Historic Mesopotamia is home to an extraordinary range of religious and ethnic groups, which include, but are not limited to, Baha’is, Jews, Yazidis, Circassians, Faili Kurds, and Turkmen. While Iraq has undergone various political changes over the years, the ways by which these groups relate to one another, as well as their role in official discourse, have also fluctuated. Recently, differences among the various cultural, ethnic, and religious identities in Iraq have been adumbrated not only to explain conflict, but also to justify policy. Sectarianism as a concept of an unavoidable evil in everyday life, has substituted an Iraqi identity that encompasses all groups, thereby perpetuating conflict and circumventing national reconciliation.
To be sure, identity in Iraq requires more nuance than drawing religious or ethnic lines. A recent report by the Institute for International Law and Human Rights (IILHR) draws attention to the subtle diversity among Iraq’s Shiite population that arguably makes up the majority of Iraq’s demographics, showing that they are comprised of Arabs, Turkmen, Faili Kurds, Shabak, Circassians, and other groups. Furthermore, a series of maps designed by Dr. Izady and hosted by Gulf/2000 illuminate the sheer diversity of Iraq. Asking an individual how he/she identifies his/herself socially or politically will elicit a different response depending on a range of factors, not necessarily tied to race or religion. Each of these groups likely possess as much political diversity based on any number of local or communal concerns, as they do ethnic differences.
The politicization of ethnicity, religion, or culture in public discourse, however, often takes precedence over meaningful explanation and analysis. Joseph Rothschild asserts that “The terms ethnic and ethnicity are used generally… to refer to the political activities of complex collective groups whose membership is largely determined by real or putative ancestral ties, and who perceive these ties as systematically affecting their place and fate in the political and socioeconomic structures of their state and society.” In other words, because of the fluidity of identity, certain layers can be mobilized to affect strategic or political change.
In Iraq’s context this is most clearly, though not wholly, demonstrated by the continued sectarian rhetoric in daily news reports and statements by Iraqi officials. Earlier in May, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki qualified a series of violent attacks with a statement that read: “We have to know that today’s bloodshed is the result of sectarian hatred and also the result of a stirring up of these sectarian tensions.” While he did not blame a particular sect or group, his public address roots a complicated conflict purely in religious differences thus affirming the inevitability of violence based on these differences. Though, one may be hard pressed to find this hatred encompassing all spheres of political life. Two brief examples include various Sunni and Shiite members of the “Iraqiya List”, as well as Muqatada al-Sadr and Nouri al-Maliki’s public and often fundamental political disagreements, despite both being Shiite.
This is not to say that discrimination against under-represented or marginal groups does not exist. The IILHR report (cited above) highlights the fact that while the Constitution of the Kurdish Regional Government and the Constitution of the State of Iraq includes certain protections for language, age, disability and gender equality, it excludes protections for religious and ethnic minorities, such as Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, and others. The report also calls to attention Iraq’s civil status law, which prohibits the conversion from Islam while requiring that minors follow Islam if at least one parent is Muslim. However, this raises problems for adherents to other faiths who converted forcibly under Saddam Hussein’s regime and now must identify themselves as Muslims, despite their true faith (IILHR, 13). Additionally, direct violence against marginal groups is further exemplified by the attacks on Yazidis in Northern Iraq in 2007, resulting in the loss of over 400 lives.
The crux of the matter is not whether violence exists between religions, ethnicities, cultures, or other facets of identity, but the extent to which divisive language, policies, and even analysis perpetuates conflicts on the ground through a language of inevitable violence. The language of “sectarianism” appears to be more embedded and accepted in Iraqi politics every day, often replacing countless examples that support a dialogue that celebrates diversity, a common history, and converging interests. However, there is reason for optimism, as Iraqi youth groups demonstrate against sectarianism and nationwide protests address similar concerns, irrespective of sect or ethnicity. Movements, such as these push for rights based on an integrated society and oppose the politicization of race and religion. In the end, a growing number of Iraqi citizens (regardless of their background) believe that all Iraqis deserve equal rights based on the concept of a government that serves all of its citizens without consideration to their ethnic or sectarian status.