Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...

Shortly after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, Al-Jazeera took to the streets of Tikrit in order to gauge popular reactions to the epochal event. One man expressed his hope for a brighter future and explicitly rejected any notion of a fugitive Saddam returning to power, as “he had left Baghdad a defeated man.” He went on to stress that Iraqis were one people: “Iraq has no Shi‘as and no Sunnis, no Arabs and no Kurds. We are all one people and, God willing, we will rebuild Iraq with one hand.” However, he cautioned that “the leader of the country should be a Sunni Arab and preferably from Tikrit as that is the way it has always been in Iraq.” This incident—which can only be described as tragicomic in light of subsequent events—highlights several issues that have bedeviled nation-building efforts in Iraq, and indeed in much of the broader Arab world, over the past century or so.

If we are trying to understand Iraqi “sectarianism,” or for that matter any number of contentious Middle Eastern “-isms”—be it racism, jingoistic nationalism, or Islamism—the root cause is often the same and can be found in a modern history of exclusionary nation-building that is perhaps the result of a deeply detrimental framing of the concepts of “unity” and “pluralism.” Viewed in this way, we can better understand the dynamics of contemporary Sunni-Shi‘a relations in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world as a modern phenomenon distinct from its pre-modern equivalent. Such an approach will also highlight the fact that the dynamics of sectarian relations are not fundamentally different from those animating other societal cleavages. Indeed, the sectarian divide in the Arab world is only unique today in the sense that it has been inordinately inflamed since 2003.

The Place of Religion in Sectarian Mobilization

For obvious reasons, perceptions regarding sectarian relations are often cluttered with the paraphernalia of religion. Hence, many commentaries on sectarian relations today are prefaced by a reference to the 1,400-year-old origins of the Sunni-Shi‘a schism, thereby positing that what is happening today is but a continuation of early Islamic strife.[1] It is this focus on religion, religious history, and jurisprudential differences that perhaps makes many view the sectarian divide as fundamentally different from, and somehow more essential and primordial than, other societal cleavages.

To be sure, for some actors the problem is very much one of unbridgeable religious differences. Preachers of sectarian hate on social media and on religious satellite channels do see the other as an enemy and threat to the faith. For such people, and for their many followers, the other’s unorthodoxy is considered heresy, which in and of itself justifies fear, hatred, exclusion, and violence.[2] This discourse makes little if any mention of the nation-state or of nationalism; indeed, many advocates of this form of sectarian hate explicitly reject the nation-state as a frame of reference, preferring instead to elevate religion—or, more precisely, sect—as the defining frame of reference.[3]

This line of thinking has and always will exist, in the same way that racial or ethnic extremists will always exist. However, beyond clerical circles and the devout, such ideas have traditionally had a modest echo in the age of the Arab nation-state.[4] Throughout the 20th century, sectarian discourse and sectarian extremism in the Arab world were far more related to competing national truths than to competing religious ones. Be it in Bahrain, Lebanon, or Iraq, sectarian mobilization in the modern period has been more concerned with access to political and economic rights within the framework of the nation-state, rather than with the validation of religious truths. While this has been changing somewhat since 2003―and even more so since the Syrian civil war[5]―the national frame has yet to be completely overshadowed by the rising relevance of sectarian dogma.[6]

The Nation-State and its Discontents

The advent of the nation-state had a transformative effect on communal, including sectarian, identities and relations. It introduced new concepts that influenced perceptions of self and other and altered the nature of sectarian and broader communal competition. Whereas incidences of sectarian strife were historically related to religious rituals and symbols or neighborhood rivalries―which were in turn often influenced by the sectarian identity of the ostensibly Islamic state[7]― the era of the nation-state saw sectarian competition revolve around access to and ownership of an ostensibly modern, secular nation-state. With the nation-state came a sense of entitlement, a sense of ownership, and a sense of belonging; with the nation-state came concepts such as political and economic rights and citizenship. These came to shape sectarian identity and sectarian relations often more so than religion, religious history, or jurisprudential differences.[8]

