Resurrecting Iraqi politics after Chalabi's death

Resurrecting Iraqi politics after Chalabi's death
Comment: Forging a sense of national unity in the aftermath of the US invasion was made all the more difficult by Chalabi's sectarianism, writes Laith Saud.
5 min read
04 Nov, 2015
Western media described Chalabi as the ‘manipulator’ who ‘conned’ the US into invading Iraq [Getty]

Ahmed Chalabi has died. 

Opposition figure, politician, crook, conman? Perhaps all of the above. 

Chalabi's global prominence is due - of course - to the invasion of Iraq, for which he has been described in Western media as "the manipulator who conned the US into invading Iraq". 

Chalabi's rise and fall was entirely rhetorical, having hardly assumed any power post-2003 invasion. His life was an appropriate reference point in looking at so-called "democracy" in Iraq. 

Chalabi, like his native country, was rich, resourceful and well-educated. But his ambitions, like those of the US neocons who led the war, were never tied to true political reform, only the trimmings of one. 

Chalabi promised a democratic Iraq "at peace with Israel", an attractive catchphrase for American ears - with no concern for the actual political issues affecting Iraqi society. 

Here I will review both politics and its malpractice in Iraq.

     It has often been said there is a deficiency of democracy in the Arab world; while no doubt true, such statements do little to shed light

What is politics? 

It has often been said there is a deficiency of democracy in the Arab world; while no doubt true, such statements do little to shed light on the state of politics in the region. 

Few states in the world - perhaps with the exception of some of the Nordic nations - are actually democratic; most states associated with democracy, mostly in the West, are actually a compromise between liberal-constitutional mechanisms and popular governance. 

This balance is what gives rise to a robust political spectrum - a philosophical argument between individual liberty and social equality. 

This is what is absent in the Arab world generally and Iraq particularly: Iraqi politics institutionalises "sect-based" privileges; turning Iraqis into competing groups of sects and ethnicities, rather than a society of free individuals or an organic democracy. 

The mood engendered by this type of arrangement is now haunting the whole region.                       

Politics takes into account the relationship between popular governance and the economy. Those who favour the free-market economy invoke rights and liberty to pursue economic gain; this tradition was developed from the classical liberal tradition of Adam Smith up to the analysis of Milton Friedman. 

Subscribers of this school argue economic freedom encourages us to be better, work harder and be rational - and these freedoms also extend to belief and culture. 

Those who favour governance want a society where we rule together towards a more noble future, based on progress and knowledge; here Rousseau and, yes, Marx are the pillars. 

Equality is a pre-requisite to this type of government - thus there is an emphasis on social and economic equality. 

Neither "side" is either completely correct or flawed; therefore both sides persist while compromises are made.

Are there politics in Iraq? 

Of the six major political groups that accompanied the Americans in invading Iraq, five propagated a platform that was entirely sect or ethnic based. 

A further two parties, the Iraqi National Accord and the Constitutional Monarchy movement were nationalist in their platform; they argued their parties represented all Iraqis, regardless of sect or ethnicity. 

Though possessing potential, in the politically immature environment of US-occupied Iraq, their proposals never developed beyond that pledge.

Today there are anywhere between nineteen and forty political parties in Iraq, depending on how one counts them - the 276 registered political entities in Iraq tend to merge and form coalitions when it comes to elections.

Of the 328 seats available in the Council of Representatives, 208 have gone to sect or ethnic based parties; that is more than 63 percent. These groups advocate on behalf of specific groups in Iraq, rather than political platforms delineating the relationship between economy and governance. 

     The 'secto-democracy' makes partisan the consciousness of many to think of themselves as Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Christian

This means the identities of Iraqis are fragmented. 

The "secto-democracy" introduced by the Americans, based on similar models imposed on Lebanon, makes partisan the consciousness of many Iraqis to think of themselves as Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Christian, etc. 

This prevents the emergence of a political identity, in which one clearly and freely ascribes to a political philosophy that stresses individual rights or social and democratic equality - or at least understands a compromise must persist between the two. 

Only 38 seats have gone to nationalist parties. But since the political climate in Iraq is so immature, these parties have been able to stress little more than Iraqi unity; they have not disseminated any real political message about what liberties or socio-economic equality they may bring to society - thus their platforms are also identity-based. 

The platform of unity, though promising - as it may lead to greater political maturity - is in fact unappealing, and even dangerous in a society policed by militias reinforcing sectarian and ethnic identities.

I was born in Baghdad, to an Arab Sunni father and an Arab Shia mother; I fondly recall dinner parties wherein we discussed the world, history, and the region, with scant regard for sect. I also have cousins with Kurdish mothers or fathers, intimating the highly integrated nature of Baghdad before 2003. 

Though highly secular, it was traditional for us to visit Najaf and Karbala, where Sunnis and Shia performed salat, side by side. We were all simply one family; this family is now scattered across Europe, North America and the Arab world - for today's highly fragmented Iraq is no longer home.

Having lived through this, I dispute claims that Hobbesian Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, simply suppressed sectarian differences. 

There was no secret police at our dinners forcing us to dismiss our confessional or ethnic affiliations to enjoy Iraqi cuisine; rather, political awareness is very much cultivated by the institutions of society, it is thus malleable. 

And the current institutions in Iraq, beginning with the constitution and the prevalence of religious and ethnic establishments, will perpetuate the lack of actual politics in Iraq for a long time to come. 

Ahmed Chalabi helped make this new Iraq. Ambitious to assume power he advanced the most tenuous of claims: I am from your sect, thus I have your interest in mind.

Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.