Islam and Major Political Movements

Islam has played a preeminent role in Iraqi politics since the fall of Saddam Hussein, primarily in the form of sectarian alignments that have characterized the political landscape. The roots of such division, however, were well in place by 2003, partly a product of the notorious discrimination and violence used against Iraq’s majority Shi’ite population and predominantly Sunni Kurdish minority under the Ba’ath-regime. Under Saddam’s rule, power was largely held by the country’s Arab-Sunni minority, which constitutes approximately 35% of the population. Though Shi’ites, Kurds, and other Iraqi ethno-religious groups were given positions in the pre-2003 Ba’athist government, they were for the most part excluded from Saddam’s inner-circle and marginalized in Iraqi society.

This was all to change after the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.  Iraq’s non-Sunni population, in particular the country’s Shi’ite majority, mobilized to ensure that they would wield their fair share of political power in the new Iraq and reverse decades of political, economic and social marginalization they had experienced under the Ba’ath regime.  They were aided in their enterprise by actions taken by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the US occupational authority that governed Iraq from April 2003 to June 2004.  In particular, the CPA’s decision to embark on an extensive program of de-Ba’athification, which included barring Ba’ath Party members from “future employment in the public sector,” prevented the re-integration of significant numbers of Sunni politicians and their followers into the new system. Though a fair number of Shi’ites served in Saddam’s Ba’athist ranks, Sunnis comprised their overriding majority; post-2003 anti-Ba’athist laws, therefore, effectively singled out Iraq’s minority Sunni-Muslim community.

Though Iraq’s elections put in place the country’s first democratically elected leaders, signs of lingering and deep-rooted sectarian divisions quickly emerged in the political system as religious political parties vied for power and support along sectarian lines. The first round of elections in January 2005 was boycotted by nearly all of the nation’s Sunni population who felt they had not been adequately represented in the new government and therefore did not want to grant it legitimacy. More troubles emerged once votes had been cast; Iraq’s parliamentary system, in which parties chosen by voters enter power-sharing agreements to form a majority coalition in government, was mired by disagreement and the inability to decide how power would be shared. Meanwhile, a deadly wave of violence in the wake of the elections erupted between Sunnis and Shi’ites across the country, presumably spurred by Iranian-backed forces. The Iranian issue further polarized the country, with Sunnis fearing growing influence by Iran’s Shi’ite Islamists and the clerics and militias they supported in Iraq such as Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and armed groups such as the Mahdi Army linked to anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as well as the Badr Brigades of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. In response to the increased violence, individuals retreated to the protection of their respective community leaders, especially when it became clear that neither Iraqi nor American troops could protect them—or worse, when the former were suspected of being behind attacks.

While violence has continued, it is not nearly as widespread as it was in the past, due for the most part to the 2006 surge in US troops and change in military tactics, along with the loss of support for al-Qaeda amongst Sunnis. Additional signs of hope for establishing a more inclusive Iraqi government of various religious and sectarian communities lay in subsequent elections which began in 2009, when political contestants appeared to be shifting their focus from factional allegiances to more issue-based platforms that answered to their constituencies’ practical needs—namely, basic services such as water and electricity, jobs and personal security. Other cross-sectarian consensuses have developed on issues that have the potential—at least in principle—to lead to the development of inter-sect alliances.  These included the future of Iraq’s Kurdish minority in the north, whose campaign for autonomy is opposed by both Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs.  Neither wishes to cede Baghdad’s control over the oil-rich Kirkuk area claimed by the Kurds, though they continue to disagree about distribution of oil-revenue in other areas. Concerns about Islamist influence have led to cross-sectarian calls to bolster the secular identity of the Iraqi state, particularly over what many consider undue influence by Iran.

Unfortunately, much of the potential for cross-sectarian leadership has yet to be tapped between parties—both Sunni and Shi’ite, as well as secular and those endorsing greater Islamic influence in the daily lives of Iraqis. Political leadership has, since elections were first held in 2005, remained for the most part unchanged; political parties and their representatives have been aligned within various coalitions only to reshuffle under new ones when power-sharing agreements have failed to be solved. Despite attempts to include ethnic and religious minorities in various coalitions, Iraq’s government have been predominantly homogeneous and Shi’ite Arab in composition, with both secular and religious groups vying for influence. Power-sharing impasses in the current Shi’ite Nouri al-Maliki government following elections in 2010 reflect the extent to which the political system continues to align along sectarian lines. After more than nine months of political standoffs, a cabinet was finally chosen in February 2011 with Maliki at its head for the second time, following Iran’s prompting of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to back the incumbent leader. Both Kurds under Jalal Talabani and a notable secular-Sunni constituency under Ayad Allawi’s secular Shi’ite party were given largely symbolic roles; Islamist Shi’ite parties, on the other hand, ended up in the ruling coalition and with influential ministry appointments. These parties won more than 40 percent of the votes, and included the Islamic Supreme  Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Badr Organization, the Sadrist Movement of Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Shi’ite Islamic Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Though Islamist Sunni parties such as the Iraqi Islamic Party (IPP) won less control of parliament, they also fared impressively as compared to their secular counterparts such as the Sunni-dominated Iraqiyya. While parties in government are divided over sectarian issues, most endorse greater Islamic influence in daily Iraqi affairs, from matters of legal consequence such as marriage and family law (see section on “Islam and the Legal System”), to codes of dress and the sale of alcohol.

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