There is no shortage of articles about intra-national divisions in the Middle East, due to rising perceptions of threats caused by sectarian conflicts in Iraq. Many articles often focus on the short-term causes, which provide a narrow view. What are the deep-rooted causes of the conflict today and can they be resolved?
Before the First World War, Iraq was non-existent as a state. Under the Ottoman Empire, the country was divided into three provinces, or wilayat, around the cities of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. As regional identities naturally developed amongst them, there was no need for a transcendental identity. The one exception was the presence of a trans-regional religious identity, which was the unifying force.
The outbreak of the First World War had serious implications for the Ottoman Empire, and resulted in the British gaining power through the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916. Despite recurring claims that the British and the French arbitrarily drew the borders of the Middle East, it must be noted that they based their mandates on some pre-existing administrative and cultural unity. In Iraq, social cohesion was rooted in Arab tribal feelings that can still be witnessed today as in the strategic alliances against Daesh in Al-Anbar. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to claim that Iraq was a purely artificial British creation. The most ominous consequence of British colonialism in Iraq was the institutionalization of sectarian divisions through the one-sided promotion of Sunni notables to administrative positions. This was a direct legacy from the Ottoman Empire, which had relied on Sunni Muslims as governors, and was in line with the majority religion of the masses. But following Ottoman agrarian reforms, class struggles initiated a far-reaching process of conversion to Shi’ism in Iraq, which became the dominant sect towards the end of the 19th century. However, political representation did not shift accordingly, which resulted in future conflicts.
British colonialism had at least one positive effect for national Iraqi identity: it united Iraqis in their opposition to foreign domination. This created a negative social cohesion, as it is well known that best friends are often made through common enemies. Regrettably, the granting of formal independence to Iraq in 1932 marked its end. Hopes of an Iraqi nation were profoundly shaken, and it was not until 1946 that Iraq was politically stabilised; the “Decade of Silence” from 1946 to 1958 saw the appearance of social movements trying to reform the constitutional order, and progressively replacing ethno-religious grievances with real political cleavages. When the political order was once again shaken by Abd al-Karim Qasim’s coup in 1958, the nation rejected pan-Arabism, and Qasim abolished the monarchy in favor of an Iraqi Republic. Qasim’s contribution to the progressive disintegration of a national sentiment was authoritarian and those seeds he sowed remained in force for four decades.
In July 1979, the infamous Saddam Hussein came to power, igniting a rule that dramatically bolstered sectarianism. His political purge, which began against the Communists and the Muslims Brothers, soon affected all fringes of the establishment and annihilated any hopes of basing the country’s trajectory upon political cleavages. Second, his decisions to go to war against Iran in 1980, and to invade Kuwait ten years later, had dreadful consequences for Iraq; the war created massive discontent throughout the country and revived regional tensions, culminating in a Shiite uprising in the south. And third, the launching of the “Faith Campaign” in 1993 began the demise of the education system. By subjugating state education to religious teachings and removing critical thinking and interpretive opportunity from the classroom, religion became inextricably political — and vice versa — at the primary socialization level.
The vacuum created by the deterioration of education was quickly filled by religion outside the classroom as well, insurging among a docile population which was exacerbated by force. Saddam strengthened his political platform through shrouding it in Islam. The Faith Campaign was additionally effective in marginalizing another politically and scholastically important sector of society: women. A subset of Saddam Hussein’s policy included increased political pressure and threats upon women coming from the government and local leaders to uphold the culture and honor of both the regime and the nation through religious piety. Thus, the regime commercialized female humility as a tool of coercive moral legitimacy.
After Saddam was toppled, the international community fully reversed the trend of the past centuries, giving the Shias significantly more power than the rest of the population. The Sunnis briefly returned to the forefront in 2007, when the Americans successfully used them to fight Al-Qaeda’s presence in the country. Since then, they have gone back into near political oblivion, a reason motivating many to support Daesh over Baghdad.
Because sectarianism in Iraq has become so deeply-rooted over the last century, it is our hypothesis that only a change of the people’s attitudes can lead to the creation of a peaceful, cohesive state. One of the best ways to do so is through education, which might sound dubious, so let us show exactly how and why.
Education Today and the Leaders of Tomorrow
It is clear that ethnic and religious differences comprise the primary identity of Iraqi citizens, and that the impact of these cleavages and education is reciprocal and equal in magnitude. As such, it is necessary to incorporate education reform into the solutions proposed for the future of the country. Education reform is a slow process that requires attention, resources, and care, and as a result it is often overlooked in the frantic search for immediate short-term solutions. However, such tunnel vision excludes this main vessel for creation of a sustainable state structure and generation of political participants to secure the future of Iraq.
