Understanding Sectarianism in Iraq and Beyond



Q&A on Sectarianism in Iraq and Beyond

Readers raised a number of interesting objections and questions in response to my article, “The Myth and Reality of Sectarianism in Iraq“– typically falling into a few broad categories. I felt these issues were important to address in order to help deepen the understanding on this important problem. And so I have collected those challenges and my responses below.

Why do commenters talk about sectarianism in terms of Sunnis, Shia and Kurds? Kurds are an ethnic group, not a religious branch of Islam.

The division of Sunni, Shia and Kurds are supposed to reflect people’s political identity, rather than their religious identity. So in the case of many Arab Shia and Sunnis, as a result of the system put in place following the fall of Saddam, their religious affiliation is also their primary political affiliation.

This is not so with the Kurds. While the Kurds are overwhelmingly Sunni, their primary political identity is not based on religion, but ethnicity. And their priorities are accordingly drastically different than their Arab Sunni counterparts. This is why the Kurds are an independent political bloc rather than forming a coalition with the Arab Sunnis.

But one should emphasize that the Shia are still the majority of the population—roughly 2/3. So even the Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds combined would still be the minority in Iraq. There is no democratic coalition which could aspire towards the lion’s share of influence without bringing a good percentage of the Shia along for the ride. And so, as long as the Shia remain a fairly united political bloc, the Kurdish and Arab Sunni population will be indefinitely relegated to permanent minorities.

This is realization is at least part of what drives the Kurdish move for independence—although this desire for a Kurdish homeland transcends Iraq into Iran, Syria and Turkey as well.

This status of being a permanent political minority is also a major contributor to the Sunni insurgency. But there is no easy solution. Granting the Sunni political bloc a disproportionate say in Iraqi politics is arguably undemocratic and could alienate the Shia majority whose participation renders the state solvent. Similarly, granting “Iraqi Kurdistan” more autonomy would probably only fuel instability in neighboring countries by bolstering the separatists, and would likely just lead to more, and potentially more serious, conflicts down the line. Libya may be an instructive example on this point with regard to its own separatist issues.

I should also add that while the distinction of Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds identifies Iraq’s main poles of socio-political allegiance, the list is not exhaustive. For instance, Iraq’s Assyrian and Yazidi communities do not fit neatly into any of those. The same holds for the large number of Iraqi’s who are married across sects, and for the children of these unions. And many Iraqis remain nationalists who reject these ethnic and religious distinctions as toxic to the political process and to the integrity of Iraq. And as we explored, Shia, Sunni and Kurdish blocs are not monoliths either: after all, al-Malaki was deposed by an intra-Shii coup.

So while the trichotomy is analytically useful in some senses, it is hardly the case that Iraqi’s fall neatly or exhaustively into these categories; this is always critical to bear in mind.


You claim that the sectarianism began in earnest after the U.S. invasion—this seems wrong. Didn’t Saddam Hussein go to war with Iran?

Indeed, Iraq and Iran had a protracted war that devastated both countries. Incidentally, the United States played a role here as well, sponsoring each side of the conflict (see: Iran-Contra Affair)—with actors such as Donald Rumsfeld going so far as to supply Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons, which he subsequently deployed against Iran:  the same chemical weapons which would later serve as the pretext for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, despite Hussein having destroyed his remaining stockpiles in compliance with international demands.

But I digress.

It would be improper to read Hussein’s grudge against Iran in terms of “Sunnism v. Shiism.” It would be more proper to consider it a war of Islamists v. secularists.

The Islamic Revolution aspired to being a pan-Islamist movement from the outset. To this day, Iran continues to fund Sunni Islamist groups, such as Hamas (an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood). Hussein was very concerned about this, as the Baathist ideology was secular.

The Islamic Revolution garnered a lot of support among both Sunnis and Shia across the region. In an attempt to maintain legitimacy, Hussein attempted to “Islamicize” his regime, ushering in a host of cosmetic changes, and coopting religious imagery in his speeches, etc.

But the Iranians called this out for what it was: pretense–exploitation of religion to manipulate the masses, rather than an authentic commitment to govern the state in accordance with al-sharia. They called upon Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, to overthrow their godless system and the dictator at its forefront. They may have also begun cultivating (pan-Islamist) resistance organizations in the service of this aim. In response, Hussein declared war.

Against Iran, Hussein was not waging a war in the service of Sunnism any more than when he sought to overthrow Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (resulting in the U.S. operations “Desert Shield” and “Desert Storm” respectively)—both governed by overtly Sunni monarchs.

Similarly, while the leadership of Saddam’s army was disproportionately Sunni, a majority of its soldiers were Shia. And so during the Iran/Iraq war, it was largely Shia who took up arms against Iran, and carried out atrocities against the Iranian people. This is because their national identity was more significant than their sectarian affiliation.

So again, it would be anachronistic to read the Iran/Iraq war in terms of contemporary sectarianism; the struggle was not Sunni/Shia but secularist/Islamist.


You claim that sectarianism is a primarily modern development—but didn’t the (Sunni) Ottoman and (Shia) Safavid empires frequently war with one another centuries ago? Wasn’t Iraq on the Eastern frontier of the Ottoman Empire, bordering the Safavids? Shouldn’t Iraq’s current conflicts be seen in terms of these longstanding tensions?

