by Dabya Al-Rafaei
إقرأ هذه المقالة باللغة العربية
Volatility of the Middle East and frequency of civil conflicts on ethnic and sectarian grounds, in comparison to other regions in the world, had largely been explained through the primordialist account of political identity. The distinct communities that occupy the region had long been argued to be geographically homogenous and mutually hostile towards one another (Dodge, 2007, p. 24). However, this explanation of political identity as a core factor in driving violence in the Middle East ignores the historically and pragmatically grounded complex reality.
This paper argues for an alternative, modernist explanation of political identity within the framework of the modern state. In this approach, the politicization of ethnosectarian identity is an effect rather than a cause of state weakness.
Exclusive bargaining in the process of state building, weak state capacity to legitimize its monopoly over the use of force as well as external influences combined, give rise to ethnic entrepreneurship in divided states.
Consequently, mobilization of ethnicity by these “entrepreneurs” more often than not leads to widespread violence in a race for security and scarce resources. The way these dynamics interplay in a volatile region like the Middle East, determine the degree to which ethnic entrepreneurs can mobilize ethnicity and religion.
Accordingly, in Iraq, as the paper aims to demonstrate, it is the primordialist understanding of Iraqi society by the U.S.-led coalition in 2003 that exacerbated divisive sectarianism into Iraqi politics. Due to the disintegration of the mechanisms of centralized government, dangerous competition over local resources generated ethnosectarian violence as individuals found that pre-emptive actions against other groups were a necessary means for survival (Bunton, 2008, p. 631).
Priomordialism and Iraqi Political Identity
The primordialist account insists on the centrality of collective identity that is rooted in historical experience in determining the political behaviour of people groups. (Esman, 1994, p. 10). It is primordial loyalties, therefore, that cause ethnic and sectarian conflicts in Iraq. The apparent lack of a national identity among Iraqis and their political affiliations with either sects (Sunnis or Shias and their sub-sects) or ethnicity (Arab, Persians or Kurdish origins) defends such view.
When conflicts arise, members of different ethnic and sectarian groups act upon the impulses that their sense of kinship dictates, aligning themselves with their fellows who share the same objective traits in an expression of solidarity. According to Toby Dodge in Iraqi Transitions: Preventing a New Generation of Conflict, this primordialist understanding of the roots of conflict in Iraq influenced the formation of the first post-Saddam governing body. However, because it failed to capture the complexity of Iraqi society, it was unable to deliver the reformed political structure the U.S. officials running the occupation had sought (Dodge, 2007, p. 25).
Part of this complexity is derived from the overlapping constituents of political identity. Religion, language, geographic location and historical experience that make up a certain group are not mutually exclusive. As the discussion of the role of state policy will convey, whichever of these traits prevails as the main determinant of political identity for the most part depends on its relevance to the context in which individuals interact.
Moreover, primordialist views on conflict in post-Iraq almost entirely overlooked the significance of sub-sectarian and sub-ethnic divisions in shaping the internal dynamics. The resulting political structure under the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) institutionalized ethnosectarianism by word and deed in the mindset of the people and most dangerously, in the body politic (Dawisha, 2008, p. 222). This unprecedented endeavor in Iraqi politics was meant to overcome the past difficulties that were perceived to be a natural consequence of the lack of representation of the Iraqi people aspirations.
However, just like the case with Lebanon’s disastrous confessionalism, the divisive nature of the process of selecting representative government officials, nurtured a political culture concerned with particularistic concerns, rather than national interest; concerns that became a driving force behind governmental policies and parliamentary behavior (Dawisha, 2008, p. 222).
Failure of incorporating the pluralism of Iraqi society in the body politic to as a necessary effort to demobilize ethnicity and sectarianism is primarily due to the failure of the primordialist approach to assess the role of state policy, capacity and external factors in giving primacy to an otherwise passive constituent of identity.
The State and the Political Arena
The state as the arena in which different groups compete and contest to put forward their interest is central to the modernist explanation of political identity. In the modernist analytical framework, the environment shapes ethnic and sectarian identity rather than a fixed set of objective traits as the primordialists suggest. Deployment of ethnicity as means for political gain is highly dependent on the opportunities it offers in comparison to other instruments. Like other people, Iraqis’ societal identity is shaped by various determinants such as the financial situation, profession, education, and the degree of exposure to cultural globalization, as well as religion and ethnicity. What makes the last two of these the main vehicle for political mobilization is the state itself, not any inherent privilege that these two traits they possess.
