Shia Islamist parties have dominated politics in Iraq since the first post-Saddam Hussein elections in 2005. The political narrative for much of this period has revolved around two often misleading debates: about the role of Shia Islamism in politics, and whether Iraq’s leading movements are loyal to the Iraqi state or are subordinate to foreign interests.

This narrative has continued to shape even more recent developments. During the Tishreen protest movement that erupted in Iraq in October 2019, a fierce public discourse emerged over who could lay claim to being the defender of the Iraqi state, and who was bent on undermining its authority. In particular, the debate focused on whether Shia Islamist movements helped fortify the Iraqi state or eroded it. Detractors of Shia Islamist groups portrayed them as inherently antagonistic to the state—and this view took hold among protesters.

In the context of the Tishreen movement, there was a clear appeal to this narrative: The marchers were decrying the chronic dysfunction and corruption of the government, and Shia Islamist groups have been central to Iraqi politics for many years. Although most of the protesters were themselves Shia, it is easy to see how the dysfunctional government and Shia Islamist parties could be lumped together in the fervor of a street movement.

But the narrative that Shia Islamist groups are inherently against the Iraqi state is also facile, and problematic. This report seeks to explore political rhetoric and public debates as an indicator of how Shia Islamists conceive of their relationship with the Iraqi state, and how their adversaries perceive that relationship. This study, based on interviews with members of a prominent Shia Islamist group and a study of Iraqi political rhetoric, suggests that rootedness in the state is a misleading metric that fails to shed light on the goals of leading Shia Islamist political factions or the differences between them. To the contrary, a careful reading of Iraq’s political discourse shows that the dominant Shia political factions all believe in the Iraqi state; what distinguishes them are their different aspirations for state identity. These differing aspirations vary according to how they see the role of religion in politics, which regional alliances should be prioritized, and how the state’s power structures should be configured.

Brushing off Shia Islamists as being “anti-state” is plainly erroneous, and the ideological offspring of anti-Shia prejudices that date back to at least the beginning of modern Iraq. Throughout Iraq’s recent past, the country’s ruling elites deployed similar frames to smear the entirety of Shia Iraqis as fifth columnists for Iran or other outside actors. Previous regimes used these accusations to silence political dissent and justify the persecution of Shia Iraqis.

In reality, Shia Islamists in Iraq see themselves as earnest patriots with political ambitions within the existing Iraqi state. This report reveals a far more nuanced picture of how Shia Islamists conceive of their relationship with the Iraqi state, and how they reconcile their sect-based identity with a national identity. The extent to which they rely on an ethno-sectarian framework to assert their political voice is largely a reaction to the ethno-sectarian framework that had long kept them silent. There is little evidence that their identity as Shia Islamists reduces their sense of belonging or allegiance to the multiconfessional Iraqi state.

There may be truth to the idea that Shia Islamist factions have, at times, eroded the state’s authority and its institutions. But a more constructive discourse should focus on identifying these factions’ specific practices and understanding the motivations behind them. A crude labeling of these factions as being inherently “against the state” does little to advance the analysis.

The salience of the corrective offered in this report has broader implications, as well. It also sheds light on how Iraqis think of their own politics more generally, and the narratives that are employed by competing factions—Shia or otherwise—to assert greater influence and control over the country.

And at the heart of this discursive contest over the political narrative lies a struggle over the identity of the Iraqi state. As this report shows, this contest should not be conceived of as a struggle between those who believe in the state and those who do not. Rather, it is a contest between antagonistic visions of what Iraq’s state should look like—competing visions of state identity. In this contest, allegations that Shia Islamist groups stand against the state are merely a politically expedient accusation—one that risks smearing Shia people in Iraq in general, and further exacerbating societal divisions and political polarization that will inevitably lead to more instability and political turmoil.

The State and the Anti-state

In late September 2019, jobless graduates gathered outside the office of the prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, to protest their lack of prospects and the dysfunctionality of the Iraqi state. Security forces turned water cannons against the protesters, sparking a wave of public outrage that gave rise to the biggest protest movement in Iraq in the post-2003 era.1

On October 1, 2019, protesters gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, and the Tishreen movement began. As the protest movement gained momentum, demonstrators viewed their stance as a defense of the state against the corrupt ruling elite and the armed actors—some of whom were fighters affiliated with Shia Islamist factions—who were attacking them. The protesters’ relationship with the state was articulated through the popularized protest movement slogan, “We want a homeland” (nureedu watan).

Over the first three days of October, some twenty protesters in Baghdad and the southern governorates were killed by live fire and tear gas canisters.2 In the early hours of October 4, Abdul-Mahdi went on television to warn that the deterioration of the country’s security situation could lead to “the destruction of the state.” He ominously declared that Iraq was faced with a choice between the state (dawla) and the anti-state, using the Arabic term la-dawla. (The anti-state is an imperfect translation of la-dawla, since it is essentially a unique term in Arabic; la-dawla more pointedly refers to the absence of the state.) Abdul-Mahdi added that building the state was the ultimate goal that would guarantee freedom and a dignified life for all Iraqis.3 In his view, those who posed a threat to state-building were violent saboteurs within the protest movement who had stormed government buildings and party headquarters and had attacked security forces with Molotov cocktails.4

At the heart of this contest over the political narrative lies a struggle over the identity of the Iraqi state.

