One of the most striking things to be in the new Iraq is how relatively swiftly consciousness has shifted dramatically among Sunnis and Shi’a on the basis of their respective positions in the state order. Pick up the New York Times today and read it, and one reads about Sunni marginalization, about the growing Sunni attitude that the Iraqi army is a Shi’a dominated institution that persecutes Sunnis, how de-Baathification targets and removes Sunnis and leaves them a disenfranchised minority. This is not necessarily false. It’s a common narrative in Iraq. It’s just a Sunni narrative. (My long standing view is that it is the New York Times narrative as well not because their general biases and presuppositions are worse than, say, mine (which I hope makes them substantially better than Fox News). It’s just that the specific NYT biases drive in a decidedly anti-Bush direction. And the narrative that best demonstrates how bad Iraq is going is the Sunni one.)
Talk to Shi’a, and they will of course point out that Sunnis are in charge of some of Iraq’s most important state institutions. Marginalized, when the speaker of the legislature, the man who sets the legislative agenda, is a Sunni? Shi’a dominated, an institution with large numbers of Sunnis in it? Didn’t you notice that many of the candidates disqualified on account of Ba’ath ties in 2010, in fact most, were actually Shi’a? Again, not necessarily false, in fact a common narrative. Just a Shi’a narrative.
On its own, this is not terribly surprising. Certainly if you asked blacks and whites in the United States about race relations, you’d hear roughly similar accounts, with blacks emphasizing a narrative or marginalization and disenfranchisement, whites of inclusiveness that led to the election of a black president. There would be exceptions to that, as there would be exceptions to the Sunni Shia paradigm described above, of course, but that does not detract from the broad and general adherence of the respective groups to disparate narratives.
What makes Iraq particularly interesting is the manner in which these occupied spaces have flipped so suddenly. Back up just over a decade, and the discussion is about Shi’a marginalization. And the Shi’i narrative is that the army is a Sunni institution, and the government Sunni dominated, and Shi’a rendered second class citizens. As for the Sunni narrative, it is that of the empowered and dominant. This is insane, there is no marginalization, the army is majority Shi’i, various high government officers and judges Shi’i, the majority of graduates of Baghdad Medical College Shi’i, etc. etc.
To be sure, there was a transition, hence, as I set out in detail in my book, the Shi’a throughout constitutional negotiations betrayed the type of insecurity and fear of an empowered Baghdad that was reflective of a minority community, while the Sunnis demanded a strong central state, in a fashion that, demographically, made little sense. but since then, very similar facts that led group A to declare a certain state of affairs, or not, as the case may be, has led them to take the opposite position. An army whose officer corps is mostly one group with a minority from the other? In 2002, that’s a mixed army for the Sunnis, and in 2014, it’s one that marginalizes Sunnis. Whereas for 2002, that army is a tool of marginalization and exclusion, but not so in 2014.
This is not, let’s be clear, merely the expression of a political preference for one government or another. Rather, it is about a space that a group imagines itself occupying vis a vis not so much the government as the entire state. An entire mentality, a construction of identity. Completely shifting about, 180 degrees entirely. And it only took a decade.