When the state enjoys autonomy from ethnic contestants, it can function as a neutral arbitrator where healthy forms of competition over allocation of resources through merit, productivity and opportunity can take place. However, when the state is controlled by one of the contending communities as is the case in Israel, Syria and Iraq, it is perceived as a partisan that even when succeeding in managing conflict, it will not be immune to future ethnic conflicts i.e. that the system is not sustainable (Esman, 1994, p. 19). Even though ethnosectarian identity cannot be deconstructed, functionality of the state can contain and deactivate its violent politicization.
Conflict in the Political Economy
Activities of the modern territorial state are not limited to security and law enforcement. States aim to penetrate society through taxation that finances services of great importance of all their members such as education, public health, transportation and regulation of economic and social activities (Esman, 1997, p. 19).
As the allocator of vital resources, policies adopted by the state directly affect the population and generate different consequences accordingly. Unless the state is perceived as a neutral arbitrator, members of different groups find it rational to mobilize in order to make credible claims and secure a favorable allocation of wealth, goods and services.
For civil society to become the foundation upon which national identity could be built, citizens needs to believe that their interests are best served by the state instead of their sub-state alliances. Under the Ba’ath governance, oil wealth secured that objective. Abundance of oil granted the Iraqi government great influence over society as 21% of the active workforce as well as 40% of households were directly dependent on government payment (Dodge, 2005, p. 708).
Even though bigoted views against non-Sunnis were held by both Abdul Salam Aref and Saddam Hussein, ethnosectarianism was not allowed to “become the key criterion for apportioning governmental and administrative positions and responsibilities, nor in any way was it advertised as an element of public policy” (Dawisha, 2008, p. 220).
Of course after sanctions in 1990 and the following uprisings in 1991, the political tone had changed following the violent campaign against Shias and Kurds. The authoritarian state could no longer deliver economically, and therefore the population could no longer be kept under control. The difference between Ba’athist Iraq and post-2003 Iraq is less to do with the ethnosectarian social structure that was consistently problematic for the state, and more to do with the policies adopted by the state and the degree to which they were legitimate in the eyes of the population.
The CPA and Political Sectarianism
The CPA’s (Coalition Provisional Authority) attempt to establish a stable democracy after the downfall of Saddam brought about the infusion of particularistic identities in the concept of political parties. Parties thereafter, became instruments of promoting ethnosectarian interests that led to the inevitable collapse of the political body. This is because elite bargains that were central to the negotiations that took place to pave the path to democracy and prevent the occurrence of violent conflicts were exclusive, not inclusive.
While an inclusive bargaining approach integrates a broad section of the existing national elites into the ruling coaling, the settlement created by the United States after the 2003 war involved an exclusive set of elites with narrow ethnosectarian interests (Dodge, 2012, p. 41). This arrangement, coupled with aggressive de-ba’athification was a recipe for a sectarian disaster as Sunnis were systemically excluded and marginalized, which birthed insurgency and encouraged monopoly of the Shia elites over mechanics of Iraqi politics.
The partisanship of Iraqi politics after 2003 could have succeeded in conflict management through accommodation, or -most likely- coercion. However, the lack of the state coercive ability to enforce order made neither option possible.
According to Toby Dodge, the institutional capacity of the state must be judged and compared to the capabilities of non-state organizations that seek to mobilize the population and deploy violence as means for political gain.
For the state to be legitimate, there must not be other forces capable of competing with and challenging its monopoly over the use of violence. However, as is the case with other Arab states that were created through colonial powers, the only strong government institution in Iraq is the military. As part of de-ba’athification, the Iraqi military was disbanded and the American-led troops were left to restore order in a state of chronic weakness while lacking the necessary troop numbers to control the chaos. Consequently, a security vacuum has emerged where no community could secure its interests without threatening the interests of other communities when power devolved from the collapsed central authority to local organizations.
The primordial loyalties cannot be mistaken for a cause, for they are only instruments mobilized to sustain survival by granting fundamental economic and security gains that could no longer be provided by the central government. As ethnosectarianism became a feature in Iraqi public policy, the majority of Iraqis deemed state actions illegitimate and no public consent could be fostered. Criminality therefore flourished to serve the pursuit of narrow interests and resist state-driven repression as state prohibitions on murder became meaningless to the public (Dodge, 2012, p. 32). Therefore, the monopoly of the Ba’athist state over both economic resources and legitimate use of force were two key features in demobilization of a population that now found itself no longer able to rely on the state to provide basic human needs. Instead, they sought these services from local competing establishments that seemed to promise the best options of survival.