Abdul-Mahdi’s October 4 remarks introduced into the public discourse the dichotomous tension between the state and the anti-state. The remarks sparked a fierce debate among competing political and civil actors over who should be considered a defender of the state and who was seeking to sabotage it. The debate quickly became central to the country’s discursive politics, and it ultimately shaped the principal themes around the run-up to the October 2021 parliamentary elections.

Abdul-Mahdi juxtaposed the security forces as defenders of the state against the violent elements of the protest movement, whom he viewed as challenging and undercutting the authority of the state. But leading voices within the protest movement took an entirely different view. From their perspective, it was the government’s repressive actions that were undermining the state’s legitimacy—and their demonstrations were an attempt at salvaging the state.

But it was ironic when, facing a popular revolt over his own governance failures, Abdul-Mahdi invoked the specter of a dissolving state. Abdul-Mahdi himself exemplified a trend toward state weakness. Formerly a member of the Shia Islamist party the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), he ended up in the 2010s as an independent politician who claimed technocratic prowess. He was nominated prime minister by the harder-line Shia Islamist factions, including the Sadrist movement and groups that identified most closely with Iran and with autonomous, nonstate militias.

Of course, the presence of armed actors in Iraq committed to subverting the state’s authority long predates the October 2019 protests. After 2003, a variety of Sunni insurgent groups emerged, all dedicated to inflicting bloodshed and civil strife as a means to undermine the legitimacy of the Shia-led order. There was also the rise of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which at its height represented a major repudiation of the authority of state security forces across large swathes of Baghdad and the southern provinces. But there is a marked difference between these earlier armed actors and those whom the protesters of Abdul-Mahdi referred to as qiwa al-la-dawla, or forces of the anti-state. These latter groups were supposed to be deeply embedded within the state apparatus, sustaining themselves through access to formal state resources. In recent years, the concept of “hybridity” has emerged to describe armed actors that “sometimes operate with the government and sometimes compete against it,” as analyst Renad Mansour has written.5 Over time, “forces of the anti-state” took on broader connotations, referring not just to the paramilitary groups that were targeting protesters, but also to the political parties that both sustained those groups and benefited from their existence.

Riot police check the headquarters of the riot police after it was set on fire by protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on May 25, 2021.
Riot police check the headquarters of the riot police after it was set on fire by protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on May 25, 2021. Source: Taha Hussein Ali/Getty Images

Understanding how discursive frames emerge and evolve in Iraq’s body politic is important because it sheds light on how political competition is framed among rival actors that seek to utilize these frames to shape the narrative to their advantage. While many of the early proponents of the state-versus-anti-state construct were Iraqi writers and social media influencers, Arab media platforms and Western think tanks were often instrumental in disseminating the analytical construct more broadly. This has important implications for how we interpret discursive shifts and their appropriation at the local level.6

What is most relevant to the discussion on Shia politics is that, even though forces of the anti-state should, by definition, denote a broad spectrum of political and paramilitary actors, a close look at the use of the term shows that, when it was first popularized in 2019–20, it referred exclusively to Shia groups that critics regarded as closely aligned with Iran. This history suggests that the term emerged more as a political attack than an analytical tool. It is important to deepen the inquiry into the term’s emergence in the public discourse to determine what intellectual utility it has—if it is indeed useful at all.

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La-dawla Goes Mainstream

It is difficult to pin down the origin and rise in popularity of the term la-dawla. One possible source is a book by the renowned sociologist Faleh Abdul Jabar, published in 2019, about a year and half after his death.7 The volume, which was a follow-up to a famous 2017 work, had little to do with the political narrative advanced during the Tishreen movement, and did not even contain the term la-dawla in the text. But the book’s title—Kitab al-la-dawla, or Book of the Anti-State—did contain the unique term, and may have popularized it, especially among intellectuals in the Tishreen movement.

But Jabar did not coin the term, and its use in reference to Iraq predates this period. During the outbreak of the Basra protests in the summer of 2018, a Swiss media outlet published a collection of opinions by Iraqis living in Switzerland about the ongoing events back home. One person, named Sabah, declared that “Iraq is a country of the anti-state,” before adding that there was no real government, but rather a quasi-government whose role was to legitimize the corruption of the ruling elite.8

Within the first month of the Tishreen protests, the anti-state concept gained notoriety among Iraqi writers and social media influencers. But it is noteworthy that many of the most prominent writers chose to publish their thoughts not in Iraqi outlets, but in other Arabic-language media outlets. Writing for the website of Al Jazeera (which is owned by the state of Qatar) on October 8, 2019, Iraqi commentator Muhammad al-Najjar asserted that Iraq was an anti-state because of what he described as the chaos and proliferation of arms in urban areas.9 Omar al-Jaffal made a similar case in his October 22 piece for the Lebanese outlet As-Safir.10 Meanwhile, another renowned Iraqi commentator, Ayad al-Anbar, sought to set the anti-state discourse in Western frames around failed and fragile states in a January 2020 article for the website of the state-funded American outlet Alhurra. He referenced global indices from Transparency International and the World Bank to reinforce his thesis.11

