The Political Foundation of the Islamic State’s Success

by Henry Johnson

More so than flaws in the Iraqi army or lack of U.S. support or suicide bombers, the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) owes its stunning victories across Iraq to widespread ambivalence toward violence against the state. This condition of apathy is not new to Iraq. Since the 2003 invasion, many Iraqis have rejected a principal outcome of the country’s democratic trajectory—Shia empowerment. Insurgency has most frequently taken root where tribal constituencies least accept the post-2003 political order. During the U.S. occupation of the now IS-dominated Anbar province, for example, insurgents killed three times as many Americans as in the next deadliest province.

The appeal IS has at a mass level, beyond its recruits from dark corners of the web, relies on the visceral frustration of so many Iraqis with the loss of their political and social identities following the U.S. invasion. The country’s counterinsurgency challenges are less about the armed forces showing “no will to fight” and more about the people of contested areas having “no will to support the fight.”

The U.S. invasion in 2003 represents a watershed moment from which much of this alienation came. With an iron fist, Saddam Hussein had long silenced the country’s diverse sectarian and ethnic identities. The replacement of his authoritarianism with democracy allowed political actors from those communities to assert their identities. The ascendancy of Shia-based identity politics challenged the idea of Iraqi nationalism promulgated by the former regime. Viewed through the Baathist lens of nationalism, the political rise of Iraq’s Shia majority looks distinctly un-Iraqi. In extreme cases, it has provoked armed resistance.

The Baathist Connection

Following the twist of political fates in 2003, Iraq’s Shia community has struggled to craft a nationalistic identity commensurate with its newfound political power. As amorphous as this evolving national identity is, it stands in conscious opposition to the Arab nationalist identity of the Baathists.

In an interview with LobeLog, a scholar of identity politics, Fanar Haddad, noted that Iraqi nationalism during Saddam Hussein’s rule derived from the broader Arab nationalism then in vogue around the region. This nationalism, given its positioning against colonialism, emphasized to a fault the unity of the people. “‘Sectarianism’ was sort of the antithesis of unity,” Haddad observed. “It has connotations of divisions. Sectarian identity was seen as something to be feared.” Paranoia over division meant that, “Diversity is celebrated, it’s all about the mosaic that is Iraq, provided all these identities silent.” This stigma did not befall Iraq’s Arab Sunnis in the way it did the Shia, simply “because the Sunnis did not have a strong sectarian identity prior to 2003.”

The regime’s obsession with negating sectarian and ethnic differences lent the expression of such identities a seditious undertone. The government suspected Shia of being closeted Iranians, while it intensely feared the separatist currents among Iraqi Kurds. These outlying ethnic and sectarian groups, furthermore, were subject to brutal repression in times of internal unrest. During the Iran-Iraq war, as aspirations for Kurdish independence waxed, the Iraqi military deployed chemical weapons against entire Kurdish villages. When Shia loyalty to the state then came under scrutiny during the 1991 rebellion in Basra, the state massacred untold thousands. Aside from these atrocities, however, most Shia considered the Baathist government legitimate. In the Iran-Iraq war, despite the Shia nature of the adversary, Shia Iraqi soldiers still rushed to defend their nation.

The Shia Resurgence

By overthrowing the Baath party, the U.S. created a leadership vacuum for Iraq’s Shia political activists to fill. The new elite began promoting a previously illicit form of Iraqi nationalism that elevated the Shia. Both Prime Ministers Haidar al-Abadi and Nouri al-Maliki hailed from dissident Shia political parties. As Haddad explains, “Since 2003, the people in charge aren’t politicians who just happen to be Shia, they are highly Shia-centric actors whose politics are rooted in Shia identity and the idea that Iraq is a Shia majority country and therefore must reflect Shia empowerment. This is a far cry from somebody who just happens to be Shia.” With histories of rebelling against the Baathist government, these actors sought to supplant the old Arab nationalism with their own story of victimhood as a patriotic struggle against the oppressor. “For a certain brand of Iraqi Shia nationalists, it’s very difficult to divorce Shia identity from Iraqi patriotism,” Haddad continued. “It’s inseparable that one of the symbols of nationalism is the fact that the imams are buried in Iraq, thereby lending the soil an extra level of mythology.”

The only force that countervails IS effectively, the Population Mobilization Units (PMU), reflects this new national identity of Shia empowerment. The PMU has spearheaded almost every successful ground operation against IS and frames itself as a staunch defender of Iraqi sovereignty: a movement for the people, by the people. Iraq’s highest Shia clerical authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, provided the impetus for the PMU’s formation by issuing a national call to arms to stop IS. The overtly Shia origins of the PMU and its unequivocal reliance upon Iran confine its nationalistic appeal to a Shia audience.

Some commentators, most of them virulently suspicious of Iran, have mistaken the PMU’s Shia-centric outlook for a maniacal sectarian agenda, on par with IS. This equivalence is readily disproved. The PMU’s spiritual figurehead, Ayatollah Sistani, released a battlefield guidance document, in response to reports of war crimes, urging moderation and sensitivity to civilians in liberated areas. The PMU has, furthermore, welcomed Sunni partners as allies and affiliates, but only with the mutual understanding that Shia forces will drive the fight. Haddad described the willingness of Sunnis to cooperate with the PMU as conditional upon acceptance of the post-2003 political order: “What the state wants is Sunni actors, local forces who are friendly to the state, who accept that the Shia are going to be the senior partner…The [PMU] is not this genocidal movement. They have no interest in populating Tikrit or some far-flung village in Anbar [with Shia].”

The Shia undertones of the PMU and of the post-2003 state are not in and of themselves discordant with mainstream Sunni attitudes or doctrines. Only in the throes of instability do such undertones assume a repulsive meaning for some of the country’s Sunnis. In naming the operation to recapture Ramadi, for example, the PMU initially settled on “Labbaik Ya Husayn,” or “Here I am, O Husayn,” in reference to the martyred Shia imam, Husayn ibn Ali. After receiving criticism from Sunnis and even some elements in the PMU, the operation’s name was changed to the neutral “Labbaik Ya Iraq.” The outcry provoked by this decision, which in times of peace would not matter much, demonstrates the hypersensitivity to symbols of sect in Iraq’s current political environment. Haddad explained, “This Shia Iraqi nationalism is not incompatible with Sunnis. It’s only incompatible now because of the toxicity of sectarian relations. In normal times, why would a Sunni object to championing the imams, at least those buried in Iraq, as symbols of Iraqi nationalism?”

Although the ideology of IS transcends nationalism, it’s impossible to know whether the Iraqis who collude with it subscribe to its utopian promise. Subscribing to IS ideology would mark an unprecedented level of alienation from the central government, to the point that individuals opposed to the state no longer see themselves as Iraqi nationalists. This degree of disaffection would parallel the pathologies of jihadist foreign fighters. Assuming that IS has not fully indoctrinated its local allies, the possibility remains that these two versions of nationalism can be reconciled. Indeed, if government-aligned forces adhere to the guidance of Ayatollah Sistani and IS atrocities continue to mount, Iraqis now ambivalent toward violence against the state may shift their allegiance back to it.

Photo: Observance of Ashura, a Shia holy day, in Iraq (courtesy of Tristoc via Flickr)

Henry Johnson

Henry Johnson is a writer and analyst of Middle East affairs with a focus on Iranian foreign policy and politics. He is also senior political analyst for DRST Consulting.