Like any term associated with such a vast socio-religious group, “Shia politics” is inherently difficult to define. Does it refer to the sectarian identity of its protagonists? Is it a synonym for Shia Islamism? Must a movement speak in the name of “the Shia” to be considered Shia politics? Or does the term Shia politics refer to a particular set of discursive practices—a style of political rhetoric?

However it is defined, the term “Shia politics” is in need of reconceptualization, at least in the context of today’s Iraq, because of several developments in the country’s recent history. For one, the vague notion of Shia rule is no longer an aspiration, but a reality: the dominant political actors in Iraq are Shia and, more so, Shia-centric politicians. (The terms Shia-centric and sect-centric denote a self-defining focus on sect—this helps us better differentiate, for example, a politician who just happens to be Shia from a Shia-centric politician.) Further, since Shia rule is a reality, it no longer has to contend with sect-coded existential threats, as it once did after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. The lack of such threats naturally blunts the salience of the politics of sect, and more generally calls into question the purpose of political sect-centricity in Iraq—a phenomenon that has traditionally been closely associated with conceptions of Shia politics.

Additionally, the empowerment of Shia elites has not translated into any material benefit for the average Iraqi—Shia or otherwise—save for those with elite connections. The lack of such gains has further dented the relevance of sect-centricity in Iraqi politics. In other words, the protagonists of so-called Shia politics have failed their supposed constituents.

As a result, the primary challenge to the dominance of today’s Shia political elite comes from Shia quarters in the form of intensifying intra-Shia (and intra-Shia Islamist) elite fragmentation on the one hand, and popular mass mobilization (mainly Shia) against the status quo on the other. Where identity politics once animated a critical mass of Iraqis, today the more resonant themes of political mobilization employ the language of change and reform, in line with popular demands for good governance, social justice, and the promise of a better life.

All of these developments call into question what is meant by Shia politics: whom does the concept include, and whom does it exclude? As this report shows, the complexity of contemporary Iraqi politics means that the answer to these questions is far from obvious. Divides between core and periphery, competing elite factions, and status quo actors and reformist challengers all better explain Iraqi politics than the obsolete frameworks of Islamism and Shia politics. At the very least, retaining the term Shia politics requires us to broaden what it refers to beyond conventional assumptions that approximate it to Shia Islamists and Shia political sect-centricity.

Profound and protracted political change and upheaval of the kind that Iraq has witnessed often necessitate a reassessment of conventional wisdom. The Arab uprisings of 2011, for example, have inspired a growing literature that interrogates how terms such as Islamism are understood in the wake of the uprisings.1 Similar retrospection is all the more urgent in the case of Shia politics in Iraq, given the structural transformations that have unfolded since 2003.

What Are Shia Politics?

In the literature, Shia politics have traditionally been taken to mean a combination of Shia Islamism (sect-centric or otherwise) and Shia-centric political actors—while also occasionally including clerical networks.2 At first glance, this seems like a reasonable premise, as it may be misleading to include, in conceptions of Shia politics, political actors who simply happen to be Shia—say a member of the Iraqi Communist Party from a Shia background. Including coincidentally Shia politicians in the definition insists on the political relevance of sectarian identity where it does not necessarily exist. This type of thinking created the problems of the Iraqi Governing Council (the provisional government of Iraq in 2003–4). The body was formed on the basis of communal proportional representation. As such, the general secretary of the Iraqi Communist Party, Hamid Majid Musa, was often described as a Shia who was a communist, rather than a communist who happened to be Shia.3

Equally reasonable, at first glance, is the assumption that Shia politics are a spectrum of politics that are sect-centric to varying degrees: political actors who, to one extent or another, claim to speak in the name of “the Shia,” champion Shia causes, lobby on the basis of Shia victimhood or entitlement (or both), or otherwise exhibit and instrumentalize their Shia identity in politics. In the context of Iraq, analysts often view Shia political sect-centricity and Shia Islamism (itself a notoriously difficult term to define) as synonymous, because it is Shia Islamist actors who have most forcefully taken up the causes of Shia empowerment and Shia representation, especially since the latter decades of the twentieth century.4 Hence, for example, the cast of characters in Faleh Abdul Jabar’s seminal 2003 history The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq are almost entirely Shia Islamists: the Dawa Party, Munadhamat al-Amal al-Islami, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Sadrs, the Hakims, and broader clerical networks.5

Sect-centricity is not the preserve of Islamists, nor have Islamists always adopted sect-centricity.

But, as this report argues, these assumptions are not entirely problem-free: sect-centricity is not the preserve of Islamists, nor have Islamists always adopted sect-centricity. This report therefore discusses the question of whether or not the concept of Shia politics should encompass more than Shia Islamists or sect-centricity, or both. This concern is particularly relevant today, given the transformation of Shia political sect-centricity: At one time, Shia-centric politics constituted an oppositional current that sought to remedy what adherents regarded as historical wrongs relating to Shia marginalization and underrepresentation. But today, Shia political sect-centricity is a status quo force that seeks to maintain the established hierarchies of power within an identity-based political system that is increasingly out of touch with ordinary Iraqis, Shia or otherwise.

