The Demise of Arab Nationalism in Iraq and Its Possible Alternatives

Rahman Dag*

Contemporary Middle Eastern states have not yet reached to the full level of stability in terms of domestic and foreign issues after the demise of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Even today, several of them, such as Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Somalia have been struggling with and suffering from severe internal conflicts Current internal quarrels in these countries have been experienced and yet no solution has been found to halt them. This essay is going to focus on current internal conflicts in Iraq and approaches to them from an ideological perspective. It is undeniable that every single struggle among belligerents in a particular conflict has its own ideology to justify and legitimize its demands and aim. By doing so, sides in a particular fight seek to increase their disciples and supporters. In the light of these conditions, the crucial question has come to mind is the question of that Arab nationalism still has a chance to prevail in Iraq` s politics and if it does not, what are its alternatives?

It is very well known that from the late Ottoman Empire to today’s world nationalism has become an inherent ideology for the Middle Eastern countries. Nationalism was born and grew up in Europe and then has spread to the world. It was the most fundamental idea in the process of state building in the post-World War I period. One of these states was modern Iraq which was established in 1922 as a British mandate.

On the other hand, there is another significant determinant of the Middle Eastern countries in the respect of ideology, which is religion namely Islam. The Middle East is a place where Islam came into existence and it has been perceived as a natural part of that region and of people living in there. It has penetrated into the blood of that region. These two basic components have taken the Middle Eastern countries` pulse. Therefore they are always effective in the politics of any country in the Middle East as it is so for Iraq. These two major ideological tenets nationalism and religion- are powerful identity signifiers in times of uncertain structural conditions and conflicts (Kinnvall, 2004).

“In the regard of ideological thoughts in the Middle East, nationalism had been emerged as a culturally Arabist movements in the late Ottoman Empire with the invasion of Egypt by France and commercial relations between the west and Arab world via port cities such as Beirut, Aleppo and Basra.”

In the regard of ideological thoughts in the Middle East, nationalism had been emerged as a culturally Arabist movements in the late Ottoman Empire with the invasion of Egypt by France and commercial Relations between the west and Arab world via port cities such as Beirut, Aleppo and Basra (Antonius, 1938). That culturally Arab movement changed into political nationalist movement when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Western powers directly interfered to the Middle East politics and created Arab nationalism which means unification of all Arabs coming from the same cultural roots and having the same language (Dawisha, 2003 pp:2). With the forming of mandate system, Arab world was administratively divided rather than ruled by a single political unity which covers all Arabs. As a result of that, nationalist movements fought for state independence instead of Arab independence (Barnett, 1995). In the colonial period, the nationalist sentiments evolved and generated Pan-Arabism which simply means the political unification of all Arab states. For instance, the initiation by Egypt, Syria and Iraq to be united as a pioneering force to encompass a unique and one Arab State is a concrete evidence of pan-Arabist ideology (Choueiri, 2000 pp:167). The failure and disunion of this enterprise and the defeat of Egypt by Israel in 1967 war due to Palestine question extinguished the flame of Arab nationalism. This was the turning point of the displacement of nationalist thoughts and it left its dominant position to the Islamic movements with the fostering role of Islamic revolution in Iran. During the revival of religious notions, territorial nationalism among Arab states has emerged and each Arab state sought to improve and solidify its own nationality for example Saudis, Iraqis, or Egyptians. After the short history of the evolvement of nationalism in the Middle East, it can be said for the contemporary conditions; nationalism has lost its previous dominance but did not completely lost its power. Moreover, it should be mentioned that this reminded that nationalism was not pan-Arabist nationalism but territorial nationalism.

If we specifically look at the ideological history of Iraq, a few more ideologies can be observed in it. Socialism is one of the strongest thought systems which had impacted on the politics and social structure of Iraq during the Baath Party regime in 1968 and onwards. Another one is secularism which is an inseparable element of European nationalism imported to the Middle East. Due to the predominant position of religion in the region, secularism has never got power as much as socialism has got. Yet, it is not to say that it did not have impact on the Iraqi politics (Al-Khalil, 1990 pp: 209).

“…nationalism has lost its previous dominance but did not completely lost its power.”

