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Federalism would mean death of Iraqi nationalism — but so what?

Flawed constitution conspires to make it less of a cure and more a mutation of existing illnesses

Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News
Gulf News

Yet again Iraq finds itself at a ‘crossroad’ – a euphemism for political intransigence to the point of paralysis coupled with a spike in violence, cruelty and ethno-sectarian entrenchment. As with all such crossroads since 2003 the idea that Iraq needs to – or indeed inevitably will – fragment into three states with neat ethno-sectarian labels has gained purchase during the recent crisis.

Likewise, as with every Iraqi political crisis, warnings of an impending civil war abound not least amongst Iraq’s political elite. We heard such warnings from Ayad Allawi and others in 2010 during the protracted political bartering that followed the elections of that year; Tariq Al Hashemi also conjured the spectre of civil war and partition when he became the target of a rather dubious anti-terrorism case; Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki often warns of civil war and the breakup of Iraq when he hits a political cul de sac with his Kurdish ‘partners’ or when a sect-coded issue arises; and the list goes on. In short, warnings of civil war and partition in Iraq have been about as frightful in recent years as the warnings of Armageddon and damnation one hears on any given Sunday at Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner.

There does however seem to be something different about the current ‘crossroad’ that goes beyond the awful rise in violence. The recent bloodshed is certainly a cause for concern particularly given its clear sectarian overtones rarely seen since the civil war – whether the attacks are indeed driven by sectarian identity is irrelevant: whatever their true nature, they are fostering fears of sectarian encirclement reminiscent of the gruesome run up to the civil war. Nevertheless, an ‘optimistic’ view can still lead one to dismiss the current escalation as a temporary phenomenon in line with the flow of Iraqi politics since 2007: stumbling from one crisis to another yet always able to avoid the abyss (alas, in the new Iraq, 70 people dying in a single day fails to qualify as ‘the abyss’).

However, if we look beyond the violence, we see signs of something partially hidden, slowly evolving and novel about the current crisis that is rooted in the cumulative effects of the failures and horrors of the past ten years. It relates to Arab Iraqis’ perceptions regarding self, other and the state and the transformations that Iraqi nationalism has been undergoing.

Over the past decade, and contrary to many a commentary, Iraqi national identity has proven astonishingly resilient amongst Arab Iraqis. For the most part Arab Iraq has been allergic to terms like ‘civil war’, ‘partition’ or ‘breakup’. Indeed the allergy is such that the term ‘civil war’ is rarely used by Iraqis when referring to the mayhem of 2006-2007 opting instead to employ the euphemistic ‘al ta’iffiyah’. Even federalism was by and large an almost abstract and overwhelmingly negative concept in Arab Iraq with its few Arab proponents struggling to gain traction. This fact as much as any other is what always discredited ideas of an enforced three-way partition of Iraq. In other words, calls for a three-way partition have seemed ludicrous in the past because such calls almost never came from Arab Iraqi quarters; indeed, the idea was not just inconceivable in the minds of Arab Iraqis but was, and still is, profoundly distasteful to them as well.

Whilst I still believe that the partition of Arab Iraq is most unlikely, the idea seems somewhat less fantastical than at any time since 2003. The cumulative weight of a decade’s worth of failure, division and conflict has created new realities and new perceptions that have rendered more familiar forms of Iraqi nationalism increasingly irrelevant. It seems that the redlines within which national and nationalist identities are imagined have changed; what was considered nationalistic sacrilege not five years ago is today openly voiced. For example, would a pro-establishment cleric in 2003 have spoken so openly – on national television no less – about being, “burdened by this nationalism; this artificial nationalism that is required only of us [Shi’ites]”? Or would another have dared to publicly dismiss the map of Iraq as nothing more than the, “demarcations of Sykes-Picot” – accurate though such a dismissal might be?

The on going debate regarding federalism, a subject that is becoming increasingly central to the current impasse, is indicative of this unprecedented shift in the boundaries of national discourse. What was previously seen as anathema by the vast majority of Arab Sunnis and certainly by Arab Sunni politicians is now held as the only solution to Iraq’s perpetual crises by a significant body of Sunni opinion – though the matter remains contested in Sunni quarters. Today some of the same politicians who back in 2005 or 2006 warned against the evils of the conspiracy called federalism today point to it as the only solution to Iraq’s innumerable problems. More to the point they do so in explicitly and unabashedly sectarian terms.

Objectively speaking there is nothing wrong or dangerous about calling for a ‘Sunni region’ or trying to form a region to ‘protect Sunni identity’. Indeed in an ideal world – and to be clear Iraq is not even in the same solar system as an ideal world – this would be the first step on the long road towards a more realistic and balanced approach to sectarian identities in the Middle East that does not feel obliged to yield to narrow hostilities nor to immature coyness when confronting the realities of sectarian identities and sectarian relations. The point here is neither to criminalise nor to promote calls for a ‘Sunni region’ but to highlight the novelty of such calls in the Iraqi context and to consider what this portends for the future of Iraqi nationalism.


Federalism may well be the answer to Iraq’s communal problems as some have argued recently. However, what should be an administrative procedure is complicated by several factors none of which are inherently related to federalism as a political concept. Pronounced sectarian entrenchment, mutual suspicions, a profoundly dysfunctional political order, rampant corruption, a flawed and incoherent constitution, wild expectations and even wilder fears and so much more conspire to make federalism perhaps less of a cure and more a mutation of existing illnesses.


I could be wrong but one thing seems likely: given current circumstances a federal solution today would signal the final death of an increasingly embattled non-sectarian Iraqi nationalism and the reification of already extant sectarian Iraqi nationalisms. However, what, other than perceptual inertia, makes people view such a prospect so fearfully and so negatively? For my part, were it not for the grimly predictable violence that would accompany any such process, I would suggest Arab Iraqis embrace this evolution in Iraqi national identity(ies) into something that may after all be more in tune with the pitiful state of Iraq over the past ten years.


Fanar Haddad is a Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore and is author of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity. Follow him on Twitter at @fanarhaddad