Every time there is the prospect of significant political change in any Muslim country, however it is brought about, Muslims jump to the hope that Islamic movements may be able to take advantage of the situation to establish an Islamic state. The fall of Saddam Husain after the US invasion of Iraq was no exception, and hopes were encouraged by the fact that Islamic movements based in Iran had led the political opposition to Saddam’s brutal rule. Time and again, however, Muslims fall victim to un-Islamic tendencies within themselves, as well as the machinations of our enemies, and so the opportunities are not taken. This is precisely what appears to be happening in Iraq.
The great risk to any Islamic movement in Iraq has always been sectarianism, which tends to rear its ugly head wherever Muslims of different schools of thought live alongside each other, particularly when such differences are compounded by nationalist, linguistic or other cultural differences. Although many Iraqis would disagree, the fact is that Iraqis have always been aware of their communal identities -- as Sunnis, Shi’is or Kurds -- as well as of their identity as Muslims and Iraqis. This was a reality that Iraqi rulers have always exploited, including the Americans since the invasion. But in truth Iraqis themselves, like all too many Muslims elsewhere, have often needed little encouragement to fall victim to sectarian impulses. In the current situation, sectarian differences have been compounded also by different political approaches; while Sunnis (and not only those influenced by external jihadist groups) generally maintained the position that the first priority must be to fight the occupation and expel the Americans, the Shi’is in particular (and the Kurds as well) decided that they could achieve their objectives by cooperating with the Americans, despite the fact that that meant alienating and fighting the Sunnis. This was a gross miscalculation on the Shi’i part; it split the Iraqis at a time when there was a real chance of rising above sectarian differences to fight a common enemy, and made them effectively part of the occupation structures. The political power that they now have is seriously tainted by that initial error, and some now seem to be using instruments of the state to pursue sectarian agendas, which factors together have effectively ruled out for the time being any possibility of establishing an Islamic government representing all Iraq’s people.
None of this justifies the appalling attack on the al-Askari Shrine in Samarra on February 22, just as that attack does not justify the reprisals against Sunnis carried out by some Shi’is. But it is an inescapable part of the context not only of this atrocity, but the wider catastrophe that has unfolded in Iraq. Today, Iraq appears closer to slipping into internecine warfare than ever before; but sectarianism is not the only culprit. What we are seeing today is in fact the price that all Iraqis are paying for the opportunism of some of their leaders, who put short-term political pragmatism and gain ahead of the maintenance of Islamic political principle and the unity of the Ummah. For all too many Iraqis, the cost is high indeed.