sadr.
Between the years 2002-10, Iraqi Shi’ism sustained continued change that constantly mutated it. In general terms, Najaf was liberated from the confines of a hostile, police state. Unlike the heavily regulated Qum, Najaf regained its strength as a seat of religious authority and religious learning, with rapidly accumulating resources and tremendous clout under grand ayatollah sayyid Ali Sistani. The Shi’i Islamic movement were set free to organize, mobilize, unite to challenge others, or divide and challenge each other. Theirs was a dual freedom: instant freedom from the police terror of the ancient regime, and gradual freedom from the shackles of Iranian patronage. The latter would allow adaptation and change of strategy and ideology alike. Shi’i mass rituals were also set free as collective emotive, ceremonial ritualism, as a celebration of freedom, display of identity, and social action, commanding the allegiance of millions in the visitations of Karbala and other occasions.
Construction and Fragmentation of Identity Politics:
Perhaps what mostly differentiate Iraqi Shi’ism from its Iranian neighbour is its complex sociology and the concomitant politics.
If Iran Islamism moved straight ahead to incept its ideal Islamic republic, its Iraqi counter moved to build a Shi’i identity to secure a decisive share in power, and had, accordingly, set off on a new, untested trajectory.
Identity politics in the Iraqi case:
Iraq’s peculiar strands of identity politics is best grasped in a comparative outlook with the nature of other identity politics elsewhere. For example, in the ex-Soviet Union and ex-Yugoslavia, the official and declining socialist and internationalist ideologies were gradually replaced by the promotion of nationalism that soon caged power struggle into ethnic inter-fight once central authority and central-command economy melted down. In Iraq, by contrast, failure of socialist nationalism had a different trajectory. Throughout the 1990s and up to 2003, religion and tribalism were pleaded and their institutions and networks were partly rehabilitated by state patronage, but they soon took a life of their own across the Arabic part of Iraq. Once authoritarian central authority and their central command-oil rentier economy collapsed, tribe and religion emerged. Modern middle classes, co-opted by the old authoritarian regime, changed direction and joined the newly invented politics of religion, tribe, and ethnic and counter ethnic identity politics. As they had been impoverished by sanctions (1991-2003), crippled by state police control over their ‘autonomous associations’, and controlled by economic state patronage, they found in the new forms of religion, tribe and ethnicity the only available ways of mobility.
Prolific identity segmentation and fragmentation that characterized Iraq pales the holistic trilogy of Kurds, Shi’is and Sunnis and renders them segmented by the power of the other layers of social organization of religion, tribe and middle classes.
The other trilogy of religion (with sundry institutions and multiple, divided movements, tribe (segmented at least by kinship ideology) and modern middle classes (divided and disoeirneted) played different and overlapping roles in constructing and deconstructing identity politics in pre- and post-war Iraq, a crucial subject of analyses that either eluded examination or was disregarded by socio-political studies, yet it was gradually but not evenly grasped by international and native actors on the ground.
The dynamics of religion, tribe and middle classes in pre-2003 were different from that of post-conflict transition. These will be discussed below.
Transition and Communal Division
The demise of the Ba’th regime in April 2003 resulted in the end of the police state control over social institutions.
. The US sponsored transitional politics opened the arena for socio-political and economic-cultural contests between major communities (however these are defined) as within each one of them. But the US also destroyed state patronage that was the very life line of rehabilitated tribes and all salaried and propertied middle classes. This condition raised religion to a paramount force, and reduced tribes and middle classes to naught. And the latter had to join religion as the only efficient vehicle of social and political mobility although they did not entirely give up their attempts to act on their own as well.
Thus, in the first phase of transition, grand communal identity politics among Shi’is, and responsively by Sunnis, began to crystallise, catching up with the previous grand ethnic identities of Kurds, Turkmen and Chaldo-Assyrians that took shape in the 1990s.
As the new state-formation (the creation of political structures: provisional cabinet, army, police, judiciary, and provisional legislator), and nation-building (the distribution of levers of power and resources) began, political actors constructed their communal blocs and vied each other for slices and layers of political power and resources, and strove to secure proportionate representation in the Governing Council (GC) (July 2003-June2004), in the drafting of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) (March 2004), and in the provisional cabinet of Iyad ‘Alawi, a replica of the GC.
Community labels were represented as demography, and demography as democracy. Proportionate quotas in the administration, police, army and other agencies, among other things, assumed a paramount importance in communal politics.
The catch words were federalism (Kurds); demography is democracy (Shi’is), and restoration (Sunnis).
Communal labels and unity at this stage were conceived of as an assured vehicle to reach out for power and fair distribution of national wealth. By dint of their overwhelming demographic weight, the Shi’i-Sunni polarization and confrontation were at the heart of the new, macabre identity politics. This identity was projected so forcefully that it overshadowed all other modern and primordial identities. It produced grand electoral blocs in the first and second constituent and general elections of January and December 2005. But the different segments within each community, in which tribe, clan, city-family and class were crucial ingredients, never waned. Once the major contests to shape the political order and lay down the key foundations for the new distribution of power and resources was ensured in the elections and constitution-writing, sub-identities came out again so vehemently that it shattered the façade of holistic unity, the Sunni-Shi’i communal uncivil war of 2006 notwithstanding. Sub-communal identities of tribe, city, and family or class, brought about Shi’i-Shi’i Sunni-Sunni, Turkmen-Turkmen, and, to some extent, Kurdish-Kurdish, fierce or ‘soft’ conflicts, cutting across areas of compliance and agreement.
