When U.S. President Barack Obama addressed Congress on the origins of conflict in the Middle East, he cited Sunni-Shi’a tension as the most divisive force in the region. He traced this conflict to the 7th century debate over Muhammad’s rightful successor, wherein the Prophet’s followers were divided amongst those who protested for a familial line and those who supported an electoral decision. Thus began, he proclaimed, the roots of the seismic conflict plaguing the Middle East today. But should religious sectarianism bare the full weight of responsibility for the internecine conflict?
A Sectarian Master Narrative
The dominant framework applied to the conceptualisation of contemporary Iraqi socio-political conflict is that of the eschatological methodology, in which an emphasis is placed on the ethno-religious dichotomy between Sunni and Shi’a communities. Mainstream scholarly discourse has traced this intra-Muslim conflict back to the ancient debate regarding who was to succeed the Prophet after his death in A.D. 632. It has been established by an array of scholars that this intra-Muslim religious sectarianism should hold the utmost importance in discourse, embracing an ideologically and eschatologically based analyses. However, as we factor in more recent national history, how effective is this school of thought?
The Transregional Approach
The transregional methodology analyses the sectarian binary through an evaluation of influential geopolitical factors embedded in the region. In this theory, conflicting national identities and sect-based politics are examined within the realm of pre-existing cultural borders. Scholars cite a history of cross-border mixing as a primary hurdle to national unification, arguing that local histories written in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Iraq, Arabia and the Gulf worked in a way in which historical legacy overlaps current regional lines. Whilst it’s a step away from the reductionism of the sectarian narrative, this perspective still lacks a holistic understanding of the national conflict that plagues the region.
The White Man’s Burden
Current relations with Iraq and the international community dictate that both the sectarian master narrative and the transregional theory should be criticised for their implicit negation of Western responsibility. Academic dialogue has evidenced relatively widespread acceptance of the US’s role in the polarization of sectarian identities but the extent to which this has been considered geostrategic is subject to debate. The simple ethno-sectarian model allows for an easily digestible conceptualisation of regional social divisions and serves to negate the West’s responsibility for exacerbating the conflict in the twenty first century. This sentiment has also been conveyed through the work of Damian Doyle and Tristan Dunning, in their collaborative piece on the Iraqi sectarian dichotomy “Politics or Piety,” arguing that “[reductionism] for policy makers, [is] a manifestation of Orientalism that blames the “other” for seemingly intractable violent conflict and deflects scrutiny of the West’s role in the region.” But how has the West contributed to the polarisation of sectarian identities in Iraq.
After the invasion, the US military’s De-Ba’athification policy institutionally destabilised the country. The U.S. disbanded the Iraqi military, seized the power of governing elites and dismantled the Iraqi legal system. Using insights from institutional and ideational theory, political scientist Andrew Flibbert examined the consequences of dismantling the state. Sectarian and ethnic conflict intensified and alongside this there was an increase in terrorism and criminal rates and a prolonged period of slow economic growth. The crumbling political environment served to increase sectarian polarisation as the population faced pressure to turn inward and further establish distinct sectarian identities for some form of representation.
The extent to which this polarisation was part of a broader pursuit of U.S. hegemonic power in the region has been argued extensively. One perspective pursues the idea that the destruction imposed on Iraq could not have been calculated by the West, thus the increased sectarian conflict was not used as an instrument. However, evidence suggests that the United States utilised their power as the occupying force to provoke sectarian conflict, manipulating and exploiting sectarian interactions to advance their own interests. Acts like the destruction of the Askariyya mosque in Samarra served to establish sectarian identities and intensify conflict between Sunni and Shi’a communities in pursuit of obtaining geopolitical power. This is corroborated by political scientist Jeremy Salt who argued that ”While quietly fomenting sectarian division (between Sunni and Shia, and between the Kurds and the rest), the United States (used) Iraq as a springboard for special operations inside Iran aimed at identifying possible targets for a military attack and destabilisation of the regime through acts of sabotage.”
As we can see again, the eschatological model holds limitations in furthering research into the relationship between the polarisation of sectarian identities and Iranian geostrategic pursuits in Iraq. We can also hold that the destruction of the Iraqi socio-political environment and the subsequent inflammation of sect-based tension was largely a result of manipulation by Iranian proxies. With the prerequisite of a state under political instability, Tehran was able to exert power over Iraq through their manipulation of electoral results, the exploitation of sectarian division and mobilisation of non-state actors and militant organisations. Popular elections gave victory to Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite politicians over moderates, helping spread Iranian theocratic power on an institutional level. The collapse of Saddam Hussein served to increase Iranian regional influence as proxies were able to occupy positions of political power in the absence of Iran’s primary military rival. This political presence, combined with the development of sectarian militant reactionary groups working closely with the Shiite governing power, propelled Iranian influence in the region as Shiite militias became the dominant occupying presence in Iraq. With the Iranian-backed Shiite dominated government in Baghdad, the role of the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) significantly increased. In the fight against ISIL, Iran provided the Iraqi state with militia fighters, Su-25 fighter jets and a US$195 million arms deal. This financial support allowed for an increase in sectarian conflict and dependency on Iran.
”These actions exemplify the instrumentalisation of sectarian identity at the regional and institutional level in order to advance geopolitical interests; that is, a regional example of ‘politics organised along sectarian lines’ ” – Doyle and Dunning.
Given recent histories and the intentions of occupying powers, we should critically reflect on the weight so often lent to ancient Islamic history. Sectarian tensions shouldn’t be viewed as dichotomously and instead, we need to continue to analyse the tactical polarisation of sectarian identities as a result of broader geostrategic pursuits.