Political Shiism and State-Building in Iraq: An Interview with Ali Taher El-Hammood

September 20, 2021

Eighteen years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Shiites are divided on the relationship between political power, ethnicity, and religious legitimation.
Dr. Ali Taher Elmemmud Photo provided by the author

Eighteen years after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Iraqi Shiites are divided on the relationship between political power, ethnicity, and religious legitimation. However, one thing that is clear is that the greater majority of high-ranking Shiite religious scholars in Iraq support democracy. Peyman Eshaghi of Politics Today interviewed Dr. Ali Taher Elmemmud, associate professor of sociology at the University of Baghdad, on his book titled The Embers of Governance: Iraqi Shiites and Nation-State Building Challenges in the Post-2003 Era, Beirut, Darelrafidayn, 2017 [in Arabic].

Q. What is the inspiration and motivation behind this book? What is the inspiration and motivation behind this book?

This book was my doctoral dissertation. It took two years to write, and a passionate defense that lasted six and a half hours was held for it. This was because it was the only dissertation defended in the Faculty of Humanities and the Department of Sociology of Baghdad University on Shiism and state-building in Iraq. After that, of course, it took a year to turn the dissertation into a book.

Of course, I removed some theoretical aspects from the book, and it became more suitable for non-academic readers and researchers. To write the dissertation, I conducted field research for more than a year. I succeeded in conducting interviews with twenty notable personalities. It was very challenging to meet Iraqi high-ranking Shiite clerics, known as “Sources of Emulation,” and top political figures due to Iraq’s situation and the sensitivities surrounding the issue. Among them are Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Sistani, Sayyid Muhammad Saeed Al-Hakim, Muhammad Is’haq al-Fayadh, and Bashir Al-Najafi.

Talking to intellectuals was much easier, but as I said, interviewing leading religious figures in Iraq was more difficult. For example, I spent six months trying to interview a Shiite high-ranking religious scholar known as “Marja” (literally Source of Emulation) in Najaf.

Q. How did you conduct research for this book?

While examining the state-building by Shiites in Iraq after 2003, I tried to study the fundamental theories of state-nation building. But I soon realized that many of the approaches cited about Iraq do not reflect the realities of the country. Perhaps this is because most of the researchers who have worked in this field have been non-Iraqis or have not done fieldwork. It must be borne in mind that Iraq is a country with an ancient history and deep-rooted culture. Therefore, it is challenging to bring together all the affairs of Iraq and understand the country in terms of the relationship that the government has had with its people.

For example, Francis Fukuyama has written about state-building in Iraq, and British author Liora Lukitz has written another book on state-building in Iraq. In this book, Lukitz applies Anthony Smith’s theory of national identity to the case of Iraq. However, when we scrutinize the issue, we find that neither of the two writers has been able to consider and understand Iraq’s realities. These two “Western ways” of thinking could not comprehend the local complexities.

For this reason, they divide the Iraqis into three groups: the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds. I think this is a significant mistake and scientifically problematic as well. I believe that this demarcation is very obscure and murky. It should be noted that in Iraq, it is rare to see a family in the Arab part that is not partly Sunni and partly Shiite. It is rare to see a Kurd who has no historical belonging and memory of the Arab regions. Understanding these details is crucial for analyzing Iraq.

Instead of dwelling on the views of Western theorists on nation-statehood in post-2003 Iraq, I focused on the Iraqi elite’s very local understanding, including high-ranking Shiite clergymen, Iraqi politicians, and intellectuals.

In this way, I theoretically tried not to have a structural and macro-view of the government and nation-building project, and to look at this issue more culturally. Instead of dwelling on media analyses or famous Western theorists’ views on nation-statehood in post-2003 Iraq, I decided to focus on the Iraqi elite’s very local understanding, including high-ranking Shiite clergymen, Iraqi politicians, and intellectuals.

Q. What do you believe is the most important finding in your book?

Naturally, my focus in this book was more on the Shiites. Shiites in the Islamic world have taken two paths politically: some have radically moved towards establishing an Islamic state, the best example of which is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Others have taken a secular approach. Although there are few examples of this, we can mention the Shiite political parties in Iraq, Lebanon, and even Iran, which have chosen the government’s secular view.