A universal tendency towards rift, split, and ruptures began to engulf communal politics from within. As a result, the large electoral blocs and communal-embedded alliances and coalitions began to falter.
The reason why religion became so powerful and why it has lost some of its unifying potency, and the reason why tribe was overshadowed firstly, but managed to revive secondly, and the reason why modern middle classes progressively lost their autonomous political appetites and largely acquiesced to sectarian and tribal politics, have to do with their relevant dynamics. We shall examine these three categories of religion, tribe and middle classes under the conditions of the US-led transition.
Religion-Sect: Unity and Division
Religion is more like Janus, the Greek God of doorways; it has many faces. It is an informal institution of authority, and as such it has multiple centres. It is also a system of theology that has diverging nuances and conflicting schools, with sundry trends within each school. It is also a value-system constrained by the social nature of its faithful (urban, rural, Bedouin, traditionalist, or modernist); it is also social movements that have diverse political, economic or social interests (pragmatists, radicals, or centrists). Informal institutions of religious authorities, networks of mass rituals and pilgrimage, and legal or clandestine social movements adjacent to or flowing from them, were now free players to act and fight.
Informal religious authorities of Shi’i and Sunni Islam were first disconnected from the ministry of religious endowments (as of July 2003); the flow of funds for these institutions was also liberalized. Overnight, the informal religious institutions emerged as powerful players, wielding vast infrastructure (hundreds if not thousands of mosques), staff (hundreds of well-coordinated but loosely disciplined mosque preachers), domestic political connections, regional relations (governments, and Islamic groups across the ME),official and lucrative private and public funding from worried or hopeful constituencies and/or political and social actors. With such powerful machine the informal institutions of religious authority, notably on the Shi’i side, acted more like a political authority,, information, and ideological centre, and, in the Sunni case, a recruitment, mobilization and insurgent agency. Shi’i Political Islam: While the Shi’i highest religious authority was already in place, the Sunni counterpart was wanting and fragmented. The Shi’i institution had the benefit of this new freedom; the Sunni counterpart had not; it lost state patronage, and lacked a unifying figure a la Sistani. While the Shi’i institution has multiple centres of authority, seniority of age and status of higher learning, together with political prudence and moderation, would render grand ayatollah Ali Sistani outshine all and ensured his uncontested influence.
This forceful rise of Shi’i institutional religion overwhelmed the socio-political scene, outshining the social movements of Shi’i Islam and their native and exile political elites, who, with few exceptions, voluntarily and necessarily placed themselves under the wing of the grand authority in Najaf. These elites were still weak, unknown to the public at large and lacking legitimacy, resources and commanding symbols. Thus Sistani could literally decide every detail of the newly formed, predominantly Shi’i electoral bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance in late 2004. Sistani was alien to the ruler-ship of the jurisprudent (wilayet al-faqih) authored by his Iranian rivals; paradoxically this theology opened up the opportunity for the Shi’i Islamic political groups to strive for independence from Sistani’s patronage; and as the political elites leading Shi’i Islam assumed power and vast state resources (of the oil-rentier state), they grew stronger, bolder, and autonomous to such an extent that Sistani could not have any say in the formation of the second United Iraqi Alliance just thirteen months on. The new United Iraqi alliance at the end of 2005 was decided by the Islamic Shi’i leaders who limited the share of ‘independents’ (non-partisans had 50% of slots in the first UIA), and increased their shares in the electoral bloc. The more powerful the Shi’i political elites were, the less powerful Sistani was. Correlations between institutional and political religion will continue along these lines unless some unforeseen factors step in.
A deeper and more precarious cleavage within Shii and Sunni political Islam was now to develop causing the fragmentation that we now observe.
Shi’i Political Islam was first divided between exile and native groups. Unlike the singular, supreme authority in Najaf, these were sundry groups, divided by city-family as by ideology and even individual rivalries. Perhaps the inclusion of exile groups in, the new US-UK sponsored Governing Council (15 July 2003) enhanced Shi’i political Islam in general, but it over-empowered exile (and Najafi groups) at the expense of native, non-Najafi forces (Sadr and Ya’qubi). The freedom of action enjoyed by all factions helped them build their networks and remould the political culture of Shi’i community at large into the communal themes focused on the assertion of Shi’i identity via affirmation of proportionate representation and the performance of Shi’i public mass rituals . This in turn enhanced the status of the Shi’i grand authority in Najaf. But the same process invited competition and thus sowed the seeds of discord and eventually armed rivalry within the Shi’i camp.
Having uneven political empowerment, funds, regional backing, and militias, they set to redistribute levers of power among themselves by institutional and –extra-institutional means. They were now powerful statesmen dependent on mass mobilization and community approval, and they felt the growing need for private political and armed machines. As the political importance of Sistani’s patronage was diminishing, the factional competition over levers of power was exacerbating, the Sunni-Shi’i mini civil war notwithstanding.
Tribes: The Cycle of Decline and Rise
If religion is the first sociological category to reckon with, tribes clans, tribal chiefs and tribal associations are the second. Their role in Iraq’s conflictual transitional politics has been subject to contradictory, extreme assessments: all powerful, or simply marginal. In different regions and circumstances, they were both.