Another transformative consequence of the nation-state was its intrinsic homogenizing impulse. Accelerated by authoritarianism, this ultimately worked to solidify a modern form of sectarian entrenchment, particularly among significant sections of Iraq’s Shi‘a. To put it simply, between the establishment of the Iraqi state in 1921 and the empowerment of Shi‘i political forces in 2003, there always existed a “Shi‘a issue,” even if its salience fluctuated widely from one decade to the next. From the Iraqi nation-state’s earliest days, Shi‘i activists called for Shi‘a rights and complained of neglect and underrepresentation.[9] This was not due to the state being particularly representative of the Sunni population, nor was it because Iraq was a “Sunni state”; rather, it was because, unlike their Sunni counterparts, the Shi‘a had a politically salient and culturally autonomous sectarian identity that grated against the state’s homogenizing impulses. In contrast, early 20th-century Iraqi statesmen and nation-builders did not have to contend with or struggle to subsume a differentiated Sunni identity.

To put it in the simplest terms, the modern secular Arab nation-state sought to transcend sectarian identity, not through inclusion but through negation. As the 20th century wore on and the state’s authoritarian tendencies intensified, a visibly sectarian identity became increasingly unwelcome in the public sphere. However, the crux of the matter is that this was more of a challenge to Shi‘as than to Sunnis, due to the simple fact that the Shi‘a had a far more salient sectarian identity. Indeed, the argument can be made that Sunnis did not have a sectarian identity demanding recognition or validation until recently; hence, to stigmatize sectarian identities in the 20th century was essentially to stigmatize the Shi‘a, or at least those of them who valued their sectarian identity. This is why the pre-2003 literature often mentions state-Shi‘a relations, while seldom discussing Sunni-Shi‘a relations; one could draw parallels with the fact that complaints about French laicite more often come from French Muslims than from French Christians, or that a variety of hyphenated history courses exist without a corresponding “white history.” Generations of asymmetric power relations, discrimination (both real and perceived), and general “othering” have left Shi‘as with what anthropologists would call a “marked identity,” long before the creation of the Arab nation-state.[10] Such marked identities, particularly when demographically significant, demand recognition―special treatment some might argue―which states are often unwilling to grant. As Gat puts it in his study of political ethnicity and nationalism: “… national or ethnic minorities struggling to improve their lot do not ask for a separation between state and culture. They do not suggest that Esperanto, which is indeed neutral between all ethnicities, should be made the state language… Rather, they try to upgrade the official status of their own particular culture… To the extent that they succeed, they enhance the salience of their own culture … Yet this very distinctiveness also emphasizes their minority status.”[11]

It is not that the Iraqi state wanted the Shi‘a to become Sunnis, nor that it was anti-Shi‘a per se; rather, what we see is the state’s suspicion of those whose lives and identities are embedded in the Shi‘i social and religious structures (some of which are transnational) that provided parallel truths regarding Iraqi history, the Iraqi self, and the Iraqi nation.[12] As such, social and political mobility were more readily available to Shi‘as who were unencumbered by these parallel truths. Successive governments were unwilling or unable to accommodate a salient or active Shi‘i identity, often regarding it—and the semi-autonomous structures underpinning it—as a potential threat. Writing in a different context, James C. Scott describes similar dynamics in parts of Southeast Asia, where “the ethnic zone was feared and stigmatized by state rhetoric precisely because it was beyond its grasp and therefore an example of defiance and an ever-present temptation to those who might wish to evade the state.”[13] In Scott’s research, the “ethnic zone” referred to what he termed “non-state people,” meaning those who actively avoided state influence and were, for most of their history, beyond the purview of any governing authority. In Iraq the opposite is the case: Far from involving an attempt to escape the state, Iraq’s sectarian divide is characterized by a struggle to own and define it.[14]

Exclusionary Nation-Building and the Readiness to Exclude

To recap: The modern Iraqi state did not exclude the Shi‘a in an Apartheid-esque manner just for being Shi‘a. Rather, to take advantage of the opportunities for social and political mobility, Shi‘i sectarian identity had to be watered down, rendered irrelevant and barely discernible—invisible even, as Sunni identity was—thereby blending into “the norm.” Added to that, instances of actual sectarian discrimination and, more broadly, regional, tribal, and class-based discrimination—though affecting Iraqis from all walks of life—further solidified a sense of exclusion among Shi‘i Iraqis.

