Please briefly describe your book for us – what are the key points covered?

The book deals with an issue that is becoming more and more important in Iraq and the wider Middle East – that is the issue of sectarianism. The sectarian problem in Iraq, which had largely lain dormant since the establishment of the modern Iraqi state following World War I, forced its way onto the political scene, with a vengeance, so to speak, after the US-led war in 2003. The book seeks to fill a gaping hole in the scholarship and scholarly literature on Iraq by addressing the issue of sectarianism and its relationship to the making of state and nation in modern Iraq. That is not to say that the issue of sectarianism in Iraq was not dealed with at all before. One finds scattered references to sectarian issues, and sometimes tensions, dotting some writings on Iraq before, but the issue did not get any serious scholarly attention until after the post-Gulf War uprisings in 1991, and particularly in the light of the extreme forms of violence used by the Iraqi government forces to crush the Shi’ite rebellion in the south, including the bombardment of Shi’ite shrine cities. So, writings devoted to the question of sectarianism in Iraq began to appear in the 1990s. Still, these were mostly descriptive writings and lacked the rigor of theoretical articulation characteristic of theoretically-grounded social scientific work. So, the dearth of full analytical accounts of sectarianism and its relationship to the making of state and nation in Iraq remained. Most of the writings which appeared in the 1990s and beyond focused on the sectarian bases of political power in Iraq and sought to chart the rhythms of the political elite’s communal makeup. My book sought to fill this gap by providing a wide-ranging, social scientific exploration of sectarianism and the trajectory of state-making and nation-building in Iraq.
In seeking to provide a theoretically grounded, social scientific account of sectarianism and the making of the nation-state in Iraq, I employed the primordialism line of analysis as a theoretical framework for my research. However, as I proceeded, I was wary of the potential essentialist bias inherent in the primordialism approach, whereby primordial attachments, including sectarianism, could be seen as fixed, innate and entrenched a priori in one’s mind and consciousness. By linking sectarianism to the trajectory of the making of the Iraqi nation-state, my book provides an exploration into sectarianism in Iraq as a socially-constructed, historically-contingent primordial attachment.
Of course, an exploration into a primordial attachment like sectarianism, even when conceived of and approached as a socially constructed phenomenon, cannot be oblivious to the question of beginnings. So, I found myself drawn into engaging in writing a sort of a primeval history. It was important for me to trace the historical development of the centuries-old Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian divide, particularly as it pertains to the context of Iraq. This is important not only to understand the historical baggage of collective memories and images about the self and the sectarian other held across the sectarian fault line, but also to understand the brittleness of coalitions built across communal lines as the process of nation-building in Iraq unfolded. It was also important to understand how authoritarianism and brutal repression as a means to secure power dented efforts to nurture an overarching national solidarity and undermined inter-communal relations between ethno-sectarian groups.
The book also looks at elite makeup and the politics of sectarian stratification and patterns of inclusion and exclusion in the trajectory of the modern nation-state in Iraq. I collated, incorporated and updated the existing information on the association between sectarian affiliation and membership in the ruling political elites to include the post-2003 period until the formation of the second Nouri al-Maliki cabinet in 2010. Here, the book went beyond looking at how the concentration of power in the hands of rural Sunni Arabs, a minority group, following the 1958 military coup widened the gap between the state and society and also beyond a mere exploration of the composition of the new elite in which the Shi’ites enjoy a significant share of power resources in post-Saddam Iraq. I look at de-Ba’athification measures designed to bar senior Ba’athists from holding public office as an exclusionary mechanism restricting Sunni Arab access to power. I further examine the institutionalization of differential access to political power along ethno-sectarian lines through consociatoinal power-sharing arrangements in the post-Saddam political order. I also look at how electoral politics in post-Saddam Iraq enshrined sectarian affiliations as key determinants of political participation and differential access to power and, in turn, hardened ethno-sectarian affiliations
But an examination of sectarianism as a product of power relations suffers from the pitfalls of mono-causal analysis. The book develops a more complex interpretation of the relationship between sectarianism and the making of nation and state in modern Iraq by investigating the failure of modern education in Iraq to play the role of a homogenizing tool capable of instilling an associational solidarity that transcends communal segmentation. Here, I embark on an excursus into the development and content of the educational curriculums in the pre- and post-2003 period, to see how the hegemony of the Sunni Arab historical narrative in the pre-2003 curriculum and the primacy given to the Shi’ite narrative in the post-2003 curriculum elicited communal reactions that ultimately contributed to the awakening of sectarian primordial consciousness.
The polemical controversy swirling around the historical narratives incorporated into the educational curriculum in Iraq is in essence a debate about the ideational bases of the Iraqi “imagined community,” to use the term coined by Benedict Anderson. This brought me face to face with the foundational myths or contending visions of collective identity in Iraq. I engage in discourse analysis to explore these contending visions and trace the slide from a totalizing Pan-Arab discourse in Iraq, whose xenophobic streak camouflaged sectarian attitudes and nurtured inter-communal mistrust, into disintegration exemplified by competing narratives of victimization and the debate over the formation of federal regions in the post-Saddam period. The main point here is to shed light on the progressive balkanization or ghettoization of identity along not only sectarian but also intra-sectarian particularisms in modern Iraq.
In short, this book molds these analytical threads – the baggage of history, elite stratification, educational curriculums, and visions of the collective self – together to provide a multi-dimensional, wide-ranging, theoretically-grounded social scientific analysis of the problem of sectarianism and its relationship to the process of nation-building and state-making in Iraq.