While these writers focused on the anti-state to describe the situation in Iraq, others chose to concentrate on identifying the political and armed actors that could be described as forces of the anti-state—in other words, forces that were seen as perpetuating the anti-state. One Iraqi writer published a piece for a Jordanian outlet in March 2020, in which he discussed the need for the U.S.-led international coalition to counter the Iran-backed militias of the anti-state, despite the fact that the coalition’s stated mission was to fight the Islamic State (which some of those Iranian-backed militias had helped defeat).12 In the same month, another Iraqi writer, Ayad al-Dulaymi, used anti-state in the context of ongoing attacks by Shia paramilitary groups against American targets in Iraq. For him, these attacks were an affront to Iraq’s sovereignty.13 Dulaymi then wrote a column for Al Jazeera in July 2020, in which he described the “project” of the anti-state that the newly elected government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi would, as he put it, inevitably have to confront.14 By the summer of 2020, “forces of the anti-state” had become synonymous not only with Shia paramilitary groups but also with political parties that critics saw as being aligned with Iran. A case in point is the Sadrist movement, which has been vocally critical of Iran. Despite the fact that the Sadrists had turned on the protest movement by the end of 2019 and engaged in a violent confrontation with them in several protest squares, including in Nasiriyah, the protesters did not use the anti-state label to refer to the Sadrists.

By the summer of 2020, “forces of the anti-state” had become synonymous with Shia paramilitary groups and supposedly Iran-aligned political parties.

Selectively labeling Shia Islamist groups with ties to Iran as the forces of the anti-state explicitly suggests that their allegiance is not to the Iraqi state. This was illustrated in an August 2020 piece published by the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Arab. The editorial, “Iraq: The State of the Anti-state,” describes how Iraqis have employed the anti-state discourse on social media to point to “the absence of a state and the rule of the jungle, which has transformed Iraq into a ‘country of the anti-state.’” According to Al-Arab’s definition, “the concept of the anti-state [la-dawla] means the confiscation of Iraq’s sovereignty for the benefit of armed groups backed by political parties and clerics subject to the orders of Iran.”15 The article cites prominent Iraqi social media commentator Steven Nabil, who wrote in an August 2020 tweet that if the forces of the anti-state emerged victorious against the state, Iraq would be “almost entirely beholden to the eastern neighbor.”16 The editorial also cites a tweet by former speaker of parliament Osama Al-Nujayfi, a man known for his close ties to Turkey, in which he urges “the forces that believe in the state to unite their efforts in challenging the forces of the anti-state,” warning that failure to do so would result in chaos and a state of “subordination” (taba’iya).17

La-dawla in the 2021 Elections

Commensurate with the violent crackdown on the protest movement and the chaos that ensued was a growing popular sentiment that Iraq had lost what is often described as haybat al-dawla, meaning the state’s ability to project or assert authority. The first two months of the Tishreen protests were particularly damaging to public perceptions of such state capacities. There was recurrent torching of government and party offices across the southern governorates. Impromptu roadblocks, often orchestrated by teenage protesters, became daily occurrences in urban centers because security forces were seemingly unable or unwilling to intervene for fear of recriminations. Protesters also began to establish pickets outside of government buildings to call on public employees not to go to work. Blockades were set up outside schools and universities, forcing most educational institutions to shut down.

It was these acts that Abdul-Mahdi had in mind when he first used the la-dawla expression in his October 4, 2019 speech. Following the resignation of his government, all these events fomented greater public discourse about the need for a new government that could reassert the authority of the state. In fact, support for Kadhimi’s premiership by some of the leading political parties was conditioned on his commitment to prioritizing the reassertion of haybat al-dawla. In one of his earliest public addresses, Kadhimi seemed to mimic Abdul-Mahdi’s rhetoric by talking about the imperative of confronting ongoing acts of vandalism against government targets by elements purporting to be protesters. Kadhimi also used an almost identical turn of phrase to Abdul-Mahdi, declaring that the country was faced with a choice between the state and the anti-state.18

By the run up to the October 10, 2021 elections, the public and political discourse was fixated on the imperative of salvaging the state. All of the leading Shia Islamist parties focused their electoral campaigns on showcasing their credentials as defenders of the state and pledging to bring a semblance of order back to the country.19 This focus was in stark contrast to the 2018 election campaigns, when the victory over the Islamic State had ushered in—albeit momentarily—a sort of post-sectarian moment, with competing parties seeking to emphasize cross-sectarian, nationalist credentials. A national opinion poll in April 2021 found that only 41 percent of respondents believed that the state had greater control over politics than nonstate armed groups.20

During the 2021 elections, cross-sectarian cooperation was far less prominent within the public discourse than debates over haybat al-dawla and the state-versus-anti-state construct. The electoral coalition between Ammar al-Hakim and Haider al-Abadi, for example, was named the State Forces Coalition (Tahaluf Qiwa al-Dawla). The coalition’s campaign slogan was “We want a state” (nureedu dawla). During the coalition’s launch event, Abadi played on the dichotomy between the state and the anti-state in an attempt to illustrate his credentials as someone who could offer voters the choice of a strong and confident state. Meanwhile, Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition adopted similar campaign messaging with the slogan “We will revive the state.”