While we can trace some of the roots of these phenomena—not least of which include the prejudices, attitudes, and practices inherited from the Ottoman-era[15]—to the pre-national period, the modern Iraqi state’s awkwardness vis-à-vis its Shi‘a population, and indeed other outgroups and minorities, was most directly a product of exclusionary nation-building based on problematic conceptions of “unity” and “pluralism.” Rather than actually fostering unity or respecting and nurturing pluralism (politically or communally), these concepts have often been used to exclude dissenters whose non-conformity was deemed a threat to the body politic. Be it the exclusionary and discriminatory Nationality Law of 1924,[16] Arabization policies,[17] or the utilization of shu‘ubiya[18] and taba‘iyya,[19] citizens were at times marginalized or excluded on the basis of their identities or their political dissent. Such tools of exclusion, particularly given that they often relied on the manipulation of communal identities, may have had the cumulative effect of turning social multiplicity into social division among many Iraqis.

This process is not confined to Iraq, much less to Iraqi sectarian dynamics: across the Arab world we see similarly rigid conceptions of “we the people,” be that on a national or transnational Arab level. Hence the near-absence of Arab solidarity with or sympathy toward issues relating to Western Saharans, Berbers, Copts, Kurds, Shi‘as, and other outgroups. To a significant extent, the Arab world is imagined as an Arab, Muslim, Sunni space regardless of the demographics and dynamics within individual countries. “Pluralism” is only recognized in the sense that the multiplicity of communal groups is accepted as an inescapable fact[20]; however, this usually comes with a taken-for-granted and zealously guarded dominance of a particular group and its cultural frames of reference. As such, popular conceptions of “unity” may better be described as a desire for uniformity or conformity. In this framework, “unity” is not to equally embrace difference under an all-encompassing meta-identity in the form of the nation, religion, or the citizenry. Instead, the more commonly witnessed pattern is the censorship or suppression of difference; the validation of a dominant group’s sense of entitlement to assert its identity, frames of reference, and ownership―culturally and politically―of a country; and a firm expectation that outgroups should accept the status quo and their secondary role in it as an integral part of the natural order.

Exclusion of dissenting voices and outgroups can be seen in other parts of the Arab world, and not necessarily in relation to sectarian identity, race, or religion. A grimly vivid example can be found in Egypt’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood campaign, which shows no signs of abating since the ouster of Mohammad Morsi in July 2013. In addition to unprecedented state repression against the Brotherhood, a fervently jingoistic nationalism is being used to punish the Brotherhood and its many members and followers with national excommunication. As one analyst deftly put it: “The campaign has sought to delegitimize the Islamist movement, and in fact, negate its Egyptian identity … More often than not, Muslim Brotherhood members are portrayed in juxtaposition to ordinary Egyptians, rather than among the people, and as a ‘cancer’ that must be removed at all costs.”[21]

From Centralizing Authoritarianism to the State of Minorities

Attacking political opponents by questioning their belonging to the nation-state is a dangerous and slippery slope, particularly when the grounds for inclusion are based—implicitly or explicitly—along communal identities, such as using Arab credentials as grounds for inclusion. Whether such exclusion is the result of genuine communal prejudice or cynical political calculation is a moot point. Over time such practices come to have a normative effect on society to the point where the original intent becomes irrelevant and communal identity (or whatever the fault line in question may be) becomes a frame of political reference for state and society alike.

Did various Iraqi political actors genuinely believe that Shi‘i activists were closet Iranians? Do various political actors today genuinely believe that Sunni activists are invariably closet Ba‘thists, if not closet terrorists? It scarcely matters, given that it plays on and nourishes popular prejudice. Had the charge of Shi‘i complicity with Iran or allegations of terrorist sympathies among Sunnis not resonated with large swaths of popular opinion, they would not have been as commonly heard. It is reflective of an old pattern that has intensified under the current system of identity politics: the habit of discrediting political opponents by casting them beyond a given conception of “we the people.”