How did the book come about? What sparked your interest in this subject area? 

I have developed a keen interest in Iraqi politics over the years. This interest first started in the 1980s during the Iraq-Iran War. I was an undergraduate student at Indiana University back then and did research for some courses on some aspects of the war. I then began to work on Iraq as a journalist in the late 1990s. I began to see fragmented ethno-sectarian loyalties similar to what one finds in Lebanon, my mother country. But, unlike in Lebanon, where sectarianism has long been institutionalized through a confessional, consociational power-sharing arrangement and the Lebanese talk openly about sectarian distribution of power and the claims of their respective sects to power, in Iraq no confessional power-sharing arrangement existed at the time to institutionalize the communal distribution of power and the Iraqis were very discreet about it, at least in public. There are several reasons for this reticence on the question of sectarianism in Iraq. For one thing, throughout much of its history Iraq had a strong secular political culture. The major political parties, the Arab nationalists, such as the Ba’ath, the Communist Party, and social democratic parties, like the National Democratic Party, all subscribe to avowedly secular ideological outlooks. There is also a widespread popular lore that looks at sectarianism with open disdain. In my opinion, this is one reason why sectarianism did not provide grist for historians and social scientists who sought to study Iraqi society and political life. Still, Iraq seems to have always had an undercurrent of sectarianism, a subaltern sectarianism, if you may, which had been dormant and ready to emerge under the right conditions. Nevertheless, whereas in Lebanon one finds a range of studies sketching the manifold social, political, economic, cultural and historical foundations and effects of sectarianism in the country, one rarely finds, until the 1990s, informative analytical accounts that attempt to shed light on the problem of sectarianism in Iraq.
When I first went to Iraq as a journalist in 2003, I came face to face with the emerging sectarian problem and with the strong sense of denial of the problem prevalent among Iraqis. As the country was clearly sliding into a sectarian inferno, Iraqi intellectual and political elites were largely reluctant to even discuss the issue. When one would mention the problem of sectarianism, many Iraqis were quick to affirm: “we are all brothers.” Others used to turn to me and accuse me of trying to stir a sectarian problem among Iraqis. There were even attempts to forge a trans-sectarian protest movement against the occupation in the immediate aftermath of the US-led invasion, but these utterly failed. I have discussed these failed efforts in a chapter for a book titled Democratic Transition in the Middle East: Unmaking Power published by Routledge in 2013. I originally intended to write books on the Sadrist movement and the Islamic Da’awah Party in Iraq and began to collect information and material on these topics. However, the widening sectarian political divisions and gruesome events unfolding in Iraq, with all their gory details, made me shift my interest to the question of sectarianism as it was becoming increasingly clear that this problem had the potential not only to undermine social peace in Iraq but also to derail the fragile balance in which sectarian communities coexist throughout the Middle East.

What is your professional/academic background? 

I currently work as Senior Political Affairs Officer at the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). My work at UNMIK includes setting up and managing the Political Analysis and Reporting Unit at the UNMIK Mitrovica Regional Office in northern Kosovo. I also carry out managerial duties as well as facilitation and coordination work with a range of local and international actors to foster inter-communal dialog and resolve disputes. Before joining UNMIK in February 2013, I worked as Political Affairs Officer at the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) for nearly for four years. I led the Political Affairs team in Kirkuk and engaged in monitoring and analyzing political developments, mapping out state and non-state political actors and trends in mission area, and promoting national reconciliation and dialog, which included supporting the work of Iraqi government committees and carrying out tasks aimed at the resolution of disputed internal boundaries problems. Prior to that, I worked at the UN radio station in Sudan. My work involved the conceptualization, design and execution of the public information strategy and programmes of the UN radio (Radio Miraya) as well as planning, coordination and supervision of the work of a team of journalists in the Khartoum production hub and regional bureaus and correspondents. Before that I worked as journalist for a number of organizations, including the BBC World Service, Radio Canada International, Newsweek and the Iraqi Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. During my work at the BBC, I was sent on assignment to Iraq. In 2003, I was assigned to act as Team Leader at the BBC Arabic Service’s Baghdad Bureau where I led a team of journalists, correspondents and stringers throughout Iraq, and maintained the bureau’s smooth operation under the difficult conditions of an insurgency-ridden setting. In 2004, I worked as Team Leader for a UK government-funded project to set up a radio and TV station in Basra, providing editorial and managerial leadership. The project was being implemented by the BBC World Service Trust projects team. In January-February 2005, I was sent to Iraq as an embedded reporter with British troops operating in southern Iraq under the Multinational Force-Southeast (MNF-SE).