As noted earlier, tribes under the Ba’th were all mobilized as a substitute for modern mass politics of the ruling party. In post conflict Iraq, they seemed to be marginalized by the overriding power of institutional religion and political Islam. Their political and social roles seemed to be comparatively diminishing. They could hardly emerge as an independent political force; they fared miserably in the municipal, constitutional and parliamentary elections of 2005.
Loss of sponsorship meant political marginalization. The rise of political-sectarian Islam made things even worst for tribes.
Nevertheless, tribes seemed oblivious of their failing and continued to display their political appetites for gaining recognition by the CPA. In the first year of transition, tribal associations of every colour invaded urban life even in the capital. Provincial tribal and kinship groups were even more active in various locations (small townships, or city neighbourhoods) and kept their traditional ways of action. Their hopes associations were shattered in the 2005 elections. They discovered the power of their new rival: institutional religion or political Islam, with its nation-wide appeal compared to their local organization, its huge infrastructure compared to their small guesthouses, its fierce militias, compared to their few armed men; its ideological supremacy compared to their outdated traditionalism. All in all, tribes in 2005 arrived at the right conclusion that they actually were local organization with no national appeal; they could only mobilize support in their locality; they could offer their security services on local scale, no more no less, however these roles were of any use or of no use. To avoid total marginalization and neutralize the invasion of political Islam to their younger generation, they showed readiness to join ranks with clerics, or resist them where they had some military means.
.But this weakness harboured the desire of tribal chiefs to compete with local clerics even when they were unable to override them. Their potential to neutralize clerics remained strong; so was their ability to bargain with local Islamic organizations in certain instances.
. The weakness of nascent central authority in the face of insurgency and unruly militias brought the tribes gradually back to the scene, first as local security contractors (guarding pipelines for example), and second as political partners in the US-led Surge. The crusade against Sunni insurgents and Shi’i militias made tribal support and cooperation in provincial towns and regions more crucial. The Sahwa groups, led by tribal chiefs from the Risha clan of the Dulaim tribe, were funded, equipped and liaised with by the US military directly. A similar drive by the Prime Minister Maliki towards tribe soon set off. In the campaign for law and order, the looming confrontation with fellow Shi’is of the Mahdi army, Sadr’s militia in Sadr city (Baghdad), in Basra and in ‘Amara provincial capitals, masterminded by PM Nuri al-Mailiki, required grass root support that, for Maliki as for his Da’wa party, was wanting. Again, tribes received this new gift from heavens: a weak state in search for allies and ready to oil the hands of tribal chiefs with gold. But this further divided identity politics.
Middle classes, growth, marginalization, exodus and loss of direction:
Modern middle classes are the third body in the sociology of fragmantative identity politics. These strata constitute the core matrix of urban social, cultural, economic and political life, at least in several major cities: Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Sulaymaniya, Najaf, Karbala, Kirkuk and Erbil. The 30 million or so of Iraqis are almost evenly divided into one third rural, and two thirds urban. More than a half of urban population are middle classes with property, capital and/or salaries. The other less than a half is mostly under classes, such as workers, marginal groups, and the unemployed. It is among all these categories that provincial, semi-rural, semi-tribal lot is to be found, they are either new provincial migrants, or semi-urban in terms of culture, values, and social organization; their average dwelling in urban habitats is anywhere between ten to fifteen years, a fact that explains the ease with which urban dwellers can shift from modern to traditional organization and backward.
The economic, organizational and political fortunes of the modern middle classes have been less propitious than that of the tribe despite their massive social weight as a class of 54% of city populace.
Perhaps a majority of middle strata met the new era of transition with awe, shock, fear, apathy, and inaction, as violence mounted.
First, they lost state patronage and protection. The disruption of the ancient bureaucratic and family-tribe patronage networks left them exposed. This hit the propertied and the salaried segments alike. De-Ba’thification laws and procedure hit the salaried segments harder; they were expelled from state agencies and became target of retribution, adding much to their suffering of economic hardships and pauperization of the long years of sanctions. Another disadvantage was the loss of autonomous associations; the chambers of commerce, industrial league, contractors union, professional associations and unions, (workers trade unions can also be added here) were all shattered and rendered impotent.
Having no political platform and no social instruments of their own, modern middle classes lost direction. Those who had been part of the Ba’th single party system were rightly fearful of retribution, some fled the country, and others joined the ranks of their enemies (mostly Shi’i Islamic parties) to avoid physical elimination. Other groups supported the growing insurgency under communal-Islamic or Islamic-nationalist or Iraqi-nationalist banners; perhaps a majority adopted a wait-and-see position. But all were politically in shock and bewilderment.
The new structural changes that these social milieus sustained should have been advantageous and politically favourable.
For one thing these strata were delivered from the pauperization of the sanctions years; liberalization of the market, the stabilization of the currency, and the flow of some foreign and Arab capital generally improved their economic conditions. The middle strata also grew massively in numbers as a result of the return of their middle class fellows from exile (Kurds and Shi’is) and the rise of some marginal groups who got enriched by war economy. With liberalization of the economy the state-employed salaried sections of middle classes, mostly technocrats and bureaucrats, went down from some 90% to 50%; this meant the growth of middle classes of property and capital, who function in the market independently from state control and/or patronage, and is politically autonomous from the state, old or new. The introduction of private foreign capital helped even some salaried middle class groups to find their upward mobility in the free market economy, rather than the state machine.
