The Necessity of Federalism in Iraq
In a growing effort to understand why Iraq’s Sunnis reject the new constitution proposed by the Shiite and Kurdish fractions, it is important to understand the historical background and cultural issues which influence all parties. The Sunnis reject federalism in the central and southern regions because they believe ‘it has no basis other than sectarianism’, leading to the division of Iraq in three states and the loss of the Arab and Islamic Sunni identity of the country. But their acceptance of federation in the northern Kurdish region suggests they hold ethnic and cultural biases toward the Shiites, since the Kurds have historic differences from the Arabs.
The reasons that Sunnis claim they justify federalism for Kurds yet don't give the Shiite the same right are:
1- The Kurds are not Arabs. Kurds have ethnic and linguistic/ cultural differences while the Shiites are Arabs who have no such racial and linguistic/cultural differences from the Sunnis in Iraq.
2- The Kurds have suffered from the Iraqi oppressive regimes for several decades and federalism guarantees that they will no longer be a subject of such suppression.
3- The Kurds have been experiencing autonomy early, theorically since the constitution of 1970, and practically since 1991 following the Gulf war, and they are ready to implement federalism in their entity "Kurdistan" which already has a government with parliament and quasi army. Whereas the Shiite regions of Iraq have been dominated by Saddam Hussein's dictatorship until the US-British invasion in March 2003.
4- The Sunnis fear that federalism would lead to a division of the country in three states, Kurdish in the north, Shiite in the south and central, and Sunni in the rest of the areas of Iraq, leaving Sunnis cut off from Iraq's oil wealth in the north and south. Also, Sunnis claim that more than one million Sunni Arabs who live in the south and central would be dominated by Shiites.
Although these reasons are appreciated, but they are not completely true nor accurate because:
1- The Shiites have also been oppressed by the Sunni regimes since the creation of Iraq in 1925 and earlier during the Ottoman empire, and since the Ummayad rule following the assassination of Imam Ali bin Abitaleb in the seventh century (40 for Hegire).
2- Iraq's Shia are Arabs who don't have racial and linguistic differences from the Sunnis and many Iraqi tribes include both Sunnis and Shiites. But there are religious and cultural differences between Shiites and Sunnis that justify federalism in the Shiite regions of Iraq.
The first reason that proves the necessity of federalism for the Shia as well as for Kurds, is their historic oppression by Sunni regimes throughout decades and centuries.
The second reason addressing religious discrimination is related to the increase of extremism in Salafism and Wahabbism among Sunnis in Iraq. This is a trend that considers the Shiites unbelievers (kuffar) and "polytheists" (mushrekin) because of their veneration of the prophet and the imams. Many Wahabbi Fatwas were issued condemning the Shiites and justifying the killing of them and destroying their mosques and holy shrines. This hatred to Shiism has been obvious recently with the hundreds of terrorist blasts against civilians in Iraq.
Ironically, the majority of Kurds are Sunni and the terrorist groups of Alqaeda and the Ba'thi party justify killing some Kurds because of their collaboration with the US-British occupation and not because of their religious beliefs. In the Shia case, the terrorist groups justify murdering Shiites because they are kuffars calling them "Rafidas" and they don't distinguish men from women and children or those who cooperate with the US-British forces from who don't, when they attack them.
3- The third reason that proves the necessity of federalism in the Shiite areas is the fact that the former Ba'thi regime and now the Sunni leaders and parties have repeatedly accused the Shia of Iraq that they are Persians and Iranians and they don't deserve the Iraqi citizenship. It is true that some Iraqi Shiites are descendents of Iranian origin but they were born and grew up in Iraq and they form only a small part of the Shiite community in the country.
Hence, from the Ba'thi/ Wahabbi/ Sunni point of view, the Shia are non-Arabs and non-Muslims when they want to discriminate them and kill them and destroy their mosques and holy shrines, and prevent them from ruling the new Iraq. But when the Shiites were convinced that federalism in their regions would protect their lives and interests and let them express their religious beliefs in freedom and peace, then the Sunnis, as well as the Arab media, insist on the Arabism of Shia and the non differences with the Sunnis!
The problem in Iraq today is not federalism, it is indeed sectarianism and terrorism. The former Ba'thi regime elite, which is the Sunni elite, cannot accept that Iraq has changed and is no longer a country that can be ruled by a minority or an oppressive and terrorist dictatorship. Unfortunately, the recent discussions and negotiations between the political parties over the constitution have indicated the reality is that Sunnis still deal with Shia and Kurds as minorities and try to impose their views on them by threats and violence on one hand, and by rejection and boycotting on the other.
The constitution needs a consensus of the three parties of Iraq and the Shiites (60-65 %) and Kurds (18-20 %) who form the majority (more than 80% of the population) should not impose their views on the Arab Sunni minority (18-20 %), but it is not logical and acceptable that this minority has the right to impose its view on the majority and lead the country to a dilemma and a potential civil war.
The US president George W. Bush was totally right when he warned the Sunnis that they have to chose between this constitution, which has been reviewed and changed just to meet their requests, and the civil sectarian war that some believe it is already started without declaration by the terrorist blasts and assassinations and massacres all over the country. The Shia have been very patient so far by making many compromises and sacrifices to avoid the sectarian war despite the daily terrorist attacks against them. The concept of federalism arose recently following those attacks, which have not been denounced by most of Sunni leaders as well as by most of Arab regimes, while the Arab media praises those blasts calling them "resistance" acts.
Furthermore, usually minorities (Sudan and Lebanon for example) call upon federalism to keep their own special interests and live in freedom, avoiding the majority decisions and views imposed upon them. So, since the Sunnis are worried about changing the Arab nationalist and Islamic (Sunni) identity of Iraq, they should request federalism in their areas where they can express those views instead of imposing them on the majority.
Ironically, the United Arab Emirates state is an Arab country which its population is less than a half million, instituted federalism early after its creation and succeeded in unifying the seven emirates politically and economically instead of dividing them, while the population is mostly Arab and Sunni Muslim.
So, why would federalism lead to the division of Iraq? Federalism was created to unite different cultures and religions under one blanket government in which the country would be divided into regions where each different sect has the right to practice as they wish. Under a federalistic system, the Sunni or the Shia would be confined to a region, or many regions throughout the country, which would permit their own practicing of Islam, while the Kurds would want a secular state. In the USA, the Mormon Christian sect differ drastically from other sects and many of them moved to the state of Utah where they created their own communities and had more liberal state legislature to practice their religion.
It seems that the Sunni rejections of elections and constitution could lead to exactly what they fear.
Haytham Mouzahem ([email protected]) is a Lebanese analyst and researcher who specializes in Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs.