No one can deny that the Iraqi arena is currently witnessing devastating sectarian sedition, one that has brought about complete destruction threatening national unity itself. There are various precursors to this that have been recorded in a number of Arab and Muslim arenas. Most of the popular analyses tend to view this sedition within the context of the old ideological conflict between the two key constituents of the fabric of Islam: the Sunni and Shia doctrines. From this perspective, the ongoing conflict in Iraq is interpreted as having emerged from the Sunni state’s oppression of the Shia majority, the former having governed modern Iraq, whereas presently, the later enjoys an authority that is guaranteed by democratic balances.
To demonstrate this approach, the ideological and political works of literature rely on the Shia heritage dictionary to formulate the modern political equation, whilst the various constituents of the Iraqi resistance and the active terrorist movements are presented as a Sunni reaction to the Shia dominance.
This simplified image entices one into understanding the complicated Iraqi equation; however, the history of ideas indicates that when concepts, symbols and ideologies are taken out of their original contexts, their odds and functions will change even though their pronunciations and connotations will remain unchanged.
In accordance with this principle, it becomes meaningless to look at the ongoing conflict in Iraq as an ideological Sunni-Shia one, even though the Shia institution plays a pivotal role and is one of the key aspects of the conflict. There is a vast difference between Shiism as an ideological identity and Shiism as an institutional structure that does not necessarily accommodate this identity in spite of the references and the Imamate in the Shia doctrinal structure.
Apart from the fact that the denomination is no longer the chief determinant in the identity of the modern Iraqi citizen whose political consciousness was formulated by the nationalist state, the religious institution itself has undergone the same transformation and was forced to rebuild its identity and structure according to the new shifts.
Needless to say, when the modern Iraqi state formed, it was not a sectarian one. Rather, it was established upon a model set by the British and was intended to be a federal entity that encompasses the national, religious and sectarian diversity. Also, the ideological identity – which was initially leftist then became nationalistic – of the republic that followed the collapse of the Hashemite Kingdom transcended and ended sectarian polarity. It is true that Saddam Hussein’s era had witnessed a severe clash with the Shia institution, especially after going to war with Iran; a clash that claimed lives of notable intellectual and religious icons, such as the brothers Baqir and Sadiq al Sadr. Thousands of Iraqi Shia were stripped of their Iraqi citizenship and banished to Iran under the pretext of their Iranian origins, and southern Iraq was harshly suppressed after the 1991 uprising. But these events cannot be separated from other chapters of suppression against other segments of Iraqi society, primarily the Sunni Kurds and the rest of the political denominations; the Muslim Brotherhood, the Communist Party, the Nasserite trend – even the historical leadership of the Baath Party itself. However, one has to admit that the Iraq-Iran war was accompanied by sectarian polarity that was employed for the present ideological and strategic purposes. Thus, it was easy to decipher the sectarian purposes of the Arab-Persian conflict through the symbolism of the slogan that was raised by the regime at the time. Also, the prominent sectarian character of the new Iranian state transformed Qum into a natural ideological center of attraction for the world’s Shia – Iraq’s Shia in their lead, their established hawzas in Najaf and Karbala having physical links with those in Qum and Mashhad.
Hence it was natural for the sectarian aspect and political strategic aspect to merge and for the current conflict between the secular Arabist model (Iraq) and the Shia Persian model (Iran) to impact the nature of the Shia institution in Iraq, which in turn gave birth to the notion of Wilayat al Faqih [guardianship of the Islamic jurists] during Imam al Khomeini’s stay in Najaf.
Add to the fact that the fundamental Shia organizations currently ruling Iraq were created in Iran and their leadership has long been embraced by the Iranian government, the unity of the doctrinal reference produced a strong tie that can be politically capitalized upon (the status of al Sistani in the current Shia institutional structure).
The fragile democratic experience witnessed by Iraq after the fall of the Baathist regime resulted in reproducing the Shia identity through the combined role of religious institution that was removed from the political conflict, and the effect of the collapse of the central structure of the state, which led to a regression into the narrower individual identities. And yet the matter does not imply a retreat to a Shia identity that preceded modernism; rather it signifies the utilization of the sectarian dimension in a conflict of positions, interests and regional alliances of which the purposes and odds are not difficult to reveal.
The same tendency can be sensed on the Sunni side, although the mechanisms differ due to the absence of an active organized religious institution. Extremist Salafist currents [followers adopt a purist approach to Quranic interpretation and are inspired by the lives of the early Muslims] refer to the books on the sedition to proclaim the Shia as infidels and justify killing them, which changes the logic of confrontation from fighting the occupier to targeting members of other denominations. Some constituents of resistance, including nationalist and secular trends, employ the Sunni groups’ obsessive fear of sidelining and exclusion to fuel their rejection of the occupation and the government loyal to it.
Naturally, they are produced identities, manufactured ones. They are neither natural nor spontaneous. They do not denote ideological or doctrinal affiliations but belong to logic of political strategic conflict that is determined by politicians rather than Shariaa scholars and theologians.