A conflict of narratives
The predominant majority of Iraqis identify themselves primarily as Iraqi nationals. However, it is the disagreement over what ‘Iraq-ness’ means that has perpetuated the internal conflict, and prevented Iraqis from defining their political community in an inclusive and pluralistic way. The country has been deeply affected by the lack of an inclusive national narrative and effective political system, and the ‘democratic’ system that emerged in post-Saddam Iraq did not improve the situation.
Iraq is a country experiencing an identity crisis, while trying to unravel its diverse problems. It is difficult to understand the persisting conflict in the country without comprehending some of the factors that contributed to the crisis. The chaos and civil war that ensued after an exceptionally brutal dictatorship can be considered extreme manifestations of that crisis.
The predominant majority of Iraqis identify themselves primarily as Iraqi nationals. However, it is the disagreement over what ‘Iraq-ness’ means that has perpetuated the internal conflict, and prevented Iraqis from defining their political community in an inclusive and pluralistic way. When a ‘national’ society is staunchly divided, there is a proclivity to use extremely violent means to destroy the ‘other’ within. To overcome this tendency, Iraqis will need to re-orient their thinking and internalize a new attitude. This will enable them to distinguish those sectors in society which are deviant, anti-community or disloyal. Although their hatred and ‘righteous’ hostility towards them can be regarded as justifiable, they can move forward.
In my view, collective narratives are crucial mental constructs, which can interpret the past so as to promote a meaningful relationship with the present and suggest a pathway to the future. As with any framing process, narratives will highlight some aspects and may neglect others. However, the stories recounted are important, and represent a mix of reality and myth, of facts and fictions. Iraq was established mainly by colonial settlements, and is inhabited by several ethnic and sectarian groups. The country has been deeply affected by the lack of an inclusive national narrative and effective political system. Rather than ‘inventing’ an identity that encompasses its different communities and their particularities, the Iraqi state has been monopolized by Arab-Sunni political elite. This group has failed to create an Iraqi political society that is open to the other communities, most importantly Shi’as and Kurds (who account for 80% of the population).
The country has remained unstable and is undermined by rebellion and violence. In 1968, the Ba’ath party came to power and in the first half of the 1970s consolidated its authority gaining advantage from the huge revenues derived from the dramatic rise of oil prices. To deal with the internal plurality, the Ba’ath-led government adopted two policies: first, creating a national narrative based on its pan-Arab ideology, and second, suppressing any alternative narrative. Oil revenues were used to establish various cultural platforms to incorporate such ideology in the school curriculum. Traditions were invented to help inculcate the preferred narrative in the people, particularly in the younger generation. Besides these ambitious programmes of Ba’athification (dissemination of Ba’athist ideology), the regime strengthened its security systems and surpassed its predecessors by resorting to repressive means.
These processes, however, instead of achieving the Ba’athist ideal, exacerbated the social fragmentation. After thirty-five years of party totalitarianism followed by a family-based dictatorship, Iraq has become less united, and ethno-sectarian identities have prevailed over National identity. How can this outcome be explained? The answer lies partly in the policies adopted by Saddam’s militaristic regime, but also in its exclusivist narrative. Although from the perspective of Middle Eastern geopolitics there are several interpretations of that regime’s aggressive approach, it is equally true to say that its inability to deal with the Iraqi identity issue deepened the regime’s crisis-oriented governing.
The ‘democratic’ system that emerged in post-Saddam Iraq did not improve the situation. While it adopted a more inclusive institutional framework and a system of representative government, it failed to overcome the deep suspicions among ethno-sectarian communities. This result also needs to be understood from both the geo-political and geo-cultural points of view, and be related to the failures of the modern state in the Middle East. The identity issue has not been decisively solved in any of the region’s countries, and in some of these states the apparent stability usually hides a socio-political order based on ethnic or sectarian exclusion.
This reality is more visible in countries where social heterogeneity is strong, central government is weak, and a form of ‘democratic governing’ is adopted. Iraq and Lebanon are probably the main examples. In both countries, the electoral process is governed by communal polarization, and people tend to vote for their co-ethno-sectarian representatives. Inter-communal parties no longer exist outside the small circles of elitist groupings. In this context, political competitors aim to attain greater power, and such process is often accompanied by explicit or implicit threats of violence or boycotting, if the minimum demands are not met by the other “partners”.
The threats are quite serious because they result in de facto division, and this situation does not allow mediation between the central authority and the dissatisfied community. The alternative to this impasse is to establish a weak government in which all ethno-sectarian communities participate, share power, and thus some of the unfavourable decisions may be counteracted. Nevertheless, the problem is deeper since its roots lie in a particularistic mindset, rather than in the institutions. This conflictual situation cannot be resolved without confronting those prevailing mental constructs, namely: the identity narratives. While the majority of Iraqi Shi’as and Kurds welcomed the regime change with positive expectations, and considered it a new beginning, many citizens in Sunni areas were more anxious and interpreted it as the end of ‘national’ governing. Subsequently, the xenophobic rhetoric and mutual accusations prevailed. The inability to place the past within a new conciliatory narrative led each community to develop its particular narrative. Because each group continued to attribute the blame to the other, these narratives served to reinforce hatred and feelings of revenge.
Regional powers seeking leverage in the new Iraq and in moulding its new identity further complicated the internal conflict. In such a context, even those measures supposedly aimed at enhancing legality, accountability and reconciliation were counterproductive. Two important examples were: the Accountability and Justice Commission (formerly the so-termed de-Ba’athification Committee), and Iraq’s Special Tribunal. This was established by the Iraqi Governing Council (10 December 2003) to try Iraqis accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Ba’athist era (1968-2003). However, for many citizens it was unclear whether the aim of these bodies was to acknowledge and deal with past atrocities, or to mete out revenge. As far as this author is aware, no systematic review has been undertaken to provide some understanding about ‘what’ happened and, more importantly, ‘why’?
The importance of such questions is illustrated by the fact that many of those oppressed citizens were no longer prepared to remain silent while mass graves were being discovered around the country, and the perpetrators of the crimes were not clearly identified. I would suggest that Iraqi society needs to reflect on the conflict, and accept some responsibility not only for having silently witnessed the victimization of considerable sectors of the population through repressive policies, but also for allowing such a cruel regime to persist for decades. So far, it is not evident that such a reflection has occurred. Instead the sectarian discourse, with its politicized interpretation and forced implementation, hosted and supported by the regional media and political regimes, emphasized the contradiction in the narratives. The persistent attribution of blame for all past negative events to the ‘other’, created a situation that not only reinforced social division, but also allowed extremely violent acts to be tolerated. Using identity politics to unravel the identity crisis has instead aggravated it.
Iraqis remain apprehensive about the character and power sharing basis of their new government. Yet they are unable to come to terms with their past. Until that changes, they cannot frame a ‘national’ narrative that will reinterpret the collectivity and redefine their ‘Iraq-ness’. If the ‘present’ is allowed to become tomorrow’s ‘past’, the conflict and suspicions will become more entrenched and less reconcilable. It is up to the Iraqi people as a whole to resolve the issue, and reassert their popular and democratic sovereignty.