Tilly goes to Baghdad: How the War with Daʿesh can create a Shiʿa State

Marsin Alshamary, MIT

*This piece was drafted as part of the New Analysis of Shia Politics workshop. See POMEPS Studies 28 for the full collection.


The process of state-building in post-Baathist Iraq has been dominated by Arab Shiʿa political parties – particularly Islamist ones – and their domination continues to be electorally enforced by a climate of sectarian violence and fear. Though some may argue that this is a natural consequence of their demographic advantage (there is no doubt that Shiʿa Arabs constitute the largest of Iraq’s three ethno-religious groups), it does not necessarily follow that all Shiʿa support Islamist groups, particularly when there are alternatives. However, the support for secular parties has dwindled in the face of extreme sectarian violence over the past decade and a half and has allowed Islamist groups to maintain a large stake in the government. Their control over the executive branch and key ministries has allowed some to violate the constitution by curtailing the role of certain state agencies and exploiting others for personal gain. Moreover, due to the general sentiment that Iraq is facing extenuating circumstances, these violations have largely gone unchecked and have thus endangered the consolidation of democracy. However, as evidenced by Prime Minister Abadi’s current politics, Shiʿa Islamist groups are divided amongst themselves and some have made greater overtures to inclusion and nationalism than others.

Multiple sectarian conflicts have allowed these parties to maintain an electoral dominance by appealing to the existential crises that their constituents face. Contrary to common belief, however, they did not do this by relying on an othering rhetoric towards Iraq’s non-Shiʿa groups. Instead, they have used certain sectarian crises as ways to reconstruct Iraqi nationalism to give it distinctly Shiʿa undertones. Thus, the conflict with Da’esh represents yet another opportunity to appeal to sectarianism to gain votes. However, in this case, the more nationalist strands of the Shiʿa Islamist parties may be able to capitalize on the post-Da’esh moment.

Specifically, Charles Tilly’s foundational claim that “war made the state, and the state made war” may have significance for state-building in post-Daʿesh Iraq. Tilly builds off European history to illustrate how the need for material resources for war fueled a transition from indirect to direct rule, which, in turn, led to the enduring and autonomous state institutions that characterize the modern national state. In contrast to the wars that Tilly describes, modern interstate wars are rarely wars of territorial acquisition, which makes the 2014 Daʿesh invasion of Iraq a unique test of Tilly’s argument in a contemporary context. In light of this, I ask: can the war with Daʿesh be used to create a state? And, if so, what kind of state?

Those who tried to export Tilly’s argument to post-colonial settings, including the Middle East, unearthed alternative routes to state formation. In these cases, the presence of powerful third-party interveners (i.e. colonizers) and the proliferation of civil, rather than interstate, wars have complicated Tilly’s argument. Despite these complications, there are multiple pathways that may lead from war-making to state-making in contemporary Iraq in the manner that Tilly describes. The most likely paths are those that bolster a Shia-dominant state that either has Iraqi nationalist undertones or Shi’ifies the state with no real attempt at inclusion.[1] The former appears to be the path that Prime Minister Abadi is pursuing while the latter reflects the goals of the Iranian-backed militias, including Badr and ‘Aṣayib Ahl al-Haq.

The war with Daʿesh has spurred the Shiʿa religious establishment and Shiʿa Islamist parties to organize their militias into an army (the Popular Mobilization Forces), to collect money and resources from the population, and to engage in a popular campaign of homogenization built around a threatened Shiʿa identity. By framing the fight in such a way, the Shiʿa political leadership appear to be following Tilly’s state-making recipe. At the same time, neither the Shiʿa elite nor the militias that constitute the PMF are monolithic and, as such, the struggle between these groups to become the sole legitimate representative of the Shiʿa will determine the extent to which the Iraqi national state will be a Shiʿa dominated one. The ingredients for Tilly’s state-building argument –popular legitimacy, mobilization, and financing – represent an opportunity for state-building that any Shiʿa political actor can conceivably seize.

What have we learned from Tilly and his critics?

Tilly adopts a Weberian definition of the national state as an entity that “successfully claims control over the chief concentrated means of violence within a population…” (Tilly 1985;170). According to Tilly, the increasingly costly and deadly wars of 18th and 19th century Europe are what led to the development of national states. The exorbitant cost of war forced state leaders to seek new means of acquiring men and money, including, most famously: taxation and conscription.[2] These required corollary institutions (e.g. census, national health systems, universal education), which served a homogenizing role by developing a common identity. When faced with war, this homogenization bred nationalism by encouraging the population to mobilize around an existing state and against a common enemy.

