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The flagrant collapse of Iraq's national identity

Nouri al-Maliki’s poisonous legacy in building a sectarian state is still at work in his denigration of the faith of millions of Iraqis

In a weird spectacle that reflects the oddities witnessed by post-occupation Iraq, former Iraqi prime minister and current Vice President Nouri al-Maliki recently took to the podium lecturing about early Islamic history, about the companions of the Prophet Muhammad and about the Koran.

Throughout the years of his opposition to the Baath regime, al-Maliki was known to be a man of operations, dubious or otherwise. He was known during the heavy years of his rule to have personally supervised processes of embezzlement and corruption never experienced by Iraq in its entire history. He was known for building a parallel state apparatus loyal to him personally and an army of former militiamen. Above all, he was known to pursue sectarian and hegemonic policies.

His rule ended with gross failure that manifested itself in the collapse of his army in the face of a few hundred fighters belonging to ISIS. The latter ended up controlling at least one third of Iraq. However, no one knew al-Maliki, whether during his years in opposition or during his years in government, to be an expert in Islamic history capable of discussing Islam's major events in a scholarly fashion. Yet, this is exactly what happened when al-Maliki gave himself the right to condemn the vast majority of the Prophet's companions and to call into question the authenticity of the Koran.

Maliki's attack on Koran

He said that the companions of the Prophet terrorised the early Muslim community and imposed on them a version of the Koran which they put together, implying that the Koran which Muslims read now is not the sound and correct one. 

The oddity of what al-Maliki said does not emanate from the nature of his discourse. Such claims are often made by extremist and ignorant Shias. The oddity does emanate from the fact that this man was once the ruler of all of Iraqi peoples, whether Sunni or Shia communities, Muslim or Christian. He would have been expected to show some respect for the faiths of his people rather than stand pouring insult over the faith of half of the Iraqi population.

Yet, there is something even more serious than just this. If al-Maliki is not qualified to address Islam's grand historical questions, he must be expressing received beliefs that cannot be separated from the overall political steps and stances he adopted during the years of his rule. But if al-Maliki's beliefs are exactly those espoused by the ruling Shia political class in post-2003 Iraq in general, then it can be concluded that Iraq is heading toward a much darker future than what it has been through during the past decade.

Throughout the eighties and the nineties, Iraqi Shia opposition leaders were keen to stress their belonging to the global Islamic Umma. Shia opposition leaders from Al-Da'wah Party and the Supreme Muslim Council maintained close relations with the Sunni Islamic forces. Some of them did not even conceal the influence left on them by Sunni political Islamic thinkers and ideologues.

Retreat to sectarianism

However, the failure of the Shia uprising in the south of Iraq during the few weeks that followed the 1991 Kuwait war provoked a sense of desperation within Shiite opposition forces. Instead of responding to their failure with stronger attachment to the general Islamic current, they retreated toward sectarian Shia positions.

In 2003, influential neocon elements within the George Bush Jr administration enabled Shia political forces to seize control of Iraq and to dominate its new state that was built in haste during the occupation years. The opposition figures who spent much of their lives in exile suddenly became the rulers of Iraq. It was expected of them to rise to the occasion and to work for rebuilding the Iraqi state and national unity.

All those who ruled Iraq since its birth in the early 1920s recognised the challenge emanating from its sectarian and ethnic diversity and became aware of the necessity of building the unity of the nation on foundations that transcend sectarian and ethnic differences. But it did not take long for the new ruling class to exhibit utter ignorance of the country whose reins of power were delivered to them. Simply put, these rulers have not been able to liberate themselves from the shackles of their own sectarian inclinations and cultural orientation.

After invasion: Iran

Yet, another factor has played a major rule in the sectarianism of these rulers. The power vacuum created by the occupation and the collapse of the state turned Iraq into a zone of Iranian influence. The overwhelming majority of the new Shia ruling class were allied with Iran during the years of opposition and exile. But as they became rulers of the one of the most important and richest countries in the Middle East, they no longer needed to be subjugated to Iranian will.

However, within a very brief period of time, and with the full knowledge of the occupation authorities, Iran managed to infiltrate the main institutions of the new Iraqi state. Not only that, Iran set up a number of armed militias that were completely loyal to Tehran. Consequently, instead of maintaining the independence of the state they took control of, the new Iraqi rulers started to compete in exhibiting loyalty to Iran and its leaders. In the absence of a common linguistic and national ethnic base, Shiism in its most extreme form emerged at the very heart of this loyalty.

Sectarian tension has been on the rise in the mashriq since the invasion and occupation of Iraq, reaching a new height with the eruption of the Arab revolutions. Sectarian tension started from Iraq itself. The country lived through a sectarian civil war during the few years that followed the invasion and occupation.

Elements from within the Shia ruling class were involved in fanning the flames of this war. No sooner had the flames of the Iraqi sectarian war been extinguished than Lebanon endured an internal political posturing by Hezbollah, which embarked on an attempt to subjugate the Lebanese state to its own sectarian whims.

Spreading the virus

With the arrival of the Arab revolution, Syria became the battlefield for a bloody sectarian conflict at the heart of which stood Hezbollah and Iran. Shia fighters started being brought in from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq in order to defend the Assad regime. It seemed clear that Iran was seeking to internationalise the sectarian tension so as to penetrate into all territories where Islamic sectarian pluralism existed. Effectively, the Iranian endeavour soon manifested itself in the Houthis' foolish attempt to seize control of Yemen and its state.

Apparently, neither Al-Maliki nor the majority of the Shia ruling class in Iraq have learned much from the years of sectarian conflict in the first decade of this century. Nor have they taken into consideration the necessity of fortifying Iraq in the face of the winds of sectarian tension that swept across the entire region.

As soon as the Syrian revolution erupted, al-Maliki embarked on chasing and pursuing his Sunni partners in the political process, one after the other. When the Iraqi Sunnis took to the streets in the Sunni-majority provinces to demand recognition of their basic rights, the prime minister did not conceal in his pronouncements, publicly as well as privately, the utter sectarian approach he was to adopt toward the millions of fellow countrymen.

Crushing dissent

Just as the Assad regime did in Syria, al-Maliki resorted to state violence in order to crush the demonstrators in the cities of Al-Anbar, Salahuddin and Ninawa. The demands of the protestors were neither big nor unusual. It would have been possible to meet them without undermining the authority of the state or the position of the government. However, Al-Maliki, who was driven by sectarian persuasions, chose the path of confrontation.

Today, al-Maliki returns to expressing his sectarian convictions in the rudest and ugliest manner. His remarks about the early Islamic era will certainly have no influence on the way Muslims view their own history. What these remarks indicate is that it will be impossible to reconstruct Iraq's national unity under the yoke of such a ruling class.

Thanks to the flagrant failure of al-Malki in governance, Iraq has ended up being divided between ISIS, the government of Baghdad, the authority of the Popular Mobilisation militias, which seems to be entirely independent of the al-Abadi government, the ever-expanding authority of the Kurds and the deep Iranian infiltration into the body of the Iraqi state. It would seem inevitable that Iraq may have to take a very long time before it is delivered from its predicament, that is, if such deliverance is still possible. 

Dr. Basheer Musa Nafi is a historian studying Islamic and Middle Eastern History.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Iraq's new premier Haidar al-Abadi (R) shakes hands with Vice President Nuri al-Maliki during a parliament session to submit his new government for approval in Baghdad on September 8, 2014.