An incident just before the election showed the extent to which support of the state had become a key messaging point for political parties. In an October 2, 2021 televised interview, the Fatah Alliance’s Qais al-Khazali spoke about the importance of Shia consensus in selecting the next prime minister. When he said that all the main Shia Islamist parties—including the Sadrists— had been meeting over the past several months in order to build consensus, the interviewer quipped that the forces of the state had sat down with the forces of the anti-state. Khazali responded that all were “forces of the state” and that he had reservations about using the “forces of the anti-state” expression.21

The Problems with the Anti-state Discourse

In April 2021, Alaa al-Hattab, a presenter on Iraqiya, the state television channel, published a column in the state-owned Al-Sabah newspaper calling into question the utility of the state-versus-anti-state construct.22 Hattab posited that the term anti-state was not constructive, because no political party claims to be opposed to the state, and that political parties, by definition, implicitly acknowledge the legitimacy of the Iraqi state, since parties compete for power within the confines of that state. Hattab also questioned whether those parties that claim to be on the side of the state were actually free of problems, like corruption, that undermine the state.

Indeed, the state-versus-anti-state construct is problematic on several levels. First, it is far too nebulous to be used in an intellectually consistent manner. Had its intended use been to identify practices that undermine the authority of the state, there would have been greater scope for advocating for its utility. These practices would then invariably apply to every political actor that engages in siphoning of state funds for private gain; the blatant transgressions against constitutional provisions; and the widespread practice of drawing on resources from foreign patrons. But as this analysis has demonstrated, the anti-state label is used exclusively as a put-down against Shia Islamist actors to suggest that they are inherently against the Iraqi state. It is merely a political slur masquerading as analysis.

There is a historical precedent for this sort of discursive politics whereby Shia religious actors are dismissed as fifth columnists in Iraq. Two essential points form the basis of this accusation. The first is the notion that religious Shia are not loyal to the Iraqi state, because of the erroneous notion that their sect has Persian roots. The second point is the idea that Shia identity is inherently antithetical to national identity. The claim is that a religious identity conflicts with loyalty to the country. Indeed, there are several instances where derogatory terms that were historically deployed by the ruling elite against Shia Iraqis have reemerged in recent years. One notable example is the concept of taba’iya, a term used to suggest subordination of individuals or a communal group to a foreign entity. The concept of taba’iya was instrumentalized by the ruling Ba’ath regime as a means to crush dissent. The term was used to justify the deportation of tens of thousands of Shia Iraqis to Iran (1969–80), and its use today in relation to Shia Islamists with ties to Iran could lead to a broader smearing of Shia Iraqis in the public discourse.

The claim is that a religious identity conflicts with loyalty to the country.

The anti-state discourse also overlaps with aspects of how sect-based identity is problematized in relation to national identity, which emerges most clearly in the way public opinion polls frame questions. A 2021 national poll commissioned by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a U.S. think tank, measured the strength of national identity by asking respondents, “Which of the following do you consider most important for giving you a sense of who you are?” Respondents could choose from a list of options that included sect, ethnicity, tribe, locality, gender, and “being a citizen of Iraq.” The report of the poll’s findings separated the answers according to whether respondents mainly identified as Shia, Sunni, Kurd, or “I am Iraqi above all.”23 The construction of the poll appears to have imposed a hierarchical conception of identity that makes it hard for respondents to express both a strong national identity and a separate ethnic or religious identity. Being asked to choose between the two suggests that they cannot exist in harmony as a set of co-identities.

In a similar vein, a 2018 CSIS-commissioned poll deduced that the country was shifting from what it described as “sub-identities to a national identity” based on polling data that found that the popularity of “Islamic parties” was declining.24 This conclusion assumes that there is something antagonistic about how political parties that are based on religious identity relate to the state. In contrast, no such tension is generally assumed in Western countries that have Christianity-inspired political parties. Furthermore, the pollsters came to this conclusion despite the fact that the data showed an even greater decline in the popularity of what it called “secular movements.”

Anti-Shia Analytical Bias

The misrepresentation of Shia Islamist groups as anti-state is especially dangerous because of the potential of discrediting Iraq’s Shia more broadly. The efforts of ruling elites to wholesale smear the country’s Shia as a Persian fifth column date back to Iraq’s modern founding. The British shared this view, and propagated it, during the early mandate period in the 1920s. Shia were viewed as seditious and pro-Iranian, leading British officials to install to power King Faisal, a Sunni Arab from Mecca, and other, largely Sunni notables.25 Gertrude Bell, then the British Oriental secretary in Iraq, expressed a typical sentiment in an October 1920 letter to her father: “I don’t for a moment doubt that the final authority must be in the hands of the Sunnis, in spite of their numerical inferiority; otherwise you will have a mujtahid-run, theocratic state, which is the very devil.”26

The British had no interest in ensuring that Iraq’s institutions reflected the country’s demographic makeup—which at the time was more than 50 percent Shia and included many other religious minorities. The first British-installed government was made up of twenty-three ministers, only two of whom were Shia. Writing in November 1920, Bell dismissed Shia demands for greater representation on the grounds that “nearly all their leading men are Persian subjects.”27