Middle classes had the chance not only to escape centralized command economy, but also escape centralized state patronage, as the structure of this patronage was now fractured by the reality of multi-party system. No more were middle class contractors, import-export firms, or professionals in need of some state-party benefactor to trade loyalty and submission in return for government contracts, export-import licences, or largesse. .Oil-rentierism, the major national economic asset and the basis of state authoritarian hegemony over socio-economic formations, was not anymore concentrated in the hands of a singly political entity. Thus decentralization and liberalization of the political order and economic life brought about a unique opportunity for enhancing the independence and clout of middle classes. But this opening was compromised. Political violence by insurgency, sectarian militias, and mafias created a condition of lawlessness that inhibited economic revival and spread insecurity; the rise of religious institutions and sectarian Islamic parties dampened discourses of moderation and stiffened communal divide. Neither tribal associations and groups nor secular middle class politics seemed to have some prospect. In the January 2005 elections, some 1.5 million voted for secular groups, and some 300,000 for tribal and other non-sectarian groups; in December the same year, this figure went down to less than one million. In 2009, non-sectarian vote went up to 2.25 million.
Fear led to the greatest exodus of middle classes into exile. . This was the second massive exodus in less than twenty years. If the first wave of migration drained the country of some 3.5 million professionals, technocrats, businessmen and bureaucrats throughout the two decades of the Iraq-Iran war, the 1991 second Gulf war, and sanctions, the new wave of outflow brought an estimated 2.5 million into exile in the span of just few years. This de-accumulation of middle classes has become a Middle Eastern socio-political feature. Among its many negative impacts is the social vacuum that is filled in by the ‘fourth estate’, by what Hanna Arendt once called the ‘social debris’ of such conditions; i.e. urban poor under classes which constitute the spearhead of the mafia world, militias, and insurgency.
New conditions are obtaining. The relative improvement of security in 2008 onwards is a major change. Another is the rehabilitation of tribes a s asocial and political force. Last, but not least the rift or detachment between Islamic political groups, on the hand, and the informal religious institutional, on the other hand, coupled with the macabre schisms between different Shi’i and Sunni Islamic groups hold some potential for non-sectarian, trans-communal middle class politics.
The formation, disintegration and divisions of Shi’i Identity politics
The dynamic politics and sociology of religion, tribe and middle classes that was outlined above may well explain the amorphous, fluid nature of grand ethnic and communal identities against their supposedly ‘monolithic’ hold in the realm of politics. The complexities of such dynamics were sooner rather than later apparent. As noted earlier, during the first phase of transition, the contest over state formation and nation-building took place in open arena of conflict bereft of regulatory institutions or commonality of norms and rules. The contests soon fell foul; and the macabre competition for slices of resources and layers of authority flared up under sectarian labels. Grand identity politics was successfully constructed and easily mobilized, benefiting from centuries old cultural-theological differences that were already, though partly, politicized. Grand identities seemed all-powerful, and were best seen in the formation of electoral blocs, notably the United Iraqi Alliance under ‘Aziz al-Hakim, or Tawafuq bloc under Tariq Hashimi, or the Kurdish Front under Barzani-Talbani. But they could not conceal the fact that other sub-communal primordial or non-communal modern identities of every colour existed in society at large as in the imagined ‘community’ of the religious sect, or ethnic groups. In many cases, the latter were only thinly buried under this very lean veil of grand unity. Once power was more or less institutionally secured, a second, new phase ushered the dynamics of division in action again, more forcefully. As a result, the unity of the large electoral blocs and coalitions that dominated the constituent assembly eroded and finally succumbed to factional feud. This was almost universal.
The divisions came gradually, but forcefully, to the surface during the Surge, the military political campaign imitated in early 2007 and continued well into 2008, to curb and dislodge the two major flanks of violent extremism, the Sunni al-Qaeda and its satellites, and the Shi’i Mahdi Army.
The Shi’i United Iraqi Alliance was the first to suffer chain schisms.
Shi’i-Shi’i inter-fighting erupted between Sadr and Hakim factions in provincial towns of the south . The gradual, timid, official crusade against the Mahdi army strongholds developed into full-scale war to uproot it. The political price was the withdrawal of the Sadr and Fadhila party ministers from the cabinet, and ultimately from the UIA front, which is now a shadow of its former communal self.
The Sunni front al-Twafuq bloc (45 seats in the parliament), inclusive of three groups, was trying to maximise gains in the process of ‘national reconciliation’ allegedly to serve their Sunni community through legal institutions, but actually to augment their power. This drive towards maximization was intensified by the sociology of the Surge: the rise and empowerment of the Sahwa movements. The latter served to dislodge al-Qaeda and restore a reasonable level of normalcy, but it also increased the number of Sunni players and posed a threat to the present and future influence of the Tawafuq and its main protagonist, the Islamic party. In this Sunni-Sunni rivalry, the Tawafuq heightened its oppositional stance to the Maliki consociational cabinet, which was teetering: the withdrawal from government of 17 ministers from the Fadhila party (March 2007), from the Sadr faction (April) Shi’i, and later from Sunni and secular groups, who followed suit.
