The latest political crisis in Iraq underscores just how much the country’s politics has transformed since 2005, when Iraqis chose their first representative government under U.S. military occupation.

Iraq has always been an important driver of Middle East regional politics, and a bellwether of new thinking and trends. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a minority-ruled authoritarian republic, a critical oil producer, and an engine of regional conflict. Two decades later, Iraq remains a republic, its flawed but pluralistic democratic power-sharing system now dominated by factions representing the Shia majority.

In practice, Shia Islamist power has shattered any consensus about the meaning of either the term “Shia” or “Islamist” in politics—and not just in Iraq. The evolution of Shia Islamist power in Iraq has significance for the entire surrounding region, where complex political struggles are often misleadingly framed—often by the participants themselves—as Islamist versus secular, or Shia versus Sunni. In contemporary Iraq, Shia politics are only partly about religion or identity. A clear understanding of Iraqi Shia agendas and power struggles reveals politics that are messy and malleable. “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.

Century International convened a group of Iraq researchers in early 2021 to explore the transformation of Shia politics in Iraq since the U.S. invasion. The researchers worked in concert to chart the development of Shia Islamist politics through the cycles of power-sharing and armed conflict that have marked Iraq over the last two decades. They have studied the leaders who espoused that label—and how we might more usefully describe and understand Iraqi politics today.

Explaining Everything and Nothing

Careful study suggests that in some way all the important decisions in Iraq trace back to “Shia politics”—and at the same time, none of them do. Two processes have unfolded in parallel: Shia preeminence, and the natural limits of a pluralistic political system.

Under majority rule, Shia politics have become the most important politics in Iraq, but by no means the only important ones. The “Shia house,” as Iraqi politicians call the squabbling and heterogenous spectrum of Shia political factions, gets to select the prime minister and fill the most important and lucrative government posts. Shia factions are supposed to defend Shia interests, but actually spend much if not most of their time struggling with one another for a larger share of power or resources. They often try to summon independent clerics as referees or change agents, and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most senior Shia cleric, has regularly intervened to nudge Iraq away from catastrophic escalations in conflict. None of Iraq’s disputes or their resolutions make sense solely as avatars of “Shia Islamism.” Yet at the same time, religion and identity play an important role.

None of Iraq’s disputes make sense solely as avatars of “Shia Islamism.” But religion and identity do play an important role.

And the Shia house operates not in a vacuum, but in constant negotiation with other forces, some denoted by identity (Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and other communities) and some by institutional affiliation or interest (the security services, the business elite). Iraqis have carefully orchestrated a political system that prevents any single faction or identity group from dominating the others or even any one community. Iraq’s post-American power-sharing arrangement grants winners and losers alike shares of government power; this consociational system promotes corruption and bad governance, but it also makes it difficult for a single authoritarian to ever take full control of state resources. This built-in balancing that so frustrates reformers and long-suffering Iraqi citizens has also yielded a system characterized by hybrid actors, overlapping and layered identities, and political compromises.

Century International’s Shia politics working group brought together experts on Shia Islam and the socio-politics of the Middle East to produce unique research that might inform debate and provide insights into the current affairs not only of Iraq but of other countries with significant Shia populations, including Iran, Lebanon, and Bahrain. The group began with workshops and field research, and continues to recruit new researchers. Beginning this month, the working group will release reports and other publications that can enrich the current political and policy debates focused on Iraq. We plan to continue releasing new material through March and perhaps beyond—and we hope that each new report can prompt new discussions about Iraq, Shia politics, and the intersection of religious communities, political power, and armed conflict.

Inside, outside, and against the State

The first report in the Shia politics series (which is part of Century International’s Faith and Fracture project, supported by the Henry R. Luce Foundation) is Haley Bobseine’s study of “change independents” and emerging parties who, on the margins of Iraq’s status quo factional politics, are trying to articulate an alternative “third way.” Based on extensive fieldwork during August’s political crisis in Iraq, Bobseine’s forthcoming report details some of the grievances that propelled the original Tishreen protests in October 2019. Scheduled to be published on the third anniversary of those protests, the report provides a useful guide to the likely triggers for Iraq’s next round of demonstrations.

The Shia politics series will publish four more reports in 2022. Ben Robin-D’Cruz’s deep study of the Sadrist electoral machine casts new light on Muqtada al-Sadr’s ability to command enduring support, while pointing to some of its limits. Robin-D’Cruz’s detailed depiction of the Sadrist movement’s mobilization mechanics provides a corrective to analysis that has attributed Sadr’s electoral prowess to religious pedigree, or to political ideology, rather than to the construction and maintenance of a network.