When ethnic and sectarian relations become the most visible feature of state dynamics, they also become issues of macropolitical concern that can be manipulated, exploited and escalated by transnational actors. Whereas the primordialist account assumes the answer to ethnosectarian conflicts lies in voluntary apartheid, the modernist approach finds such settlement counter-productive due to the interconnectedness of world states through networks that recognize opportunity, not borders.
These networks consist of either states to which strategic interest is the mobilization of groups outside their borders, or organizations that are often militarized and well able to reach out groups abroad through direct and indirect means. Interference in Iraqi politics was made possible because Iraqi borders became meaningless as the state lost its administrative and coercive capabilities which caused decision-making power to leak out across the boundaries and into the hands of competing powers that further escalated conflict in Iraq in pursuit of their interests (Al-Sayyed, 2009, p. 39).
Power-sharing in Iraq where each groups’ interest is at odds with one another translated into an increasingly militant rivalry between the Sunnis and Shias due to advanced warfare techniques that were made possible through external support. Iran for example, found it easy to mobilize Iraqi Shias to extend its sphere of influence in the Gulf region as Saddam’s Arabization process involved expulsion of many ethnically-Persian Iraqis who sought refuge in Iran and later returned to Iraq both ideologized and militarized (Nasr, 2006). This has bred anxiety amongst Sunni Iraqis who found themselves at a great disadvantage and acknowledged the centrality of state peripheries as means of political organization. Sunnis too, sought foreign aid through connections with Al-Qaeda as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and sympathetic powerful individuals across the Gulf. Dominance of the Sunni faction in most of the Middle East allowed insurgencies to establish networks and move money, goods and personnel back and forth with relative ease (Herring & Rangwala, 2006, p. 164).
Path Dependencies Pre-2003 and Political Mobilization Post-2003
Path dependencies were built long before the collapse of the state as the Ba’athist regime chose to manage potential conflict between rivaling factions through coercion. It was only after state collapse post-2003 however, that the passive sense of collective identity was translated into an assertive, organized communalistic body led by formerly inactive shapers of path dependency; the sub-national political elites and the ethnic entrepreneurs (Dodge, 2012, p. 34).
As ethnosectarianism became infused in the political structure of Iraq under the CPA-created government, the political economy became an arena of rivalry in the national culture. Therefore, it became the duty of ethnic entrepreneurs to provide what the different communities desperately need in times of uncertainty, and that is leadership in the quest of securing access to scarce economic resources. Existence of influential community leaders, as well as well trained, economically motivated ex-soldiers and ideologically driven Shia former exiles created quasi-states within the collapsed Iraqi state that seemingly offered best chance of survival. Therefore, the instability and violence that became a prominent feature of Iraqi politics is shaped by path dependencies built up before 2003 and the actions of political entrepreneurs in the wake of state collapse after 2003 (Dodge, 2012, p. 34).
In conclusion, mobilization of ethnicity and religious communities in the political arena is conditioned on whether citizens believe their interests are best served by the state or elsewhere. Contrary to the primordialist explanation of political identity, ethnicity and religion emerge as core constituents of identity only when the state fails to represent and carry through the interests of its citizens.
In the case of post-2003 Iraq, the resulting fragmentary nature of the state, “partial as a mechanism of order and weak as a service provider…. has been instrumental in the alignment of populations with groups rooted in principles specific to a sect” (Herring & Rangwala, 2006, p. 159). Therefore, rise of sectarian warfare is the product of fragmentation, not a cause for it. Pre-1990s Iraqi politics demonstrates the validity of such a proposal, as sectarianism was not infused in the body politic at the time. Its unprecedented infusion after the U.S. led coalition, as well as the irrelevance of state institutions all-together, were bound to be critical factors in mobilizing formerly passive ethnic and religious communities in response to the absence of means to obtain essential economic needs as well as security. Relevance of ethnicity and religion, therefore, is context-dependent; adaptable and prioritized in the face of threats and marginalized in the face of new opportunities that can best serve society.
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Dabya Al-Rafaei is a third year Politics and Economics major in Queen Mary, University of London. A freelance journalist with contributions in Al-Arabiya Online, she is also a member of the International Gulf Organization (iaIGO), and the British Middle East Center for Studies and Research. Dabya also served as the President of Spring Thinkers Political Society at Queen Mary, University of London from 2011-2012. You can contact her at D.firstname.lastname@example.org.