This article began with a tragicomic incident and will end with a tragicomic quote that highlights the readiness to exclude political opponents, even when doing so entails the de facto exclusion of a significant section of the population. In Hukumat al Reef, a highly critical account of the post-1968 Iraqi Ba‘th, the author condemns the former regime’s questioning of Iraqi Shi‘as’ Arab bona fides―indeed a common and reprehensible practice that many continue to this day. Yet the author, despite his righteous indignation, did not hesitate to deploy similar tactics of exclusion against the people of Tikrit (Saddam’s broader hometown):

The people of Tikrit, until the days of the Islamic conquests in the year 20AH were of the Jaramiqa, and these people are not Arabs; rather they are Ajam and from Persia to be precise.[22] Under the psychological pressure of these historical truths, Saddam carried a Tikrito-Farisi [Tikrifarisi] complex, the only escape from which was to constantly boast about his Arabism.[23]

As discussed above, throughout the 20th century, various Arab states, not least of which Iraq, struggled to square their homogenizing authoritarianism with the marked, culturally autonomous, and politically salient identities of their Shi‘i citizens. In today’s Iraq, the weakness and fragmentation of the state and the hyper-sensitivity of all sectarian identities means that, beyond restricted settings, the state itself lacks a coherent identity and has to contend with the fact that all communal identities are marked. In this sense, contemporary Iraq is a state of minorities: all politics are minority politics, with no communal group dominant enough to transcend the exclusionary politics of identity. And so, at the expense of Iraqi nation building, the jostling to out-Arab or out-Iraqi the “other” continues.

[1] For example, Paul Vallely, “The vicious schism between Sunni and Shia has been poisoning Islam for 1,400 years―and it’s getting worse,” The Independent, February 19, 2014,….

[2] For an overview of such religiously grounded outlets of sectarian hate, see BBC Arabic, “An Qurub: Atheer al-Karahiya” [Up Close: Stirring Hate], which originally aired on March 17, 2014,

[3] For example, extremist Salafi preacher Taha al Dulaimi laments the fact that the “discourse that is rising [in the protests in Sunni parts of Iraq] is the futile discourse of nationalism,” Similarly, while vowing never to work against “a Shi’a state,” Iraqi Shi‘a preacher Ja’afar al Ibrahimi laments being burdened with “this artificial nationalism,”

[4] Indeed, this partially explains the relative irrelevance of sectarian identities throughout much of the 20th century; other ideologies and frames of reference were dominant, hence the fact that neither the Iran-Iraq war nor the Hama massacre of 1982 were framed in sectarian terms.

[5] For an extreme example of how sectarian dogma animates some militants in the Syrian civil war, see Mariam Karouny, “Apocalyptic prophecies drive both sides to Syrian battle for end of time,” Reuters, 1 April 2014,

[6] For a brief examination of this shift in sectarian discourse since 2003, from one of competing national truths to one of competing religious truths, see Fanar Haddad, “The Language of Anti-Shiism,” Foreign Policy, 9 August 2013,….

[7] For Sunni-Shi‘a strife in 10th to 13th century Baghdad, see George Tarabishi, Hartaqat II (Heresies II), (Beirut: Dar al Saqi, 2008), 15-24.

[8] The exception to this is the nation-state that is based, or claims to be based, on religion, where religion and theological criteria become the primary grounds for inclusion and the bedrock of state legitimacy. The obvious Middle Eastern examples would be Saudi Arabia and post-1979 Iran, with a potentially interesting third parallel in Israel.

[9] An early example can be found in the People’s Pact of 1935 addressed to King Ghazi. It was signed by tribal and religious leaders from the mid-Euphrates and by Shi‘i lawyers in the capital and had among its central demands better Shi‘a representation in government and the representation of Shi‘i jurisprudence in the judiciary. See Abdul Razzaq al-Hasani, Tarikh al-Wizarat al-Iraqiya (The History of the Iraqi Cabinets), Seventh Edition, vol. 4 (Baghdad: Dar al-Shu’oon al-Thaqafiya al-Ama, 1988), 92–94.

[10] A marked identity stands in contrast to the dominant unmarked identity – the “norm.” A western parallel, more so in the past, would be a marked black identity against an unmarked white one. Or to use an example from 20th century Iraq: Kurdish identity (marked) and Arab identity (unmarked). See Linda Waugh, “Marked and Unmarked: A Choice Between Unequals in Semiotic Structure,” Semiotica, 38, 1982, 299-318.

