Seeking to explain the rise of sectarianism in the Middle East: The case study of Iraq

By Toby Dodge, London School of Economics and Political Science

* This memo was prepared for the “Visions of Gulf Security” workshop, March 9, 2014.


It is clear that sectarian rhetoric both from above and below is now a dominant ideological trend across the Middle East. Sectarianism from above, the use of communalist language to further the interests of ruling elites, can be clearly identified in Saudi foreign policy, in the state sanctioned rhetoric of Qatari media outlets and preachers, and in the speeches of those who previously claimed to be working for anti-imperialist Arab unity in the Middle East.[1] To some extent, sectarianism from below, the popular use of aggressive and divisive communalist rhetoric can been seen as a direct response to this elite encouragement. However, it can also be read as the result of the growth of social media across the Middle East, democratizing communication that allows new, previously suppressed or marginal voices, to find a wider audience.

What is less clear is when it becomes possible to identify the start of this trend and how to judge its causes. Sectarian political mobilization could be dated to the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, if not to the signing of the National Pact in the summer of 1943. A later date would site the growing confidence in and funding for Saudi Arabian global Wahhabi proselytization in the 1970s and 1980s. This process moved into a defensive over-drive as a reaction to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Gulf state’s financial support for Iraq’s war against Iran from 1980 to 1988.

However, Daniel Byman dates the start of the current wave of sectarian mobilization to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. For him, this unleashed “a massive sectarian wave” that “has grown in size and ferocity as Syria descended into strife.”[2] The removal of the allegedly secular and coercively competent Baathist regime in Baghdad and Iraq’s descent into a bloody communal civil war certainly brought the sectarian justification for mass blood letting to the Gulf. However, the political system put in place under the U.S. occupation also institutionalized a rough and ready form of ethno-sectarian consociationalism. This consciously divided Iraq’s polity along religious and ethnic lines and encouraged politicians to seek votes on the basis of communalist identities.

This approach to identifying the origins of the current wave of sectarianism in the Middle East would see them in the aftermath of regime change in Baghdad, where a Shiite majority government, increasingly aligned to Iran, understood its relations with its own population and more recently, its relations with the wider Middle East, in terms of the religion of its ruling elite and the majority of its population. Against this background, the aftermath of the “Arab Spring,” with the descent of Syria into a civil war increasingly justified in sectarian terms and the use of sectarian rhetoric by the ruling elites of the Arab Gulf states, looks like an acceleration of trends already put in place by the aftermath of regime change in Baghdad.

With this in mind, can Iraq’s own descent into a civil war justified by sectarian rhetoric tell us anything about the causes of the increasing communalist politics across the rest of the Middle East? If it can, such an explanation would focus on the use of historical track dependencies by ethnic and religious entrepreneurs and the role that state weakness plays in their success.

The Socio-cultural factors in Iraq’s descent into civil war

The socio-cultural factors that are most commonly deployed to explain the rise of ethno-sectarian conflict in Iraq and then sectarian politics across the region more generally, focus on divisive sub-state identities. However, the power and relevance of these identities have not historically dominated Iraqi or wider Middle Eastern political discourse. As Fanar Haddad has argued, before 2003 “traditional Iraq discourse, whether from above or below, has struggled to openly address ‘sectarianism.’”[3] Yet as the post-2003 violence in Iraq mutated from an insurgency directed at the U.S. occupation to an all out civil war, the rhetoric used to justify the increasing killings of civilians, the population transfers, and mass casualty attacks became infused with sectarian language.

Sunnis and Shi’as began using new terms to refer to each other. To Shi’as, Sunnis were Wahhabis, Saddamists, and nawasib. To Sunnis, Shi’as were al rafidha or al turs. Rafidha, meaning ‘rejectionists’, refers to those who do not recognize the Islamic caliphs and want instead a caliphate from the descendent of Imam Ali.[4]
Clearly, by 2006 the conflict was justified in aggressively divisive sectarian language.

Such forms of political mobilization based on religious and ethnic identity do not operate on a wholly rational, instrumental, or even fully conscious basis, as “the political genius of ethnicity in the contemporary developed world lies precisely in its ability to combine emotional sustenance with calculated strategy.’”[5] Haddad makes the distinction between three states of ethnic and religious identity: aggressive, passive, and banal.[6] In times of insecurity, both material and ideational, competition for scarce resources and the aggressive assertion of competing identity claims are likely to move any group’s collective sense of itself from banal or passive to the violently assertive, as the group struggles for survival.

