BAGHDAD – Iraq’s recent parliamentary election, the first since United States troops left the country in 2011, was held amid a rising tide of violence that is fast approaching the levels experienced during the 2005-2007 insurgency. Can the new government restore order and address the many immense challenges that Iraq faces?
The challenges are indeed daunting. The authorities must resolve fundamental constitutional questions (such as whether Iraq should be a federal state or a confederation), rebuild civil society, reform state institutions, reconstruct the economy, and end the waste and corruption in the oil sector.
But perhaps the most intractable challenge of all is bridging the sectarian rift between the country’s Shia and Sunni citizens. These fissures are mirrored in other Arab countries (such as Syria, Lebanon, the Gulf countries, and Yemen) and, increasingly, in the wider Muslim world (including Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia). Is this a historical aberration, or are Islam’s two largest sects condemned to perpetual mutual hostility?
Certainly, there have been periods when the two communities have coexisted peacefully. But what matters today is that Shia and Sunni relate to their past differently, and that this historical memory can be distorted – and even invented – to create mistrust and hate.
The overthrow of the first Muslim dynasty, the staunchly anti-Shia Umayyads, in the year 750, by the Abbasids, who traced their lineage to the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, raised hopes, albeit short-lived, of a Sunni-Shia rapprochement. The 500 years of Abbasid reign that followed provide many valuable illustrations of how these two communities subsequently related to each other.
In particular, there is much to be learned from the different legacies of the caliph al-Nasir (1180-1225) and the last Abbasid caliph, al-Musta’sim (1242-1258). The rule of al-Nasir – who viewed the Shia as an intrinsic part of the Islamic community and sought to treat all of his subjects equally – was characterized by a marked decrease in sectarian tensions. By contrast, Sunni-Shia clashes – including killings, arson, and other violence – were common during al-Musta’sim’s rule.
These examples demonstrate the importance of good leadership when communities that uphold different claims to the truth are subject to the same political authority – especially when these communities seek assurance that their survival is not threatened.
Iraq’s current political leaders need to learn from this past and ensure that none of the country’s communities face marginalization or discrimination – lessons that apply throughout the Muslim world. In Pakistan, for example, there are sectarian killings almost daily; in Malaysia, the tiny Shia population is viewed as an existential threat; and incendiary language dominates discourse about rival sects in Wahhabi circles in Saudi Arabia and far beyond.
Politics and power struggles explain much of the violence and mistrust. Fear of Iranian-led hegemony, for example, has focused Gulf leaders’ minds on their Shia population’s loyalty. Malaysia’s political parties use anti-Shia animus to spread fear, helping to attract votes and consolidate power. Syria and its regional allies are determined to protect a new regional balance of power that shifted in their favor following the US-led invasion of Iraq.
But political calculation cannot explain everything. The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 provides a good example of how a political event, viewed through a sectarian lens, can be interpreted differently. The US destruction of the Iraqi state brought about a precarious new order that sought to redress years of Sunni dominance by favoring the Shia. However, the shock of sudden Sunni disempowerment generated a discourse, widely shared in the Muslim world, in which the Shia are guilty of collusion in the US occupation of the country – a view reinforced by events in Syria.
According to this thesis, the Shia simply reverted to their “historic” role as wreckers and fifth columnists. Was it not the case, it is claimed, that the Shia also colluded with the Mongols in the fall of Baghdad in 1258, culminating in the death of the last Abbasid caliph and the destruction of the Abbasid Empire, the “universal state” of Muslims?
Several medieval Muslim historians pointed to the role of the Shia vizier Ibn al-‘Alqami, arguing that he plotted with the Mongols to bring down the caliphate. Once the preserve of a handful of scholars, the Ibn al-‘Alqami story now plays a prominent part in today’s Sunni- Shia disputes. Indeed, “‘Alaqima,” the plural form of the Arabic name “‘Alqami,” is now applied to the Shia as short-hand for treachery.
Social media forums are replete with polemics about the Shia role in assisting both Mongol and US invaders. Many even claim that Iraq’s Shia are al-‘Alqami’s descendants, and that Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Prime Minister, is his modern incarnation.
These diatribes reflect Iraqi’s polarized historical memory. Despite ample historical evidence of peaceful inter-communal relations, many people – whether through simple ignorance of history or the need to assert the supremacy of one version of the truth – prefer to consecrate narratives of treachery and betrayal that perpetuate hatred.
More important, the current situation reflects a lack of wisdom, responsibility, and basic decency on the part of political and religious leaders, who prefer to fuel, rather than dampen, inter-communal strife. Sadly, intolerance has now become a generalized condition. There is too little knowledge about other communities’ beliefs and history, and what little exists has been overwhelmed by sectarian anger and its poisonous rhetoric.
As long as Sunnis and Shia refuse to think about their past together, it is difficult to foresee a tranquil future together. And if political and religious leaders are unable or unwilling to seek accommodation, it will be up to like-minded individuals, groups, and civil-society institutions to rebuild mutual respect and find ways to cooperate. Doing so will require knowledge, patience, and, above all, open minds and hearts.