Ethnic and Sectarian Quotas in the New Iraq

Reading Anthony Shadid's article in the New York Times yesterday--on the manner in which Iraqis struggle with the issue of not divvying up government positions by quotas AND YET the resilience of the practice remains nonetheless--reminds me of a parliamentary session in Iraq I had seen last year (watching on closed caption in the offices of the head of the Foreign Relations Committee of the parliament) respecting the approval of Ambassadors by the parliament.   A Turkoman got up and delivered a speech where he indicated that he decried the quota system  ( نظام المحاصصة for the Arabic speakers).  He requested and demanded the parliament end these quotas, where they decide on Ambassadors based on who is Shi'i or Sunni or Kurdish or Turkoman or whatever.  They represent Iraq and they should be Iraqis, nothing else, he boomed, finger in the air for emphasis.  It sounded good, though it didn't actually serve much purpose, other than making the process of appointment longer by virtue of having to listen to him go on and on about it, but that it seems is the nature of legislative process in any country.   In any event, that's not interesting.  What was interesting was seeing this particular fellow, not an hour later in the offices of the Foreign Relations Chair of the parliament, complaining that not a single one of the 42 appointees was a Turkoman, and trying to secure a promise that in the next batch, there would be at least three, though he was prepared to negotiate the number.

The point is not this particular representative, a fellow I actually like as a personal matter and whose name I have not used so as to avoid any particular embarassment to him.  But it does point not only to the phenomenon of quotism in Iraq, which Shadid describes well, but also the mechanism by which it stubbornly persists, which I think evades him.    I agree with him that it's not that Iraqis are simply pretending not to be fans of quotas for optical purposes as some have argued--to please the international community or whatever portion of it still pays attention to Iraq.  They have nonsmoking bans for that purpose.  They genuinely do not like quotas, just like Iraqis genuinely don't like corruption, and sincerely wish that they could wave a magic wand and make it all go away.  But I disagree with the use of the conventional explanation he adopts, which is that this is somehow related to a lack of national identity, or the unwillingness to engage in establishing the communal bonds that define "citizenship", to use his words.  So maybe there isn't really an Iraq, or so the theory goes. 

Part of this confounds me because he says in the beginning that America had a "decisive role" in helping create this state of affairs where sect and ethnicity have become the axis around which Iraqi politics are made.  So does that mean America obliterated the Iraqi national identity that was there before?  I think we can dismiss that possibility as utterly preposterous and one we would all dismiss.  People don't give up national affiliations to which they hold strongly justt because someone invaded them a few years ago, if anything it's the other way around.  Nothing cements national identity better than foreign invasion, Saddam learned to his dismay when he invaded Iran in 1980.  So then if there is no national identity now, there couldn't have been in 2003.  But if that is the case, I wonder, then surely politics were going to revolve around some axis other than the national interest, correct?  So what precisely is it that the United States did that was so "decisive"?  It is hard to understand how both America and a lack of national identity can manage to occupy the same space by way of explanation for Iraqi quotism. 

But contradictions aside, mostly I think this conventional wisdom is wrong, or perhaps better stated, deeply exaggerated.  I heard it back in the Iran Iraq war to suggest that there might be a Shi'a defection to Khomeini's side, because sect means more than nation.  There was no such defection.  I heard it when the Kurds set up their de facto independent state following the 1991 uprising--this was it, Kurdistan was never returning to Iraq.  It did, and its population went hornhonking insane when the Kurdish Talabani was named president.  (You don't like the vuvuzelas, try tens of thousands of car horns honking outside your house all night while you are trying to sleep).  I heard it when Peter Galbraith and Leslie Gelb and Joe Biden were all running around claiming that Iraq should be divided into some loose confederation, an arrangement that the constitution contemplates.  Not only did that not happen, not a single non-Kurdish province could get together 10% of its voters necessary to put the question on the ballot, even in the most "federal" of the provinces, Basra.  I just wonder how many facts need to establish themselves before it is more broadly acknowledged that there certainly IS an Iraqi identity, and that quotism isn't really about the lack of one. In fact the lamenting that one hears about the practice helps to establish more than anything the reality of the national identity in the contemporary period.  If one doesn't care about the nation, then surely quotism wouldn't be something anyone would be ashamed about.  I don't care about the World Cup beyond America's participation in it (or iraq's if they ever make it again).  At this point, I will stop watching the 2010 World Cup.  I don't hide that fact, I don't lament it, it's not a game I care about and so that's that.  To claim that I do care would be to demonstrate some sort of broader commitment that I don't have. 

Moreover, I don't really think it's fair to say that nobody in the national government thinks about Iraq at all.  I am perfectly happy to jump on the bandwagon on poor governance that leads to deep dissatisfaction with the government (check the immediately preceding post--I think this is UNDERreported) but of all the criticisms of electricity, it obviously has nothing to do with sectarian difficulties, or mor precisely stated the attempt to favor one sect over another in the provision of electricity.  Or water.  Or schools.  Or the distribution of the rations. If only the problem were that the Shi'a get all the electrity, the Sunnis all the rations, the Kurds all the water--THAT would be easier to solve.  In fact, nobody gets enough of any of these. Parochialism obviously hampers any efforts to improve these problems (have to get everyone on board to back it, and if you demand consensus, it takes longer), and it certainly means legislators behave as if they are less accountable to the public (wrote about that for the Harvard International  Law Journal Online--check it out here  but this isn't quite the same as saying that nobody thinks about Iraq. 