However, for these communalistic identities to triumph as an organizing principle in fluid and unpredictable situations, the existence of a certain type of sub-national political elite is required. These “ethnic and religious entrepreneurs” have to supply what a wider community needs, a degree of stability, ideational certainty, and political mobilization. They can then legitimize their role in terms of a communalistic identity that aids them in the struggle for popular support and political power.[7] In circumstances of profound uncertainty, people will turn to whatever grouping, militia, or identity offers them the best chance of survival.[8] This unstable and potentially violent process will certainly be shaped by historical path dependencies but needs the actions of political entrepreneurs to politicize and mobilize what have previously been passive, irrelevant, or non-political identity traits. In the hands of political entrepreneurs, local, sub-state, and ethnic identities will emerge from this process to provide channels for mobilization and the immediate basis for political organization.[9]

However, once this process has been set in motion, when ethnic and sectarian entrepreneurs have mobilized a significant section of the population on the basis of communalistic identity, this dynamic can quickly solidify and is difficult to reverse.[10] Previously “fuzzy” or passive identity traits can become politicized and “enumerated.”[11] Survival, a degree of predictability for individuals and their families, or simply resource maximization becomes primarily obtainable through the increasingly militant deployment of ethnic or sectarian identity. It needs to be stressed that there is nothing inevitable about the unfolding of this process; the primary cause is the material and ideational insecurity faced by the population, the lack of institutionalized politics that guarantees citizenship, and equal access to state resources, not the existence of the historical path dependencies that are then mobilized by sectarian entrepreneurs.

In pre-2003 Iraq, the state promoted an Iraqi nationalism, which, at first glance, appeared to be without religious bias. Although, from the mid-1990s onward, President Saddam Hussein had injected Islamism into his party’s ruling ideology, examples of the state using blatantly sectarian rhetoric were comparatively rare. However, on closer inspection, the ruling ideology, based as it was on Arab nationalism, relied on a passive but nonetheless important affinity with Sunni Islam. As Haddad argues, although Baathist ideology in Iraq did attempt to integrate both Sunni and Shiite imagery, it was clearly more inclusive of Sunni symbolism than Shiite.[12] In addition, it was Sunni Islam that was taught in state schools, and various aspects of Shiite religious practice were banned under the Baathist regime.[13]

This favoring of Sunni symbolism and the suppression of Shiite Islam came to a shuddering halt when the Baathist regime fell in April 2003, freeing the majority Shiite population to actively promote their religious identity. Only a few weeks after the fall of the Baath Party, up to three million Shiite pilgrims descended on the holy city of Karbala to take part in the previously banned arba’in ceremony.[14] In 2003, Iraq was a country with little government, almost no state institutions, and no order. The Shiite religious hierarchy, the hawza, became the focus of loyalty and hope for the largest section of Iraqi society.[15] Once governing institutions were tentatively set up, their senior ranks filled ethnic and religious entrepreneurs, the formerly exiled politicians and parties that actively asserted the centrality of their Shiite religious beliefs to the country’s new politics and the desire to remold Iraqi nationalism, placing Shiism at its heart. This assertive promotion of religious identity produced a predictable backlash across the Sunni section of Iraqi society and then from the Sunni ruling elites of neighboring states. In an increasingly lawless country politically dominated by overtly Shiite parties and the hawza, those Sunnis who had previously found comfort and certainty in Iraqi nationalism began to look elsewhere. An increasingly militant assertion of a rival Sunni Islamism, supported by outside actors, was forged. In the face of persecution and then civil war, it rapidly radicalized and at its fringes turned increasingly violent.[16]

A close examination of Iraq after 2003 would not stress the existence of historic track dependencies, existing but passive religious and ethnic identities. These were certainly present but needed to be manipulated, mobilized, and solidified. Instead, it is the existence of an active and ultimately successful group of ethnic and religious entrepreneurs that made sure sub-state sectarian political identities become the dominant form of political mobilization after 2003. This was certainly a case of sectarianism from above.