As aforementioned, the Faith Campaign implemented by Saddam Hussein involved the insertion of religious texts accompanied by prescribed interpretations for students, creating a precedent both in terms of content and methodology that continued after the deposition of its original implementer. Today, students are still taught to standardized tests at the end of each school year; this involves memorization of historical names, key pieces of literature, and a regurgitation of important dates, all lacking synthesis or an understanding of interdisciplinary links. Academic success becomes synonymous with parroting, which carries heavy implications of its own.
The first and most observable impact is the decreased quality of education throughout the country. While education systems have shown to be fragmented along established sectarian lines, the issues that drag down the quality of subjects taught from kindergarten through secondary education are mutually shared. For example, though the strongest subjects in each region vary, the respective disciplines would be considered extraordinarily weak by the educational standards of the rest of the world. In Kurdistan, where Arabic is considered a well-taught subject, only one in five adults can speak Arabic upon graduation.
Taking this fact a step further, the system can be observed as actively perpetuating sectarian divisions of Iraq. Returning to Kurdistan, the region most loudly clamoring for autonomy based on ethno-linguistic identity, despite attempts to establish Arabic as the dominant language for education in line with the rest of the country, students are not practically held accountable in this manner. While information and instruction is distributed in the target language, responses and explanations revert to Kurdish a majority of the time. This demonstrates a lack of respect stemming from the Kurdish Regional Government for the national educational system, and prescribes the assertion of regional identity over national identity in the socialization process.
Finally, and most importantly in the context of future impact, the education system in Iraq engenders religious extremism. When students are not just prevented from engaging in interactive learning, but are trained against critical thinking, they are much more likely to accept as fact that which is put forth by political and religious leaders claiming to represent the absolute truth in their respective arenas. This conversely leads to an increased tendency to absolutely reject any other group or figure claiming to represent another truth. The current educational system in Iraq is conclusively a main factor in the internal divisions plaguing it, and reform is essential for progress. Long-term educational goals can prevent future instability, which go hand-in-hand with political solutions and improvements: educational policies are top down, which parallels the structure of current sectarian divides in Iraq. The same approach applies to political leaders who claim moral authority within their positions.
Outlooks on political solutions to the current crisis
This article does not assume the impossibility of a solution. Contrarily, it shows exactly where long-term solutions can be found:
The constant exclusion of Shias from Iraqi politics has set in motion a diametrically opposed dynamic, with an almost complete marginalisation of the Sunnis at the national level, particularly in the army. Historical evidence suggests that a non-secular environment will consistently cause the domination of one sect by the other, so a secularisation of the public space would allow the creation of parties based on political, not sectarian, cleavages. This would in turn provide a stable framework for the establishment of a national political culture, ultimately guaranteeing participation in the decision-making processes by at least the two main sects. In order to turn the zero-sum sectarian game of Iraq into a positive-sum national game, Sunnis must be integrated into the army and, contrary to the status quo, given more actual responsibilities in government, in line with a policy of regionalism that has a more historically-based likelihood of success. Contingently, Iraq needs a more equal redistribution of oil and gas revenues and of allowed expenditures.
Education must be used as a tool to create a feeling of national community, particularly with regard to history and languages. This can be only through the elimination of religion’s grasp on education and the reintroduction of problem-solving skill development. Education is the most promising long-term solution, and it can draw Iraq out of its divisive deliquescence. However, we do emphasize the extended nature of this aspect to the sectarian solution, as even in countries not currently wrought by civil war, education reform takes time, care, and attention. This is what must be committed to in order to secure a promising future for rising generations.
One last issue must unfortunately be addressed. One of the most violent conflicts in actuality is taking place on Iraqi territory: that against Daesh. The priority is now military, and Iraq’s security apparatus must be consolidated. But the fight against the so-called “Islamic State” must not be overlooked when trying to “reconstruct” the Iraqi state. For when this terrorist organisation collapses, what it leaves behind is the soil in which the new state will take root. And this fall will happen so quickly that the country’s immediate situation at that fateful moment will determine what form it will take afterwards. Immediate action with the goal of long-term change starts with us, and starts now, lest more of our Iraqi counterparts perish in a conflict to which they have been subjected by nothing more than fate.