Up to now, it was sought to illustrate that several ideologies have been experienced in Iraq. From that point, it is going to move on to the main subject that in current internal conflicts in Iraq to what extend we can trace any ideological tenets. It is likely that sub-sectarian religious nationalism, regional nationalism and Islamism are prevailing ideologies in the internal conflict of Iraq rather than Arab nationalism.

The invasion of Iraq by the USA and its allies paved the way for opening the Pandora’s Box for Iraq. Ethnic, tribal, religious, social and political divisions of Iraq have resurfaced since the modern Iraq was established in 1922 by the British Empire. These differentiations were held together by tyrannical powers; the King, generals and Saddam Hussein, respectively. In this sense, pan- Arabist, nationalist, socialist discourse and ideologies has left their places to the local ethnic and sectarian groups` interests. In the respect of components of Iraq and their percentages in total population, that condition could be explained better. The population of Iraq is 28,945,569 (July 2009 est.). Ethnically, Arabs are 75% -80%, Kurdish are 15%-20% and Turcoman, Assyrian, or other 5%. Religiously, Muslims are 97% (Shia 60%-65%, Sunni 32%-37%) and Christians or others are 3%(1). These figures show that ethnically major components of Iraq are Arabs and Kurds and major religious components are Sunnis and Shias. With the demise of Saddam` brutal and repressive regime, Kurds and Shias, who have been pressured for a long time, have emerged in the political arena and have sought to get as many concessions as they can. Therefore, struggle among Kurds – Arabs and Sunni – Shia Arabs are two fundamental determinant of today’s internal conflict in Iraq. That throws light on the argument that ideological tenet of current domestic fighting in Iraq is not likely to be Arab nationalism but ethnic nationalism which is among Arabs and Kurds as well as sub-sectarian nationalism which is among Sunnis and Shiites.

To start with, the first of these ideological conflicts is Sunni-Shiite potential conflict. The primary strategy of the USA in Iraq is to eliminate all institutions and groups which are still loyal to Saddam, for instance, the abandonment of the Baath Party and the Army that was thought that it was full of buttress of Saddam. This process is called as De Baathification which removed the main and significant obstacle in front of the Shiite revival in Iraq, whereas this process increased resentments among Sunni Arabs and the ongoing Sunni insurgency. Even Sunni reaction to it has spread beyond Iraq’s border, from Syria to Pakistan. On the other hand, Shiites in the other Middle Eastern countries from Lebanon to Pakistan had a chance to visit Najaf which is one of the holy cities for Shiites. In this regard, reciprocal resentments and backlash among Sunnis and Shiites was and have been a potential conflict that is ready to break out in Iraq (Nasr, 2006). In addition to that conflict in Iraq, King Abdullah of Jordan has warned that a new “Shiite crescent” lying from Bei- rut to Tehran and even to Pakistan might dominate the Sunni structure of the Middle East. This notification (warning) is quite meaningful to emphasize to what degree the Sunni-Shiite conflict is perceived by other Sunni states in the Middle East.

“The primary strategy of the USA in Iraq is to eliminate all institutions and groups which are still loyal to Saddam, for instance, the abandonment of the Baath Party and the Army that was thought that it was full of buttress of Saddam.”

From the Sharifian monarchy(2) (1921 – 1958) to the end of the Saddam Regime, Sunni domination had survived in Iraq. Throughout this period, the suppression of Shiites and denying the legitimacy of Shiites by the Sunni Officials cemented the aggression and anxiety among Sunnis and Shiites. A massacre against Iraqi Shiites in 1991 is a fundamental instance of this pressure on Shiites. Due to that historical background, invasion of Iraq was not directly rejected by Shiite communities while most of the Sunni groups stated their concerns about and reluctance to the invasion. The main reason for welcoming the USA by Shiite groups based on occupier’s powers discourse when they invaded Iraq, which was to bring democracy to Iraq and to release Iraqis from the Saddam regime. In this sense, as Shiite population is much more than any other groups in Iraq, they thought that Shiite party would get higher percentages of vote in a fair election. That is why Shiites remained mostly silent to the invasion but Sunnis were completely against the invasion because it was obvious that they were going to lose their power that they had during the Saddam regime.