State capacity and sub-state identity

Socio-cultural explanations for the increasing use of sectarian and ethnic identities for political mobilization are directly linked to the power of the state’s institutions, its army and police force, but also its ability to deliver services to its population. The withdrawal or weakening of institutional power from society creates a vacuum for both ethnic entrepreneurs to mobilize within and the purveyors of violence, justified in sectarian language, to exploit lawlessness. This focus on state weakness to explain sectarian mobilization supports Fearon and Laitin’s argument that “financially, organizationally and politically weak central governments render insurgency more feasible and attractive due to weak local policing or inept and corrupt counterinsurgency practices.”[17]

A coherent state relies on its ability to impose order on the population and to monopolize the deployment of collective violence across the whole of its territory.[18] However, once a state has obtained the ability to impose and guarantee order, the basis of its sustainability and legitimacy moves to infrastructural power, delivering services the population benefits from as it operates across society unopposed.[19] The degree to which a state has reached this ideal type can be judged firstly by the ability of its institutions to impose and guarantee the rule of law, then to penetrate society, mobilize the population, and finally regularly extract resources in the form of taxation.[20] Ultimately, the stability of the state depends on the extent to which its actions are judged to be legitimate in the eyes of the majority of its citizens, and the ability of its ruling elite to foster consent.[21]

The initial causes of the security vacuum in Iraq were twofold, the lack of troops the invading forces brought with them, followed by the disbanding of the Iraqi army. Faced with the widespread lawlessness that is common after violent regime change, the United States lacked the troop numbers to control the situation.[22] In February 2003, in the run-up to war, Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki called for “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” to guarantee post-war order. James Dobbins, in a widely cited study on state building published in the run-up to the invasion, compared U.S. interventions in other states since the World War II. Dobbins concluded that occupying forces would need 20 security personnel, police, and troops per thousand people. Translated into American personnel, U.S. forces should have had between 400,000 and 500,000 soldiers to impose order on Iraq.[23] In May 2003, the total strength of coalition forces numbered 173,000. This figured dropped to as low as 139,000 in 2004, and only significantly increased after President George W. Bush announced the “surge” at the start of 2007.[24] Paul Bremer’s decision to disband the Iraqi army in May 2003, forced 400,000 armed, trained, and alienated ex-soldiers out onto the streets, facing unemployment. Of even greater significance, Bremer’s decision meant that the Iraqi armed forces had to be rebuilt from scratch, a process that by its very nature was bound to take several years. Thus, the violence that shook Iraq after 2003 was a direct result of the security vacuum created by the lack of troops to impose order.

The civilian institutional capacity of the state in 2003 was in a similarly perilous condition. Iraq had staggered through two wars from 1980 to 1990 and was then subjected to the harshest and longest-running international sanctions ever imposed. The sanctions regime was specifically designed to break the government’s ability to deliver services and, with the notable exception of the rationing system, it was effective.[25] The civilian capacity of the state was dismantled by the looting that spread across Baghdad after the fall of the Baathist regime. This initial three weeks of violence and theft severely damaged the state’s administrative capacity: 17 of Baghdad’s 23 ministry buildings were completely gutted.[26] Looters initially took portable items of value such as computers, before turning to furniture and fittings. They then systematically stripped the electric wiring from the walls to sell for scrap. This practice was so widespread that copper and aluminum prices in the neighboring states, Iran and Kuwait, dramatically dropped as a result of the massive illicit outflow of stolen scrap metal from Iraq.[27] Overall, the looting is estimated to have cost as much as $12 billion, equal to a third of Iraq’s annual GDP.[28]

Following the destruction of government infrastructure across the country, the de-Baathification pursued by the U.S. occupation purged the civil service of its top layer of management, making between 20,000 and 120,000 people unemployed and removing what was left of the state and its institutional memory.[29] (The large variation in estimates indicates the paucity of reliable intelligence on the ramifications of such an important policy decision.) After 2003, not only did the state’s ability to impose order on Iraq disintegrate, but the coherence and capacity of its civil institutions also fell away. The population was bereft of order or state-delivered services.

Against this background of war, sanctions, inadequate occupying forces, and resultant looting, Iraq in 2003 became a collapsed state. As William Zartman has put it:

State collapse is a deeper phenomenon than mere rebellion, coup, or riot. It refers to a situation where the structure, authority (legitimate power), law, and political order have fallen apart and must be reconstituted in some form, old or new.[30]
In the aftermath of state failure, authoritative institutions, both societal and governmental, quickly lose their capacity and legitimacy.[31] The geographic boundaries within which national politics and economics have been historically enacted simultaneously expand and contract. On one level, because the state has lost its administrative and coercive capacity, the country’s borders become increasingly meaningless. Decision-making power leaks out across the boundaries of the country to neighboring capitals – in Iraq’s case, Amman, Damascus, and Tehran, as well as Washington. As this process accelerates regional and international actors are drawn into the conflict, for good or ill. More damaging, however, is that power drains into what is left of society, away from the state capital, down to a local level, where limited organizational capacity begins to be rebuilt. The dynamics associated with state collapse mean that politics becomes simultaneously international and highly local.[32] In the aftermath of state failure, individuals struggle to find public goods, services, and economic subsistence and physically survive any way they can, usually through ad hoc and informal channels:

