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In the Shadow of the Crescent

By Justin Schuster

ON January 1, 2012 the last of the United States’ troops pulled out of Iraq. In October, President Obama noted, “After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.” While this date may mark the end of a long and troublesome chapter in American history, there is no visible relief in the future for Iraq. In a region rife with religious and political turmoil, Iraq is faced with challenges that extend far beyond immediate poverty and insufficient infrastructure. The entrenched religious and ethnic rifts constitute a grave threat to the future stability of the nation.

Iraq is not a cultural melting pot; rather, it is a sharply divided nation steeped in a longstanding history of sectarian violence. Centuries of religious power struggles have threatened to tear the region apart at the seams. Despite the seemingly unbridgeable religious divide, unity in Iraq can still occur with a strong national identity. The question remains: will a unifying national identity ever supersede deep ethnic and religious divisions?

The path to nationalism is obstacle ridden. Firstly, the diverse religious and ethnic landscape defines Iraq’s political climate. With a population that is 75% Arab and 20% Kurd (with Assyrians and Iraqi Turkmen comprising the remaining 5%) as well as 65% Shia and 35% Sunni, the ethnic and religious divides are stark and deeply rooted. Since its origin, the region has rarely seen peace. From Cyrus to Alexander the Great, the occupation of ancient world superpowers characterizes the history of the region. The religious conflict and the origin of the Sunni-Shia split, however, can be traced back to the 7th century shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 632. In a dispute surrounding the rightful succession of the Prophet, a conflict with religious, political and social ramifications, which resonates to this day, arose. Centuries of religious power struggles followed during the Islamic Golden Age. This period reached its cultural high water mark, yet low point for Sunni-Shia relations, under the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate, which established Baghdad as its capital in the 8th century.

But once again the occupation of foreign powers swept through the region, ending the Golden Age and accentuating the political and religious power battle. The Mongols in 1257 brought an end to the Abbasid Caliphate. Once more, power struggles ensued as the Safavid dynasty clashed with the Ottoman Empire in modern day Iraq. The Safavids of Iran brought a groundswell of Shia influence to the region in the 16th and 17th centuries. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire, for nearly four centuries, ruled the region as a Sunni state. Through the widespread use of religion as a weapon in the geopolitical power struggle, the Sunni-Shia gap was further widened.

Britain, however, in the early 20th century brought the intensity of the religious conflict to an all-time low. In imposing a Hashemite monarchy on Iraq, Britain arbitrarily partitioned the region without consideration for ethnic and territorial divisions. Britain further inflamed the already fragile Sunni-Shia relationship by granting overwhelming power to the Sunni minority. Though decades of coups and political upheaval followed, the misinformed actions of the British paved the way for the rise of Hussein’s Baathists and the nadir of religious and ethnic relations in Iraq.

Despite harsh criticism for a lack of cultural awareness, the United States did its utmost to deftly navigate the difficult religious terrain in Iraq. One can assert that the United States failed to estimate fully the task of nation building in an inherently unstable region. So too, one may posit that the United States did not altogether consider the religious divides before conducting the war; but when faced with the challenge of rebuilding a shattered nation, the United States avoided the route of their errant British predecessors. In overseeing the Iraqi constitution’s creation, the United States properly managed the centuries-old religious conundrum, crafting a constitution that fused tenets of Islam with palatable elements of democracy. The first article establishes that the Iraqi government is “republican, representative, parliamentary, and democratic.” The second article affirms that Islam is the official state religion and “No law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam.”

Perhaps most importantly, the constitution establishes a pluralistic state. Article three of the constitution states “Iraq is a country of multiple nationalities, religions, and sects.” Just in acknowledging the vast religious and ethnic diversity of the country, the constitution takes a great step in mending the religious divide.

Despite the progressive nature of the constitution, its credibility extends only as far as the people are willing to accept it. It is arguable that the drafting of the constitution further cemented the Sunni-Shia rift, with sweeping percentages of Sunni Iraqis opposing the constitution. In the time since the 2005 ratification of the constitution, a series of backroom deals have led to a virtual quota system for legislative representation in an attempt to appease the Sunni power base. As a result, political gridlock has taken the nation hostage. With a weak legislature and executive, a power vacuum has arisen in its place. Accordingly, a strong judicial system is vital to maintain the tenets of the Iraqi constitution. While the constitution contains the key to plurality in government and proportional representation, much more than an article will be needed to ease Sunni-Shia tensions.

