Editor’s note: This post originally appeared at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment.
The attack of The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) on Mossul and its march on Baghdad has taken the international community by surprise and raised the possibility of another US intervention in Iraq, with the hope it could prevent the downfall of the country into a sectarian war. Such a scenario is highly improbable because of the nature of the Iraq crisis that is first and foremost political and not religious.
The rise of ISIS to preeminence is not due to its religious ideology but to the structural deficiencies of the Iraq state. As tempting as it can be to compare Iraq to Lebanon in the 1970s, the political reality is different.
First, sects or religious communities are not engrained in Iraq national history unlike Lebanon. While Lebanon was built on the explicit recognition of different religious communities, this has not been the case of Iraq. In my book, The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity and the State, I describe how Saddam Hussein held his power through the Sunni minority over the Shia population, which implied an explicit denial of the religious diversity of the national community and even worse, a discriminatory use of religious groups and interests in the building of the state institutions. In these conditions, it is no surprise that the end of the Saddam regime opened a Pandora’s box of sectarian divides, since religious and ethnic diversity was negated at the very foundation of modern Iraq. As a consequence, after 2003, Shias previously persecuted, took on the power in a classical scenario of revenge.
In this regard, the Iraqi situation bears resemblance with the tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland that were caused by the discrimination of one religious group (Protestants) over another (Catholics) as well as divergent views of the national community. It means that the conflict is about power sharing between different religious and ethnic groups and the inability and unwillingness of the successive Maliki regimes to create federal institutions that would allow the political inclusion of all groups.
The 2003 U.S. intervention in Iraq did not create the sectarian tensions; they were already simmering under the iron fist of Saddam. But it can be argued that the American strategy post-Saddam did not facilitate better relationships between Sunnis and Shias. In fact by siding with the long time oppressed Shias and not working efficiently on a reconciliation process between the communities and a more equitable redistribution of power, the U.S. has exacerbated the suspicions and hostility between the two groups without gaining any real allies in the process.
In sum, the main reason for the rise of ISIS is the growing disillusion of the Iraqi Sunnis with the government of Al Malki who has marginalized Sunni in different areas of politics and public life. In other words, the main issue that fuels the influence of ISIS is not religion, even if the war is couched in religious terms, but the unbalance in the distribution of power between Shia and Sunni.
Although ISIS aims to establish a Caliphate across Iraq, Syria and beyond, it is not the main goal of the Sunni population of Iraq. In fact the political violence of Sunnis in Iraq is governed primarily by tactical and strategic choices rather than by religious motivations. No doubt that communal antagonism plays a significant role but is the outcome, not the cause, of the discriminatory political mechanisms in Iraq.
Successful conflict regulation requires the recognition and accommodation of the core cause ‐ in this case effective power sharing ‐ rather than a containment of the violent symptoms of the conflict. In this case, defeating ISIS is certainly necessary but not sufficient. It is imperative for the Iraqi rulers to create the conditions for a national reconciliation between Sunni, Shia and Kurds and devise a constitutional compromise which offers each community sufficient protection which eliminates the resort to violence. It is probably easier said than done, especially in the current regional environment and the transnational ideology of ISIS. But its is where the international community, including the US, could positively influence Iraqi protagonists: all of them.
Jocelyne Cesari, Harvard and Georgetown University, is the author of The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity and the State (Cambridge University Press, 2014).