When state authority crumbles, individuals not only lose the protection normally supplied by public offices, but are also freed from institutional restraints. In response, they often seek safety, profit or both. Their motives become more complex than when they could depend on the state.[33]
This is exactly the situation that the Iraqi population found themselves in from 2003 onward. The state suddenly ceased functioning, leaving a security and institutional vacuum across Iraq. Iraqi society was initially overrun by opportunist criminals, then by the diffuse forces fighting in the insurgency, and finally by a full-blown civil war. It was the creation of this coercive and institutional vacuum that allowed ethnic and religious entrepreneurs to operate with such freedom and success. The Iraqi state, long the focus of political identity but also the provider of coercion and resources, ceased to exist. The Iraqi population was cut loose, both ideationally and materially, and had to find political, coercive, and economic leadership where it could. From 2003 to 2009, religious parties and militias became the major suppliers of these scarce resources. Individual Iraqi’s could only access these resources by deploying a sectarian identity.

A similar process is certainly playing out in Syria where protest and rebellion has triggered the retreat of the state. In the Gulf, with the exception of Yemen, state institutions remain coherent enough to place limits on the space in which ethnic and religious entrepreneurs can operate. State elites certainly deploy sectarian rhetoric but this continues to sit in an uneasy relationship with the language of citizenship and national equality.


If Iraq can be taken as a case study for the rise of sectarian politics across the wider Middle East then its lessons are fairly clear. First, the origins of sectarian politics in Iraq do not come from the historical track dependencies of the country’s religious and ethnic make up. For the majority of the country’s history, communalist politics have not been the main vehicle for political mobilization. From the 1920s to the 1980s Arab and then Iraqi nationalism dominated political rhetoric. The fact that Iraq had the largest Communist Party in the Middle East in the 1950s indicates that a fairly substantial section of a newly urbanized population was happy to take its class identity as the primary point of political reference. However, the dominance of sectarian identity politics after 2003 has two main causes. The first is quite simply state weakness. In the aftermath of state collapse in 2003, ordinary urban Iraqis, the majority of the population, had to find security and certainty wherever they could. It was coercive entrepreneurs on a very local level who supplied this. In the absence of state delivered law and order, militias formed and solidified in reach and organization to deliver order to the population. This order and the accompanying resource extraction were certainly justified in terms of sectarian rhetoric. But the use of Shiite, Sunni, or Kurdish political labels to justify militia activity happened after that activity started not before. Sectarianism was used as a justification not as the primary motivation. This leads us on to the second cause of sectarian politics, the role of political entrepreneurs. In 2006, Phebe Marr’s research suggested that only 26.8 percent of Iraq’s new ruling elite were “insiders,” those who has stayed in the county under Baathist rule.[34] It was thus the politicians, returning from many years of exile, who were primarily responsible for deploying sectarian rhetoric. They used this language to divided up the polity in ways that would maximize their votes and influence and minimize the accusation that, after long periods of absence, they did not represent their own constituencies.
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The lessons of Iraq for the wider region are hence clear: sectarian politics is primarily driven by ruling elites and secondarily by state weakness. A reduction in sectarian politics is possible but it would mean the ruling elites of the region choosing to move away from heralding their population in sectarian forms to a new politics based on citizenship, a highly unlikely possibility.

Toby Dodge is a professor of international relations and the interim director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science as well as a senior consulting fellow for the Middle East at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

[1] Examples of this would be the increased use of sectarian rhetoric in the programming of Al Jazeera Arabic, the now infamous speeches given by Qatar based but Muslim Brotherhood aligned cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi in June 2013 and Hassan Nasrallah’s justification of Hezbollah’s fight to save the Assad regime in Syria in April and May 2013.

[2] Daniel Byman, “Sectarianism afflicts the new Middle East,” Survival, vol. 56, no. 1, Feb-March 2014, p. 80.

[3] Fanar Haddad, Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity (London: Hurst & Co., 2011), p. 1.