After 2003, it seemed that Iraqi Shiite groups, especially Iraqi Shiite Islamist groups, would choose between the two approaches mentioned before. Westerners expected Iraqi Shiite Islamist parties to seek a religious government similar to that of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist in Iran. In practice, however, Islamist Shiites in Iraq have taken a third path.

For Iraqi political Islamists, Islamism did not mean the establishment of an Islamic state.

For Iraqi political Islamists, Islamism did not mean the establishment of an Islamic state. In their view, the Islamic state is a utopia, such as the utopia of a society without a state. They speak of an Islamic state but explicitly point out that this utopia is not feasible. The reason is that, for them, the realization of the Islamic state is bound to a series of practically unfeasible conditions. For example, they claim that for the Islamic state to be realized, society’s consensus must be achieved. These conditions are not feasible in Iraq, with its large ethnic and religious diversity.

One should consider the fact that statistic studies in Iraq in 1947 and 1957 list Iraqi ethnic and religious groups along with their populations. At that time, the Shiite population was estimated at more than 50 percent. This number seems to have increased in the following decades. Because in all five elections held in Iraq after 2003, about 60 to 65% of the representatives in different provinces of the country were Shiites. Other evidence shows that about 20 percent are Sunni Arabs and 15 percent are Kurds.

These statistics are generally approved and used in academic research. There is also a large number of secularists among Shiites. Thus, it is clear that the demand for a Shiite Islamic state will never be met in Iraq. The reason for such an impossibility is the condition that Shiite political Islamists themselves have set as a precondition for achieving Islamic rule.

Since 2003, Iraqi Shiite Islamists have ruled with the same secular tools and way of thinking. Thus, it must be said that this is a new phenomenon in the course of Shiite political thought. In practice, no Shiite Islamist has tried to pass Islamic law in parliament since 2003. Personal status laws were never transformed into the “Islamic” ones. The budget law, one of the clauses of which imposes a tax on alcoholic beverages, which practically guarantees their free sale in Iraq, has never been criticized by a parliament whose majority is Shiite Islamists. They never tried to establish an Islamic institution called the government. Such things show that their Islamism enjoys a civil approach.

Although this approach is not Islamist in the conventional sense, it is not necessarily secular in the anti-religious sense. Instead, it respects religion without allowing religion to rule directly. Iraqi Shiite Islamists are in favor of a civil society, and Islamism for these Islamists is a belief in Islam and a personal commitment to it. In other words, Islamism is defined by performing a series of private acts of worship, observing sincerity and trustworthiness, and the like. Islamists have no purpose other than themselves and individual issues, and do not intend to lead society towards Islam.

Most of the Iraqi Shiites are following Ayatollah Sistani. However, they are not the only ones. Some Shiites are also openly secular in three types: first, liberal seculars represented by people like Ahmad Chalabi, who passed away a few years ago. Second, the national seculars who are represented in the political arena by politicians such as Ayad Allawi. The third group is the Communist seculars, represented by the Iraqi Communist Party.

Islamist Shiites are also made up of several groups. Most of them follow Ayatollah Sistani. The second group, which is smaller than the first group, is Muqtada al-Sadr. Religiously, they were following Sayyid Muhammad-Sadiq al-Sadr, Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, who was assassinated by state forces in 1999, and now they follow Muqtada al-Sadr. Muqtada is a nationalist figure who has never called for the formation of an Islamic-Shiite state since 2003. He has promoted religious, denominational, and cultural pluralism in Iraq, especially in recent years.

The third group of Shiite Islamists is loyal to the theory of velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist). They follow Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, who resides outside Iraq in the Iranian capital of Tehran. These people are mainly affiliated with Iraqi militia groups. They have never dared to say that they want an Islamic or Shiite state since the fall of Saddam, but their approach is vividly focused on the Shiite identity and creating a Shiite ummah. In their view, the Shiite ummah ranges from the Hazaras of Afghanistan to Hezbollah in Lebanon. According to them, the leadership of this Shiite nation will be in Tehran.

The last group of Iraqi Shiites is supporters of Ayatollah Sayyid Sadiq al-Shirazi. They are much fewer in number than others. They are more focused on ritual issues, and they do not have a specific political program.