The Meaning of Break up of Grand Identity:
The focus on the inner structures of holistic entities of Shi’is (and of Sunnis and Kurds as well) versus the institutions of Religion, and the social organization of Tribe, and Middle classes, is meant to elucidate the complexity of identity politics, how identity politics, a novel feature in Iraq and world politics, is conditioned by existing formal and informal institutions and socioeconomic formations, how these identities are constructed in the arena of political contest, and how changes in the distribution of slices of resources and levers of power alter or fracture identities from within and ultimately rework or modify power relations within each, necessitating thereby ideological reorientation and political pragmatism. This ‘internal’ transformation, spreading across the national gamut, would eventually leave its imprint on political transition ahead. We should also note that these transformations have the capacity to either usher Iraq into a ‘consolidation phase’, or simply undo the newly founded power structures.
The result is contingent on how the examined transformations would influence the forthcoming 2010 general elections and who would emerge victorious in the ballot contest. These transformations will render next elections different, with new polarization, solo or narrower lists, new electoral law, and some new prospects. There is a number of variables:
First, while Shi’ism or Sunnism will continue to be strongly felt cultural and social markers, communal identities will be getting weaker as pan-communal political mobilizers. This may allow trans-communal tendencies to grow.
Second, institutional religion, or grand ayatollah Ali Sistani, would play a new more neutral, but constructive, role. Sistani will not patronise the very United Iraqi Alliance he created for the first elections as a pan-Iraqi front, but which bypassed his direct patronage in the second elections, using his images and symbolism for mobilizing Shi’is at large; Sistani did everything to create the UIA in the first instance, but literally did nothing to prevent the exploitation of his name in the second instance. The UIA has antagonistically splintered, and Sistani is determined to distance himself from all Shi’i political outfits. His aids suggest he is bent to asking Iraqis to ‘choose those whom they think serve their interests best’
Third, Sistani’s fatwas (religious edicts) against the ‘wilayet al-faqih’ doctrine have been asserted several times in responses to the queries of his emulators, sending a strong message not only against fundamentalist doctrines and their protagonists, but also against meddling religion in politics. While this is not the final ‘disenchantment of the world’ of Shi’i politics, it is a step towards it.
Fourth, a similar, though different, course is evident among Sunnis. Pragmatic discourses of gradualism, or Iraqi nationalist themes, or tribal traditions are all set against al-Qaeda fundamentalist-communal ideology as against sectarian politics in general.
Fifth, the new electoral law of 2008 has its impact. The old electoral law of 2005 was based proportionate representation. As it tied representation of different communities to the size of electoral turn out each community would, it exacerbated communal polarization, and caused over representation of the Shi’is and Kurds, and under representation of the Sunni bloc in the constituent elections of January 2005. The second electoral law, by contrast, amended for the December 2005 divided the 275 seats into 230 seats for proportionate representation within provinces as constituencies, and 45 seats for open proportionate contest nationwide. The law had the potential to reduce sectarian contests, and intensify competition between different groups of the same sect over reigns of power, at least in homogeneous provinces. The 2008 amendments to the provincial constituencies’ principle augments the potential for furthering electoral intra-communal antagonisms since voting in the new law is not tied to a political list rather to individual candidates in any list. This amendment gives more freedom of choice to voters, exposes candidates to more scrutiny, and reduces the ‘enchantment’ of charismatic leaders that usually conceal the weaknesses of candidates deployed in local contests.
Sixth, the resurgence of tribes as local political forces poses another challenge to the supremacy of political clerics, Islamic parties and, by extension, pan-communal identity. Rehabilitated by lucrative funds, and empowered by influential statesmen, or incorporated into the body of the state machine, they seem in a more favourable position to run the electoral race, compared to their weak performance in the general and provincial elections of 2005.
Seventh, there is a measure of apparent unpopularity of the Islamic parties; their weak performance in provincial governments, the flagrant display of the power of their illegal militias, their authoritarian ways of imposing conservative ethics ( code of dress, of conduct, attacks on women, prohibition of the internet, closure of women’s hairdressing shops, prohibition of alcohol and music, forcible segregation of sexes, incursions into the university campuses, all increased modern, mostly middle class, displeasure at Islamic conservatism. Perhaps the greatest source of unpopularity is the greedy armed struggle of Sadr-Badr, or Badr-Fadhila that claimed lives and plagued urban life with illegal, extra-institutional violence, corruption and lawlessness.
Eight, all these and perhaps other factors may well alter politicized grand sectarian identities beyond recognition, and change the voting patterns observed in 2005 and come closer to the patterns observed in the provincial 2009 elections. This involves an alarming measure of political uncertainty at the centre of federal (Baghdad), regional (Erbil) and provincial politics.
Nine, elections will not change the number of representatives from each community, but it most certainly will dramatically change power relations within them by bringing in new forces and causing new alliances. The weight of single parties will vary, so will the course of developments ahead. The victors will determine the form and content of coalitions and alliances in the new parliament and new provincial councils; and decide the new course.
Nine, there is no inkling as who has the better of chances, or in plain words who the victor will be.
The 2010 Elections:
Needless to say, the nature of the victor in the Shi’i community will be crucial, since the greatest bloc in the parliament may well flow form, or include a large chunk of, it. But the question is what composition it would have, and what leadership it would yield. There are at present two Shi’i blocs, the Maliki-led Dawlat al-Qanun (Rule of Law) and the Hakim-led I(tilaf Watani (Patriotic Alliance). The latter, harnessed by Iran, betrays signs of profound divisions.
