This is the web version of the newsletter sent to Century International subscribers on October 14, 2022.
Dear Friends of Century International,
How do religion and sectarian identity drive Iraq’s deadly crisis—not to mention politics and conflict throughout the Middle East—and how can they be part of the solution? Constant emergencies distract us from thinking about underlying causes and policies to address them.
To address one of the engines of conflict in Iraq and the surrounding region, Century International has launched a project that is both timely and historical: a deep study of the transformation of Shia politics in Iraq.
The historical turn of Shia Islamist identity and politics in Iraq is tied to profound international currents; Iraq’s trajectory is both a cause and a symptom of major shifts in Islamism and Islamist politics—labels that recent developments have largely rendered meaningless.
For nearly two years, a group of Iraq scholars has worked together to explore the mechanics, ideologies and evolution of Shia politics in Iraq over the last two decades, and suggest replacements for outmoded and limited frames like “Islamism” and “Shia politics” that no longer shed any useful light on the distinctions between factions and constituencies.
Century International’s Iraq fellow Sajad Jiyad and I have helmed the project. Between now and spring 2023, we’ll release at least ten reports, along with new responses prompted by our group’s findings. You can read the first reports now:
In coming weeks, we’ll have more:
- Fanar Haddad on alternatives to concepts of “Shia Islamism” and “Shia politics”;
- Marsin Alshamary on clerical authority;
- Ali Al-Mawlawi on how intra-Shia rhetorical disputes mask their common reliance on state power;
- Taif Alkhudary on the ideology and goals of the Tishreen movement beyond protest;
- Maria Fantappie on the overlooked importance of the background of Iraq’s leaders to explain political outcomes;
- Abbas Kadhim on the 2014 religious edict that created the Popular Mobilization Units;
- Renad Mansour on the role of violence in Iraq’s political system;
- Sajad Jiyad on the life and influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani; and
- Thanassis Cambanis on the arc of religious politics and Shia power.
Iraq’s dangerous political predicament remains unresolved despite the welcome election of a new president on October 13. Spoilers still threaten further rounds of civil violence even as corruption makes daily life lethal for so many. None of the events in Iraq make sense without a revised understanding of the country’s dynamic politics, which are often simplistically described and misunderstood as solely sectarian. We intend this research to serve as a corrective that can lead to clearer analysis and more effective policy.
The Shia politics working group’s contribution to the Faith and Fracture project will, we hope, help advance the understanding of Shia politics, Islamism, and more widely, religious politics in the Middle East among policymakers, researchers, and even political actors themselves. At Century International you’ll find a growing conversation about these ideas and the policy implications over the next six months—and beyond.
Director, Century International
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Read: The Meaning of Islamist Politics
When everyone is an Islamist, how should we understand Islamist politics? “Islamism” and “Shia politics” hardly explain any of Iraq’s political motives and divides, even as pious Shia figures play a leading role on all sides of the country’s many political struggles. Thanassis Cambanis and Sajad Jiyad propose a different approach to messy and malleable politics that are only partly about religion or identity.
Read: Iraq’s New Government
After a year of dangerous deadlock, Iraq’s political elite suddenly chose a new president and agreed on the next prime minister. Sajad Jiyad asks whether a new government based on a broken consensus system can save the country from conflict and corruption, and concludes that a safe bet is to expect little in the way of reform.