In attempting to export Tilly’s argument outside of Europe, area specialists have either adapted by imposing scope conditions or they challenged it with the consideration of historical path-dependencies that preceded war-making in Europe. For example, many scholars find that post-colonial state development processes differ widely from the European cases. Colonization enforced foreign institutions, meddled in state building and prevented organic processes from erupting. In his work on Africa, Herbst (2000) finds that alternative post-colonial models of state formation such as a revolutionary moment or external demands serve as shocks in the same way war does in Tilly’s account. Thus, a scope condition that arises from Herbst’s critique is that war makes a state when there is no supra national power intervening.

Centeno (2002) provides further scope conditions, using the Latin American case to argue that war only makes states when there is a basic administrative and extractive capacity and there are no alternative sources of revenue that would allow a state to bypass its citizens. Similarly, Ross (2001) explains that oil revenues allow some Middle Eastern states to eschew obligations towards their citizens, impeding democratization processes.

Thus, if we take all the critiques of Tilly as scope conditions, then interstate, territorial war creates a state if there are no alternative sources of revenue (Centeno), if there are no other, larger shocks like a revolution or a third party intervention (Herbst), and if there is a minimum extractive and administrative capacity (Centeno).

Assessing Tilly in Iraq

In the case of the Shiʿa and Daʿesh, many of the aforementioned scope conditions have, to various degrees, been satisfied. Firstly, although many scholars find that the modern decline in territorial wars makes Tilly’s argument inapplicable, Daʿesh’s territorial incursions and aims at establishing a state render this point moot. Secondly, the Shiʿa religious establishment does not rely on oil rents but on religious taxes and accumulating donations. Thirdly, elite Shiʿa clerics and Shiʿa institutions have pre-existing organizational structures that rival those of the state, especially in southern Iraq. Finally, Daʿesh’s swift incursion into northern Iraq was a shock for the entire country, but its threats against the Shiʿa holy shrines were particularly shocking to the south and proved instrumental in uniting the Shiʿa and emphasizing their religious identity. Moreover, the successes of the PMF and the ISF against Da’esh have allowed the PMF to become, as Fanar Haddad explains, “a potent rallying point for a reinvigorated sense of Iraqi nationalism, albeit one with distinctly Shi‘i overtones.”[3]

Although Iraq had been involved in interstate wars in the past, what has prevented Tilly’s argument from unfolding then was the Iraqi state’s ability to draw upon oil rents as an alternative source of income. While the dependency on oil hasn’t changed,[4] the Shiʿa architects of the PMF responded to the Daʿesh invasion independently of the Iraqi state and, for a time, without its financial support.[5] What this suggests is that war can lead to state formation outside of the pre-existing state,

something that Tilly has left us ill-equipped to deal with, given that the state formation processes he studies are based in feudal society and not within the confines of previous state-building projects.

That being said, the Shiʿa political leadership utilized their preexisting networks within the south to organize an army (composed of former militias and volunteers) known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Nouri Al-Maliki and his Iranian-backed allies cleverly hijacked a fatwa released by Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani in order to legitimize the formation of their army.[6] The fatwa, released in June 2014, was of a wajib kifaʾi (or, a collective obligation) for Iraqis to join the security forces in the fight against Daʿesh.[7] As Corboz demonstrates in another paper in this series, Sistani is arguably the most influential figure in the Shiʿa world and, as such, his fatwas are binding for many people and lend much legitimacy to the PMF as a whole.

The infamous fatwa was delivered by Abdul-Mahdi Al-Kerbalai (Sistani’s agent in Kerbala) during a Friday prayer sermon at Imam Hussein’s shrine. The original fatwa and Sistani’s later clarification of it (released as a statement on his website) show that Sistani’s intentions were directed at bolstering the Iraqi national army and working through the Iraqi state. His July 11th statement emphasizes the importance of working within the framework “of the official Iraqi military and security forces and prohibiting the presence of armed groups outside of this legal framework.”[8]

Despite Sistani’s emphasis on the state’s legitimacy, pre-existing militias used the fatwa to legitimize their own army, resulting in de-facto conscription and the popular rebranding of the PMF as the “holy” PMF.[9] The result of this fatwa is that an estimated 80 percent of fighting-aged men in southern Iraq have signed up with the PMF, frequently registering at religious offices.[10] By comparison, the Ministry of Defense’s recruitment is dismal at less than half their stated goal.[11]