Sadr’s movement is still vibrant although it has lost much of its military strength and diminished in human and material resources. Yet, it still commands the charisma of its forefather, ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (killed in 1999); it still benefits from the material spoils it had gathered during the years of cabinet empowerment; but the structure of the movement is rather weak and undisciplined; it had also been in clash with some local tribes that turned against it. Its political capital as a defender of Shi’ism during the 2006-7 Sunni-Shi’i civil war has been shattered by its loss of the military confrontation against the Maliki government in 2007-8, a fact that made Sadr’s movement look more like a trouble maker, hostile to law and order and the much wanted security and stability. Staging a comeback in the coming elections cannot be altogether discounted although the time span it had (one year) is perhaps too short for speedy recovery.
On the other hand, Hakim’s ISCI seems in a better position; it is better organized, it is more disciplined, less radical, more pragmatic, more prudent in displaying its militia force, it has greater material resources, and a vast network of bureaucratic-type organization (recruitment and liaison offices across urban centres), but ISCI lacks the charismatic aura Sadr has. Their attempts to redeploy Sistani’s images in the provincial elections were barred and has thus far been futile, curtailing their mobilizing capacity. Nevertheless, ISCI is a force to reckon with. While Sadr may find in the Fadhila party, and ex-PM Ja’fari’s political group, strong allies, ISCI seems to rely on its treble existence as Majlis, Badr, and Shaheed al-Mihrab movements. The alliance it had forged is fractured In the current Hobbsian situation of the war of all against all, Mailiki may seem the weakest. His party is small, but it is growing; it had a very poor performance in the first provincial elections in 2005, but an improving record in 2009. It also has an insignificant presence (ten seats) in the current parliament; and it has sustained a major split right after Maliki’s accession to power. Moreover, Maliki himself owed his ascendancy to premiership in 2006 to Sadr and his allies; in as much as Maliki’s campaign against his previous benefactor, Sadr, owes much to the support extended to him by Hakim. At the beginning Maliki was as weak as his party, but he emerged from the anti-Militia, anti-Qaeda crusade with a tremendous political capital. His success in restoring law and order in Anbar, Mosul, and Baghdad in tandem with the US is enhanced by his almost solo success in Basra, ‘Amara and other southern Shi’i provinces. The impact of security is strongly felt across the country: an atmosphere of social relaxation and a measure of liberty prevailed. Maliki’s popularity soared beyond his wildest dreams. To keep and invest these political capitals Maliki desperately requires an effective political machine that could match the chain of bureaucratic offices and religious charities under Hakim’s control; or the charismatic symbols that Sadr wields. The Da’wa party has been and continues to be a Leninist type of organization of mostly middle and lower middle class lot with no religious infrastructure (mosques and Husaynias) and no militia. And as such it was battered by long years of clandestine activity, and suffered at the hands of his foes and friends alike (Iraq and Iran). The concept of the Sahwa movement that exploited the rift between ideological fundamentalism and traditional groups living by their customary law and nationalism, to mobilise and empower local tribes, was a brain child of the US military commanders (general David Petraios in particular). The Sahwa concept seemed to have ignited the imagination of the Maliki entourage, who cast their hesitation and misgivings and took to heart the campaign to spread the Sahwa (Awakening) across Iraq, first in the Sunni provinces, and well beyond. The movement was given a new name: Majalis al-Isnad (Councils of Support). Indeed, the Majalis attracted old and new tribal and local formations, who were eager to gain central patronage and reassert themselves versus other categories, such as clerics and militia leaders.
Maliki’s Majalis al-Isnad, a mimic of the US-invented Majalis al-Sahwa, came at a crucial moment: Shi’i populist, radical politics hinges on two fundamentalist-minded and extremely conservative outfits: Hakim-led ISCI and the Sadrist. The decline of the latter as a result of the crack down on the Mahdi army, left the Shi’i political and cultural spaces open to the Hakim-led ISCI, which has the potential to overwhelm Iraqi politics left by weakening of Sadr. Tin the eyes of the Da’wa and Maliki the deterioration of Sadr’s movement might seem a blessing for peaceful transition, but it looked like a curse in the power relations within the Shi’i camp. Maliki’s Da’wa party is not only weak vis-à-vis Sadr, but could even be weaker vis-à-vis Hakim.
Maliki used Majalis al-Isnad o augment his political capital as a champion of law and order and the supremacy of state as the sole agency to monopolize legitimate means of violence. True, Majalis al-Isnad have played a crucial role in shifting the balance of power in the Shi’i provinces and in Baghdad in favour of the rule of law, but most importantly, these very Majalis al-Isnad have also, at least thus far, been instrumental in extending Maliki’s patronage and enhancing his power base, which may prove vital for his and his party’s political career. It is perhaps this dual function of the Majalis al-Isnad that brought unfavourable reactions against them on part of Maliki’s ally, Hakim, as on part of his foe, Sadr. Maliki is paying lavishly to tribal lot, middle class intellectuals, and even some local clerics, to expand his constituency with an eye on the fierce rivalry with Sadr and Hakim. This drive intensified the triple polarization among Shi’i politics: Sadr-Hakim-Maliki.
Political discourses changed accordingly. Maliki is deploying the language of law and order, of religious impartiality, of the legalities of central authority as the sole agency of monopolizing means of violence, and of Iraqi nationalism in as much he is using state patronage in contradistinction to the old religious identity idiom. Maliki extended his drive to mobilize Majalis al-Isnad to the sensitive province of Mosul and Kirkuk, targeting not only Arab but also Kurdish tribes.