Fanar Haddad questions the very terms “Shia politics” and “Shia Islamism,” and builds on his extensive earlier work to put the sectarian dimension of contemporary Iraqi politics in its proper context: as just one of the factors that helps explain Iraq’s shifting political alliances and rivalries. If we cannot explain crucial forces through concepts like “Shia politics” or “Shia Islamism,” how should we understand them—especially as intra-Shia cleavages are increasingly the most important points of conflict in Iraq and Iran?

Marsin Alshamary draws on extensive field research in the Shia seminaries of Najaf, and interviews with clerics who have actively participated in electoral politics, to assess clerical authority in Iraq. Alshamary charts how Iraq’s repeated crises and governance failures have affected the standing of clerics with their followers—and their authority relative to the Shia political class.

Ali Al-Mawlawi’s study of Shia political rhetoric about the state helps anchor intra-Shia political competition in a shared desire to harness the resources of the state. Even among rival Shia factions, a debate still flares over who is loyal to the state and who is not. Al-Mawlawi’s analysis suggests Iraq’s Shia factions might accuse one another of undermining the state, but all of them ultimately want more of its resources and power—so on that level, at least, they are all invested in the state.

Politics beyond Islamism and Identity

In 2023, the project will publish several more studies. Taif Alkhudary has produced a deep study of the ideology and goals of the Tishreen movement beyond protest, and suggests paths it might take as its followers gain power and their political movements mature. Maria Fantappie’s historical study of the three Iraqi prime ministers who hail from the Dawa Party (a Shia Islamist party) makes a compelling case that personalities and leadership styles have played a determining role at key historical junctures. Sajad Jiyad’s biographical study of Grand Ayatollah Sistani can serve as a resource for students of Iraq no matter what their specific interest, and argues that Sistani’s influence has been both pivotal and shifting over the last two decades. Thanassis Cambanis chronicles the Sunni Arab response to the preeminence of Shia Islamists, from Ba’athist nostalgia, sectarian resistance, and outright takfiri rejectionism, to the current accommodation, which suggests the potential for a more capacious and adaptive Iraqi identity, rather than primarily sectarian or ethnic identities. Other members of the working group are pursuing other strains of inquiry. Renad Mansour is researching the ways in which violence has usurped other political mechanisms in Iraq, and how that violence has warped and transformed power, governance, and daily life. Abbas Kadhim is studying the 2014 religious edict, or fatwa, that formed the Popular Mobilization Units that successfully fought the Islamic State but entrenched militias more deeply in the Iraqi polity.

We expect the project to generate new research beyond the publication of its first findings. Additional researchers are exploring further reports that extend the study of Shia politics in other directions, in Iraq and beyond, from the interaction of religion with politics to the rule of the transnational Shia diaspora, the influence of alms, and government efforts to harness religious authority for state ends.

Iraq’s unique trajectory since 2003 has made it a test lab for new approaches to religion, politics, and power.

Iraq’s unique trajectory in the region since 2003 has made it both a test lab and a model of new approaches to religion, politics, and power. As a pluralistic republic with majority rule and a system that has effectively prevented the emergence of a single dominant ruler or faction, Iraq’s experience has much to offer in a region that witnesses little political experimentation or evolution. Iraq is surrounded by countries ruled by authoritarians and despots, who are often desperate to instrumentalize religion, either to legitimize their regimes or else to serve as a bogeyman, the terrifying alternative to whatever the existing ruler offers. But in Iraq, religion has saturated and suffused politics, and those politics have evolved—not transcending religion but absorbing it. “Shia” and “Islamist” were apt terms for a segment of Iraq’s politics in the immediate aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003; many Iraqis themselves embraced the labels. But in a relatively short historical period of time, identity and political practice have shifted. “Shia” and “Islamist” no longer contain the same specificity and explanatory power in Iraq. And more widely across the Middle East, the implications of sectarian and religious labels have dramatically changed, or even lost meaning, in one generation. “Shia” and “Islamist” might have the same limited utility in Iraq as “Catholic” or “Protestant” and “Christianist” do for politics in North America and Europe. Religion and religious histories are relevant but not necessarily a dispositive factor in explaining motives and events.

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.