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Sect-Centricity, Shia Islamism, and Shia Politics

Abdul Jabar notes that Shia Islamism in the Arab world has a higher propensity than its Sunni counterpart toward sect-centricity (or, as he labeled it, to exhibit “communal militancy”).6 Whereas Sunni Islamism, in his view, is a populist movement and ideology that emerged in defiance of postcolonial, authoritarian nationalist regimes and their socioeconomic policies and international alignments, Shia Islamism was often marked by communal militancy (or sect-centricity), which is a “responsive, segmentary movement caused by political, economic or cultural group-discrimination… in multi-communal societies.”7 Such communal militancy is a function of the relations of power underpinning sectarian relations, and the way that these sectarian relations have been shaped by state formation, nation-building processes, and more recent history—the Iranian revolution of 1979 being a particularly relevant milestone. This pattern emerged in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, as well, where political sect-centricity in the twentieth century (especially the latter half) emerged as a more pronounced feature of Shia Islamism and activism than was the case with Sunni Islamists. The features of Shia Islamism in these countries were a response to feelings of sectarian victimhood, marginalization, and discrimination—real or perceived.8

However, as is widely noted, Shia Islamism in Iraq (and elsewhere) was not always sect-centric.9 Iraqi Shia Islamist movements emerged in the mid-twentieth century in response to concerns about the rise of the secular Left; Shia identity or Shia victimhood were not the initial motivations for Iraqi Shia Islamism. In that sense, Iraqi Shia Islamism’s foundational impulse was, much like its Sunni counterparts, a conservative modernism rather than sect-centricity. There is no singular moment that heralded a “sectarian turn” in Iraqi Shia Islamism. Rather, it was a gradual process that built on preexisting, though latent, feelings of Shia victimhood, and that was shaped by Iraqi and regional currents.

The policies of Abd al-Salam Arif (president 1963–66) and Abd al-Rahman Arif (president 1966–68) at times fostered feelings of sectarian discrimination in some Shia quarters. These policies included the expropriation of some Shia religious endowments, the adverse impact of nationalization and regulation policies in 1964, which negatively affected the Shia merchant classes, and discriminatory hiring practices.10 The increasing authoritarianism of the state—particularly after the Ba’ath coup of 1968—was accompanied by an intensification of Shia activism, much of it driven by feelings of sectarian victimhood that in turn were driven by state policy.11 This cycle resulted in the sharpening of the state’s suspicions of Shia political activism and of the mobilization of Shia identity, which in turn raised the political salience of Shia sect-centricity.

Shia Islamists clashed with the state on several occasions in the 1970s, which further accelerated these dynamics. Most notable among these disturbances was the government’s violent clampdown on Shia processions in 1977, and on the protests that followed the arrest, in 1979, of Shia activist cleric Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr.12 This escalation was partly shaped by the regional environment and Iraq’s deteriorating relations with Iran—naturally this downward spiral only accelerated after the Iranian revolution of 1979. The demise of Arab nationalism and communism as popular mobilizers and the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran (and the rise of other Islamist movements in the region) further explain the growing political relevance of Shia sect-centricity in Iraq. The 1980–88 Iran–Iraq War, the uprisings of 1991, international sanctions against Iraq, mass exile, and the growing international discourse of human rights and communal rights meant that by the 1990s, Iraqi Shia Islamism was firmly wedded to sect-centricity, based on feelings of Shia victimhood and political entitlement.

This culture of political sect-centricity (and ethnocentricity in the case of Kurdish nationalists in the Iraqi opposition) converged with official U.S. policy views toward Iraq. After 2003, sect- and ethnocentricity became the foundational principles of the new political order—an enormous change from the relative irrelevance of sect-centricity among Shia Islamists less than four decades earlier.

While sect-centricity did not always characterize Shia Islamism, it is also important to recall that, contrary to conventional assumptions, sect-centricity was never the exclusive preserve of Shia Islamists. A variety of Shia figures intermittently voiced Shia-specific grievances such as political underrepresentation throughout the twentieth century. For example, in the 1920s, Amin al-Charchafchi’s Hizb al-Nahda adopted an openly sect-centric platform that stressed Shia political grievance.13 A variety of prominent non-Islamist figures raised the issues of Shia underrepresentation and perceived anti-Shia discrimination throughout the twentieth century. These include nationalist politician Muhammad Ridha al-Shabibi, historian and Arab nationalist Abd al-Razzaq al-Hassani, nationalist politician Muhsin Abu-Tabikh, former foreign minister and minister of reconstruction Abd al-Karim al-Uzri, political activist and intellectual Hassan al-Alawi, and many others.14 All of these non-Islamist examples revolved around the twin pillars of Shia political sect-centricity: victimhood and entitlement.15 This fact further problematizes any assumption that treats Shia politics and Shia Islamism as synonymous.

The synonymity that arose—both for analysts and political actors—between Shia politics and Shia Islamism was a result of contingent factors, some of which no longer hold. Toward the end of the twentieth century, Shia Islamism was increasingly intertwined with sect-centricity, to the point where they became indistinguishable to observers. However, the overlap between the two was never complete: as this report has already shown, Islamism does not necessarily have to be sect-centric, and Islamists are not the only actors who adopt sect-centricity. Nevertheless, the tendency to conflate Shia Islamism and Shia political sect-centricity persisted and was reinforced by the political changes of 2003 and the entrenchment of a political system based on ethno-sectarian identities—and dominated by Shia Islamists.

Yet it is those very changes that call for a reconceptualization of the term Shia politics away from a narrow focus on Islamism and sect-centricity. Simply put, both Shia Islamism and sect-centricity—and hence Shia politics—have been fundamentally transformed by Shia elite empowerment since 2003.

Regime Change and the Politics of Sect

The sect-centricity and ethnocentricity of the Iraqi opposition in exile neatly converged with how the U.S. administration viewed Iraq in the run-up to 2003: as a country fundamentally defined by communal identity, with oppressive Sunnis on the one hand and oppressed Shias and Kurds on the other, alongside an assortment of lesser minorities. The political system that was created by the U.S.-led occupation and its Iraqi partners after 2003 followed this communal logic.

