06/08/2012 12:38 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

'Sectarianism in Iraq' - Antagonistic Visions of Unity

Sectarianism in Iraq (Fanar Haddad, Hurst, London 2011) is a timely examination of a under-researched and controversial topic that continues to play a central role in shaping the future of the country.

The book's stated aim is to provide the first concerted attempt to analyze the nature of sectarian relations and identities in Iraq. It focuses on how sectarian identities are negotiated on a societal level and addresses the vacuum in study on a topic that Haddad describes as being viewed as an odious "taboo" or reduced to oversimplified notions, such as all Shi'a were against Saddam and all Sunnis were for him. Paradoxically avoiding debate on the topic has allowed it to become far more dangerous, as Saleem Muttar argues that "overemphasizing a unifying Iraqi identity at the expense of understanding sectarian differences has had a detrimental effect on social cohesion."

How a society can transition from cohesion to civil war and back to a nominal understanding is the central narrative of the work. The book makes for particularly interesting reading while the situation in Syria continues to unravel along not such dissimilar lines. Haddad's point about totalitarian regimes not allowing for "counter-narratives or sub-national solidarities to be aired in public" is universal. Both in Iraq and Syria any questioning of the central national narrative is described as a form of conspiracy or foreign plot. There is also the notion that Assad and Saddam's 'secular' authoritarianism is a buffer against a religious takeover of the state, although Esposito and Voll make the cogent point that "the most effective opposition to authoritarian regimes is expressed through a reaffirmation of the Islamic identity and heritage".

Haddad's theoretical centre piece is the notion that "contrary to conventional wisdom, religious / sectarian identity and national identity should not be viewed as mutually exclusive definitions of the Iraqi self." The theory section is somewhat clunky but the most original and important part of the book. Haddad argues that even at the height of the 2006-2008 Civil War period, Iraqis of all sects continued to claim to be fighting in that 'national' interest. The author also points out that the words 'Sunni' and 'Shi'a' were "seldom used in Iraqi public discourse until the 1990s."

Haddad outlines how a perfect equilibrium between state and sectarian nationalism, that overlaps into both sects, allows for a peaceful balance whereas when state nationalism adopts the position of one sect over another it leads to sectarian tensions and often a violent clash. In essence then an understanding of Sunni-Shi'a divisions in Iraq is a "conflict between contradictory myth-symbol complexes revolving around the symbolism and cultural ownership of the nation-state".

The book argues that 1991 "was perhaps the most significant turning point in sectarian relations in twentieth-century Iraq" and the "decade that altered Iraqi society for generations to come." However, Haddad's work is weakest when he moves away from a tight focus on a sectarian analysis to a more general historical narrative. Indeed readers wanting to get their teeth into the sanctions era would be far better off reading Joy Gordon's Invisible War.

The open-ended and contemporary nature of the post-2003 period makes Haddad analysis of it relatively weaker and reliant on the transcripts of speeches or media appearances, a point the author admits. However the central theory of sectarian tension as a result of state nationalism moving from a Sunni to Shi'a centric narrative still holds.

It is this fascinating constant recalibration of sectarian identities that provides a crucially important framework to better understanding Iraq. Haddad should be applauded for not only opening the door on further research on the subject but also for killing off the taboo hanging over sectarianism. With Syria particularly in mind, shining the light on the relationship between sectarianism and nationalism is a key factor it mitigating and managing potential conflict, something that denying its relevance fails to do.

Originally reviewed for International Affairs