Elites not only portrayed Iraq’s Shia as seditious pro-Iranians, but even questioned their Arab roots. The scholar Yitzhak Nakash points out that in 1933, a Sunni Iraqi called Abd al-Razzaq al-Hasan published a book, Al-uruba fi al-mizan (Arabism on the Scales), that claimed that Shia Iraqis, by virtue of their alleged Persian inclinations, were unable to reconcile their sectarian identity with Arab nationalism.28 When the Ba’ath Party came to power in Iraq in 1963 and took on the mantle of Arab nationalism, they ostensibly avoided sect-based identity politics. But as prominent academic Juan Cole explains, “the Baath rhetoric of universalism was subverted for the purposes of enriching and enhancing the power and prestige of the Sunni minority.”29 The Ba’ath Party tried to counter Shia opposition to the regime through a concerted campaign to portray members of the Dawa Party (the first Shia Islamist movement in the country) as Iranian agitators. During the 1970s and 1980s, this culminated in mass arrests and executions of party members, and the deportation of thousands of Shia Iraqis who were deemed to be of Iranian origin. In response to the 1991 Shia uprising, the regime revived this approach to justify the violent suppression of the rebellion.

Aside from the erroneous claims about their lineage, the idea that the Shia are not committed to the Iraqi state is based on two key assertions. First, its proponents point to a consistent pattern of rejection of state authority by the Shia religious leadership and their followers, from the mandate period through to the Ba’ath era. Secondly, they claim that the centrality of the Shia sect-based identity, including the distinctive Shia religious beliefs and practices, make them inherently antagonistic toward the notion of coexistence with their Sunni coreligionists.

Debunked Theories

These assertions have been adequately refuted in Western academic literature. On the first charge, Nakash asserts that Shia contestation was never with the state per se; rather, Shia contestation was over their political role within the state. The Shia sought greater influence within the state as a means to preserving their identity and how they were being perceived as citizens of the state. During the monarchy, contestation included issues around the education curriculum and versions of Islamic history that were being taught that the Shia did not subscribe to. Other issues include opposition to conscription because it was regarded as a means of Sunni domination since the Shia were denied the right to occupy senior ranks within the armed forces.30

Furthermore, as Iraq scholars Reidar Visser and Gareth Stansfield point out, there have been almost no recorded instances of Shia figures calling for a separate Shia entity or the merging of a Shia Iraqi state with their counterparts in Iran.31 Fanar Haddad and Sajjad Rizvi also reinforce the point that Shia opposition groups and figures have never, throughout the country’s modern history, supported a Shia secessionist state or the redrawing of Iraq’s borders. Rather, these figures’ political opposition pertains to their role within the unitary state, and demands for greater power sharing that is commensurate with their demographic weight.32 During the post-2003 period, despite the onslaught of civil war and the Islamic State’s takeover, the Shia parties never seriously considered challenging Iraq’s territorial integrity. Even when SCIRI, one of the leading Shia Islamist parties, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, pushed for a southern super-region in 2005, it had more to do with intra-Shia politics rather than ideological conviction. SCIRI thought it could assert itself as the preeminent Shia party by establishing control over a southern region, but the idea received little popular support and ultimately went nowhere.33

The second charge, that a Shia-centric identity is incompatible with multiconfessional coexistence, misses a key point: Shia Iraqis have actually found the iterations of Arab nationalism that emerged in the region in the late 1960s to be problematic, not because they do not see themselves as Arabs, but because that strain of Arab nationalism was always framed through an exclusionary Sunni lens. As the renowned American historian Phebe Marr puts it, “In some senses [Sunnis] may be compared to WASPs [White Anglo-Saxon Protestants] in the American experience. Since Iraq’s founding, Sunnis have been the dominant political and social elite. . . . They perpetuated their status and their hold over the political system, not through sectarian identity, but rather through nationalist ideologies.”34 Shia identity arguably poses no inherent obstacle to multiconfessional coexistence, and as Haddad and Rizvi contend, sect-based identity can be “a vehicle for national identity rather than its substitute.”35

“The final authority must be in the hands of the Sunnis,” wrote Gertrude Bell in 1920. “Otherwise, you will have a mujtahid-run, theocratic state, which is the very devil.”

Another way to understand Shia identity and its relationship with the state is to look at the ideological roots of Shia Islamist movements in Iraq. Here, it is incumbent to focus on the Dawa Party, since it was the first Shia Islamist movement in the country. Founded in Najaf in 1957, the Dawa Party began as an underground movement, formed by a group of Shia religious scholars and intellectuals, primarily as a response to the growing appeal of communism and anti-religious fervor in Iraq. It sought to offer a coherent and holistic Islamic alternative to the intellectual thought of Marxism and Arab nationalism. But with the rise to power of the Ba’ath Party in 1963 and its growing authoritarianism, Dawa’s rank and file organized as an opposition movement to the regime. It subsequently paid the price, suffering mass arrests and executions of its party leadership and activists.

All the subsequent Shia Islamist trends have, either directly or indirectly, emerged from the intellectual thought of Dawa’s founding ideologue, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. For instance, although SCIRI was established in Iran, its leadership, including Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, were among the original members of Dawa. Even the Sadrist movement (named for Muqtada al-Sadr), which is arguably distinct in its origins as a movement, regards Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (that late father of Muqtada al-Sadr’s wife) as a founding father.