The problem to my mind is that while there is a national identity, and there is national commitment, there are ALSO simultaneously other commitments as there would be in many places, not only to sect and ethnicity, but also clan and class as Shadid discusses.  These actually interact with each other- the only people Saddam REALLY trusted, the ones in the inner circle, were his clansmen from his hometown of Tikrit and its neighboring villages.  They're all Sunnis but a small subset of the broader Sunni population.  Or to take another context where class is MORE important than sect or ethnicity if you want something done in a government office, it's best if you know someone there who can help you.  More often than not, that's a relative, or a relative of a friend, or something.  So it could be someone in your social class--you are a Shi'i member of the high class Hunting Club, your Kurdish friend from college is too, his daughter is having a problem at a Ministry where you have a high position.  That Kurd is going to have a heck of a lot easier time getting her problem solved with your help than some Shi'i who walks in, chants a few things about Imam Ali and hopes that the staff help him out because he is a Shi'i just like the Minister.  And the Kurd wouldn't BE in the Hunting Club if she weren't from the right family.  Just like no Shi'i would be there from Sadr City, they'd never be allowed in.  The Sadrist who wants something done finds someone if he can in the neighborhood who works at the Minsitry, or maybe a local council member who might know somebody or something.  Better to be the Kurd in the Hunting Club in any event. 

All of that said, all of these distinctions count, but in politics, which is the real focus here, the ethnic and sectarian ones count most of all.  That is not distinct to Iraq--Americans are also Catholics, or Texans, or New Yorkers.  And New Yorkers are also Upper West Siders, etc.  But it was Iraq's traditional marginalization of Shi'a and Kurds that more or less made quotism inevitable if it was ever to become a democratic state in the manner that it has to date. I think that there was little that could have been done to prevent the current state of affairs where quotism runs rampant if Iraq was going to strive for more inclusiveness.

To understand why, say you are a Shi'i elite, say Sistani.  You do care about all of Iraq, I think it's wrong to say that Sistani only cares about the Shi'a, he could have done a great deal of damage if that were the case.  At the same time, as a Shi'i cleric you are deeply, fundamentally troubled by the fact that the community to which you are closest, the Shi'a, have never really been represented in high levels of government in any numbers beyond the token.   So a Shi'i could always be Dean of Baghdad Law School, or a member of the Hunting Club, but in politics, generally Minister of Education was about as high as a Shi'i was ever likely to get.  There might be an odd Shi'i in a higher role, but imagine the Republicans that serve in a Democratic Cabinet, or vice versa, and that more or less is how it ends up working out.  So you want to change that, and to do that you have to focus on numbers, which is what the Shi'a did.  We are a majority, the arugment goes, you've shunted us aside, we demand our majority to be recognized.  But of course the Kurd likewise feels pretty insecure and wants representation too.  Once the Sunni who used to have everything sees this happen, he wants to make sure he still has a role.  Then the Turkoman figures heck what about me.  And so on.  And most importantly, it can all happen in a state where there are feelings of citizenship, just feelings that are overwhelmed by a combination of strong overlapping identities and the realities of past forms of discrimination that, when redress is sought for them, result inevitably in quotism.  Everyone regrets its happening, but it seems impossible to avoid.

The United States, after all, hasn't entirely escaped this process either, it's just been more benign for demographic reasons.  I am thinking less of immigrants who are a smaller fraction of the population and easier to integrate over time, as their numbers increase very gradually, than the massive programs to finally give blacks basic civil rights in the 1960's after centuries of slavery and discrimination.  Blacks understandably thus liberated want a piece of the pie, they want to be sure to be included in the broader national fabric in business, government, law, etc.  And issues respecting quotas did arise.  Yet it would be wrong to say that blacks didn't care about the notion of America, or that blacks only cared about other blacks, for those who died in World War II it's a calumny to suggest such a thiing.  But they want a piece they've been denied, they want to make sure steps are taken to include them beyond just declaring a level playing field and everyone go home.  That's easier to achieve in a society where 15% of the country is black without devolving into quotism. Not easy, but easier.   But the point is, change the numbers so that blacks are 55% of the country (not 80% like South Africa, that's just a power transfer) AND were enslaved AND were discriminated against and move me to 1955, and whatever problems America had are much much worse in terms of how to adjust to the new changes.  Because then the blacks look around and wonder if they're a majority why aren't they running the place, and whites of course are sizable enough that they'll still want a piece, and the easiest solution, the one that proves the most reslient, the one that ends up being the "trap" into which they all fall, seems if not quite inevitable then surely very very likely if they're going to avoid internecine civil war. 

Each will decry quotism, and say that this is not how the country should operate, we should all be national citizens first. Each will mean that sincerely. And each. because of the history, will be extremely dissatisfied unless its representation everywhere is commensurate with its percentage of the broader population of the country.  And the only way those can both be accommodated is through the quota.  And so it is adopted.



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