Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Historical Production of Sectarianism in Iraq

While mulling over the discussion surrounding Lisa Wedeen's presentation at the Kevorkian last week, I've been thinking about the elective affinity between science and liberalism, and the particular type of discourse that emerges from that affinity. Specifically, I have been thinking about how this can be applied to one of my own research interests: the production of knowledge regarding modern Iraq.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, it's become fashionable to view Iraq through ethnosectarian lenses. This tendency is not limited to policymakers and commentators in the public discourse; intellectuals and academics have also been culpable of reinforcing the notion that Iraq is an artificial state, or a state that has never integrated as a nation because of its so-called ethnosectarian heterogeneity. Iraq was carved out by the British in 1920, goes the notion, and the individuals incorporated into the new state have never been able to get past their primary identity of the ethnic group, the sectarian group, the tribe, the clan, etc. In short, Iraq has never fully made the transition from Gemeinshaft to Gesellschaft, a fundamental precondition for the development of the nation-state. Iraqis identify themselves as Shia, Sunnis and Kurds before they identify themselves as Iraqis.

Significantly, I think, many Western academics and intellectuals also subscribe to the "non-integration of Iraq" thesis (as esteemed Iraq scholar Isam al-Khafaji calls it). For instance, Noah Feldman writes in the Wall Street Journal on September 1, 2010, that Iraq will require a long-term US presence because "Iraq's primary identities are still of religious denomination or ethnicity, not of Iraqi nationhood." Thus, due to its "fissiparous character", Iraq is capable of sliding back into civil war at any moment. Feldman is a professor at Harvard Law School, and has written extensively on Islam and the Middle East. He also was one of the authors of Iraq's interim constitution in 2004.

This connection between viewing Iraq as a state without a national identity and the necessity for intervention is interesting. It is interesting, because in a lot of ways, it is not new. British views of Iraq and of India during their colonial administrations were characterized by essentialist understandings of sectarian identity. Sectarian cleavages - between Sunnis and Shia in the case of Iraq, and between Hindus and Muslims in the case of India - were seen as impediments to state and nation building. Since the modern liberal understanding of the nation-state was seen as the normative ideal (in which civic citizenship defined identity), sectarian and ethnic identities became problematic. In this light, notice that Feldman states that the ideal scenario would be for a new Iraqi identity to emerge on the basis of democratic institutions, or civic citizenship. Iraqis must move past their sectarian identities in order to forge a strong national identity. Yet, doesn't Feldman see the contradiction between adovcating for identities based on civic citizenship and the محصصة (ethnosectarian quota system) enshrined into the Iraqi constitution that he helped draft?

Nevertheless, despite the fact that this understanding of Iraq does not resonate with Iraqi history, it is quite resilient. Perhaps it is so resilient because it is part and parcel of a larger discourse involving issues of power and intervention. Britain used these essentialist understandings of Iraq and India in order to legitimize their colonial presence in both. Similarly, Feldman's discourse is aimed at legitimizing a long-term US presence in Iraq.

I think the more interesting questions that we need to ask have to deal with how sectarian identities become politicized. To a large extent, sectarian identities still govern power relations in Iraq. Of course, it has not always been this way, as even the most superficial study of Iraqi history will demonstrate. So how did Sunni and Shia go from being religious identities to being politicized and contending forces? This is the question that Feldman should be addressing.

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