Q. Iraq has a young society and this creates dynamism. In recent years, we have witnessed large-scale demonstrations in Iraq, mainly organized and carried out by young people in Shiite-populated areas. How might this youth agency affect Shiite political theory in Iraq?

First, the political change inside Iraq after 2003 was a forced change and was imposed on Iraq from outside. This is a big problem, and it shows its effects so far. This meant that the political state in Iraq was changed by another political state, not from inside. Thus, Iraqi society has so far lacked profound political experience and indigenous parties.

All parties active in Iraq after 2003 were led by those who had entered Iraq from abroad and lived abroad 20-30 years earlier. They were mainly political dissidents living in Iran, Syria, the USA, and European countries. Therefore, they were far from the reality of Iraqi society for years. After 2003, Iraqi people had no choice but to bring them to power. But it should not be forgotten that Iraqi society is a very dynamic one. In the nearly two decades since the fall of Saddam, politics has been gradually rebuilding and localizing. This was first felt by the demonstrations in October 2019.

The new political groups led by the youth are different from the ruling Islamists in Iraq. One of the matters is the issue of foreign policy. The Shiite Islamist groups’ general approach is to have a strategic relationship with Iran, but young Shiite groups are much more sensitive to Iran. These political groups are still young and have not come to power yet to see exactly what relationship they will define between themselves and Iran. However, their nationalist approach will be stronger than the current Shiite Islamists.

The second difference of this new generation is their definition of freedoms, duties, people’s rights, and civil liberties. After the rise of Daesh (ISIS) and the emergence of radical Shiite groups that fought them, freedom of speech, the right to demonstrate, and individual freedoms decreased, and the general atmosphere became more insecure for these protesting youth. Generally speaking, the Shiite youth have a broader definition of personal freedoms and rights than the Islamists that emerged after the events of 2014 and Iraq’s occupation by ISIS.

The third point is the differences between these young people and the Islamists in their interaction inside Iraq. These others, defined by Shiite political Islamists in Iraq as Sunnis and Ba’athists, are no longer meaningful to the new Shiite youth. In other words, they do not want to know their compatriots through identities such as Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds.

Of course, this does not have a profound effect on the identity of Iraqi Shiite Islamists. Yet, the current Islamists have implicitly accepted the passage of religious identities in favor of the national identity, as mentioned earlier. The point here is that after the events of 2014 and the occupation of part of Iraq by ISIS, some Shiite political Islamists in Iraq became more radical. But Iraq’s political system is still civil, and radicalism hasn’t overcome the public sphere of politics.

Q. Lastly, what do you see as the political future of Iraqi Shiites, especially in terms of political thought and theory?

The fact is that the Shiites comprise the majority of the Iraqi society, and they are the ones who define the national identity. On the other hand, in Iraqi Shiites’ mental background, there is always an element called the Islamic Republic of Iran. During the Ba’athist regime, the Islamic Republic was introduced as an enemy.

Currently, Shiite groups, especially young groups, consider Iran as a rival. Which of these two models (Iraqi or Iranian) defines political theory within Shiism? Iraqi Shiites respect religion without forming an Islamic government, and they host the oldest Shiite seminary in their city of Najaf. In Iran, however, a Shiite government is in power and openly defends political Shiism in foreign policy.

Iraqis feel this sense of competition with Iran, and it can even be said that this will be intensified in the future. But what Iraq’s foreign policy will look like in the future and its probable effect on the theory of Shiite governance depends on what approach these young people will adopt vis-à-vis the political theory in Iran. It is not possible to comment on this issue now.

It can be said, however, with certainty that it is complicated for Iraq to become an Islamic state in its political sense. As evidence of this, radical Islamist approaches are increasingly defined as smaller, more secretive, and anti-political. This remaining mentality is a kind of Islamic radicalism that has never ingratiated itself with society and has decreased tremendously in recent years.


Peyman Eshaghi is a Ph.D. student of Islamic Studies at the Berlin Graduate School of Muslim Cultures and Societies (BGSMCS), Free University of Berlin, Germany. Before that, he studied at the University of Chicago, University of Ankara, and the University of Tehran in anthropology and sociology of religion. His main areas of research are hajj and pilgrimage in Islam and Iran-Ottoman relationship.