Introduction: Religion, Violence, and the State in Iraq

This introduction is part of POMEPS Studies 35: Religion, Violence, and the State in Iraq. Download the full PDF here.

Iraq was long neglected by Middle East political scientists, rarely treated as a comparative case for studies of democratization or social mobilization and generally viewed as an exceptional outlier case in studies of authoritarianism.  Islamist movements in Iraq received little attention, despite the participation of a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party in government as well as the fascinating array of Shi‘i Islamist movements and parties that have competed in elections and governed the country since 2005. The neglect of Iraq had many causes. Prior to 2003, Saddam Hussein’s security state offered little access to researchers of any kind, while the intense violence and insecurity in the decade after his overthrow deterred most scholars who were not embedded with coalition authorities or the U.S. military. Political opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq may also have led scholars to avoid research which they thought might somehow vindicate the Bush administration’s calls for democratization through regime change.

In recent years, however, the study of Iraq has undergone a quiet renaissance.  Iraq has become comparatively safer and more open to academic research than in the past, while other Arab countries have become closed to researchers or less safe. New outrages since the 2011 Arab Uprisings, such as the debates over intervention in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, have perhaps eased the unique stigma surrounding the post-2003 Iraqi project, while a younger generation of scholars may be less shaped by the politics of that moment.  The failed states and civil wars of the post-2011 period arguably have made Iraq “less unique,” with its experience now viewed as offering valuable comparative perspective. The opening of the Ba‘ath Party archives to researchers, while problematic in some ways, has created the possibility for genuinely unique archival study of the inner workings of an Arab autocracy. And a generation of young Iraqi scholars has emerged writing about their own country’s politics and society.

This has led to a rethinking of the relationships among religion, violence, and the Iraqi state before and after 2003. How much control did the Ba‘th regime have over society immediately before the invasion, and what role did violence play in that control? In what ways did the regime’s Faith Campaign in the 1990s influence the post-invasion prominence of religious actors? Why did sectarian politics and violence become so pronounced soon after the invasion yet later ebb? Finally, what dynamics within Iraq are missed by looking at the country through a lens that prioritizes sectarianism?

In April 2019, POMEPS and the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University brought together almost two dozen scholars to discuss these and other topics. The authors come from different disciplines – political science, history, sociology, and urban studies – and employ a range of methodologies and sources of data. All of the authors have conducted research either in Iraq or in the Ba‘th Party Records at the Hoover Institution or both. The 14 papers in this collection exemplify the ways in which scholars are using new perspectives, data, and sources to offer insights into religion, violence, and the state in Iraq’s past, present, and future.

The state under sanctions

Understandings of Iraqi politics were long shaped by an iconic 1989 book by Kanan Makiya which described Iraq under Saddam as a totalitarian state built on violence: Republic of Fear.   The implication was that the Iraqi state penetrated and controlled virtually every aspect of life through pervasive surveillance and brutal punishments. The millions of pages in the Ba‘th records captured and made available to scholars after the 2003 invasion has allowed a significant rethinking of the extent to which the Ba‘thist regime had been capable of exercising this level of control. Recent books by Lisa Blaydes, Aaron Faust, Dina Khoury, Joseph Sassoon, and others have carefully explored the limits of the Iraqi state’s reach, showing how the exigencies of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and the international sanctions that were placed on Iraq beginning in 1990 changed how the country was governed.

Several authors in this collection draw on these sources to explore continuity and change in the 35 years the party ruled. Samuel Helfont emphasizes how powerful taboos within the Ba‘thist bureaucracy – originally rooted in the party’s Arab nationalist ideology – against distinguishing between Sunnis and Shi‘a transformed policies initially directed at specific groups of Iraqis into larger projects encompassing all of Iraq’s religious landscape. The state, in this account, was compelled to intrude into Sunni circles when the initial target were Shi‘a and vice versa. In contrast, Alissa Walter uses the escalating criminalization of sex work in the 1990s to discuss how low-ranking individuals in the security and legal system could exercise discretion in the application of mandated punishments. Walter concludes that the new laws were primarily intended as public demonstrations designed to scare the public into submission. These two accounts offer different perspectives on the strength and internal consistency of the Ba‘thist state. Both demonstrate – albeit in different ways – how the Iraqi state under sanctions varied from the top-down totalitarian one described by Makiya.   

Sectarianism, religious actors, and the state

Scholars, analysts, and everyday Iraqis continue to argue over the origins and evolution of the political sectarianism that many see as having defined the first decade after the fall of the Ba‘th.

Key choices made by the United States early in the founding moments of the post-Saddam era, from the drafting of the Iraqi Constitution to the composition of the first ruling bodies, are often seen as entrenching sectarianism and ensuring a leading role for religious actors. In this collection, Shamiran Mako pays particular attention to the consequences of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s institutionalization of patterns of exclusion and ethnic dominance through its creation of the de-Ba‘thification Commission, which she argues was used as a vehicle for the exclusion of Sunni Arabs from public life rather than as one for democratization and reconciliation.