Soon after regime change, the Shia-centric actors (Islamist and otherwise) of the pre-2003 Iraqi opposition rose to the top of the political pyramid. The sect-centricity that marked their oppositional politics in exile was superimposed onto post-2003 governance and political practice. A key enabling factor in that regard was that, despite the fact of Shia (elite) empowerment, the main themes of Shia political sect-centricity retained much of their salience in the years after 2003. For one thing, newly empowered Shia-centric actors played on themes of Shia victimhood and entitlement that resonated with parts of an Iraqi generation that was formed under the shadow of late Ba’athist Iraq.16 In that sense, sect-centric opponents of the Ba’ath appealed to the regime’s sect-coded victims, and played up the mythology of unique Shia victimization.17 Another thing that sustained sect-centricity in the early post-invasion years was the precariousness of Shia empowerment, and the sect-coded hopes and fears that regime change and its ensuing chaos engendered. These conditions meant that the pre-2003 pillars of Shia political sect-centricity—victimhood and entitlement—persisted after the invasion, albeit for new or modified reasons: fears of a Ba’athist return; sectarian violence by Sunni militants; the regional backlash against the new Iraq, and against the empowerment of Shia-centric actors; and what the general atmosphere of violence and sectarian polarization portended for the future. Shia political actors now dominated Iraqi politics, but this ostensible Shia empowerment had to be defended against both internal and external sect-coded threats. In such a context, it made some sense for the concept of Shia politics to refer to a mélange of Shia Islamism and sect-centricity: the two were intertwined.

In the run-up to the 2003 invasion, Washington viewed Iraq as a country fundamentally defined by communal identity.

Finally, and as a result of all of this, ethno-sectarian categories profoundly shaped the politics of the early years following the U.S.-led invasion. In the elections of 2005, the political classes, despite their internal divisions, coalesced into three major identity-based blocs—Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish—thereby validating the cartoonish conception of a tripartite Iraq that was so in vogue amongst American officials and their Iraqi interlocutors. The division of Iraqi politics into these categories, and the dominance of sect-centric Shia Islamists, further reinforced the association of Shia politics with sect-centricity and Shia Islamism.

An Altered Landscape

However, today’s Iraq is vastly different from what it was during “the long 2003”—a term that refers to the five or so years after the 2003 invasion, when the basic outline of the new political order was being contested.18 The political classes, and perhaps Shia elites more than any others, have undergone a deep and continuous process of fragmentation. This is most obviously evident in electoral politics. In the elections of January 2005, the three ethno-sectarian blocs secured 87 percent of the vote, with the Shia-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, the top vote-getter, receiving 47 percent of the vote.19 In 2010, the top performer’s share of the vote dropped to a mere 24 percent, which went to Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya coalition.20 This trend continued in the elections of 2014 with Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition securing only 24 percent of the vote and no other entity receiving more than 7.5 percent of the vote. Further, in 2014, the Shia vote was split among three major electoral lists, while the Sunni vote was split among four main lists.21 The process of fragmentation accelerated in the elections of 2018: the top nine lists shared 80 percent of the vote, with the largest share—a modest 14 percent—going to the Sadrist Sa’iroun list.22 Finally, the elections of October 2021 yielded the most fragmented result yet: The top performer in 2021, the Sadrists, received a mere 10 percent of the vote.23

This fragmentation reflects the increased complexity of Iraqi politics, governance, and political competition. During the long 2003, basic questions relating to the nature of the new governing order were being contested: the survival of the post-2003 order; the question of identity politics and whether ethno-sectarian identities would form the basis of the new state; the question of so-called Shia rule; the nature of the emergent hierarchies of power; and the territorial integrity of Iraq. The polarization surrounding these issues was very much (though never entirely) mapped onto ethno-sectarian categories. This was a period of intense inter-sectarian competition in which sect- and ethnicity-coded political and militant camps struggled over the definition of the new Iraq and the relations of power within it.

With time, these broad-brush foundational issues were settled (though not necessarily resolved), and an order of sorts emerged out of the embers of civil war. As the relations of power and the vested interests that underpinned them crystallized, and as the roots of the post-2003 state deepened, political uncertainty and sect-coded existential fears receded. With them, the political salience of sectarian identity in contentious politics also diminished, as did the drivers of sectarian polarization. Today, and for some years now, the primary lines of political contestation have been intra-sectarian, with rival, amorphous, cross-sectarian alignments competing over the political and economic spoils of the state. In particular, in recent years, the primary challenge to Iraq’s political stability and to the empowerment of the Shia political elite has been intra-Shia elite competition on the one hand, and public discontent and mobilization (largely Shia) on the other.

Political Discourse Evolves

The transformations of political discourse over the years illustrate the shifts described above. The changes in the discourse, in turn, reflect the shifting parameters of political contestation, political correctness, and populism.24 To take one of countless examples, in 2003 Fa’iq al-Shaikh Ali was a noted non-Islamist figure in the Iraqi opposition in exile. While perhaps not a Shia-centric actor, he was not oblivious or insensitive to the issue of Shia victimhood under the Ba’ath regime; for example, he signed the intensely sect-centric Declaration of the Shia of Iraq in 2002.25 He engaged directly with Iraqi politics after 2003, and became a member of parliament in 2014. A populist media figure and critic of the system, his evolution with regard to Shia sect-centricity is relevant here.

Immediately after regime change, al-Shaikh Ali was among many who cautioned against the possibility of Shia fragmentation. In an interview just months after the invasion, he expressed dismay at the rise of Shia religious and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Even more so, he criticized the United States’ seeming willingness to turn a blind eye to Sadr and his militant brand, and claimed that the Central Intelligence Agency was seeking to instigate a Shia–Shia clash by pitting the Sadrists against SCIRI (an important player in the Iraqi opposition) and their armed wing, the Badr Brigade.26 The idea of external powers seeking to ignite intra-Shia rivalries is a ubiquitous trope of Shia-centric political discourse today (as I discuss in the following section).

Today, however, al-Shaikh Ali positions himself against that very discourse, challenging the status quo and the rhetoric of sect-centricity. In late October 2021, he described that month’s elections as signaling the defeat of “the Iranian project,” which he defined as being composed of a blunt element (militias, suppression of protests, and the like) and a soft element, in the form of Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish political factions that do Iran’s bidding. Among the Shia actors in this project, he explicitly called out the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI—the rebranded version of the aforementioned SCIRI), Hikma, and Badr.27 Far from seeking to avoid Shia fragmentation, al-Shaikh Ali—and countless others besides him, not least the Sadrists—are today agents of that fragmentation, as they challenge the ossified hierarchies of power underpinning the status quo.