If the Majalis al-Isnad in the south enhance Maliki versus Hakim and Sadr; and the Majalis al-Isnad in the west and north create trans-cmmunal bridges with Sunni groups, approaching Arab and Kurdish tribes in Mosul and Kirkuk signals a confrontation with the Kurds in the heals of a series of parliamentary battles between federal (Baghdad) and regional (Erbil) autorities over a host of issues in which Maliki was defeated. His move may have been prompted by the desire to build on the anti-Kurdish Sunni-Shi’i alliance that emerged during 2008-9.
Mliki won the Majalis al-Isnad as an extension to his government and, most importantly, as to his own power base; but he has brought the wrath of his formidable rivals: Sadr, Hakim and Barzani.
The first decade or so of the new millennium has brought dramatic changes in Iraqi Shi’ism that will impact the region in general, and may leave some marks on Iran as well:
1-a: Najaf emerged as an anti-thesis to Qum. The former was now autonomous, powerful, free of state controls and in favour of the traditional Shi’i norms of non-clerical rule, which, by default or intention, is pro pluralism mand democracy. Thus Najaf stand as an anti-thesis to Qum as a thesis of authoritarian, hierocratic Iran.
1-b: The clerical class in Iran grew massively from some 50 K to 200K, as a result of incorporation of this class into state administration, legislature and judiciary; in Iraq hardly had this class grown; Najaf forbids clerics from any state employment other than the legislator, and partly the judiciary.
1-c: In Iran, the clerical class is predominantly Persian (with some Azeri and other non-Persian elements); in Iraq this class is ethnically heterogeneous (Persian, Afghani, Pakistani and Arab, giving the latter wider appeal and extensive networks.
1-d: Najaf stands as a rival centre of gravity vis Qum-Teheran, and more and more Arabs (notably in the Gulf), take pride in the empowerment of Shiis in Iraq and appreciate the moderation of wisdom shown by Najaf to help achieve that.
1-e: If steadily consolidated, Najaf’s model could, strategically speaking, more strongly influence the ‘quest for democracy in Iran’ The present turmoil of transition in Iraq weakness this impact at the moment, but once removed, the impact will be tremendous..
2-a: Prior to 2003, Shi’i Islamist groups and social movements were divided into two, sundry, major blocs, the Diaspora groups, mainly but not exclusively, groomed by Iran; and the native, autonomous underground bloc, the Sadrist.
2-b: These groups were segmented along several lines, class, ideology, region, ideology, and city solidarity. In exile and at home there were: SCIRI of Hakim family-Najaf, Islamic Action of the Mudarrissi-Karbala, or the Sadr-Kazimain, or the Ya’qubi-Virute Fadhila party, or the various Da’wa factions (Da’wa Iraq of Karim ‘Inizi; Da’wa Haraka oof Izz al-Din-Salim-Basra, or Da’wa Fiqhi of ayatollah Kazim Ha’iri).
2-c: Before as after 2003, their inter-relations involve competition, fierce rivalry over leadership and power within the Shi’i milieu; but cooperation in the general line of securing Shi’i empowerment. The more empowerment of Shi’is (after 2003) is secured, the fiercer the rivalry; the more it is threatened the more cooperative they become.
Three major strands of ideology prevailed among these groups-movements:
3-a:: Authoritarian hierocracy (Khomeini’s strand of wilayat al-faqih), embraced by by all exile groups save the mainstream Da’wa party;l
3-b: Liberal-hierocracy developed by the Da’wa party under the influence of the Lebanese school (grand ayatollah sayyid M.H. Fahl Allah, and the late Sheiklh M. Shams al-Din).
3-c: Messianic populism of native Sadrist current in Iraq, characterized by a strong supervisory role of the Pontif.
3-d: Unlike the rest, the mother Da’wa and the Sadrist were characterized by strong sense of Iraqis, and strong nationalist traditions hostile to the US and Israel. This element has the potential to further detach Shii Islamism from Iranian patronage.
3-e: In post 2003, only the Sadrist retained anti-US positions, hardened by: 1-bitterness over exclusion from power, 2- growing Iranian influence over them, and,3- by the conversion of ex-Shi’i-Ba’thist to Sadrism.
3-f: Under the influence of Najaf (Sistani), and the fierce opposition from Arab Sunnis and Kurds (Shafi’ite Sunnis, but secular), the authoritarian version of Khomeini’s theory was officially abandoned by the Hakim-led SCIRI, renamed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and practically forsaken by others.
3-g: Pragmatism developed more forcefully, notably among the predominantly middle class Da’wa party.
4-a: The main Shi’i strategy was to cooperate with the US for peaceful transition, challenged only by Sadr, who gradually lost the battle (the Law and Order Campaign in 2008).
4-b: Shi’i empowerment was anchored in the politics of Shi’i identity (i.e. majoritarian rule: demographic communal majority=democratic majority rule).
4-c: Identity politics was already fragmented from within by pre-2003 history of social and other segmentary factors; fragmentation was neutralized by the collective quest for power, but once power was secured, old and new fractures set in motion.