In the 1990s, I had the opportunity to teach or assist in teaching a number of political science courses at Indiana University in the US. These courses dealed with a variety of topics such as international relations, comparative politics, war and international conflict, political terrorism, the Gulf crisis and American politics. In terms of education, I hold a PhD in Politics from the University of Exeter in the UK. I did my undergraduate studies and part of my post-graduate studies in Telecommunications, Political Science and History at Indiana University in the US.

The situation in Iraq is changing very rapidly at present – did you envisage the current turn of events when writing your book

The quest for accurate predictions of future political developments is oftentimes elusive. When I was writing the book, there were few indications that events would take a turn towards what we saw in the past few months. It would have been a flight of fancy at the time to predict that an off-shoot of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, would manage to occupy and extend its control over one-third of Iraq’s territory. Of course, there were bleak scenarios propounded by some alarmist analysts who expected a renewed, reinvigorated insurgency led by Sunni Islamists, including al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the Ba’athists, following the US troop pullout in December 2011. They argued that the Iraqi government would not be able to stand on its own and would collapse without the prop provided by US troops. But such alarmist scenarios seemed unlikely for many reasons. For one thing, many former insurgent groups had turned against al-Qaeda and formed Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq formations working with the US troops and the Iraqi government. Moreover, the post-Saddam polity was becoming increasingly accepted among Sunni Arabs, who had formed the backbone of the insurgency, and the Iraqi security forces were amassing more material resources and becoming better trained, equipped and organized to the extent that they developed the capability, albeit limited, to engage in well-calibrated, large-scale and multi-dimensional counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations. Such developments restricted the operational capability of the simmering insurgency. Still, it was not possible to think of a rosy or unreservedly optimistic scenario for Iraq given the depth of political divisions along ethno-sectarian lines and the continued activity of insurgent groups which maintained levels of support among some segments of the population. This led me to dismiss the possibility of a renewed large-scale or all-out insurgency and to tend more towards expecting localized or regionalized outbursts of insurgent violence in areas where the insurgency continued to have significant operational capabilities, such as the Baghdad belt area, Hawijah in Kirkuk, Shirqat in Salah al-Din, the Himrin Mountains in Diyala and Salah al-Din, and parts of Ninewah.
Similarly, I rejected scenarios which envisaged Iraq unraveling in a violent civil war such as that which engulfed the country following the bombing of the ‘Askariyyah shrine in Samarra in February 2006. There was no logical reason to think that the mere withdrawal of US troops would inflame sectarian tension and passions to the extent of sparking a renewed civil war. However, anger at the heavy-handedness of the Shi’ite-dominated security forces as they went about conducting their counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations was palpable among Sunni Arabs. Moreover, repercussions of drastic and far-reaching regional changes unleashed by the Arab Spring, such as the militarization of the Syrian uprising, its slide towards civil strife and/or the possible fall of the Assad regime, were pregnant with potentially contagious possibilities for Iraq, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian passions and tensions.
But the potentially dire consequences of the concentration and centralization, if not even personalization, of power in the executive branch were not difficult to miss. The increasingly autocratic drift of the executive branch and its suffocating grip on political power against the backdrop of Shi’ite preponderance in the higher echelons of power were reinforcing the feelings of marginalization among Sunni Arabs and creating conditions for exacerbating inter-communal tensions. It was also clear that this state of affairs would give a boost to the federalist agitation and the calls to form new regions, especially among Sunni Arabs, who came to increasingly see in federalism a way out of the overbearing concentration of power at the Shi’ite dominated center and to alleviate political and economic marginalization. Agitation for the formation of federal regions remains strong among Sunni Arabs, whose representatives presented demands in this regard during negotiations for the formation of the new cabinet following the 2014 elections.

Who would be interested in reading your book

The book provides the first large-scale, detailed and systematic social science examination of the relationship between sectarianism and the making of state and nation in Iraq. It would be useful for a broad spectrum of specialists and non-specialists. Social and political scientists working on topics related to primordialism, nation-building, the politics of identity, ethnicity and nationalism, as well as Middle East area specialists working on topics related to sectarianism, Islam and modernity, and modern Middle Eastern, Islamic and/or Iraqi history, will find rich insights and value in this work. The book also offers much that interests non-specialists and general readers seeking to understand the rising tide of sectarianism in the Middle East, as well as politics and inter-communal strife in post-Saddam Iraq. The book could also be used as a student text for courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels dealing with a host of topics, including: comparative politics, nationalism, the state, nation-building, political development, Middle Eastern politics and history, Islamic history, Islam and modernity, and Iraqi politics and history. 

For more information about Sectarianism in Iraq visit here.