The idea of external powers seeking to ignite intra-Shia rivalries is a ubiquitous trope of Shia-centric political discourse.

Al-Shaikh Ali’s contradictory statements should not be taken as signs of hypocrisy or political fickleness. Rather, they reflect the transformations that Shia political sect-centricity have undergone after nearly two decades of supposed “Shia rule” characterized by abject governance failure and increasing distance between Shia-centric elites and a growing segment of the Shia public. Where once even some secular Shia perceived a historic opportunity requiring the maintenance of a united Shia front, today such discourse is primarily the preserve of Shia-centric status quo actors.28

Shia Sect-Centricity as the Establishment

Shia politics, as a concept, once referred to a populist sect-centricity, which emphasized Shia victimhood and Shia political entitlement combined with varying shades of Shia Islamism. But today the term may need to encompass a lot more. Shia political sect-centricity today is primarily a tool and a discourse for maintaining the status quo and the empowerment of increasingly unpopular Shia-centric political elites. Previously, Shia political sect-centricity appealed to a constituency that viewed it as a vehicle for empowerment and for the righting of historical wrongs, as they perceived them. In recent years however, it is viewed as part of the problem by a growing number of Shia who have known no reality other than that of a Shia (elite) empowerment that has failed the vast majority of Iraqis, Shia or otherwise. Put differently, politicians today deploy sect-centricity to defend Shia rule primarily from Shia challengers to the status quo. These challengers include Islamists from within the system—the Sadrists—a fact that further complicates the dated analytical conflation of Islamists, sect-centricity, and Shia politics.

At the time of writing, Iraq’s primary political contest was related to the fallout of the October 2021 elections and the ongoing attempts at government formation. The contest was primarily split between the Shia-centric and pro status-quo Coordination Framework and its allies, on the one hand, and the Sadrists and their allies on the other. Despite being a pillar of the political system, Sadr has positioned himself as an outsider, railing against the establishment (of which he is very much a part) and promising radical change. Crucially, he vowed to do away with the post-2003 practice of “consensus governments” whereby all major political actors are included in government. Instead, he has promised to form a “majority government,” where a parliamentary majority forms a government and those excluded go on to form a parliamentary opposition. Sadr gathered a cross-sectarian, cross-ethnic, but Sadr-dominated, alliance that could have theoretically formed a government without the Coordination Framework. Having fared poorly in the elections, and alarmed at the unprecedented prospect of being excluded from government, the Coordination Framework resorted to a combination of coercive, political, and legal measures that successfully blocked Sadr from forming a government. Sadr, in turn, used his street power and coercive capital to prevent the formation of a government led by the Coordination Framework. The political stalemate lasted for just over a year: in mid-October 2022, the Coordination Framework’s nominee for prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, was officially tasked with forming a government.

The details of the crisis need not detain us. What is relevant is the framing strategy adopted by the Coordination Framework in its rivalry with Sadr. Rather predictably, it stressed the need to maintain the post-2003 system of consensual governments, and in doing so have employed the language of Shia-centric politics: emphasizing the necessity of maintaining a united Shia front and, by extension, Shia rule. The alternative, according to proponents of this view, is chaos and possibly reversion to a state of Shia oppression. In June 2022, the head of Badr, Hadi al-Amiri, invoked the clerical leadership in Najaf (the marja’iyya) when he argued in a television appearance that it was essential to uphold the status quo and the political process: “The marja’iyya knows more than us that any eventuality that threatens the political process means placing an entire history of sacrifices and victories and martyrs’ blood on the edge of a precipice.”29 A variety of spokespeople affiliated with the Coordination Framework repeated, ad nauseum, the key elements of this discourse—victimhood (historic and potentially reemerging), political entitlement, and warnings of the dangers of Shia fragmentation and a Shia–Shia clash. Interlaced throughout this discourse is the vague notion of Shia rule (or, more accurately, Shia-centric rule) and the need to maintain it.

For example, in a tediously repetitive sermon in November 2021, a month after the elections, Sadr al-Din al-Qubanchi, who is affiliated with ISCI—which itself is part of the Coordination Framework—commended the efforts of the political elites to find a “national solution” to the country’s political crisis. The implication of this phrase suggests a solution that transcends the boundaries of sect and ethnicity. However, his comments leave no doubt as to the nonnegotiable necessity of Shia dominance in any “national solution”:

We say: all initiatives are accepted on the condition that the Shia House is not dismantled. This initiative, that initiative, a third, a fourth, on the condition of what? That the Shia House is not dismantled. The initiatives are acceptable on the condition that the Shia House is not dismantled because the dismantling of the Shia House means the end of Iraq. The end of the new Iraq and the return of dictatorship and authoritarianism. There will be no more elections or freedom, everything will go if we [the Shia House] are dismantled, God forbid. If we are dismantled it would mean that our experiment is finished. It would mean that Saddam and those like Saddam will come back.

Qubanchi went on to call on Iraqis to accept the election results once they were released and ratified, and to allow the “political majority” to steer the country. However, like “national solution,” the phrase “political majority” is also contingent on Shia dominance:

God willing, [the political elites] will give us glad tidings this week: they will announce a solution that they agree upon. The Shia House must not be dismantled. All of you [Shia politicians] sit down and unify the position and form a majority. And that is that: the political majority has the right to steer the country—with the unity of the Shia House.30

Here, “political majority” is being used in much the same way that the franker “majority rule” (hukm al-aghlabiyya) was used in the early post-2003 years. The political majority, in this conception, has to be a Shia-dominated majority; more than that, it must include all Shia (and particularly Shia-centric) actors. A cross-sectarian political majority, even if it is Shia-dominated—as would have been the case with Sadr’s proposed coalition—is rejected in Qubanchi’s framework if it excludes some Shia factions, and particularly if it excludes Qubanchi’s Shia factions. In this formula, elections, parliamentary politics, and government formation are a charade for maintaining the demography-equals-democracy basis of the post-2003 identity-based system, and the power that it has delivered to the sect-centric and ethnocentric political elites. The new phrasing is a clumsy attempt at softening the blunt rhetoric of “vote for the mathhab [Shiism]” that was used by Shia-centric actors in earlier elections—particularly in 2005 and 2014. The new language reflects the shifting parameters of populism over the course of the last nineteen years and the fact that openly sect-centric political strategies are now less effective.