4-d: Sandwiched between two giants; Hakim’s ISVI, and Sadr’s messianic militias, the Da’wa, dwarfed by a long series of internal schism and detachment from the national habitat, soon emerged as a powerful broker. Its policies, though partly imposed from without, resonated with the wider, and growing middle classes yearning for stability, security, and moderation.
4-e: This new and strategic turn manifested in the phenomenal success of the Da’wa party in the January 2009 provincial elections. This success would strategically reinforce moderation and pragmatism.
4-f: In this transition to moderation and pragmatism, Islamism in general, and its Shi’i strands in particular, lost much of its early appeal. The ruling Da’wa discourse is now couched in the idiom of ‘law and order’, and Max Weber’s ‘monopoly of legitimate means of violence’, some respect for civil liberties (re-opening the previously shuttered liquor stores, night clubs, removal of imposed code of dress: veil, etc).
4-g: Along with moderation, a strong surge of Iraqism (wataniya, i.e. patriotism in contradistinction to ta’ifiya, sectarianism) followed, which may well strengthen tendencies above (4-e), allowing for flexible power-sharing and attachment to Iraq’s national, versus Iranian, national interests.
5-a: Iraq’s disfranchised society of impoverished middle classes, of mass urban poor, of ‘ruralized’ cities, of tribal-ized urbanism, of Islamized popular culture, and of personalized social and political authority, was the ideal socio-cultural and politcal space for the spread of Islamism, of ethno-sectarian identitiy politics, and of extra-institutional bloody conflict between as within communities (however defined).
5-b: Relative stability, windfall increase in oil revenues, relief of a staggering foreign debt (some $130 b.), stabilization of the Iraqi currency, liberalization of the economy (save minerals), US and international cash contributions and aid, foreign and Arab investments, changed society.
5-c: Expansion of middle classes grew in tandem with its liberation from its former crony slavery to government-patronage. Urban poor reduced in numbers, and the social base for, extra-institutional, violent politics shrank.
5-d: Decentralization brought into play local forces of middle class businessmen, professionals and, in provincial spaces, tribal chiefs, gradually detaching them from particularistic identity politics, and encouraged pursuance of more pragmatic, economic, cultural, or local self-interest politics. This is enhanced by affordable new life styles: internet, mobile phones, free travel, and intensive contact with the world, free communication and free flow of information (with some 20 odd TV networks, dozens of radio stations, hundreds of newspapers and journals).
5-e: A somewhat similar line of socio-cultural development is evident in Iran itself: By dint of economic and cultural reforms under ex-presidents, pragmatic Rafsanjani, and reformist Khatami, urban middle classes doubled in the last decade, while urban poor (the backbone of Khomeini’s army in 1979) shrank by two thirds. Spread of internet, and TV satellites, bring society into intensive cultural interaction with the Iranian Diaspora and the world at large, and curtail and challenge state monopoly of information, communication.
6-a: Iran’s strategy vis Iraq was dual: Shi’i empowerment and (following Ahmadinajad’s election) removal of the US threat outflanking Iran from east and west (Afghanistan and Iraq).
6-b- This dual track led, on the one hand, to help construct a pan-Shii power bloc, and allow its inevitable cooperation with the US; but it encouraged, on the other hand, the build up of the Mahdi army militia, thereby undoing with this hand what it was constructing with the other. The two parallel lines were impossible to maintain given the fact that empowerment of Shiis required stability and US cooperation; dislodging them, however, disrupted the process.
6-c: Iran’s strategic objectives further included the removal of Mujahidin Khalq, control over Najaf, and, paradoxically, the restoration of the 1975 agreement over borders (including the Shatt al-Arab waterway).
:6-d: Iran failed to dislodge Mujahidin Khalq, but managed to neutralize them; control over Najaf failed, and the occupation of the Fakka oil field in Misan province in early 2010, proved a diplomatic disaster for Iran.
6-e: Sistani (and Najaf in general) kept cordial relations with all dissident clerics in Qum (Muntaziri until his death in December 2009), and Iranian plans to intervene in Najaf’s seminaries failed.
6-f: Iran failed to protect its new protégé , Muqtada Sadr in th 2008 Law and Order campaign, and failed again to patronize the reconstruction of a pan-Shi’i political bloc, but managed to unite a smaller front under Hakim, inclusive of their arch-rival Sadr, the dogmatic Ibrahim Ja’fari, and the crony-phoney liberal, Ahmad Chalabi..
6-g Social and economic traffic between the two countries increased massively: religious and worldly tourism (visitations) to the holy shrines, trade and commerce, investments, expanded rapidly, allowing for more interactive exchange between the two nations, enhancing both government sponsored infiltration, and free social interaction. Still, the Iranian influence in Iraq has grown greatly compared to pre-2003, but Iraqi Shi’ism is also growing more autonomous and standing on its feet as sui generes.
The two nations, Iran and Iraq, are moving under opposite conditions: Iraq is an emerging democracy facing authoritarian threats and learning how to cope with its pluralistic reality by means of institutional politics, away from spectres of a failed state; Iran, by contrast, is an authoritarian hierocracy facing a democratic-pluralistic challenge, employing violence, nationalism and sacred legitimacy. But the two nations are also moving in one direction: quest for representative democracy.
These factors are, of course, not in the least exhaustive, but they point into the main direction of examining the politics of difference. In this logic there is Shi’ism in a general and loose sense, but there are as many Shi’isms as national settings exist in a concrete, palpable sense.