To understand the quagmire present in Iraq today, a history lesson is due. The country was formed out of the remnants of the Ottoman empire, it was a mixed country of Sunni arabs, Shia arabs and Kurds (mostly Sunni). It was ruled by a Sunni Hashemite King, who was overthrown in the Republican movement which had swept through the Arab world since General Nasser’s overthrow of the monarchy in Egypt. Many people believe that Iraq’s problem was a case of original sin, however, Kurds and Arabs, Sunnis and Shias co-existed mostly peacefully in Iraq under Ottoman rule, so it is wrong to say that Iraq can not function as a country. Iraq, then an Ottoman administrative unit, was divided into three provinces. Mosul Province (Kurd dominated), Baghdad Province (Mixed, but Sunni dominated) and Basra Province (Shia dominated). The governors of each province, always understood the needs of each province and the Sultan of the Empire respected and actively heeded the advice of his local governors. As the Sultan was also the Caliph of Islam (Sunni), he had significant religious authority in ensuring that the Sunni minority were not driven towards extremism. Iraq, as a mixed ethnic and sectarian country has always existed. Baghdad has almost always been its capital. But history has shown that Iraq is more stable when significant power is decentralised from Baghdad (or Istanbul in the case of the Ottomans) towards the local rulers.
Modern Iraq is shadowed by the legacy of one man, Saddam Hussein and one party, Baath party. Saddam was a largely secular ruler, who seldom cared about religion in a serious way. He was however, by creed, a Sunni Arab. He used extreme violence against Kurds and after the Iran-Iraq war ruled in an even more sectarian way in which he repressed Shia. After his overthrow, the Shia’s, the demographic majority gained power through democracy. Nouri al-Maliki was made Prime Minister, Kurdistan granted autonomy and Sunni influence weakened, but still present as America ensured a consensus based government was followed.
The Sunnis of Iraq have been without a powerful religious leader since Ataturk abolished the Caliphate, while the Shia’s have formed a serious religious and political grouping, under the tutelage of the Iranians. It is the greatest irony of the Iraq war, that America allowed the influence of its arch-nemesis Iran, to spread into Iraq, via Shia rule. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Shia rule, but the manner in which Nouri al-Maliki (a militant Shia sectarian) and his brand of Shia triumphalism has ruined national consensus and driven Iraq towards anarchy, is the root cause of Iraq’s problems. Iraq’s leaders have to show leadership for all Iraqis not some Iraqis.
These problems are exacerbated by the Sunnis feeling they lack political representation, the highest Sunni political figure, Tarek al-Hashemi was sacked as Vice-President of Iraq, on dubious charges of violence and sentenced to death (without a real trial) in absentia, the Sunni minority, a serious and traditionally wealthy grouping of Iraqis began to feel marginalised. Since then Sunni arab tribes have risen up against Prime Minster al-Maliki’s rule. Exclusion led to extremism. Enter ISIS.
ISIS is only one player amongst many disaffected Sunnis, the Military council of Iraq revolutionaries (MCIR) and Sunni tribesmen along with ex-Baath party loyalists are also key players, they make up a greater contingent of the fighting force then ISIS does. However, the key thing about ISIS is that it has grabbed the headlines. Of all the groups, ISIS exploits social media the best, which then induces traditional media to pay greater attention to ISIS, which is blatantly disproportionate to it’s influence on the ground. Also Nouri al-Maliki and his bloc are key to play the extremism card; by portraying ISIS as the real threat (rather than one of many players) it can then illicit Western support. al-Maliki here has proved to be an intelligent strategist in portraying the opposition as all being extremists so that a Western world still recovering from the trauma of September 11, will play into his hands by providing military support.
It is easy to blame Islam for these problems, but also inaccurate. For one, just because ISIS calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria doesn’t actually make it Islamic or have anything to do with Islam. North Korea, is called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. North Korea, is neither a democracy, nor a republic and we do not dismiss democracy because the North Koreans botched it up, rather we conclude that North Korea perverts democracy and republicanism (and probably socialism) in its brutality, ditto for ISIS’s shocking savagery. And for second, there is an ethnic dispute between Arabs and Kurds, in which Islam has actually played the role of reconciliation between different ethnic groups, by providing a common religious and cultural heritage for all Iraqis. Islam is the only cultural force which transcends the entire region. Much like the Beatles invasion of America, Islam too has an even greater capacity to capture the hearts of over a billion people, and it is an effective tool in bridging gaps between different cultures. Mainstream politicians in the Muslim world need to use the core message of Islam to spread peace rather than be indifferent to religion, only then, can the narrative of extremists, be defeated in the hearts and minds of millions of ordinary Iraqis.
So Iraq today, is a melting pot of tensions, which have both ethnic and sectarian dimensions. The solution to save Iraq has to be the implementation of federalism. Baghdad has to stop hoarding the powers and accept that the Sunnis should have a greater say in local government than they currently do. Iraq’s constitution provides for decentralisation of power to the provinces, in reality, Baghdad exercised total control. Iraq’s provinces are also due to be restructured so that a change in demographics and size can be taken into account. Federalism in Iraq is a paper tiger, Nouri al-Maliki has to turn paper into reality. By decentralising power to the Sunnis’, Baghdad will then by extension of being Sunnis as well be able to pacify the Kurds as well. Decentralisation, especially in domestic matters such as education, infrastructure, policing, and local administration will ensure that Sunnis feel a part of the new Iraq. When America entered Iraq, it promised to overthrow Saddam, but also to establish a democratic system of government. Iraq has to become a democracy in which the losers are not excluded. 40 years of dictatorship has certainly created a vacuum at the top of Iraqi politics. In a mixed country, triumphalism and sectarianism will not work. If Prime Minister al-Maliki will not learn that lesson, or Iran or Saudi Arabia, then the Muslim world has much to fear. It is imperative that Iranian-Saudi tensions are reduced so that a cold peace will prevent a hot war throughout the Arab and Muslim world. The stakes are high in Iraq, but also on Iran’s nuclear programme, one which could define the course of the Muslim world for the next century, one which grows, based upon the strong economic potential of both countries, the spread of literacy and increased living standards caused by the hydrocarbon boom, can lead to a period of renewed intellectual progress, one which the Islamic world is closer to exploiting today than a century ago. However, this exorbitant wealth could be wasted on savage chaos, in which oil money is wasted upon bullets rather than books, on weaponry rather than progress and on violence rather than peace.
ISIS is only one small problem; it can and certainly will be destroyed. Sunni’s in Iraq hate them, because they are savages and nothing else. If al-Qaeda disown a group for being too extreme, I think we can establish how extreme it is. Sunnis will rise up (as they already have in Syria), they will rise up against ISIS in order to defend their cherished religion from extremism, it has already manifested itself in the form of Arab tribes and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. ISIS and its extremist militia can be defeated by bullets, but its extremist ideology will live on. High unemployment, and inequality always lead to social problems such as extremism. A botched economy is plentiful in Iraq. Nonetheless Iraq, has to sort itself out with long term remedies, not, short term bandages. Most Iraqis are united under a loose sense of nationalism and a common Islamic heritage. In order to build a true Muslim society (which, let’s be honest, Iraqis truly long for) a society of tolerance, moderation and dignity of humans, a nation has to be built. And that’s not what bullets are for.