The Sadrists, having emerged from the 2021 elections with a stronger hand, insisted on the necessity of a majority government with political losers— the Coordination Framework—going into opposition. The Sadrists framed this position as a necessary course correction in the quest for political reform. Needless to say, one should take such assertions with a large grain of salt: while a break with the practice of consensus governments would be a major step forward, there is little reason to suppose that a Sadrist-led majority government will fundamentally alter the political economy of Iraq. The Sadrists claimed the competition that followed the elections of 2021 was between the forces of reform and the corrupt political classes. The Sadrist stance, however, is better understood as a power play against their rivals in the political system, within which the Sadrists are as complicit as anyone else. Nevertheless, the divide between the Sadrists and the Coordination Framework illustrates the need to reconceptualize the concept of Shia politics. If Shia politics are (at least partially) about sect-centricity, then the term would have to exclude today’s Sadrists because of their stance—an implausible exclusion given their importance. The discourse of sect-centricity and Shia entitlement has become divisive among Shia and Shia political actors themselves, and hence cannot be used as a marker for their politics.

Defining the Borders of Shia Politics

As already mentioned above, besides sect-centricity, Islamism is the other characteristic that many scholars and analysts assume is a defining feature of Shia politics. Rightly or wrongly, Islamism was often regarded as the most important vehicle for Shia political activism. If this may have been somewhat inaccurate in the past it is patently counterfactual today. Whatever electoral advantage Shia Islamists commanded in the early post-2003 years has considerably dissipated. It can be argued that this again reflects the diminished populist currency of sect-centric politics. In their early years, Islamist actors such as the Dawa Party or ISCI articulated an ideological vision rooted in varying notions of an Islamic order. Yet by 2003, they had abandoned such visions as unworkable in the context of Iraq, even if they were desirable in the abstract.31 All that remained in terms of political vision was sect-centricity: validating Shia victimhood and realizing Shia-centric notions of political entitlement by attaining and securing Shia rule. Given how undefined the concept is, this equated to ideational bankruptcy. This bankruptcy of ideas explains the remarkable fact that, after two decades in which Shia Islamist parties and political actors have been the dominant partners in six governments, they have not managed to articulate, let alone implement, any discernible Islamist program. Even matters of public morality—commonly an object of special focus for social conservatives such as Islamists—have not been a high priority on these parties’ legislative agenda. Indeed, given the similar legislative outlooks, the lack of distinguishable political programs, and the collusion and mutual interests that often tie them together, one may fairly ask what actually differentiates a self-described Islamist from a non-Islamist in elite Iraqi politics.32

As this report has shown, the past two decades have illustrated the relatively precarious shelf life of sect-centricity as a populist political trope. In some regards, Shia-centric political actors have been victims of their own success: the more they succeeded in turning Shia-centric state-building into a reality, the less cause there was for the sectarian entrenchment upon which populist sect-centricity depends.33 Yet Shia Islamists proved unable to offer much beyond a sect-centric outlook, and have struggled to keep up with the shift in popular sentiment toward issue politics that analysts have observed since at least 2018.34 This gulf separating Shia Islamists from a widening swath of Iraqi Shias, and the ideological hollowness of contemporary Shia Islamists in Iraq, again raises questions as to the validity of reducing Shia politics to Shia Islamism (however defined).

Shia Islamists have been unable to offer much beyond a sect-centric outlook, and have struggled to keep up with shifts in popular sentiment.

Today, the public often distills its anger at the political system into anger against Shia Islamists, because of their role as architects, beneficiaries, and guardians of the system. In a paper published in April, political scientist Marsin Alshamary clearly describes this distillation in an analysis of the protest movement and its usage of concepts such as “civic state” and “secularism” as shorthand for a rejection of the Shia Islamist parties that have dominated post-2003 Iraq.35 It therefore makes just as little sense to exclusively associate Shia politics with Islamism as it does to associate it entirely with sect-centricity. The relative unpopularity of Shia Islamists means that any formulation of Shia politics that is centered on Islamism would detach a critical mass of Iraqi Shias from the concept. Whether or not such a formulation is helpful is open to debate.

The Protest Movements

If sect-centricity and Islamism are not the defining features of Shia politics, where should we situate the protest movement in the discussion? On the one hand, including the protest movement in understandings of Shia politics risks sect-coding an avowedly non-sect-centric phenomenon just because its protagonists are Shia. On the other hand, can we exclude such an important political current from Shia politics? The protests of 2019–20 have left a lasting imprint on Iraqi political culture and, at the very least, have had a discursive effect on formal Iraqi politics. The protests turned vast segments of the Shia public into a key political force in 2019 and 2020. They forced the resignation of a government and the drafting of a new electoral law, which in turn enabled new entrants affiliated or claiming affiliation with the protest movement into parliamentary politics. A case can be made that, given its demographic weight and political significance, protest activism in Shia areas is as much a part of “Shia politics” as any Islamist party.

