Sectarianism in Kurdistan Region of Iraq Between Political and Theological schism
Jalal, Pishtiwan Abdulwahid
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Sectarianism has become the magic word with which many scholars and politicians describe the current Middle East politics. Much of the existing literature presumes that most of the state and non-state actors of the region are divided over Shia and Sunni blocs led by Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabi (KSA) respectively. However, so far scholars have left out the Kurds within their studies on sectarianism. Scholars have not explicitly pointed out why they are disinterested in sectarianism among the Kurds; it might be due to the perception that the Kurds are mostly Sunnis who have an ethnic and not a religious cause. The main aim of this research is to look at sectarianism in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and find out whether or not of this perception is true. To do so, this research rejects the general application of the English term "sectarianism" in the first place as a theme to explain the politics of the Middle East. Instead, in the first chapter it is argued that there are three tiers of relations among regional actors: 1) state-state realpolitik, which is based on geopolitical realities among Turkey, Iran and the KSA, 2) political sectarianism (taifiyya) among sectarian groups such as the MB, Wahabis and Shia, often conducted through political agents like state and non-state actors, and 3) the civil and non-violent sect-sect theological sectarianism (madhabiyya) among those three sects. In the second chapter this new understanding of sectarianism is then applied on the domestic politics of the KRI. It is argued that while there is theological sectarianism in the KRI, there is no political sectarianism. The third chapter explores the foreign relations of the KRI. It argues that the KRI as an unrecognized state, acts rationally to survive. It evades sectarianism and deemphasizes its demands of international recognition. Alternatively, the KRI pursues 'Regional Acceptance Policy' within which the Kurdish leadership persuades the regional powers, especially Turkey and Iran, that the de facto state will not declare independence, in return, they ask regional powers' acceptance of the KRI as a legitimate actor with its unique status.
General Audience Abstract
Throughout the 20th century ethno-nationalism was the strongest sentiment in the Middle East. Within the past decade or so, however, Islam's two main sectarian identities, Shia and Sunni, have become extraordinarily strong, if not stronger than ethno-national identities. The common understanding of the region's politics is that Iran, as a Shia majority country, has allied with the other Shia non-Persian countries and actors, such as Iraq and Hezbollah. The Sunni countries, on the other hand, have gathered around the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) against Iran or Shias in general. There is also, however, a common perception that Kurds are the only people in the Middle East who have not become sectarian. This research is to see whether this perception towards the Kurds is true, and if it is, why? The first chapter argues that the English term "sectarianism" fails to explain the current politics of the Middle East. Instead, it is argued, there are two different forms of sectarianism in Islam; one is about theological disagreements, which in Arabic is called "madhabiya", the other is about the political competition among the various Muslim groups which in Arabic is called "taifiya". Regardless of the religious factor, states of the Middle East act rationally based on geopolitical realities. Political sectarianism comes emerges especially when those sectarian groups mobilize under political parties and armed militia groups. Sects and states sometimes cooperate for mutual interests and hence it appears that the entire conflicts of the region are driven by sectarian motivations. The second and third chapters then explore sectarianism in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) within this new understanding. The KRI acts like the state actors based on its interests and not its Sunni sectarian identity. Contrary to the common perception towards the unrecognized state which assumes that the KRI's ultimate goal should be international recognition (IR), it is here argued that the KRI prioritizes 'regional acceptance' (RA) over IR. Within the KRI there is theological sectarianism among Salafists, Sufis, and political Islamists. However, there is no political sectarianism because the Kurdish government has neutralized and unarmed the sectarian groups.
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