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What the Iraqi Study Group Missed: The Iraqi People

There is growing support for nationalism among Iraqis in the midst of insecurity and violence

by Mansoor Moaddel, Eastern Michigan University

The escalating violence in Iraq gives a bleak impression of that country’s future. Sectarian conflict seems to increase daily with militias massacring hundreds of Sunnis and Shi’is solely on the basis of their religious identities. It would be a mistake to think that this bloodlust represents widespread sentiment among Iraqis as a whole. While neither American nor Iraqi security officials have found a way to tame the militias, the Iraqi public is increasingly drawn toward a vision of a democratic, non-sectarian government for the country.

In December 2004 and April 2006, I was involved in conducting two NSFfunded nationwide public opinion surveys in Iraq. The Effects Assessment Group connected to multinational forces in Iraq granted my request to include about 10 of our questions in their October 2006 survey to assess whether the trend in Iraqi political values revealed by findings from our two surveys could be confirmed. This group generously shared data from their April and October 2006 surveys.

All these surveys have been carried out by the Independent Institute for Administrative and Civil Society Studies, an Iraqi research firm.

Support for Secular Politics

When asked about “the three main reasons for the U.S. invasion of Iraq,” 76% of Iraqis cited “to control Iraqi oil” as their first choice; 41% said “to build military bases” as the second choice; and 32% mentioned “to help Israel” as the third choice. Less than 2% of Iraqis cited “to bring democracy to Iraq” as the most likely explanation for the U.S. invasion of their country.

Given Iraqis’ misgivings about U.S. intentions, one may expect that they would distance themselves from the occupying forces, which are both foreign and non-Muslim, by solidifying their support behind a religious regime. The trend in their political views, however, appears to be just the opposite—there is growing support for secular politics and nationalism. For example, the percentage of Iraqis who said it was “very good to have an Islamic government where religious leaders have absolute power”— something similar to the Islamic regime in Iran—declined from 26% (Dec. 2004) to 19% (April 2006) and 18% (Oct. 2006). This decline varied by ethnicity. Among the Shi’is, it decreased from 35% to 30% and 28%, among the Sunnis from 17% to 6% and 6%, among the Muslims (those Iraqis not identified as Shi’is or Sunnis) from 17% to 8% and 8%, and among the Kurds from 10% to 5% and then to 3%, respectively. Similarly, the percentage of Iraqis who thought it was “very important for a good government to implement only religious laws,” declined from 31% (Dec. 2004) to 25% (April 2006), and then to 18% (Oct. 2006).

Finally, there was also an increase in support for the separation of religion and politics, as those who “strongly agreed” that “Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics are separated” increased from 24% (Dec. 2004), to 36% (April 2006), and then to 43% (Oct. 2006). Among the Shi’is, these values were 22%, 19%, and 33%; among the Sunnis, 22%, 55%, and 56%; among the Muslims, 34%, 47%, and 64%; and among the Kurds, 32%, 54%, and 48%, respectively.

Iraqi Identity and Nationalism

Another interesting development in Iraqi attitudes is the shift in favor of such indicators of nationalism as Iraqi identity (“Iraqis, above all” versus “Muslims, above all”) and national pride. In December 2004, 23% of the respondents defined themselves as “Iraqis, above all,” while in April 2006 this increased to 28%. Among educated Iraqis in the urban area, this rise was higher from 22% to 36%. The feeling of national pride has increased as the percentage of Iraqis who expressed “very proud to be Iraqis” went up from 77% (Dec. 2004) to the low eighties (April-Oct 2006). A most astonishing development has been among the Kurds as the percentage who said that they were proud to be Iraqis rose from 34% (Dec. 2004), to 49% (April 2006), and then jumped to 76% (Oct. 2006).

Reflecting these attitudinal changes toward secular politics and nationalism is a significant decline in support for all religious political parties in Iraq. Figure 1 shows data from Iraqi citizens regarding their attitudes toward the following parties: SCIRI (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution), Dawa (supporters of a technocratic-driven Islamist government who also support federalism and a united Iraq with a strong central government), Sadr (Islamist supporters of federalism and a united Iraq, but not under SCIRI), Fadhila (support federalism and an Islamist government, but not under SCIRI), Iraqi National Alliance, and Iraqi Islamic Party.

The figure shows that between April and October 2006, there has been a significant increase among Iraqis who gave “very unfavorable” rating to these parties. Except for Iraqi National Alliance, which is a secular party, all other parties’ unfavorable ratings increased between 9% and 12%.

The “very favorable” rating of all the religious parties, on the other hand, declined significantly between the two surveys. It is noteworthy that the only political party that experienced an increase in the very favorable rating was the secular Iraqi National Alliance. Although very small, the change nonetheless is consistent with the trend among Iraqis toward secularism (Figure 2).

To appreciate the significance of the attitudinal changes displayed by Iraqis since 2004, we compare adherence to national identity in the capitals of several Middle Eastern countries. In the Baghdad province, those describing themselves as “Iraqis, above all” jumped from 30% to 60% between 2004 and 2006 surveys. Attachment to national identity in 2001, for Cairo, Egypt, was 11%; for Amman, Jordan, 12%; for Rabat, Morocco, 34%; and in 2003 for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 17%. The only comparable case is for Tehran, Iran, where those who described themselves as “Iranians, above all” jumped from 38% in 2000 to 59% in 2005.

From these figures, it appears that Iraqis are showing greater attachments to national identity and secular politics than they did more than two years ago. These are the basic traits of a modern political order. Among Sunnis, the decline in support for an Islamic state is most dramatic, and may have signifi- cant ramifications for the influence of religious extremists to recruit among them. While Iraqis remain angry about the violence in their country, they maintain their sense of national identity. At the same time, they appear to be holding onto important democratic values. Whether these can be translated into a peaceful reality remains the difficult challenge. Nonetheless, if the Iraqi government succeeds in national reconciliation and manages to establish security, there is a significantly higher likelihood for the emergence and solidification of secular-national politics than an Islamic government in Iraq.

Mansoor Moaddel is a professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University and a research affiliate at the Population Studies Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.