Building Pluralism for a Safe and Stable Iraq

A few days ago, I took a taxi in Baghdad and the driver at some point said to me: “I don’t know why those apostates pray.” He was referring to people from a different religious denomination. In that moment I asked myself: “Is pluralism really respected in Iraq?”

At first sight, one may be tempted to give an affirmative answer, as Iraq is home to a mosaic of religious and ethnic communities (Arab Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Turkmens, Assyrians, Yazidis and others).

However, if the model of a pluralist society had been implemented with some degree of success from 2003 onward, the country would have not experienced continued violence and terrorism, and eventually ISIS would have not gained ground in such a significant and brutal manner.


Pluralism can be generally defined as “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interests within the confines of a common civilization.” In a pluralist society, power is dispersed among a variety of economic and ideological pressure groups and is not held by a single elite. Diana L. Eck maintains that pluralism has four major characteristics:

– Pluralism is not just tolerance but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference;

– Pluralism is the encounter of commitments;

– Pluralism is based on dialogue;

– Pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity.

Moreover, pluralism is tied to the equality principle, as ensuring equality entails the protection of civil and political liberties for all segments of the society, including freedom of religion and conscience.

Regrettably, all these benchmarks are far from being respected in Iraq, where plurality does still not correspond to a true pluralism.

After 2003, the majority rule has often translated into official and private conducts that can be defined as sectarian to the damage of minority groups. These latter have no access to full rights and are not treated as equal members of the society. They have been sidelined in the decision-making process and marginalized if not excluded by the system.

The Constitution preserves basic rights and respects diversity, but the mainstream culture has not internalized these principles yet.

In addition to the absence of a reasonable political culture, and of an actual rule of law and democratic order, lack of justice in the distribution of economic advantages has widened disparities among various groups, further disrupting domestic stability and societal harmony.

While the basic requirements for pluralism continue to be missing in Iraq, sectarian attitudes have been growing steadily at political, social and cultural level. In particular, the Sunni-Shia strife escalated to the point of threatening the very territorial integrity of the country with the outbreak of ISIS. Minorities found themselves caught in the middle of the infighting and their survival remain at stake.


Sectarianism is the hallmark of today’s Iraqi identity and mindset. The individual is unable to see himself out of a political, religious or social framework, and his personal autonomy is exceedingly limited. Restrictions can be of two types: voluntary or self-imposed, when he finds himself obliged to comply with a specific conduct for political and doctrinal reasons; coercive, if he has no power to challenge conventional rules and habits being overseen by the authorities.

The reasons behind the rise of the sectarianism are mostly rooted in the failure of the post-2003 nation-building endeavor. A combination of factors – the domestic turmoil and power struggles, the regional interferences, the mishandling of the political and security issues by the United States – contributed to rapidly shift the focus of the country from nation-building to the adoption of ethno-sectarian narratives and agendas by political parties and leaders, as well as officials.

In the performance of their duties, they could no longer distinguish between the common good and the interest of their religious or ethnic group, dealing with the state apparatus as it was an instrument to gain private benefits. The distribution of ministerial assignments according to ethno-sectarian quotas (muhasasa) was aimed to ensure the inclusion of all groups in the government. However, this practice ended up being another incentive for misbehaviors inspired by a sectarian calculus, while competence has not been so far the main criteria to select the ministers and their aides.

Sectarianism has also undermined the Constitution, which remains a contentious matter. Each group seeks to exploit it for its own interest, disregarding the fact that a broad consensus over the Constitution is essential for the legitimacy of the state to the eyes of the people. Without generalizing, this has been the political reality in Iraq during the past 13 years.

As a result, sectarianism descended from the top of the political and bureaucratic establishment to the bottom of the society. With no trust in the national institutions, this latter has split into sub-cultural identities and structures, generating a dual-system situation, whereby the formal apparatus has been superseded by a less visible “shadow state”, organized along sectarian lines and subject to different dynamics. Testimony to this is the security sector.

The inability of the state to protect the population, evidenced by the collapse of the Iraqi armed forces in the face of ISIS, cleared the way for the growing influence of the Shia militias in both government security operations and in the public sphere. One could justify the existence of the Shia militias in Iraq as a necessity to cope with the security shortcomings of the institutions, and the power vacuum following the U.S. 2003 invasion and its complete troops withdrawal at the end of 2011.

Nevertheless, the role of the Shia militias has further exacerbated the animosity with the Sunni portion of the population, who contend that the militias are being driven by mere sectarian purposes under the guidance of the Shia and Persian neighboring Iran. The increasing perception of being alienated from power led the Sunnis to a new wave of opposition to the Shia-centric government, but the political turmoil was eventually exploited by ISIS, which portrayed itself as the savior of the Sunni rights in Iraq.


After the ISIS outbreak, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for unity among all Iraqi groups to preserve the integrity of the country and face ISIS altogether. His plea, however, prove not to be enough to overcome sectarianism, which is meant to remain the dominant feature in Iraq, as long as strong state institutions with a broad popular legitimacy will not take root.

With Shia militias growing into quasi-political players and encroaching into Sunni majority areas, such as Mosul, the situation will remain unsettled and prone to armed insurgency or terrorism even in a post-ISIS situation. The perpetuation of the scenario that prompted the rise of ISIS would not bode well for a safe and stable Iraq in the coming future, preventing pluralism from flourishing as the base to build on a peaceful co-existence among all segments of the Iraqi society.

Therefore, Iraqi political parties and leaders hold the immense responsibility to direct the political process far from its current sectarian structure, and toward enhanced national solidarity, social justice and constitutional rule of law.