Protesters chant during a demonstration to protest the U.S.-led coalition’s closure of weekly Al-Hawza newspaper, run by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, on April 4, 2004, in Baghdad. The labeling of Shia Islamist groups as “anti-state” has roots in narratives that grew in the first few years after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
Protesters chant during a demonstration to protest the U.S.-led coalition’s closure of weekly Al-Hawza newspaper, run by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, on April 4, 2004, in Baghdad. The labeling of Shia Islamist groups as “anti-state” has roots in narratives that grew in the first few years after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Although the Dawa Party of today is commonly regarded in Western circles as a Shia sectarian party, a number of contemporary academics including Nakash, Abdul Jabar, and Joyce Wiley have pointed out that Dawa’s initial message throughout the 1960s and 1970s went beyond sectarian interests. In his renowned 1991 study on Shia Islamic movements in Iraq, Wiley asserts that “in the hundreds of books and papers on the [Shia] Islamic movement . . . I encountered no derogation of Sunnism.”36

Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr’s message was never about pitting Shia against Sunnis. In fact, religious Sunnis were seen as natural allies against what was viewed as the common threat of communism, and the defense of the Global South against the Global North. Nor did Sadr view Shia opposition to the Ba’ath regime through an anti-Sunni lens. In his final message, shortly before his arrest and murder by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1980, he distinguishes between Sunnis and Ba’ath rule: “The actual [Iraqi] rule today is not a Sunni rule, although the ruling gang deceitfully claims to belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. Sunni rule does not mean the rule of a person who descended from Sunni parents. . . . The tyrant rulers of Iraq today . . . violate Islam, and they abuse Ali and Omar together every day in every step they take.”37

Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr wrote about what he saw as the illegitimacy of the government rather than the state.38 It was not the state that was inherently flawed, but rather the practices of those who wielded the power of the state.

Dawa Party Members React

Muhammad Baqir Sadr’s intellectual legacy continues to shape the identity and ideological convictions of the Dawa Party today. His publications and teachings remain central to the education of the younger generation of cadres. A nuanced understanding of how the Dawa Party conceptualizes its relationship with the Iraqi state provides a useful illustrative case because of Dawa’s rich intellectual heritage in comparison with other Shia Islamist groups, and the party’s continued relevance in Iraqi politics. My interviews with party members focused on younger members, because their formative experiences were primarily shaped by post-2003 Iraq rather than a bygone era, and their views offer important insights into the party’s political and ideological trajectory over the long term.39

In my interviews with these younger party members, our discussions ranged from their views on the state-versus-anti-state construct, whether national and sect-based identities were irreconcilably antagonistic, and how their conceptions of the state had evolved since 2003.

From the outset, interviewees asserted the salience of discursive politics in relation to the Iraqi context. One party member explained how language is constructed and instrumentalized for political gain, and described the state-versus-anti-state construct as “problematic,” because he viewed it as an oversimplification of the divide among political actors. Others expressed concern about the binary framing of the construct, describing it as a reductionist approach that was unhelpful in addressing societal polarization in the country.

A key objection that some interviewees expressed concerned the very definition of the state. They cautioned against the forced adoption of Western conceptions of the state. As one respondent asserted, Iraqis should not confine themselves to Western frames of thinking about the role and functions of the Iraqi state. Although there may be much in common between Weberian views on the state as a polity and how Iraqis conceive of the state, interviewees emphasized the need to account for the Iraqi context before determining what governing arrangements would be most suitable for the country.

Many interviewees tied perceptions about the legitimacy of the state’s governing arrangements to preserving the country’s Islamic roots. In other words, while they viewed state identity pluralistically—as an expression of the country’s diverse inhabitants—they placed great importance on preserving the Islamic facets of state identity. In this regard, they saw political opposition to a ruling power or to foreign influence as incumbent in response to any attempts to uproot the Islamic aspects of the country’s identity. Pressed on the key facets of this identity, respondents agreed on the centrality of preserving an Islamic ethical code within society.

Throughout the discussions, Dawa members often expressed a sense of pragmatism about the type of state identity that they should aspire for. “We must deal with reality,” said one respondent, noting that the current configuration of the state may not meet all the aspirations of Dawa Party members, but it does achieve a bare minimum in terms of guaranteeing the rights of all citizens to express themselves without fear of persecution.40 In a similar vein, while interviewees viewed the constitution as being deeply flawed, all respondents believed that it should nevertheless be upheld as the basis for the state’s polity. Members agreed that the state should safeguard the interests of all citizens rather than just those in power. As one interviewee put it, state legitimacy is inextricably linked with this function.41 Another referred to a concept, which was developed by earlier Dawa ideologues, known as wilayat al-ummah, meaning “the authority of the people.” He asserted that legitimate governance should be based on entrusting the people to freely express their will and determine the trajectory that the country takes.42

Interviewees also linked state identity to structural aspects of power. One respondent described how the nature of the state itself had evolved since its modern founding. He believed that Iraq under the monarchy (1921–58) was qualitatively different to that under Abdul Karim Qasim (prime minister from the end of the monarchy in 1958 until 1963). Similarly, the interviewee felt that Iraq had fundamentally changed under the Ba’ath regime. He cited Saddam Hussein’s notorious Republican Guard to illustrate how the type of state security apparatus can have a major impact on the nature of the political system.43