[11] Azar Gat, Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (London: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 377. The case of Iraq’s Shi‘a is exacerbated by the fact that they are not a demographic minority.

[12] In other words, an active (as opposed to a latent) Shi‘i identity; to illustrate, compare the relevance of Shi‘i identity to Nuri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi!

[13] James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 30. Scott’s case study was a far more extreme one of “non-state” people, meaning those who were actively avoiding state influence and were, for most of their history, beyond the purview of any governing authority.

[14] This more than anything differentiates Iraq’s major sectarian divide (Sunni-Shi‘a) from its major ethnic one (Arab-Kurd).

[15] Among many others, see Hassan Alawi, Al-Shia wal Dawla al-Qawmiya fi al-Iraq 1914–1990 (The Iraqi Shia and the State 1914–1990), self published: 1990; Gokhan Cetinsaya, Ottoman Administration of Iraq, 1890–1908 (New York: Routledge, 2006); Selim Deringil, “The Struggle Against Shiism in Hamidian Iraq: A Study in Ottoman Counter-Propaganda,”” Die Welt des Islams, Vol. 30, No. 1, 1990, 45–62.

[16] The Nationality Law divided Iraqis into “original” and “non-original,” “original” meaning those that had been registered as Ottoman subjects. This followed the precedent set by the first Iraqi constitution of 1921 and the Law for the Election of the Constituent Assembly of 1922, both of which similarly divided Iraqis into “original” and “non-original.”

[17] These targeted Kurds, Turkomans, and Assyrians in northern Iraq. See “Iraq: Forced Expulsion of Ethnic Minorities,” Human Rights Watch, Vol. 15, No. 3, March 2003, and “Claims in Conflict: Reversing Ethnic Cleansing in Northern Iraq,” Human Rights Watch, Vol. 16, No. 4, August 2004,

[18] Shu‘ubiyah refers to an 8th century movement that challenged the privileged position of Arabs in the early Islamic empires, arguing that Islam does not differentiate between believers on the basis of ethnicity. In the 20th century, the term was revived by pan-Arabists to describe internal enemies of the Arab world. It was most notably used to discredit Iraqi Communists. See Sami A. Hanna and George H. Gardner, “Al-Shu’ubiyyah up-dated: A study of the twentieth century revival of an 8th century concept,” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 20, No. 3, Summer 1966, 335–351.

[19] Most commonly translated as “dependency.” In recent Iraqi history the term is shorthand for taba‘iyah Iraniyah meaning those who are of “Iranian dependency”—i.e., registered as Persian rather than Ottoman subjects—as stipulated by the Nationality Law of 1924. The charge of taba‘iyah was used to justify the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Shi‘as. See Ali Babakhan, “The Deportation of Shi‘as During the Iran-Iraq War: Causes and Consequences,” in Faleh A. Jabar (ed.), Ayatollahs, Sufis and Ideologues: State, Religion and Social Movements in Iraq (London: Saqi, 2002).

[20] In his recent work on political pluralism in the Arab world, Muasher argues that, “While the Arab world prides itself on its diversity, its politics and culture do not match the rhetoric.” See Marwan Muasher, The Second Arab Awakening: And the Battle for Pluralism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 169.

[21] Taufiq Rahim, “Is Hypernationalism the New Islamism?” Al-Monitor, 23 August 2013,….

[22] In classical Arabic the term ‘Ajam refers to non-Arabs. In modern usage and in the Iraqi vernacular it is associated with Iranians. It was a common charge against Shi’a individuals and groups throughout 20th century Iraq. The Jaramiqa are a pre-Islamic Mesopotamian group concentrated around the areas surrounding Mosul. There is considerable debate as to their origin, history, and identity. See Mohsen Zakeri, Sasanid Soldiers in Early Muslim Society: The Origins of ‘Ayyaran and Futuwwa (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1995), 131-142.


[23] Talib Al Hassan, Hukumat al Qarya: Fusool min Sultat al Naziheen min Reef Tikrit (The Government of the Village: Chapters from the government of rural migrants from Tikirt), Fifth Edition (Beirut: Ur Press, 2011), 20-21.

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