Several contributors to this collection examine how the Shi‘i clergy responded to these changes. Caroleen Sayej describes how Grand Ayatollah Sistani pushed back against this trend, rejecting sectarianism and pushing for an inclusive Iraqi national identity. She emphasizes his commitment to serve as a guide and moral compass for Iraq. Marsin Alshamary’s interviews with Shi‘i clerics about the relationship between religion and state reflect the impact of Sistani’s position but also the desire of the religious establishment to protect itself from the Iraqi state. The management of Baghdad’s al-Rahman Mosque, whose construction began as part of the Faith Campaign, reflects how private actors – in this case a religious party linked to a Shi‘i cleric – came to control, in the words of Omar Sirri, the “everyday distribution of ostensibly state-controlled resources.” He describes how “the capillaries of private interests embedded into public institutions from the very moment of their (re)founding in 2003.”

Toby Dodge sees the 2003 war and occupation as entrenching in power a political elite that brought sectarian understandings with them from exile. The system of institutionalized sectarianism he describes, known in Iraq as muhasasa ta’ifiya, has profoundly structured political possibilities and meaning across both political and social fields. Yet that system has not been static. Fanar Haddad charts the evolution of sect-centricity and describes the diminishing political relevance of the Sunni-Shi‘a divide. He finds two cycles of entrenchment and civil war but says there has been a “normalization” of the post-2003 political order and of the structures underpinning sectarian relations; critically, there is no longer an existential contestation of the state by religious groups.  The possibility of a post-sectarian politics in Iraq is hinted at in the successive eruptions of large-scale protests over services, governance, and corruption, as well as the role of Iran in Iraqi affairs.

ISIS, violence, and legacies

The sudden territorial expansion of ISIS leading to its declaration of a Caliphate from Mosul in 2014 posed a fundamental challenge to the integrity and character of the Iraqi state. The dissolution of the Iraqi military and the seeming acceptance of ISIS by many Sunnis across western Iraq pointed to deep failings in the legitimacy and capability of Iraqi state institutions.  The recapture of those areas and destruction of the ISIS proto-state have not resolved these fundamental challenges. Mara Revkin asks the question of why some residents of Mosul stayed when ISIS took the city in 2014. Based on interviews with Moslawis, she develops a theory of relative legitimacy: many who stayed perceived ISIS as governing better than the Iraqi state had.  Such perceptions of a sectarian, distant state has had persistent effects. As Nussaibah Younis notes, the ongoing prosecution of ISIS members under an outdated and inadequate terrorism law has implied collective guilt and clogged the legal system. Sunnis in Mosul find little reassurance about their place in the state based on the role of the Shi‘a-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces in that campaign, profoundly flawed judicial proceedings which often assume Sunni collaboration, and very limited post-ISIS reconstruction.

Tutku Ayhan explores one of the most brutal legacies of ISIS’s violence: the challenges of reintegrating Yezidi women whom ISIS captured and abused. She describes the increasing salience of Yezidi identity in violence but also how reintegration is redefining the boundaries and social norms of the community. Similar to Sistani’s role in the Shi‘i community, Ayhan describes the critical role played by the chief Yezidi spiritual leader in inducing that community’s acceptance of the return of captured women (but not their “IS babies”).

Seeing beyond ethnosectarianism

While understanding the rise and decline of sectarianism is important for making sense of post-2003 Iraq, Sara Pursley warns that a dominant narrative of the artificiality of Iraq can trap analysts into categorizing political conflict and violence as between ethnic and religious groups and ignoring other forms of violence by both the state and outsiders. Seeing Iraq only through ethnosectarian categories ignores other forms of politics and violence, including economic and environmental, or relegates them to footnotes. Benedict Robin-D’Cruz argues that the post-2015 alliance between Sadrists and some secular-leftists was not just electoral or tactical but had deeper origins. He traces the cultural foundations of the alliance to a much earlier decision by Moqtada al-Sadr to diversify his movement and use a foundation to bridge ideological divides. The ethno-sectarian narrative and lens usually applied to understand Iraq misses the cultural and ideological diversity within an ostensibly “Shi‘i Islamist” group and its connection with – perhaps even inclusion of – wider elements of Iraqi society.

Zahra Ali uses post-2003 negotiations over a domestic violence law to show the divergent strategies pursued by women’s rights groups. Although religion and clerics play a role in these debates, the ongoing efforts to adopt legislation tackling violence against women cannot be understood through a sectarian lens; it requires an understanding of the various organizations through which feminist activists have mobilized and their divergent strategies.

Today’s Iraq is profoundly challenging the conceptions of its state and society which have guided analysis over the last few decades. The legacies of Saddam’s state, the American occupation, and a decade of violence shape the field of political contestation in fundamental ways. But they do not determine an inevitable sectarian future.  Iraqi society has proven resilient and robust, generating new challenges to the political elite which defy the logic of sectarianism and call for fundamental structural change. The ability of the Islamic State to recover from its military and political setbacks from 2007-2009 and surge to seize control in 2014 suggests that the threat of a Sunni jihadist challenge could again recur. The entrenchment of Shi‘a militias in the Iraqi state during and after the campaign against ISIS has created a new level of institutional penetration with unpredictable ramifications. This fall’s massive protests, and the violence and repression used to quell them, showed a state which retains significant violent coercive capacity but little ability to meet the demands of its people. This collection represents only a starting point for engaging with and understanding the legacies of the past and the dynamics of a rapidly changing Iraqi present.

Marc Lynch

Director, Project on Middle East Political Science, George Washington University

David Siddhartha Patel,

Associate Director for Research,  Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University

October 2019