Global Policy Forum

Religion and Politics in Iraq: What Type of Sectarianism Really Exists?



By Adam L.Silverman

August 24, 2009


The recent increase in political violence in Iraq has once again led to renewed discussions of the potential religious component. Violence has recently been directed against the heterodox Kurdish population and a recent NY Times article also addressed the question of sectarian issues. One key issue is that what looks like religious or sectarian conflict in Iraq is most often about some other kind of rivalry. Many Americans and other outsiders understand this phenomenon, but it bears emphasizing again here. My teammates and I conducted a four month long tribal study and history in our Operating Environment (OE) and our empirical findings are quite illuminating of the issue of Iraqi sectarianism.

The real heart of the Iraqi sectarian question is the frame of reference. Western disputes between religious sects or branches have often centered on doctrinal differences. The Iraqi frame is different. For the most part the results of our study indicated that Islamic theology and dogma, whether Sunni or Shia, are not really at the heart of the Iraqi sectarian dispute. When we began interviewing tribal leaders about their history and the history of the areas they lived in, several volunteered that they belonged either to the Sunni or Shiite branch of Islam. They would then go on to talk about their relations with the other clans in the area, describing these clans' sect, as well as whether they were related, or had struck inter-tribal agreements. We also asked the internally displaced Iraqis whom we interviewed about their sectarian orientation in order to try to better understand why they had left their homes and moved around. What we found was quite interesting.

Virtually all the individuals we interviewed, whether sheikhs, internally displaced Iraqis, or average Iraqis, told us that tribes tended to be mixed religiously. Even if a tribe in Mada'in where we were conducting interviews was completely Sunni, it typically had a branch elsewhere in Iraq that was Shiite. Likewise, the Shiite tribes had Sunni branches. Moreover, all the sheikhs indicated that their tribe's people intermarry with members of other local tribes regardless of sectarian orientation. When asked, about 2/3rds of tribal leaders insisted that "sectarian" conflict was really about resources. The remainder asserted that outside religious extremist influences (whether deriving from the Wahhabi form of Islam or from hard line Shiism) are to blame and that often that influence is used to manipulate Iraqis in order to usurp their resources. We are confident in our finding that the inter-communal disputes are resource-driven, not the result of religion. Theology and dogma are used as a cover for negative actions taken. Respondents expressed concerns that, as a result of this dynamic, ordinary Sunnis might be targeted for retribution because they were assumed all to be radical fundamentalists, and that all Iraqi Shiites might likewise be lumped together with extremists from that branch of Islam.

A great example of how this resource war, disguised as sectarian conflict, operates is the dispute over the Salman al Farsi Mosque. This mosque named for a Persian companion of the Prophet Muhammed, located in Salman Pak - the Markaz Mada'in - has historically been a Sunni mosque. In fact Salman Pak, like the mosque itself, is named after him. Depending on which version of the mosque's history you prefer, either all of Salman al Farsi is interred beneath it, or just a portion of him - like a reliquary. The Salman Pak municipality and the surrounding areas are overwhelmingly Sunni while the rest of Mada'in District is predominantly Shia - the farther one moves away from the Tigris River, the more Shia the district becomes. The Salman al Farsi Mosque, or rather its waqf (endowment) is one of the largest landowners in the area - both inside and outside the city. As a result many of the residents are actually renting their homes, shops, and farms from the mosque. Whoever controls the mosque controls its endowment and whoever controls the endowment controls a lot of money and power. While the mosque has traditionally been under Sunni control, and we were told that a string of historical documents proves this assertion, under the new Iraqi government it was somehow moved from the Sunni Mosque Ministry into the Shia Mosque Ministry.

As a result of this change, the issues of who controls the mosque has become a central preoccupation for the people of the Salman Pak area. Many of our interviewees expressed great concern over being evicted from their homes, businesses, or farms should the mosque be ultimately placed in Shia control. Additionally, the dispute over the mosque has had a major impact on the economy in Salman Pak. A not insignificant portion of the Salman Pak commercial districts of shops and stores are actually an arcade built into the walls surrounding the mosque. As long as the mosque remains shuttered and locked, so do the stores and shops.

Finally, the dispute over the Salman al Farsi Mosque has stoked fear of Iranian intentions in the area. The mosque is only a few blocks from the Arch of Kesra on the Steya Peninsula. Interviewees told us they were worried that through economic dominaton the Iranians were coming to retake possession of the area, and would rule it just as they did when the Persian capital was at the Taq-i Kesra Palace (Palace of Chosroes at Ctesiphon).

This anti-Iranian sentiment was also expressed in a number of interviews we conducted with Iraqi Shia. It was made clear to us over and over that no one was really fighting over whether one should pray like a Sunni or a Shia or whether one was better than the other, but that, rather, the dispute was over control of land, water, and money. Our study found that that the conflicts about resources are mediated by political groupings, which are divided into two main groups. One was the Shiite fundamentalist parties that had been in exile during the Saddam period but which came back in 2003 to become powerful political actors (including the Islamic Mission Party (Da'wa) and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). The other was the groupings that remained behind, (the [Sunni] Awakening Council members and the Sadrists). The situation in Mada'in is unlikely to be sui generis.













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