The protests of 2019 were a primarily Shia challenge against the dominant Shia-centric political parties. The latter, quite predictably, employed the pillars of Shia political sect-centricity (victimhood and entitlement) to counter the threat. But while this strategy might have been effective in tarnishing activism emanating from Sunni quarters, it was much less powerful when deployed against Shia, since there was no sect-coded threat to counter. For example, in a sermon shortly after the start of the protests in 2019, Hasan al-Zamili, another cleric affiliated with ISCI, articulated how Shia-centric actors viewed the protests:

We have two choices: either we leave the government to battle on its own, with the prime minister bare-backed, fighting on his own in the field with the arrows pointing at him, even from participants in the government. This would mean that we have destroyed and lost our entitlement as Shia [istihqaquna nahnu ka Shia]. Let some people call this a sectarian message, [but] this is reality: we are the majority of the Iraqi people, and this is our entitlement [istihqaquna] after having been marginalized for tens of years and even hundreds of years [during which] we were enslaved, attacked, killed, and dispersed. Today, power [hukm] is in our hands. If we do not preserve this power, O parties of Iraq, where are we heading? After you took the spoils, benefits, gains, and privileges, you left the prime minister to fight on his own.36

Of course, the irony here is that the threat Zamili referred to is the threat of a Shia public furious at what the political parties have done with the Shia power that he is so keen to maintain. It may be tempting to conclude that Shia politics is what Zamili is defending, and is a part of, while the protests are not. Yet this would again bring us back to a definition of Shia politics based on sect-centricity which, as seen above, does not stand up to critical scrutiny—not least because it would exclude the Sadrists. It seems problematic to restrict Shia politics to the likes of Zamili: a status quo actor resented by a significant section of Shia Iraqis.

The decision of whether or not to include the protest movements in the concept of Shia politics is a difficult one for the analyst. Including them risks artificially sect-coding them (and thereby possibly misrepresenting them); yet excluding them and restricting Shia politics to the unrepresentative and unpopular Shia political elite risks detaching the concept of Shia politics from an increasing number of Iraqi Shia.

The protests of 2019 were primarily in Shia areas and were primarily composed of young Shia. On the one hand, this was a function of geography and demographics rather than sectarian dynamics; on the other, the protestors employed Shia symbolism (among other frames) to express their outrage at the political classes. As commented upon at the time, the very same symbols that were used by the political classes in pursuit of Shia-centric state-building were now being used against them by young protesters.37 In that sense, an argument can be made for including non-sect-centric Shia challengers to the status quo in understandings of Shia politics, if the concept were taken to mean the discursive, political, and ideational space in which Shia Iraqis engage with politics—particularly if they are employing Shia symbolism when doing so. It is another debatable question whether or not it is wise to include such a diverse range of actors under any single term—ranging from Iran-leaning paramilitaries, such as Kata’eb Hezbollah, to the protest-inspired Imtidad.

Political scientist Harith Hasan has made an insightful sociological observation that is relevant here. In his analysis, the Iran-leaning paramilitaries and political parties (the so-called resistance factions) should not only be understood through the prism of ideology or Iranian sympathies but should also be seen as part of a sociological process of challengers rising from the periphery against the center. Hasan makes the point that this applies to a succession of movements: Shia Islamist challengers to the pre-2003 Ba’ath; the post-2003 Sadrist challenge to both the political center in Baghdad and to the religious center in Najaf after 2003; and the challenge of Sadrist splinter groups and resistance factions to the Sadrists more recently. Hasan argues that the latest iteration of this cycle is the challenge posed by impoverished Shia youth rising against the Islamist-dominated center.38 Employing Hasan’s framework, it can be argued that all of the actors mentioned by him, including the impoverished youth who made up the bulk of the 2019–20 protests, are protagonists in Shia politics. Such a formulation—while not entirely free of analytical problems—may be more consistent with the realities of contemporary Iraq. Other concepts of Shia politics that this report has referred to are rooted in pre-2003 and early post-2003 history.

New Definitions

The term “Shia politics” is hardly unique in its definitional issues. Liberalism, sectarianism, Islamism and any number of other concepts are similarly open to multiple definitions and are the subject of vast literatures grappling with what they mean and how they should be understood. What may set the concept of Shia politics apart (at least in Iraq) is the profound transformation that has been imposed on the term’s ingredients: Shia identity, sect-centricity, the political economy of Iraq, Iraqi sectarian relations, Shia Islamism—all of these have been radically transformed over the last two decades in ways that render somewhat obsolete many of our assumptions as to what Shia politics mean.

Several questions arise from the preceding discussion. Key among them is what and whom the term “Shia politics” refers to. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers: Do all Shia political actors collectively constitute “Shia politics”? If not, who is to be excluded?

As this report has argued, standard assumptions regarding Shia politics as a combination of sect-centricity and Islamism simply do not work. Anchoring the term in Shia sect-centricity would mean restricting it to a narrowing section of the Shia political elite while excluding—unconvincingly—other Shia political actors, most egregiously the Sadrists. The term “Shia politics” may have been less complicated when it referred to an oppositional trend that focused on communal rights, but such a framing has been made obsolete by Shia elite empowerment and the intensification of intra-Shia political competition. Previously, and particularly since the closing decades of the twentieth century, Shia-centric movements were juxtaposed against “Sunni regimes,” with Shia victimhood forming a key part of such movements’ political outlook. Today, the dominant political actors are Shia and Shia-centric ones, and their primary opponents are each other and much of the Shia public.

Politicians are finding it increasingly difficult to convince a critical mass of Shia Iraqis of the benefits of so-called Shia rule.

Shia-centric political actors are finding it increasingly difficult to convince a critical mass of Shia Iraqis of the benefits of so-called Shia rule and, more importantly, they are having a difficult time convincing Iraqis that such rule is in a precarious position. The idea that, for example, Shia rituals and processions or the expression of Shia identity can be suppressed by anyone is simply too implausible in 2022. Nor can they plausibly claim to be defenders of Shia rights, given their failure to deliver basic economic and political goods to ordinary Iraqis, Shia or otherwise. As the protests of 2019–20 and the aftermath of the 2021 elections showed, Shia-centric actors will self-defensively try to revive the discourse of Shia political sect-centricity, but the efficacy of this discourse is severely curtailed by the intra-Shia nature of the political challenges they face and the absence of a sect-coded threat. The discourse struggles to gain currency beyond the (rather limited) choir.