Addressing the issue of whether national and subnational identities could be reconciled, one interviewee pointed to problems with how sect-based identity is often defined, noting that there was a major distinction between sectarian practices—defined as discriminatory acts based on sect—and engaging in sect-based identity politics. One member described how the ethno-sectarian nature of Iraqi political movements was a natural consequence of the environment in which they emerged. He noted that many existing Shia parties began as movements rather than political parties seeking power. He pointed to how Western frames about the relationship between political movements and the state do not account for religious institutions like the hawza (the Shia seminaries, collectively), which has an important transnational dimension. Since the hawza in Najaf is a primary center of Shia religious learning, its authority extends far beyond Iraq’s borders. He also pointed out that Dawa was not established exclusively for Iraqis and that it later had to refocus itself on domestic matters. According to this party member, this need to make itself domestic does not mean that Dawa’s loyalties lie outside of Iraq. Rather, Dawa’s origins as a party with an international focus simply reflected the environment in which it emerged, and the fact that it was forced into exile for a large portion of its history.44

In interviews, Dawa Party members agreed that the state should safeguard the interests of all citizens, and not just those in power.

Similar interviews with Sadrists, and groups that are more closely aligned with Iran, could explore in detail the views of those Shia movement supporters about the state. But even a cursory analysis of the political discourse of those movements makes clear that, no matter what their differing views on Iran, militia regulation, or anti-corruption, all of them invoke the goal of effective government and a strong state, and seek to control, rather than erode, state institutions.45

A More Nuanced Analysis

While it is often said that Iraq’s ethno-religious diversity is a source of strength for the country rather than a weakness, it is hard to deny that identity-based contests have driven much of the violence and political instability of the post-2003 period. Shia Islamist parties and movements, by virtue of their central role in governing Iraq, have borne the brunt of widespread public blame and anger about the chaotic state of the country. In recent years, discursive politics in Iraq have turned to the “state versus anti-state” construct as a way to frame criticism of Iraq’s ruling elite. This construct has focused almost exclusively on Shia Islamist parties and movements that enjoy political ties to Iran, brandishing them as inherently antithetical to the state.

There is a strong need for a more nuanced and measured discussion about how Iraq’s broad spectrum of Shia Islamist groups conceive of the Iraqi state and view themselves within it. This discussion should first begin by differentiating the views of Iraq’s Shia Islamist groups along ideological and political lines in order to understand who they are, what they stand for, and how they conceive of their relationship with the state. While understanding the convictions of Dawa Party members is a useful entry point for this endeavor, further inquiry is needed to understand the views of other Shia Islamist groups.

Shia Islamists are an integral part of Iraq’s body politic and will continue to be so by virtue of their reach within Iraqi society. If political stability and conflict resolution are to be truly prioritized, policymakers, academics, and pundits should be cautious about using discursive frames that have the potential to exacerbate societal schisms and ultimately undermine Iraq’s fragile social fabric. Iraq’s modern history is replete with instances in which Shia have suffered wholesale smearing as fifth columnists that are antagonistic towards the state. Thus, whenever Shia Iraqis engage in politics—particularly when they are religious Shia—there is a danger that they will automatically be portrayed in erroneous and harmful ways.

Further, discursive politics that seek to frame sect-based identity as invariably incompatible with nationalism should also be avoided. Such discursive politics imply that there is something inherently antithetical about identity politics and nationalism. There are many examples around the world where subnational identities have been embraced as the bedrock of pluralistic coexistence. The cases of both Sri Lanka and Bosnia and Herzegovina illustrate the persistent salience of ethno-religious identities in postwar contexts and how the idea of negating these identities is not a realistic prospect. Instances where identity politics do lead to civil strife should be identified and countered, but the wholesale rejection of ethno-sectarian frames of thinking makes little sense in a country with a history steeped in social and political injustices based along ethno-sectarian lines. It is only natural that some of the responses to ethno-sectarian persecution are ethnic and sect-based responses. And as in other contexts, the salience of identity politics diminishes when structural power imbalances and historical injustices are adequately addressed.

This report is part of “Faith and Fracture,” a TCF project supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.

Header image: Demonstrators wave a large flag in Tahrir Square on November 22, 2019, in Baghdad. Thousands of demonstrators occupied Baghdad’s center during the Tishreen protests, calling for government and policy reform. Source: Erin Trieb/Getty Images