The bombings and assassinations throughout Iraq, especially in Baghdad are concrete indication of those reciprocal resentments among Sunnis and Shiites whether they are against to each other or against the alliance forces, particularly against the US army. That fighting sometimes reached the level of civil war in Iraq. Sectarian struggle for power in Iraq is not likely to come to an end in the foreseeable future. Sunni insurgency groups, generally they are radical Islamist groups seem to be main threat to the stability in Iraq. In light of these conditions in Iraq, it is really hard to say that Arab nationalism is a pioneering ideology. It is because of that both sides Sunnis and Shiites are ethnically Arabs but their primary identity is not race but their sectarians.

“The invasion had led a condition that Kurds took the advantage of it via new federal structure of Iraq.”

The second core contradiction is between the Kurds and Arabs, especially Sunni Arabs. From the very early date of formation of modern Iraq, Kurdish question has always occupied the agenda of Iraqi governments. As other successor states of the Ottoman Empire, Kurdish people had been affected by the nationalist thoughts since the late Ottoman Empire. Yet, they could not end their struggle with a separate nation state in the Middle East. Kurdish groups were several times betrayed since the establishment of the modern Iraq. In 1920` s, they were promised for a kind of federal government in the northern Iraq but that promise was not kept by the governor of Iraq. They were not only used by the Iraqi government but also by other states as a political puppet such as Iran, USA and Russia. They became a potential mean for a power that has a strategy over the Middle East (Ajami, 2003). The last disaster for the Iraqi Kurds was the Halabja massacre in which thousands of Kurds were killed with a chemical weapon by Saddam` s forces. Kurdish question might seem a problem only for Iraq but actually it is crucial for Iran, Turkey and Syria as well due to the fact that these states have considerable number of Kurdish population in their territory. That is another reason for being alone of Iraqi Kurds. Simply, the competition between Arabs and Kurds in the border of Iraq has been continuing almost for a century with a revolt in every decade (Schofield and Zenko, 2004).

The invasion had led a condition that Kurds took the advantage of it via new federal structure of Iraq. Kurdish groups were already released from the cruelty of Saddam with the UN decision that banned Iraqi Army to pass over the 36 the parallel after the first Gulf War in 1991. Since 1990s northern Iraq has become a separate part of Iraq and after the invasion it gained its official federal state of Iraq. Now they have their own local parliament and government. This does not mean that the relationship between Arabs and Kurds are completely smooth and there is no complication. For instance, the statue of Kirkuk is today’s the most significant question due to the fact that it consists of 8% of total oil reserve in the world. In this regard, the main struggle over Kirkuk continues between Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Their common aim is to get the control of the city because of its oil capacity. That is almost a kind of ethnic struggle between Arabs and Kurds and reminds us ethnic nationalism rather than Arab nationalism again. The last prominent ideology that can be seen in the internal conflict in Iraq is Islamism. As it was mentioned above, the Islam has been one of the most significant elements of social, cultural, economic and political life of any Middle Eastern country as it has been for Iraq since its foundation. Due to that fact, all sovereign ideologies or governments whether Islamic or not have used Islamic discourse in their speeches and politics. For instance, the triple ideological essence of the Baath Party in Iraq was nationalism, socialism and religion (Al-Khalil, 1990 pp: 183). However, it generally seemed to be nationalist and socialist party.

With the failure of Pan-Arabism after 67 War between Israel and Egypt, nationalist sensation gradually had decreased till 1980s and it was replaced by religious thoughts through the Islamic revolution of Iran. Revival of Islamism in Iraq or any state in the Middle East is not only due to that revolution. Islamic groups have gained the support from the deprived rural people it is because of that religious foundation in the Middle East interacted directly to public and helped them via privately established social and health institutions. HAMAS in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon are great example of that situation. Another critical reason for Islamic revival against Arab nationalism is the First Gulf War which some Arab states joined to the western forces against an Arab state, Iraq (Demirpolat, 2009).

“With the failure of Pan-Arabism after 67 War between Israel and Egypt, nationalist sensation gradually had decreased till 1980s and it was replaced by religious thoughts through the Islamic revolution of Iran.”