Like sect-centricity, Shia Islamism is often assumed to be the substance of Shia politics. Yet, this, again, is no longer tenable. Two decades of Shia Islamist empowerment have altered Shia Islamists’ politics, and the way that they are viewed by the Shia public. A critical mass of Shia Iraqis arguably saw these Islamists as champions of Shia causes in 2003, but now an increasing number of these Islamists’ supposed constituents view them as part of the problem. Therefore, restricting the concept of Shia politics to Shia Islamists would exclude far too large a segment of Iraqi Shias and Iraqi Shia political actors. Furthermore, Shia Islamist empowerment and the relative success of Shia-centric state-building (at least in turning it into a reality, as opposed to success in the sense of a positive contribution) has fostered a profound ideational and ideological bankruptcy in so-called Shia Islamism in Iraq. After nearly twenty years in power, it is difficult to identify anything discernibly “Islamist” in Iraq’s Shia Islamists—be it in their political behavior, their political programs, their legislative agenda or what, if anything, supposedly sets them apart from non-Islamists.

Rather than Islamists versus non-Islamists, Iraqi politics are today driven by other divides. These divides include intra-elite competition (which obliterates the Islamist–non-Islamist binary), and status quo actors versus revisionist actors (from within the system and beyond). These are some of the factors that should compel us to reevaluate the concept of Shia politics—what it refers to and whom it includes.

Two suggestions come to mind, neither of which is satisfactory. There undoubtedly exists a Shia political field that interacts and partially overlaps with broader Iraqi politics. Perhaps it is this that should be labeled Shia politics irrespective of the ideological convictions or sect-centricity of individual actors. After all, the Shia political field today is too complex for the assumptions that have traditionally underpinned understandings of Shia politics.

But as this report has shown, using the term “Shia politics” in this way risks artificially and incorrectly sect-coding actors who do not merit such labels. Alternatively, perhaps the changes of the past two decades and the complexity of Iraqi politics have simply rendered the term obsolete. Retiring the term might make sense, particularly given the fact that it is a Western term that is not derived from an Iraqi or Middle Eastern equivalent. The problem here, of course, is the notorious difficulty in retiring commonly used terms, such as Shia politics, and what to replace them with.

Ultimately, this report does not claim to provide an answer to these questions. But it does highlight the need to ask these questions, reevaluate the meaning of the concept of Shia politics, and whether or not the term is still useful. Its current usage is based on out-of-date assumptions, and our understanding of what the term entails has not kept up with the fundamental transformations of the past two decades.

