Recent discussions on the ongoing tragedy in Iraq reflect an almost unanimous consensus on the division of Iraqi society and its political groupings into three main categories: Sunni, Shiaa, and Kurdish. This classification forms the basis of all political activity in the country and it appears to be reflected by developments on the ground.
Accordingly, the crisis in Iraq can be attributed to a conflict of identities, both ethnic and sectarian, with the country close to boiling point. Identity politics is also an issue in other Arab countries that are culturally and ethnically diverse.
Some observers consider the civil war that swept through Algeria in the 1990s a national crisis in a country suffering from a conflict of identities between its Arab and Berber populations. The same is said to apply to Morocco, if less severely, since Berber demands focus almost exclusively on cultural recognition.
This framework is also applied to Mauritania which has strong similarities to Sudan with an Arab north opposed to a Black south. Mention of ethnic divisions in Mauritania rose in the late 1980s after the height of the war with Senegal.
Other ethnically diverse countries in the Middle East, such as Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen, not to forget Lebanon, are included in this classification.
Ethnic conflicts, identity politics, and minority rights are high on the agenda of a number of international and civil organizations, such as the Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo, under the supervision of Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim who has suffered greatly because of his interest in the subject.
While this categorization may seem reliable and objective, it suffers from a basic methodological defect. Identity, many forget, is an ideological construct and not a natural concept.
The French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu argued that categorization in the social sciences is only a procedural mechanism and a practice that is controlled by knowledge and awareness.
Detailed historical and anthropological analyses demonstrate that common classifications hide much more than they describe while masking complex social structures and simplifying ideological conflicts.
As for the situation in Iraq, the commonly referred to distinctions whilst obvious are in fact, ideologically constructed and procedural mechanisms describing a multi-faceted conflict and which cannot be reduced to an Arab- Kurdish or a Sunni- Shia dualism since the Sunni identity encompasses the majority of Kurdish national aspirations and the Shiaa community is inextricably linked to an Arab Iraq and it is wrong to believe that it is linked to Iranian ideology or national ambitions.
Closer examination of the post-Saddam era reveals that sectarian identities multiplied in Iraq following the collapse of the Baath rule, at a time when central government was at it weakest and the military was dissolved. The disappearance of inclusive political groups was due to mismanagement during the former regime and errors by the occupiers who adopted a classification along sectarian and ethnic lines.
If one were to analyze the current state of the Shiaa community, one would notice that the terminology currently in use in political circles does not reflect a natural identity but is the result of circumstances whereby three radically different groups collided.
They are, the Shiaa clerical establishment which shuns political activity and concentrates on religion and education, the extremist parties that follow revolutionary ideologies similar to Ayatollah Khomeini’s doctrine on wilayet al faqih, consistently opposed by the religion institutions in Najaf, in addition to the liberal secular leaders who are pro-American and consider their fellow brethren as mere political capital, such a Iyad Allawi and Ahmad Chalabi.
When these disparate groups coalesce they form what is commonly referred to as a “Shiaa identity” which clearly refers to an ideological construct and not a natural category.
A similar scenario occurs with the Sunni identity, which mainly refers to urban familiar that lack any obvious sectarian affiliation, as well the tribes of Iraq who are either Sunni or Shiaa.
Those who believe the occupation lead to the emergence of a Sunni identity are mistaken; this development can be attributed to the fear of marginalization and elimination spread by some individuals and organizations for their personal benefit.
Ongoing debates in the western media on a Sunni-Shiaa conflict hide the real conflict between an array of groups under the guise of sectarianism in one of the most modern and educated societies in the Arab world.
Of course, the Baath dictatorship undermined economically and politically the urban bourgeoisie at the helm of this modernization and attacked political parties with weak sectarian sentiment, such as the Iraqi communist party or even the Baath in its original version, before the clan from Tikrit became dominant.
Dividing Iraq, as endorsed by the constitution, is not a democratic solution to a conflict of identities but a momentary expression of a political and strategic conflict concealed under national and sectarian slogans.