In a previous article, we have analysed the origins of the sectarian divisions in Iraq from a historical perspective. This showed the prominent role played by the successive occupations of Iraq, both British and American, in creating tensions between different groups of the Iraqi society, often made conscious of their particular identities as a response to their oppression by an exclusive ruler. The role of Saddam Hussein in reviving and exacerbating sectarianism in his country was also very significant. However, what matters most currently, is not who caused the crisis, but how to solve it. The present article is an attempt at providing an answer to this second question, and for this purpose addresses three main scopes: politics, which we can divide into three separate dimensions – a sectarian, a societal, and an institutional, dimensions –; education; and the possible outcomes of a victory against Daesh.

One of the key processes through which social groups perpetuate themselves is their emergence on the political stage. Indeed, the ongoing struggles between Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds in Iraq are characterised by a formal political establishment of each group’s interests, however powerless or oppressed by others. In fact, this political component of sectarianism is precisely what maintains the conflict and hatred. If the Sunnis currently have very little power, they are no less politically organised, with some Sunni political parties currently represented in the Council of Representatives of Iraq  – such as the Al-Arabiya Coalition. The problem is that they remain marginalised on the political stage. This fuels tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites, and leads some Sunnis to turn to extremism. Thus, Sunnis must be integrated into politics – this is the only possible solution to change the sectarian dimension of politics in Iraq. Alongside the political integration of the Sunni population, the Iraqi state should try to move towards more secularism. If the state becomes truly independent from religion, a major barrier to the assimilation of the rest of the population into politics will fall down.

The second political dimension we address is societal. Here, it can be enlightening to bring up the example of the so-called “Decade of Silence” (1946-1958). At the time, sectarian tensions had been able to come to an almost complete stop through the transformation of identity cleavages into real political cleavages. This is specifically what Iraq lacks at the moment. Its politics are not organised, as in most countries, along ideological lines, but along group-belonging lines. It is only through a restructuration of this societal organisation that Iraq can move forward and establish itself as a democracy, guaranteeing the respect of its population’s will. Whether this is to be expressed in conservative or liberal terms does not matter in the short term; it is the creation of a proper political culture which is essential. Along these lines, we could also deplore the inexistence of an Iraqi people. But as most nation-states nowadays have previously experienced, there is no such thing as a pat people. Peoples have to be made, in a soft manner. Examples are plenty of countries showing a distinct national identity although they did not exist a hundred and fifty years ago. A central element of creating a people is education, to which we shall come back. The case of Iraq under Faisal, however, also demonstrates the utility of the army in achieving this purpose.  The establishment of national conscription would have the double benefit of providing Iraq with a strong armed force to repress extremist groups and suppress them at the root, and creating a feeling of national belonging going beyond sectarian belonging.

The last dimension of politics we must examine is institutional. Iraq is now separated de facto into different regions whose soft borders are informal and constantly redrawn depending on the power equilibrium of the time. The mere fact that these borders are not officially acknowledged by Baghdad incites these regions to fight, at least politically, to secure the limits of ever-enlarging territories, in a constant quest for domination. These borders must therefore be acknowledged institutionally, by the reorganisation of the federal state. This state could be divided into four wilayat: one around Baghdad, characterised by a relatively diverse population with regards to religion and ethnicity, and incarnating the unity of these different groups, one in the West, mainly Sunni; one in the South, dominated by a Shi’ite majority; and one in the North, corresponding to the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan. There are of course downsides to a federalist system for Iraq, but these should be overcome by a fair distribution of resources, particularly with respect to oil, nearly absent in the West. Furthermore, the political weights of these wilayat should be comparable, if not equal. This would create an identity balance in the country, and finally allow the superposition of a national identity on top of legitimised sub-national ones, the former thus gaining the opportunity to progressively replace the latter. This replacement should be conducted slowly but surely, by the subordination of regional school syllabus to the federal government, at least for languages – with an exception allowing Kurdish to be taught, as well as Arabic, in the Kurdish wilaya – and History, two of the most important subjects allowing the establishment of a national identity. One objection which could be made to the present argument is that History in Iraq, unlike France and the United States for example, tends to its division because the country is so new. This is true if we talk about history up to the Ottoman Empire – and even then, a pertinent study of the Abbasid Empire would probably make Iraqis proud of their nationality – but the events since then would certainly counterbalance this negative effect. Indeed, focussing on the independence of Iraq from Britain, for instance, would prove to the Iraqis that they belong to a supra-sectarian people.

This brings us to the second scope of this article: education. Schools are the most obvious government tool in order to institute a positive national cohesion, based on the sharing of common values and the celebration of cultural differences throughout the country rather than on the opposition to an enemy – external, as was the case under the British and American occupations, or internal, as with Al-Maliki or Daesh. Under the rule of Faisal, the creation of national schools successfully achieved this result, to a reasonable extent. The paramount pre-requisite for a unifying education is its independence from religious authorities. The secularisation of education must be achieved as soon as possible, and implemented by the federal government. The second reform which should be directly implemented is linked to the way of teaching. Education in Iraq still focusses very much on memorisation; this should leave room to more independent-thinking-based teaching. The effects of such an improvement could only be the self-conscious realisation by the Iraqis that their co-nationals are no different from them, and deserve not to be stigmatised, as well as a decrease in the reliance of voters on instructions provided to them by their sectarian leaders. Education would then play a major constructive role towards the formation of a national identity, and even more so in the long term. Indeed, the effects of education can never be witnessed immediately, but as time passes they transform the very roots of identity.

Long before this happens, we can hope to see the Stygian forces of Daesh vanquished. Violence creates hatred, and not the opposite – as we can notice from the renewal of sectarian tensions each time violence erupts in the country. It would only seem logical to include the Sunnis in the fight against Daesh, a tactic which has already proved successful in the past. This should not, nevertheless, lead to a reversal of the flow of Iraqi politics and re-create a Sunni domination over the Shi’ites. As for the Kurds, they must not be left to fight alone, lest they lead to an outburst of anti-Iraqi Kurdish nationalism reinforced by possible military victories, even outside Iraq. Other groups, both Sunni and Shi’ite, should work hand in hand with the Kurds against IS to create a national feeling of unity and avoid conferring one group a military advantage, which could lead to the oppression of other groups or, at least, a stronger desire to secede from Baghdad. The international coalition should thus avoid favouring the Peshmergas over other groups of fighters, and try  to help all of them uniformly. Concerning politics, a to-be-hoped victory against Daesh must be followed by a trans-denominational dynamic, which could be based on the recent model of national cohesion adopted by Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr, two important Shi’ite leaders who laicised their approach to politics in view of the failures of Maliki’s state.

We have seen that the solution to Iraq’s sectarian and identity problems is multifaceted. It is not enough to seek a solution only at the political level, or only through education. Both should be used in parallel, and the vicious circle of education and politics, directly influencing each other, must be flipped into a virtuous circle. Politics should be reformed first, and education soon follow, as a corrupt political structure cannot give birth to a sound education system. This should be done through the real integration of Sunnis and Kurds into politics, the restructuration of political cleavages along purely political lines, the adoption of a new federal system acknowledging present informal borders, and a comprehensive educational reform. The Iraqi society cannot yet forget its wounds, but it must unite in order to see them heal.

by Hugo Côte-Petit-François