9.05.2005

Op-Ed: ... No, Iraq needs federalism, and the Sunnis do too

By Haytham Mouzahem
THE DAILY STAR
Commentary by
Friday, September 02, 2005

To understand why Sunnis reject the new constitution proposed by the Shiite and Kurdish communities in Iraq, it is important to understand the historical background and cultural issues influencing all the parties. The Sunnis reject federalism because they believe it emphasizes sectarianism and will lead to the loss of Iraq's Arab and Sunni Islamic identity. But their acceptance of federalism for the northern Kurdish region suggests their real problem is with the Shiites, not with federalism per se.

There are several reasons why Sunnis justify federalism for the Kurds yet not for the Shiites: the Kurds are not Arabs while the Shiites are; the Kurds have suffered from oppressive regimes for decades and federalism offers a barrier against this in the future; the Kurds have had theoretical autonomy since passage of the 1970 Constitution, and practical autonomy since 1991, following the ouster of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

In addition to this, Sunnis fear that federalism will lead to Iraq's break-up into three states, leaving them cut off from Iraq's oil wealth in the north and south. Sunnis also claim that more than one million of their coreligionists in the south and center would fall under Shiite domination.
While there is some truth to these allegations, there are also problems. For one thing, Shiites have also been oppressed by a succession of Sunni regimes throughout history, particularly since the creation of Iraq in 1925; Shiites may be Arabs like the Sunnis, but there are religious and cultural differences between the communities justifying federalism. There is also a growing Wahhabi strain among Iraqi Sunnis, whose advocates believe that Shiites are unbelievers (kuffar) and "polytheists" (mushrekin) because of their veneration for the prophet and the imams. Fatwas have been issued condemning the Shiites, justifying their killing and the destruction of their mosques and holy shrines. This hatred has been obvious through the hundreds of terrorist attacks directed against Shiite civilians.

Shiites are also wary of the fact that the former Baath regime, and now Sunni leaders and parties, have repeatedly accused Iraq's Shiites of being "Persians" or "Iranians" who don't deserve Iraqi citizenship. It is true that some Iraqi Shiites are of Iranian origin, but most were born and grew up in Iraq and form only a small part of the country's Shiite community.

Hence, from the perspective of the Baathists and Wahhabis, indeed that of many Sunnis in general, the Shiites are non-Arabs or non-Muslims when it comes to finding fault with them; but when Shiites are convinced that federalism can protect their lives and interests and allows them to express their religious beliefs in freedom and peace, then Sunnis, as well as the Arab media, reaffirm the Arabism of Shiites and their similarities to Sunnis!

The problem in Iraq today is not federalism, it is sectarianism and terrorism. The former Baath elite, which is the Sunni elite, cannot accept that Iraq has changed and is no longer a country ruled by a minority and an oppressive dictatorship. Unfortunately, the recent negotiations between Iraq's political forces over the constitution has underlined how Sunnis still deal with Shiites and Kurds in the old ways: either by seeking to impose their views on them through violence or through rejectionism and threats of boycott.

Iraq's constitution must be the fruit of a consensus between the three main communities, and Shiites and Kurds who, together, make up a vast majority of the population, should not impose their views on the Arab Sunni minority. However, it is not logical or acceptable that this minority should impose its view on the majority and possibly lead Iraq into civil war.

U.S. President George W. Bush was right when he warned Sunnis that they must chose between the draft constitution, which has been amended to address some of their anxieties, and a sectarian civil war that some believe has already started. Shiites have been very patient so far in making the compromises to avoid a civil war, despite the daily terrorist attacks targeted against them. The concept of federalism arose recently because of such attacks, which most Sunni leaders and Arab regimes have rarely denounced, and which the Arab media praise as "resistance acts."

Minorities usually see federalism as a system that protects their interests and allows them to live in freedom, while avoiding the imposition of majority decisions upon them. Since the Sunnis are worried that the Arab nationalist and Islamic - in fact Sunni - identity of Iraq will change, they should request federalism in their own areas, so they can express these views, instead of seeking to impose them on the majority.

Why should federalism lead to the division of Iraq? Federalism was created as a system to unite different groups, cultures or religions under a single central government assigned agreed-upon tasks, but also where the devolution of power allows each region to pursue its own welfare. The Sunnis fear that this will be to their disadvantage and will lead to their oppression. Yet their rejection of a federal constitution that might protect their interests might, in fact, lead to precisely what they fear most.

Haytham Mouzahem is a Lebanese analyst and researcher who specializes in Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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