With regard to the internal conflict in Iraq, it is obvious that religious identity has over come the Arab nationalist identity. That might not true for other Arab states in the Middle East but for Iraq, talking about Arab nationalism is probably out of question. In the term of illustrating the overwhelming Islamic character of current conflict in Iraq, looking at the statements of both Shiite and Sunni clerics is adequate. They have been articulating that Americans and their Christian allies are in Iraq to destroy Islam in its heartland and to steal Muslim’s oil (Luttwak, 2005). And if the group and religious loyalty are considered, it is not hard to comprehend to what extend the Islamism is prevailing the ideological conditions in Iraq. Furthermore, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is spiritual leader of Shiites in Iraq, stated that the religious constants and the Iraqi people` s moral principles and noble social values should have been the main pillars of the coming Iraqi constitution. Parallel to that, Sunni radical groups have already been adherents of religious structure of new Iraqi constitution as well as of social and cultural dimensions (Coleman, 2006). In this sense, inspite of that these two sectarian groups seem to be coherent on supreme position of religion; they follow distant arguments about sharing political power. That proves that their common point is not their ethnicity. So it is unlikely to articulate any more that Arab nationalism generates ideological basis of post-2003 invasion of Iraq and it is hard to trace footsteps of Arab nationalism in current internal conflict of Iraq.

These explanations might create a tendency to accept the total dominant position of the religion but it is not. Some secular Kurds and Sunni Arabs are really strict to keep the religion out of government and administrative institutions. For instance, in this regard, the president of current Iraq, Jalal Tala-bani`s statement is meaningful, which is that “We will never accept any religious government in Iraq. Never. This is a red line for us. We will never live inside an Islamic Iraq”. Moreover, Maysoon al-Damluji, president of the Iraqi Independent Women` s Group, expressed her concerns about the interpretation of sharia law which would take us backward. Additionally, Adnan Pachachi, the former Iraqi foreign minister and a Sunni leader mentioned his thoughts by mouthing that they wanted to inject religion into everything, which was not right (Coleman, 2006). When the position of these people and their statements were taken into consideration, talking about absolute agreement on being supreme and leading ideological power of religion namely Islam seems impossible. That still does not change the reality that widespread standing of Arab nationalism has been lost among Iraqi` s agenda.

Eventually, due to the fact that invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies led to reconfiguration of Iraq and revealed the pressured conflicts among the major components of Iraq. These groups were being covered by the cooperation of British and the King Faisal, the military regimes and the despotic regime of Saddam, respectively since the establishment of Iraq and that had rendered Iraq united. With the emergence of the dif- ferences among the major elements, the picture of united Iraq shook at its core and every single components of Iraq sought to maximize and then preserve their interests in the process of rebuilding of the state. Being under the impact of nationalist movements in the Middle East and having a government with Sunni Arab dominance (majority), nationalist movements and discourses took places in the programme of Iraq`s politics. It was because this fact that Iraq seemed to have a united portrait but actually it did not.

“the struggle between Kurds and Arabs, between Sunnis and Shiites and Islamist and secularist can be called as ethnic nationalism, sectarian nationalism and religious nationalism, respectively.” 

To sum up, internal conflicts of Iraq could not be explained by any ideological tenet. It is obvious that there is no ideological evidence of Arab nationalism due to the struggle among Sunnis-Shiites, Kurds-Arabs and possibly Secularists-Islamists. Unfortunately, bombings, killings, murdering and assassina- tions within these groups and between the US forces and Sunni radical groups increased group loyalty and people give the primary importance to their local and group identity. That also enhances in-group solidar- ity and marginalizes the components to each other. As a result of that, the gaps between the major groups arrive at the level of not able to meet (Inglehart, Moaddel, Tessler, 2006). Generally, it can be said that in today` s internal conflicts of Iraq, observa- tion of any practices of Arab nationalism is almost impossible. At the same time, we cannot clearly trace current conflict to any other ideological tenets. Yet, the struggle between Kurds and Arabs, between Sunnis and Shiites and Islamist and secularist can be called as ethnic nationalism, sectarian nationalism and religious nationalism, re- spectively. If the descriptions are correct, we can trace current internal conflict in Iraq to these kinds of nationalism.


* Rahman Dag is an MA student at SOAS.

1. h t t p s : / / w w w . c i a . g o v / l i b r a r y / publications/ the -world-factbook/ geos/ iz.html
2. The Sharifian Monarcy means that the kingdoms of himself and his sons of Sharif of Mecca, Hussein. He was He became the king of Hejaz where Mecca and Medina locates. One of his son, Faisal became the king of Iraq and an- other son became the king of Jordan, Abdullah.


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