While the Ottoman and Safavid empires were ostensibly Sunni and Shia (respectively), and they did go to war with one another—it would be improper to construe religious sectarianism as the basis for the conflict.

So the Ottoman and Safavid Empires ruled over different peoples. The Safavids over Persians and Central Asians, the Ottomans primarily over Arabs—with corresponding differences in language, history, aesthetics, etc. on a profound scale. To oversimplify, the Safavids tended to lean more “east” culturally, the Ottomans “west.”  Their imperial ambitions also generally were focused in the opposite directions. But not always.

The primary struggle between the Ottomans and Safavids was for dominion over the Turks and the territories they controlled. It was a struggle for an ethnic group. In many respects, the people of the Turkish regions of contest had more in common with the Safavids (perhaps made clearest during the previous Turkish Seljuk Dynasty, in which there were attempts to “Persianize” the region)–but the Ottoman Empire, despite being predominantly Arab, was founded and spearheaded by Turkish elites (who were taken as slaves but came to take over the army, and later, the bureaucracy—and then carried out a coup following the death of Saladin, ushering in their Mamluk Dynasty. A different Turkish group would come to overthrow the Mamluks, establishing the Ottoman Empire).

So both empires attempted to lay claim to the Turks, and struggled for their territories. This was the primary axis of conflict. To the extent that religion was a significant factor, it was secondary at best.

All said, Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire for about 400 years (seized during the reign of Suleiman the Great). For about a third of that time, the Safavids attempted to seize Mesopotamia because it was part of a crucial fertile crescent for agriculture and fresh water. But the Safavids only held the land of contemporary Iraq for about 40 years total, and not even consecutively. Ultimately, the Safavids conceded Iraq to the Ottomans in 1639 without any further attempts to seize it—meaning the Ottoman rule over Iraq went virtually unchallenged for more than two and a half centuries, from the time of said treaty until the end of World War I.

While there is always some cultural syncretism among border territories, Iraqis were distinctly Ottoman—linguistically, culturally, even religiously. The Ottoman Empire always tolerated its robust Shia population, accepting their Ja’afari school of fiqh as one of their official canons of jurisprudence.

The Iraqi’s were not “conflicted” about their allegiance. There were not widespread Shia revolts against the Ottomans for the sake of joining the Safavids. Instead, as was the case in the Iran/Iraq war, the Shia of the region would take up arms against the Safavids for the sake of the “Sunni” Ottoman Empire. This is because their primary frame of identity (political or otherwise) was not their sectarian affiliation.

These differences continue to the present day. This is why after the U.S. invasion, you did not see Iraqi Shia moving to annex themselves into Iran. Shia Iraqis see themselves as fundamentally distinct from Iranians. They speak different languages, have different cultures and histories, etc. While they certainly feel a resonance with Iran based on their common sectarian affiliation, they do not view themselves as one people. So referring to the Shia in Persia and Mesopotamia homogenously is just as problematic today as it was in the 16th century.

In short–no, the ongoing sectarian conflict in Iraq does not date back to the struggles between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires.


Why are you blaming the United States so much for Iraq’s problems? What about other regional actors? What about the Iraqis themselves? The region was full of problems prior to the 2003 invasion.

While Mideast history is certainly far from utopian, the role Westerners have played in destabilizing the region, propping up dictators and monarchs, funding non-state actors, and pillaging the region’s resources is somewhat difficult to overstate.

This history predates the war in Iraq—probably a good starting place would be the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) and Balfour Declaration (1917) of WWI, which divided the Ottoman Empire between the French and British—perhaps not incidentally following on the discovery of oil in the region circa 1908. The agreements intentionally created unnatural territories that chopped up various tribal, ethnic, and religious groups to try and prevent there from being a unified front against the colonizers. This was exacerbated by their “divide and rule” strategy which pitted various ethnic and religious groups against one another to further undermine resistance.

But the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation were pivotal for the reasons I described. Were there other factors? Of course. I named many of them explicitly: the campaign by AQI (under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) to foment hostility against the Shia was a huge factor (although we should note that the U.S. helped establish what would become al-Qaeda in an attempt to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan). Another big influence were the geopolitical struggles between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Uprisings—often framed in religious terms. Al-Malaki’s disastrous policies, while probably less sectarian than the discourse suggests, also played a major alienating role for many Sunnis. I mentioned each of these.

But notice, the invasion and occupation of Iraq set the stage for these more indigenous forces that followed. Simultaneously, the form of government set up by the Americans, and various policies during the occupation, exacerbated these other trends.

Perhaps more significantly though, my focus on America is because this is an English-language publication targeting primarily the United States (Al-Jazeera America). The readers, as Americans (and as an American myself) have some ability to shape U.S. policies. So this is why I focus on U.S. policies, to help improve them. There is nothing I can write which will make one iota of difference with regards to these other factors outside of U.S. control. But through collective action, Americans can pressure their leaders into not repeating these same ridiculous errors—for instance, as the Obama Administration stands poised to do in Syria for the sake of “combatting ISIS.”