THE BLOG
05/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Channeling Identity Politics in Iraq

The recent news that Ayad Allawi won a slim majority of parliamentary seats in the recent Iraqi elections was, to say the least, surprising: a secular Shiite formerly derided as a U.S. puppet won with the support of Sunni Arabs. Yet, it would be a stretch to say this proves sectarian divisions in Iraq have been erased. This election appears to show that identity politics in Iraq -- whether Sunni/Shia or secular/Islamist--are both malleable and capable of influencing political outcomes. This seemingly contradictory state of affairs will bear greatly on efforts to deal with the threat of sectarian violence in the context of this contentious election and the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The question of identities -- the language through which individuals define themselves and determine their friends and enemies -- and political violence erupted in policy debates after the 9/11 attacks. Those attacks, and the later sectarian violence in Iraq following the U.S. invasion, seemed to indicate that, as Huntington warned, identity now drives politics, often in a distressing manner. Yet, post-9/11 developments counter a simplistic view of identity politics. Numerous Muslims have rejected al-Qaeda's violent ideology, and Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq does not appear to be an outbreak of "ancient hatreds," as identities on both sides have proven flexible and allowed for reconciliation.

The malleability of identity in Iraq first suggested itself in the re-election strategy of the incumbent Nouri al-Maliki. He emerged as a compromise candidate in earlier intra-Shia parliamentary wrangling, and once in power was widely perceived as advancing Shia interests at the expense of Sunnis. In the current election, though, al-Maliki has responded to opposition among some Shia elements by reframing himself as an Iraqi nationalist, appealing to Sunnis for support. Yet, this was less the emergence of Iraqi nationalism than the cynical appeals of a skilled politician.

A similar trend was apparent in the candidacy of Ayad Allawi. The secular Allawi was the U.S. pick for leader after the invasion but lost out to more sectarian figures. He has gained ground against al-Maliki in this election through a secular platform. This does not indicate a rejection of religion among Iraqis, however; his biggest source of support is among Sunnis, who remain wary of al-Maliki.

Despite these signs of flexibility, it would be difficult to argue that identities do not matter in Iraq. Sectarian Shia voices -- such as Moqtada al-Sadr -- remain influential and have cost al-Maliki numerous votes. Moreover, even though al-Maliki's appeals and Sunni voting behavior display strategic considerations, it is still behavior along identity boundaries; al-Maliki's appeals are limited due to identity-based concerns, and pro-Allawi sentiment among Sunnis is still driven by Sunni solidarity.

We must move beyond perceiving identities as either primordial attachments or secondary to non-cultural interests. As events in Iraq show, leaders can both manipulate identities and be constrained by them. Even elite manipulation of identity demonstrates the value of the identity, as blatantly cynical rhetoric still resonates. And groups can act to advance material interests while still maintaining their cultural attachments.

Believing Sunni/Shia tension is inevitable is misguided, and can lead to the inadvertent hardening of these identities through attempts to keep the "ancient hatreds" at bay. But pretending that identity politics are completely the result of U.S. missteps or Saddam Hussein's dictatorship ignores the great value many people attach to their cultural identity. Iraqi leaders and international partners must find a way to both provide room for identity politics and channel these through a system perceived as fair by all.

If Allawi succeeds in forming a coalition government -- an uncertain outcome as al-Maliki is still maneuvering to change the electoral outcome -- he must deal with the persistent distrust between Iraq's ethnic groups. One strategy would be the imposition of an overriding identity, like Iraqi nationalism; such efforts, though, may be too reminiscent of similar attempts by past dictators, such as Siad Barre's "scientific socialism" in Somalia or even Hussein's Baathism. More effective, though, would be an effort to create room for identities to be expressed in Iraqi politics, channeling identity politics into a multicultural democracy similar to that in Canada or -- at the expense of sounding chauvinistic -- the United States.

This requires a leader who avoids sectarian appeals to increase political support, or does not provide differential benefits to supporters while publicly proclaiming national unity. Here Allawi's situation -- disconnected from the powerful religious blocs among the Shia and reliant on Sunni support in the absence of ethnic affinity -- may actually be a benefit as he will be forced to provide public goods rather than stir up ethnic divisions. U.S. policy in the coming months, then, should be focused on both affirming the results of this seemingly fair election, and providing Allawi the support he needs to form a government that channels identity politics without falling back on cynical manipulation of identities' darker side.

This piece was previously posted at The Moderate Voice.