- Inside Iraq’s Confessional Politics
After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, a steady stream of books appeared analyzing the situation in Iraq before and after the U.S. invasion. In this, the first book by a former member of the new Iraqi government, Ali A. Allawi provides a detailed account of Iraq's history since the 1990 Gulf War and of Iraqi society and politics after Operation Iraqi Freedom. Allawi was Iraq's first postwar civilian minister of defense and later minister of finance under Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. He was elected to the Transitional National Assembly in 2005 as a member of the (Shia) United Iraqi Alliance and now serves as an advisor to current premier Nuri al-Maliki. Allawi's various positions in the Iraqi government, as well as his prewar role in Shia-exile Iraqi politics, give him a unique perspective on the Iraqi political landscape and, in particular, on Iraqi Shi'ism. Unlike others who have written insider accounts and memoirs, Allawi never tries to psychoanalyze the key players. Instead he writes in a dispassionate and at times even distant prose—writing about himself in the third person, for example—that evokes an earlier style of Arabic autobiographical writing.
His book critically addresses nearly everything from the rise of the Iraqi opposition to L. Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to the present-day Maliki government. While Allawi's critique of U.S. policy in Iraq and of Iraqi politics is not new, his account of political Islam in Iraq is. One of Allawi's overarching themes is the commanding sociopolitical role played in Iraq by Islam—be it the Twelver [End Page 170] Shi'ism of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr or the jihadi salafism of al-Qaeda's late leader, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. This story of religion, indeed the very Islamization of Iraqi society, prior to and after the U.S. invasion, is the focus of this review. With the failure of competing political ideologies (Arab nationalism, for example), political Islam—however defined in Iraq's confessional context—has become the dominant form of political organization and democratic participation not just in Iraq, but in the Muslim world.
How did Sunni and Shia sectarianism—and in many cases Iraqi tribalism, which Saddam Hussein revived as a matter of state policy—become the dominant issue in Iraqi politics today? (The issue of Kurdish nationalism will not be directly addressed in this review.) And what are the implications for democracy in Iraq? To answer these and other questions, Allawi draws on the work of Iraqi sociologist Ali al-Wardi (d. 1995), who analyzed Iraqi society in terms of a flux between the urban center and the tribal-nomadic periphery, while noting that modernity in the Iraqi context functioned merely as a veneer for tribalism and sectarianism. According to Allawi, the failure—after the 1980–88 war with Iran, the First Gulf War, and the decimation of Iraq's urban middle class under the UN sanctions regime and Saddam's perversion of it—of Saddam's Ba'athist Iraq, despite its trappings of a modern (police) state, caused a turn back to tribalism and sectarianism as older and arguably stabler ways of organizing society.
This basic social realignment spawned Shia populist movements and spread salafist forms of Islam, such as Wahhabism, among Iraq's Sunni Arabs. Saddam's brutal crushing of the traditionally disenfranchised Shias' 1991 post–Gulf War uprising (begun in response to U.S. encouragement)—using the helicopters and tanks permitted to him as well as propaganda that declared "[There will be] no Shia after today!"—filled mass graves with Shia corpses. According to Allawi, this laid the foundation for the 1990s movement of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, the father of Muqtada al-Sadr. With the death in 1992 of Grand Ayatollah Abdul-Qasim al-Khoei, Sistani's predecessor and teacher, Mohammed al-Sadr extended his activist-religious authority (marja'iya) over the Shia of al-Thawra—a large...