The Sunni uproar regarding Article 119 of the constitution exemplifies how factional, religious self-interest presently supersedes the overall national betterment. Article 119 states, “One or more governorates shall have the right to organize into a region based on a request to be voted on in a referendum.” Writer Fred Kaplan encapsulates the Sunni discontent when he posits, “Here is the Sunni nightmare in plain black and white: The Kurds are allowed to form a single supra-region in the oil-rich north, the Shiites to form theirs in the oil-rich south, while the Sunnis are left in the oil-dry center.” A nation cannot survive where religious geopolitics overtake the overarching national interest.

Religious tension is not the only stressor that plagues Iraq; it is a failed state in other ways. Foreign Policy’s failed state index ranks Iraq as 9th in their list of the world’s failing states in 2011. This is a vast improvement from its second place finish from just four years ago. In its pursuit of a national identity, Iraq is faced with rebuilding a nation from scratch, and though the United States has invested billions into redevelopment projects, a staggeringly small percentage of this money has yielded visible impact due to widespread corruption and graft. As politicians dip their hands into state coffers, the typical citizen lacks the necessary education and health care. So too do rural Iraqis lack clean water and adequate sewage treatment, illuminating that far more than a religious divide stands in the way of the realization of a national identity.

Afflicted by religious conflict, poverty and corruption, Iraq is stuck in a national quagmire. While poverty and corruption are hardly unique to Iraq, the intensity of the Sunni-Shia rift sets Iraq apart from other failing states. If a national identity is the panacea to religious divides, then Iraqis may look to the example of an unexpected former failing state: Rwanda. Clearly, Rwanda’s history of ethnic genocide differs vastly from Iraq’s history of religious strife and recent Western occupation. The economies, governments and cultures differ as well; however, the two nations share common pasts of deep-seeded, internal strife and the task of rebuilding broken nations. Rwandan President Paul Kagame is certainly not without his faults, including a long history of political suppression and a mediocre human rights record. Nevertheless, under Kagame’s leadership, Rwanda has experienced a remarkable economic and cultural turnaround with policies that should be emulated by Iraq. In rebuilding a nation, Kagame promoted a culture of healing by fostering economic development, and his solution comprised a combination of economy-first policies and strong nationalistic messages. In formally outlawing ethnicity while also advancing the economic rebirth of Rwanda, Kagame has cultivated a united Rwandan identity.

While removing religion from Iraq as Kagame excised ethnicity from Rwanda is unimaginable, economic revitalization, on par with Rwanda’s Vision 2020, may be the solution to bringing unity to Iraq. The main aim of the Vision 2020 development policy is “to make Rwanda a middle income country by 2020.” In the short term, this policy comprises macroeconomic stability and wealth creation, a transition to a knowledge based economy in the medium term and the strengthening of the middle class and fostering entrepreneurship in the long term. Moreover, Kagame has made environmental policies a priority and has provided free health care and education in the process.

While Rwanda’s Vision 2020 cannot be surgically implanted in Iraq, the key is its focus on economic revitalization. In the past ten years, Rwanda has experienced an average economic growth rate of 8%, a 300% rise in exports, and a booming tourism industry. Kagame buffeted this social-psychological recovery through economic development and a feeling of inclusivity. By focusing on a unified, national identity, Kagame allowed his country to move past the ethnic divisions that plagued the country’s past. If Iraq is to not only survive but also flourish, then it must not allow religious divisions block the way to basic human dignity for all.

Iraq’s economic revitalization is intertwined with its national identity – religious tolerance and cooperation will flow from economic growth. When the roads are rebuilt, a national identity will follow. While the Iraqi constitution rhetorically outlines a brighter pluralistic future for the country, real change cannot occur through political gestures alone. Emphasizing unity and plurality through language is essential, but a culture of healing must be substantiated by an economic renaissance.

Justin Schuster is a freshman in Branford College.