The PMF has also been able to collect money from several different sources. On one hand, they have forced the state to pay their salaries, aided by the Badr organization’s influence in certain government offices.[12] In fact, as of this year, the PMF’s salaries have already been set aside in the Iraqi budget. Militias formed solely for the protection of the shrine cities rely on religious tithes and on donations from the population solicited through religious offices and donation boxes in the shrines. Monetary and non-monetary donations are handled largely through civil society organizations, which solicit donations from wealthy merchants in the Shiʿa dominant south. These civil society organizations not only provide money for the PMF itself but have also created a social security apparatus of sorts that provides support for the families of fallen PMF volunteers as well as IDPs.

In addition, the Shiʿa leaders have framed the fight in a way that emphasizes the homogeneity of the Shiʿa population. The rhetoric of the PMF has permeated southern society and images of martyrs line highways and alleyways. The leaders of the PMF, despite multiple human rights violations,[13] are being heralded as heroes. Television channels air dramatized PMF campaigns, and children’s books follow the glorified adventures of PMF soldiers. The integration of the PMF’s rhetoric with the rhetoric of the martyred Al-Hussain is so commonplace that one struggles to untangle the historical tale from the present one.

Meanwhile, the south has become worryingly sectarian, more so than it ever was in the past. Locals constantly bemoan the loss of “our boys” for “their [Sunni’s] mistakes.” A few years ago and outside of Baghdad, Sunnis were unknown and more likely to inspire curiosity than distrust. Today, they inspire resentment and hate, which as Petersen (2002) demonstrates are the classic emotional mechanisms that drive ethnic violence.

Thus, when Daʿesh announced its intentions to target the Shiʿa south it allowed the Shiʿa to coalesce around their identity against a common enemy who had some ties with their northern countrymen. This made it easy to form and support the PMF because certain components of it were tasked with protecting the shrines and thus were sacred. [14] The formation of these forces and their support networks was rendered feasible by the pre-existing networks of clerics spread throughout the south. Tithes had always flowed in and directing resources towards the protection of the holy shrines could only be met with popular approval. In short, if the war with Daʿesh is considered a war against the Shiʿa (which the Shiʿa have interpreted it as) then the scope conditions have been satisfied.

There are, of course, other dissimilarities between Tilly and the case at hand. The most important being the degree of foreign (Iranian) intervention, particularly in Iran’s backing of certain militias (e.g. Badr, ‘Aṣayib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hizbollah).[15] While this foreign intervention is hardly unusual in the region (as Toby Matthiesen mentions in another paper in this series), it’s impact on the domestic politics and state-building project within Iraq make the direct comparison to Tilly more challenging. These groups are not only Iranian military proxies but they also profess ideological commitment to Ayatollah Khamenei and to the system of vilayet e-faqih (see Safshekan and Sabet or Kadivar in this collection), posing a serious challenge to Iraqi sovereignty and legitimacy.[16]

Nonetheless, the organizational and homogenization processes that have occurred in the south cannot be easily stamped out and their consequences might result in the formation of a Shiʿa state. The extent to which this state will be Shiʿa dominated and non-inclusive will depend upon which of the Shiʿa actors will seize the opportunities afforded by the Da’esh war most effectively. If the Iranian-backed PMF branches are able to capture this moment and if their behavior in the freed territories is any indication, then there will be an oppressive Shi’ification of the Iraqi state occurring. If, however, the more Iraqi nationalist Shiʿa actors are able to capture the moment then there will be more hope for inclusivity within an admittedly still Shiʿa dominant context.

What can political science tell us about post-Daʿesh Iraq?

As demonstrated above, the various components of Tillian state-building have been more or less satisfied by the Da’esh war; however, what they have created is a unique historical opportunity rather than a certainty. While we know that the PMF is not a monolithic actor, the fact remains that among Shiʿa Iraqis, the entire group enjoys unprecedented legitimacy. Fanar Haddad cautions that the PMF “…whose key constituent groups include paramilitary forces that are already firmly established in Iraqi politics, will be uniquely placed for political advancement should Iraq arrive at a ‘post-ISIS moment.’”[17] While this is all true, it is also important to note that there is a counter-narrative in Iraq that challenges the PMF’s primacy. The PMF’s presence in major battles is now secondary to the ISF, particularly the Golden Division (Iraq’s counter-terrorism special operating forces). This decreasing military relevance has made ambitious militias nervous and has led to ill-advised behavior, including some recent blunders in Kirkuk. Moreover, nationalist Iraqi counter-narratives have emerged, challenging the position of the PMF as the official protector of the Iraqi nation.