[4] Nir Rosen, “Anatomy of a Civil War; Iraq’s Descent into Chaos,” Boston Review, November–December, 2006.

[5] Joseph Rothchild, Ethnopoltics: A Conceptual Framework (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), p. 61.

[6] Haddad, Sectarianism in Iraq, p. 25.

[7] See Rothchild, Ethnopoltics, p. 29.

[8] Andrea Kathryn Talentino, “The Two Faces of Nation-building: Developing Function and Identity,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, vol. 17, no. 3, October 2004, p. 569.

[9] David Laitin, The Russian-speaking Populations in the Near Abroad (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), p. 16.

[10] Andreas Wimmer, “Democracy and Ethno-religious Conflict in Iraq,” Survival, vol. 45, no. 4, Winter 2003–04, p. 120.

[11] On this distinction, see Sudipta Kaviraj, “On the Construction of Colonial Power, Structure, Discourse, Hegemony,” in Dagmar Engles and Shula Marxs (eds), Contesting Colonial Hegemony: State and Society in Africa and India (London: British Academic Press, 1994), pp. 21–32.

[12] Haddad, Sectarianism in Iraq, p. 33.

[13] Nir Rosen, Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World (New York: Nation Books, 2010), p. 30.

[14] Anthony Shadid, “A Tradition of Faith Is Reclaimed on Blistered Feet,” Washington Post, April 23, 2003, p. A01; Glenn Kessler and Dana Priest, “US Planners Surprised by Strength of Iraqi Shiites,” Washington Post, April 23, 2003, p. A03; and Faleh A. Jabar, “The Worldly Roots of Religiosity in Post-Saddam Iraq,” Middle East Report, no. 227, Summer 2003, p. 13.

[15] International Crisis Group, “Iraq’s Shiites Under Occupation,” Middle East Briefing, Baghdad/Brussels, September 9, 2003, p. 8.

[16] Mohammed M. Hafez, Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom (Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2007), p. 35.

[17] Fearon and Laitin, “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War” pp. 75–6.

[18] For the classic definition see Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 78–9.

[19] Michael Mann, “The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results,” in Michael Mann (ed.), States, War and Capitalism: Studies in Political Sociology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), p. 4.

[20] See Joel S. Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States. State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

[21] See Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1998), p. 145; and Christine Buci-Glucksman, Gramsci and the State (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980). On the lack of hegemony in the developing world see Nazih N. Ayubi, Over-stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 1995), Chapter One.

[22] On post-regime change violence see Simon Chesterman, You, the People. The United Nations, Transitional Administration, and State-Building (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) pp. 100, 112. On the estimated number of troops needed to impose order on Iraq see James Dobbins et al., America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2003), p. 197.

[23] See ibid.

[24] Michael E. O’Hanlon and Ian Livingston, Iraq Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction and Security in Post-Saddam Iraq, October 31, 2010.

[25] On the sanctions regime and its effects on the Iraqi state and society, see Toby Dodge, “The Failure of Sanctions and the Evolution of International Policy Towards Iraq 1990–2003,” Contemporary Arab Affairs, vol. 3, no. 1, January 2010, pp. 82–90.

[26] David L. Phillips, Losing Iraq: Inside the Post-war Reconstruction Fiasco (New York: Basic Books, 2005), p. 135.

[27] Ali A. Allawi, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 116.

[28] James Dobbins et al., Occupying Iraq; A History of the Coalition Provisional Authority (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2009), p. 111.

[29] Phillips estimates that the purge made 120,000 unemployed out of a total party membership of 2m. Paul Bremer cites intelligence estimates that the purge affected 1% of the party membership, or 20,000 people. George Packer estimates “at least thirty-five thousand.” See Phillips, Losing Iraq, pp. 145–46; L. Paul Bremer III with Malcolm McConnell, My Year in Iraq: The Struggle To Build a Future of Hope (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), p. 40; and George Packer, Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), p. 191.

[30] I. William Zartman, “Posing the Problem of State Collapse,” in I. William Zartman (ed.), Collapsed States: The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1995), p. 1.

[31] Ibid., p. 6.

[32] Ibid., p. 5.

[33] Nelson Kasfir, ‘Domestic Anarchy, Security Dilemmas, and Violent Predation’, in Robert I. Rotberg (ed.), When States Fail: Causes and Consequences (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 55.

[34] Phebe Marr, “Who are Iraq’s new leaders? What do they want?” United States Institute of Peace, Special Report, March 2006, p. 8.

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