ISIS and Sectarian Authoritarianism in Iraq

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ISIS and Sectarian Authoritarianism in Iraq

© Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images An Iraqi army uniform lies close to the Kukjali checkpoint, some 10km east of Mosul.

Most of the states in the regions of West Asia and North Africa have failed in nation building processes. Failure of state systems and lack of national identity have led to catastrophic dilemmas in the region, one of which is the emergence of ISIS (Islamic State in Syria and Iraq).

While similar dilemmas could re-emerge in the region, especially Iraq, it becomes vital to ask if there is a detectable pattern, in which terrorist groups like ISIS thrive.

In the recent history of Iraq, there has always been an ethnic or a religious party dominating power at the expense of other groups. For example, since 1921 until 2003, Iraq was under the rule of the minority of Sunni Arabs, starting from Faisal bin Hussein and ending with Saddam Hussein. The same pattern of authoritarian practices has re-emerged under the rule of Shiites recently.

Sectarian Authoritarianism?

Authoritarian states have failed to form a collective identity among their own people and overcome religious and ethnic dividing lines. Rather than providing security to all citizens equally, the state has become a source of threat.

The majority of people living in the regions of West Asia and North Africa feel that they are excluded, marginalised and suppressed. And indeed, they are. Therefore, they seek security in other institutions, primarily sub-state institutions, which allow space for ethnically, linguistically and religiously sectarian identities. Survival of one’s identity becomes the foremost concern.

For many people in the region, security and representation have been downsized to the frame of their ethnic or religious group in order to survive.  Precisely this is what has been happening in Iraq since its inception.

When Sunnis ruled Iraq, they systematically marginalised the Shiites and the Kurds. However, this shouldn’t give the impression that Sunnis were a parliamentary majority and chose to systematically marginalise minorities. It is rather an authoritarian style of rule, by which power is regulated through a totalitarian party – The Baath Party. On the one hand, this one-party regime favours the tribe or the sect or the ruler (Alawites in Syria and Sunnis in Iraq) for governmental and military positions. On the other hand, other less preferred groups, a minority or a majority, suffer.

The Kurds faced genocide and ethnic cleansing such as the Anfal campaign and the chemical attack on the town of Halabja, whereas Shiite Arabs were excluded from military and state institutions and were denied to freely practice their religious rituals. The same pattern of oppression has emerged when the Shiite majority came to power upon the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Haunted by the fear of the past, Shiites were relentless to consolidate their grip on power at all costs. This has resulted in a government based on retribution and exclusively biased toward a particular ethnic group, making the dream of an inclusive government beyond reach.

Sunni Comeback

It was hard for Sunnis in Iraq to imagine their new position out of power. For the first time since the creation of Iraq they felt subordinated. With a weak minority at the Parliament and a fragile representation at the cabinet, they’ve become unable to play a major role in the new Iraq.

The Sunni Arabs were almost absent in the new Iraqi institutions such as the army, the ministry of foreign affairs, and other ministries, especially under Nouri Al-Maliki. Similar to most ruling elites in authoritarian countries, democracy was not in Sunnis or Shiites’ favour. While this amounts to an actual fear of democracy, Sunni ruling elites under Saddam Hussein went on later to rely on anti-democratic groups in an attempt to come back to power.

Sunnis at that time have become similar to Shiites before 2003. The state and its militias were a source of threat to Sunnis, especially after passing the “Terrorism Act”, which granted a permission to police to arrest Sunnis if suspected of supporting Al-Qaeda.

This is exemplified in the domination of radical terrorist Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda, Naqishbandi army, and Baathists. It is noteworthy that Sunni Arabs exploit terrorist factions to multiply their local gains in the same way terrorist factions exploit Sunni agonies to broaden their global jihadist agenda, regardless of them fighting against the Americans, each other or against the Iraqi government.

Unreliable Partners

The growing Iranian influence and Shiite domination granted ISIS a fertile ground to exploit the post-Saddam massive fear within the Sunni community. They focused on the sense of anger at the mostly Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army and Security forces. According to New York Times, the majority of ISIS fighters are young and neglected Sunnis.

This interdependent relationship between Sunnis and ISIS did not last long when ISIS executed hundreds of Sunni tribe members and some Sunni leaders in Mosul in November 2014. Sunnis in Iraq soon realised that ISIS is not a real defender of their rights, but rather used them as a fuel for their wars against what they claimed to be an American invasion, but in reality against they declared war against everyone else.

ISIS seems to be a project to counter the Islamic Republic of Iran in Iraq. It is a mixture of Islamic extremists and some former nationalist Iraqi officers.

With the growing Iranian influence throughout the region, Sunni Arabs started to think about drawing a red line to stop the Iranian influence.

Moreover, Sunni states such as Jordan, Egypt and Gulf States could play a crucial role in the fight against ISIS. Their participation in deterring religious extremism remains indispensable, as they would undermine the legitimacy of ISIS in the Muslim majority world, isolate them, and cut the cord of probable sympathy within Sunni communities.

However, activities of pro-Iran Shiite militias within Sunni majority areas in Iraq legitimise ISIS, which makes all efforts against terrorism in vain.

Security and stability in the regions of West Asia and North Africa require redrawing of boundaries, as the existing states have failed to be responsible, strong, coherent, rational, and functioning. They do not represent their own people, but exclude and oppress them.


Darwn Rahim

Darwn Rahim

is a PhD candidate at Erfurt University in Germany. He hold an MA in Security studies from Bundeswher University in Munich. He is also a research fellow at George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. He has served as the personal assistant to the spokesman of Kurdistan Regional Parliament.
Darwn Rahim

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