In essence, this counter-narrative is the Iraqi government’s attempt to capitalize on the Tillian moment provided by the Da’esh war. The Iraqi state has displayed some capacity at doing this, but it has thus far not been as successful as rival PMF factions have been. In the end, the type of Shiʿa state that will emerge will depend on whether Al-Abadi can enforce an Iraqi monopoly on the use of force, particularly on those PMF branches unwilling to cede their de-facto autonomy. If he cannot, the same groups that control the PMF have the resources and organizational capability to create a shadow state which, one day, may emerge to challenge Baghdad.

[1] See Fanar Haddad “Shia-centric state building and Sunni Rejection in Post 2003 Iraq” for a more detailed explanation of why the Iraqi state is likely to remain “Shia-centric.”

[2] Certain types of taxes became more popular because it was easier for the state to enforce them, while others like rents and tributes, which depended on middle-men and coercion, fell from favor (Tilly 1992; 87).

[3] Fanar Haddad “The Hashd: Redrawing the Military and Political Map of Iraq”

[4] Though some might argue that with the decrease in oil prices Iraq is more likely to be inclined to seek alternative sources of income.

[5] As the war with Da’esh progressed, certain groups in the PMF (like Badr) drew upon their connections with certain ministries to acquire state funds for their militias.

[6] For more information about the structure of the PMF see Falah Jabar and Renad Mansour. They show that the PMF consists of three strands: the Iranian-backed hardened militias, the Sadrists (Saraya al Salam which used to be Jaysh al-Mahdi) and Sistani’s militias for the protection of the holy shrines.

[7] See Abbas Kadhim and Luay Al Khatteeb in the Huffington Post “What do you know about Sistani’s fatwa?” for a brief summary.

[8] Translation provided by author, to see the original text of the statement go to: http://www.sistani.org/arabic/archive/24925/

[9] Outright conscription was enforced for employees of the holy shrines and the corporations associated with them. Shrine employees report that they are required to serve in the PMF every six months or else lose their jobs.

[10] Renad Mansour, “From Militia to State Force: The Transformation of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi.”

[11] Renad Mansour, “Your country Needs You: Iraq’s Faltering Military Recruitment Campaign.”

[12] A Ministry of Finance official informed me that the funds for the salaries of the PMF (for the upcoming year) have already been set aside in the Iraqi budget.

[13] The human rights violations of some PMF leaders in the Da’esh war are well-known and documented (see for example: Belkis Wille “Integrating Iraqi Fighting Forces is not Enough”).

[14] Like the Lua’a Ali Al-Akbar, Saraya Al-Ataba Al-Hussainiya, Saraya Al-Ataba Al-Abassiya, Saraya Al-Ataba Al-Alawiya

[15] For a longer discussion of Iranian backed PMF militias see: Renad Mansour and Faleh A. Jabar “The Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraq’s future”

[17] Fanar Haddad “The Hashd: Redrawing the Military and Political Map of Iraq”


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Haddad, Fanar.“The Hashd: Redrawing the Military and Political Map of Iraq.” Middle East Institute (April 9, 2015).

Haddad, Fanar. “Shia-Centric State Building and Sunni Rejection in Post-2003 Iraq.” Carnegie Paper (January 7, 2016).

Herbst, Jeffrey I. (2000). States and Power in Africa, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jabar, Faleh A. and Renad Mansour. “The Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraq’s Future” Carnegie Paper (April 28, 2017).

Kadhim, Abbas and Luay Al Khateeb. “What do you know about Sistani’s Fatwa?” The Huffington Post Blog (September 9, 2014).

Mansour, Renad. “From Militia to State Force: The Transformation of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi.” Carnegie Diwan (November 16, 2015)

Mansour, Renad. “Your country Needs You: Iraq’s Faltering Military Recruitment Campaign.” Carnegie Diwan (July 22, 2015).

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Ross, Michael (2001). “Does Oil Hinder Democracy?,” World Politics, 53; 325-61.

Tilly, Charles (1993) Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990-1992. New York: Wiley.

Wille, Belkis. “Integrating Iraqi Fighting Forces is Not Enough” Just Security (January 6, 2017).