Charting a Nationalist and Secular Iraqi State: The Road Ahead?

von Geneive Abdo

Societies in the Arab Middle East have struggled with the role of identity in state formation.

Since the early 20th century, societies in the Arab Middle East have struggled with the role of identity in state formation, in part because national identity was often in flux among a multitude of ethnic and religious groups. The region has had three primary state identities: Arab nationalist identity; religious identity; or royal family identity.

In Iraq, when the country gained independence from British colonial rule, the existing Sunni elites clung to their privileged positions and refused to surrender power to the majority Shia population. The state was the focus and agent of change, and top-down modernization was a priority. The rise to power of Saddam Hussein in 1968 and his role as president beginning in 1979, saw a continuation of trends toward pan-Arabism and Iraqi nationalism that had first emerged in the 1920s.

But eventually, under Saddam, who gave priority to Sunni tribal networks, marginalization, particularly of the majority Shia, became rampant, leading to the repression and persecution of the Shia marjiyya in Najaf and Karbala and the general majority Shia population. Today, about 60 to 65 percent of Iraqis are Shia. The 1979 Iranian revolution and subsequent Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988 pitted the Sunni state of Iraq against the Iranian Shia state and fueled Saddam’s repression of the Shia inside his country.

Shortly after the 2003 US-led invasion, Iraq’s political system was completely transformed. A power-sharing system, which was envisioned by Iraqis in exile before the invasion, was implemented to institutionalize a place in power for the sectarian and ethnic-based parties that would come to dominate Iraqi politics for years to come. The theory was that because Iraq is comprised of ethno-sectarian groups, including Shia, Sunni, Kurds, and Christians, political representation should be based on these categories.

Academics call this system, “consociationalism.” In Arabic, the Iraqi system is often referred to as Muhasasa Tai’fiya, or apportionment of political positions among sectarian parties. This has served to ensure political power primarily for Kurdish parties and Islamist Shia parties, which often comprise the largest relatively cohesive blocs in elections. This sectarian system became powerful not only because it was institutionalized from the top down, but because civil society players also believed they could benefit from it, creating sectarianism from below as well. A similar process has been seen in Lebanon, which has had a long history of sectarian allocation of political power.

Although this power-sharing system is not formally enshrined in the Iraqi constitution, national elections between 2005 and 2021, and the government formation processes that followed, indicate a repeated pattern of outcomes whereby the speaker of Parliament is a Sunni, the prime minister a Shia, and the president of the republic a Kurd. The appointment of these positions, which occur long after the votes are cast, has allowed the dominant political parties in each group, such as Shia Islamist factions, to use their political weight to demand that their preferred candidates be chosen. The backroom negotiations have also opened the door for interference in the selection process from foreign governments, particularly Shia-dominated Iran, as part of a regional geopolitical struggle that is both politically and religiously motivated.


Cyrine Farhat Shour

Cyrine Farhat Shour


cyrine.farhat@kas.de +961 1 388061/62 +961 1 388 064