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


  1. Frederic Volpi and Ewan Stein, “Islamism and the State after the Arab Uprisings: Between People Power and State Power,” Democratization, 22, no. 2 (2015): 276–93; Shadi Hamid and William McCants, eds., Rethinking Political Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); Jillian Schwedler, “Conclusion: New Directions in the Study of Islamist Politics,” in Islamists and The Politics of The Arab Uprisings: Governance, Pluralisation and Contention, ed. Hendrik Kraetzschmar and Paola Rivetti (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), 359–74.
  2. For example, see, “New Analysis of Shia Politics,” POMEPS Studies 28, Project on Middle East Political Science, December 2017,
  3. See for example Sharon Otterman, “Iraq: Iraq’s Governing Council,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 2, 2005.
  4. On the difficulties of defining Islamism see, Jillian Schwedler, “Why ‘Islamism’ Does Not Help Us Understand the Middle East,” POMEPS Studies 17, Project on Middle East Political Science, March 2016,; Joas Wagemaker, “Making Definitional Sense of Islamism,” Orient, volume II (2021): 7–13.
  5. Faleh Abdul Jabar, The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq (London: Saqi, 2003).
  6. Ibid., 41–42.
  7. Ibid., 41.
  8. For an overview of sectarian relations in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (and a counter-example of sorts from Kuwait) see Laurence Louer, “The State and Sectarian Identities in the Persian Gulf Monarchies: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in Comparative Perspective,” in Sectarian Politics in The Persian Gulf, ed. Lawrence Potter (London: Hurst, 2013), 117.
  9. Abdul-Halim al-Ruhaimi, “Da’wa Islamic Party: Origins, Actors and Ideology,” in Ayatollahs, Sufis and Ideologues: State, Religion and Social Movements in Iraq, ed. Faleh A. Jabar (London: Saqi, 2002), 149–61. Likewise, it has been argued that the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq was far more universal in its discourse prior to the 1990s. See Joseph E. Kotinsly, “Brave New World Order: The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and The Rise of Iraqi Shi’i Identity Politics,” Journal of the Middle East and Africa 13, no.1 (2022): 49–65.
  10. Jabar, The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq, 66.
  11. Amatzia Baram, Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968–2003: Ba’thi Iraq From Secularism to Faith (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), chapter 3.
  12. On the disturbances of 1979, see Jabar, The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq, 228–31. On the disturbances of 1977, see Jabar, The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq, 208–15; Marion F. Sluglett and Peter Sluglett, Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship (London: I.B. Tauris, 2001), 198–99.
  13. Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Ba’thists and Free Officers, (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 327–28; Peter Sluglett, Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country, 1914-1932, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 103–5.
  14. For details see Fanar Haddad, Understanding ‘Sectarianism’: Sunni–Shia Relations in the Modern Arab World, (London: Hurst, 2020), 271–74.
  15. Jabar has a more detailed explanation encompassing five major drivers of Shia sect-centricity (or Shia agitation, as he terms it): underrepresentation, economic grievances, cultural encroachment, citizenship rights, and secularization. With the exception of the last one, these drivers fit into the broader categories of victimhood and entitlement. See Jabar, The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq, 67–71.
  16. That resonance was evident in the elections of 2005, in which the combined Islamist-dominated Shia list (the United Iraqi Alliance) received 47 percent of the vote. For details regarding the elections of 2005, see the relevant pages of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission,
  17. This much was candidly admitted by former Sadrist parliamentarian and former deputy prime minister Baha’ al-A’raji in 2016: “When we came to Iraq [in 2003], we were leaderships without a base… [we] would speak in a sectarian way in order to attract [followers] and create a base.” See “Former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Bahaa Al-Araji – Exclusive Interview – Episode 4” (in Arabic), uploaded to the YouTube channel Alsumeria on July 8, 2016,
  18. The term “the long 2003” is taken from Nida Alahmad, “The Iraqi State: Methodological and Theoretical Considerations,” LSE Middle East Centre Blog, November 9, 2019, The period might be considered to end in 2008, or extend to 2010.
  19. For the elections of 2005, see the relevant pages of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission,; Adam Carr’s election archive,; and Toby Dodge,  Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism (London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2012), 44–48.
  20. For the elections of 2010, see the relevant pages of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission’s website (ibid.); Carr’s election archive (ibid.); Kenneth Katzman, “Iraq: Politics, Elections and Benchmarks,” Congressional Research Service, March 1, 2011, 9–19, 25,; and “Iraq’s Uncertain Future: Elections and Beyond,” International Crisis Group, Middle East Report no. 94, 2010,
  21. For the elections of 2014, see the relevant pages of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission’s website (ibid.); and Adam Carr’s election archive (ibid.).
  22. For the elections of 2018, see the relevant pages of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission’s website (ibid.);  Adam Carr’s election archive (ibid.); Renad Mansour and Christine van den Toorn, “The 2018 Iraqi Federal Elections: A Population in Transition?,” LSE Middle East Centre, July 2018.
  23. For the 2021 elections, see the relevant pages of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission’s website,قوائم-اسماء-المرشحين.pdf. Technically, the top performers were the “independents,” who collectively received about 19 percent of the vote. However, their failure to unite into a single coalition, to say nothing of the questionable independence of many of the independents, means that they cannot be treated as a singular entity.
  24. For more on these themes, see Fanar Haddad, “The Waning Relevance of the Sunni-Shia Divide,” The Century Foundation, April 10, 2019,
  25. For an analysis of the declaration, see Fanar Haddad, Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity, (London: Hurst, 2011), 148–50. For an English translation of the declaration, see “Declaration of the Shia of Iraq,”,
  26. An extract of the interview, see Twitter user @Ahmed_I_R_A_Q, status, January 20, 2022, The reference to Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim (the head of what was then called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) indicates that the interview was held sometime between regime change and Hakim’s assassination on August 23, 2003.
  27. “Did Islamists Win the Elections? Faeq Sheikh Ali Answers and Warns the Iraqi People of a New Big Game” (in Arabic), uploaded to the YouTube channel Utv on October 27, 2021,
  28. Commenting on the elections of 2005, a report by the International Crisis Group from 2006 states: “Even secular Shiites appear to have voted for the [Shia Islamist dominated] UIA rather than for the available alternatives.… In the words of a Western diplomat, they may well have voted ‘against the hijacking of a historical opportunity for the Shiites.’” International Crisis Group, “The Next Iraqi War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict,” Middle East Report no. 52, February 27, 2006, 29, For more on the varying sect-coded perceptions towards the transformations of 2003 see Raad Alkadiri and Chris Toensing, “The Iraqi Governing Council’s Sectarian Hue,” The Middle East Research and Information Project, August 20, 2003,
  29. Al Ahad TV (@ahadtv), Twitter status, June 13, 2022.
  30. Friday sermon dated November 19, 2021, uploaded in a private video to YouTube on November 20, 2021.
  31. For example, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, opposition factions agreed on the necessity of a democratic and pluralistic post-Saddam Iraq. See, “Text of the Closing Statement of the Iraqi Opposition Conference in London” (in Arabic), December 17, 2002,نص-البيان-الختامي-لمؤتمر-المعارضة.
  32. When the author posed this question to an Islamist leader who requested anonymity, his response was that “we [Islamists] are religious and they [non-Islamists] are not.” Besides that, he was unable to identify any legislative, ideational, or political difference between them. Islamist leader, interview, Baghdad, August 2021. For more on this theme see, Harith Hasan, “From Radical to Rentier Islamism: The Case of Iraq’s Da’wa Party,” Diwan: Carnegie Middle East Center, April 2016,
  33. Shia-centric state-building refers to a broad position that, at its most basic, seeks to ensure that the central levers of the state are in Shia-centric hands and that Iraqi Shias remain the senior partner in Iraq’s multi-communal framework. See Fanar Haddad, “Shia-Centric State Building and Sunni Rejection in Post-2003 Iraq,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 7, 2016,
  34. Faleh A. Jabar, “The Iraqi Protest Movement: From Identity Politics to Issue Politics,” LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series no. 25, 2018,; and Renad Mansour, “Protests Reveal Iraq’s New Fault Line: The People vs. the Ruling Class,” World Politics Review, July 20, 2018,
  35. Marsin Alshamary, “The Protestor Paradox: Why Do Anti-Islamist Activists Look toward Clerical Leadership?” Brookings Institute, April 2022, The report incisively observes that, in the context of contemporary Iraq, secularism is not so much about the separation of religion and state as it is about the separation of religion and politics. In other words, the references to secularism are calls for so called Islamists to be kept away from the levers of power.
  36. Friday sermon, uploaded in a private video to YouTube on October 16, 2019.
  37. Marsin Alshamary, “Iraqi Protestors Are Mostly Shiite. And This Identity Is Shaping How They Protest,” The Washington Post, December 14, 2019,; Fanar Haddad, “Hip Hop, Poetry and Shia Iconography: How Tahrir Square Gave Birth to a New Iraq,” Middle East Eye, December 09, 2019,
  38. Harith Hasan, “Iraqi Factions and the Question of Social Identity” (in Arabic), An-Nahar al-Arabi, February 5, 2022,