Seeing Things

Compare and contrast. Fareed Zakaria:

Can Iraq hold together? It’s worth examining what is happening in that country through a broader prism. If you had looked at the Middle East 15 years ago, you would have seen a string of strikingly similar regimes — from Libya and Tunisia in the west to Syria and Iraq in the east. They were all dictatorships. They were all secular, in the sense that they did not derive their legitimacy from religious identity. Historically, they had all been supported by outside powers — first the British and French, then the superpowers — which meant that these rulers worried more about pleasing patrons abroad than currying favor at home. And they had secure borders.

Today, across the region, from Libya to Syria, that structure of authority has collapsed and people are reaching for their older identities — Sunni, Shiite, Kurd. Sectarian groups, often Islamist, have filled the power vacuum, spilling over borders and spreading violence. In Iraq and elsewhere, no amount of U.S. military power can put Humpty Dumpty back together.

Middle East specialist Mansoor Moaddel:

Several nationally representative surveys carried out in Iraq between 2004 and 2013 provide important facts about Iraqi orientations toward secular politics, basis of identity, Americans, and Iranians. These facts have serious implications for the territorial integrity of Iraq, support for an Islamic government, and the U.S. policy toward the country. These surveys have shown evidence of:

(1) Support for Secular Politics: A much higher percentage of the Sunnis, even higher than the Kurds in some years, believe that Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were separated. This support has increased from 60% in 2004 to more than 81% in 2013. By contrast, support for secular politics among the Shia has an inverted U-shape between 2004 and 2013. It went up from 44% in 2004 to 63% in 2011, and then dropped to 34% in 2013.

From the standpoint of public opinion, this evidence implies that the cooperation between the Sunni tribes/groups with ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) may not indicate mass conversion to religious extremism. Rather, it is driven by a common hatred of the Shia sectarian government ruling the country.

(2) Recognition of Iraq (and not religion) as the basis for identity: The Sunnis and Shia converge in defining selves as Iraqi, rather than Muslim or Arab, above all. This support rose from 22% in 2004 to 80% in 2008, and then dropped to 60% among the Sunnis. Among the Shia, it was 28% in 2004, increased to 72% in 2007, and then dropped to 62% in 2013. There is not much support for Iraqi identity among the Kurds. Among the Kurds, on the other hand, there has been a shift from predominantly Kurdish identity to religion.

I think the problems in Iraq are not what Mr. Zakaria imagines them to be. The Iraqis overwhelmingly want to remain Iraqis.

7 comments… add one
  • CStanley Link

    Maybe the truth is somewhat in the middle though; perhaps the members of various Iraqi sects have preferences that shift according to how much they feel that their religious identity is threatened.

  • michael reynolds Link

    I doubt Iraqi polling data is very useful. How much of the country has a phone? How many people respond honestly? Polling is tricky business in the US where we’ve been doing it for a century.

    The desires of the great silent majority seem to be at odds with how they cast their votes, and votes actually count (for now.) Anyway silent majorities don’t set the agenda in a country with militias and terrorist groups and an out of control army under a corrupt state.

  • Andy Link

    “The Iraqis overwhelmingly want to remain Iraqis.”

    That is only conditionally true. The problem is the conditions for that are rare and, at present, nonexistent.

    Moaddel’s data only goes back 10 years and where were things 10 years ago? He doesn’t offer an explanation for why the numbers increased from the 2004 low, nor why there is such a huge spread between the trough and peak. I think what the data show is that Iraqi identity changes based on conditions – it’s not a surprise, therefore, that a large percentage of Sunni’s suddenly started to view themselves as Iraqi’s first right after Anbar awakening and transition of provincial control to the new Iraqi government. Now that civil war is back, those numbers will be low again.

    The other problem is that the data on governance and religious conviction are from 2011 and the governance survey question is really bad – the choice is between “only” Sharia law or “the people’s wishes?” Few Muslims anywhere believe there should “only” be sharia law. Additionally, “make law according the the people’s wishes” doesn’t mean the same thing in Iraq as it does here where we tend to think of the “people” as all Americans. “The people’s wishes” is very narrow on a nation-wide basis. Sunnis, quite obviously, aren’t content to let the Iraqi “people” determine their fate.

    Moaddel’s survey also doesn’t talk about trust – namely trust between the various factions. It’s one thing to believe in secular politics, it’s quite another to believe that leaders of another sect will act in your best interests.

    But at least there is almost universal dislike of Americans, so there is at least one universal Iraqi value.

    At best, I think we can hope for a Lebanon – a post-civil war Iraq with a weak central government in which the power-sharing arrangement is clearly defined in a Constitution. For the near future however, there is only war and the suffering it brings. There is nothing the US can do to stop it anymore than we could stop Syria’s civil war or Egypt’s violent purging of the Muslim Brotherhood.

  • PD Shaw Link

    In support of the second p.o.v., it’s also important that in the 2010 Parliamentary elections, the Sunni Arab areas strongly supported the party of Allawi, a secular Shi’ite. In fact, his party got a plurality (24.7%) of the votes in Iraq, but unfortunately was outmaneuvered in forming a government by Maliki, reaching out to religious Shi’ites and the Kurds. The Sadr movement did not do well, though supporting a more overtly religious government with support only in the far Southeast part of the country, Sadr strikes me as an Iraqi nationalist as well.

  • TastyBits Link

    Fareed Zakaria’s knowledge of Iraq or the region is limited to what others are saying, and I suspect Mansoor Moaddel’s expertise is shallow at best.

    This is why these people are always wrong. They have a third grade education on the subject matter. It does not matter. By the time they are proven wrong, they will be on the next subject, and few people will remember.

  • Andy Link


    While true to an extent, I don’t think that tells us much. One can pick any arbitrary place in time – like the 2010 elections, and suggest that snapshot in time represents the enduring wants and values of the Iraqi population.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I think elections with >60% turnout, voting for not-separatist parties are as good as polls in discerning popular views. (Not sure about all of the Kurdish parties, but assume that they are opportunistically separatist) Far more people voting than taking up arms.

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