  1. Yasser Eljuboori (@YasserEljuboori), Twitter status update, September 25, 2019,
  2. Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “Iraqi Protestors Defy Curfew as Violence Leaves 33 Dead,” Associated Press, October 3, 2019,
  3. “We are faced with a choice between the state and the anti-state,” he said. “Statement by Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi” (in Arabic), uploaded to YouTube by Al-Ghad TV on October 4, 2019,
  4. “Iraqi Security and Humanitarian Monitor,” Enabling Peace in Iraq Center, October 3, 2019,
  5. Renad Mansour, “The ‘Hybrid Armed Actors’ Paradox: A Necessary Compromise?,” War on the Rock, January 21, 2021, For a more detailed look at the concept of hybridity, see, “Hybrid Actors: Armed Groups and State Fragmentation in the Middle East,” The Century Foundation, November 12, 2019,; and Renad Mansour and Thanassis Cambanis, “Look at the State, Not the Hybrid Actors,” Century International, May 5, 2022,
  6. Michal Krzyzanowski, “Discursive Shifts in Ethno-Nationalist Politics: On Politicisation and Mediatisation of the ‘Refugee Crisis’ in Poland,” University of Liverpool, 2020,
  7. Kitab al-la-dawla by Faleh Abdul Jabar: Prospects for the Iraqi Situation” (in Arabic), Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, December 26, 2019,”كتاب-اللادولة”-لفالح-عبد-الجبار-مآلات-الحالة-العراقية.
  8. “The Current Protest in Iraq Are a Foundation Stone That Will Steer Iraqi Awareness toward Reclaiming Its Identity” (in Arabic),, July 25, 2018,عراقيون-مقيمون-في-سويسرا-_-التظاهرات-الحالية-هي-ح-ج-ر-الأساس-الذي-سي-نق-ل-الو-عي-العراقي-باتجاه-استرجاع-هويته.
  9. “Iraq in the Midst of the October Uprising” (in Arabic), Al Jazeera, October 8, 2019,العراق-في-مهب-انتفاضة-تشرين.
  10. “Young Iraq, Defenseless in the Face of the Anti-state” (in Arabic), As-Safir, October 22, 2019,العراق-الشاب-أعزلٌ-في-وجه-اللادولة/.
  11. “Iraq and the Choices of the Political Class: The State or the Anti-State” (in Arabic), Alhurra, January 28, 2020,العراق-وخيارات-الطبقة-السياسية-اللادولة-اللادولة.
  12. “Iraq: Struggle between the State and the Anti-state” (in Arabic), March 23, 2020, Noon Post,
  13. “Iraq: Sovereignty of the Anti-state” (in Arabic), March 16, 2020, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed,العراق-سيادة-اللادولة.
  14. “Iraq: Confrontation between the State and the Anti-state” (in Arabic), Al Jazeera, July 1, 2020,العراق-مواجهة-الدولة-واللا-دولة.
  15. “Iraq: State of the Anti-state” (in Arabic), Al-Arab, August 25, 2020,العراق-دولة-اللادولة.
  16. Steven Nabil (@thestevennabil), Twitter status update, August 22, 2020,
  17. Osama Al-Nujaifi (@Osama_Alnujaifi), Twitter status update, August 23, 2020,
  18. “Kadhimi: We Must Choose between the State and the Anti-state” (in Arabic), uploaded to YouTube by Samarra TV—News on August 30, 2020,
  19. “Party Slogans in the Elections: In Search of the Lost State and Merging the Hashd with the Army” (in Arabic), Sawt al-Iraq, September 12, 2021,شعارات-الأحزاب-في-الانتخابات-البحث-عن/.
  20. Munqith Dagher and Karl Kaltenthaler, “The Iraqi Opinion Thermometer,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 2021,
  21. “The Secretary General for Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq: The Choice of the Next Prime Minister Will Not Be Personalized,” uploaded to YouTube by Dijla TV on October 2, 2021,
  22. Alaa Hataab (@alaahataab), Twitter status update, April 25, 2021,
  23. Dagher and Kaltenthaler, “The Iraqi Opinion Thermometer.”
  24. Munqith Dagher, “Iraqi Public Opinion on the 2018 Parliamentary Elections,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 28, 2018,
  25. Juan Cole, “The Rise of Religious and Ethnic Mass Politics in Iraq,” in Religion and Nationalism in Iraq: A Comparative Perspective, ed. David Little and David Swearer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 48–49.
  26. Abbas Kadhim, Reclaiming Iraq: The 1920 Revolution and the Founding of the Modern State (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2012), 149.
  27. Ibid., 63–64.
  28. Nakash, The Shi’is of Iraq (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 114.
  29. Cole, “The Rise of Religious and Ethnic Mass Politics in Iraq,” 50.
  30. Nakash, The Shi’is of Iraq, 114–115.
  31. Reidar Visser and Gareth Stansfield, eds., An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 30.
  32. Fanar Haddad and Sajjad Rizvi, “Fitting Baghdad In,” in An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?, ed. Reidar Visser and Gareth Stansfield (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 53.
  33. Ibid., 55.
  34. Phebe Marr, “Kurds and Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites: Can an Iraqi Identity be Salvaged?,” in Little and Swearer, Religion and Nationalism in Iraq, 68.
  35. Haddad and Rizvi “Fitting Baghdad In,” 69.
  36. Joyce Wiley, The Islamic Movement of Iraqi Shi’as, (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1991), 148.
  37. Ibid., 144–45
  38. Ibid., 144.
  39. Semi-structured interviews with Dawa Party members between the ages of thirty and forty-five were conducted by the author between December 2021 and January 2022, including a remote focus group discussion with seven members on January 13, 2022. Interviewees made anonymity a condition of their participation, which I honored in order to encourage them to speak freely. Details about the time and location of individual interviews cited below have been removed to protect that anonymity.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Ibid.