Dr Akeel ABBAS: Iraqi Shiasm post-2003

Having long served as a balancing force between Iran and Gulf countries, Iraq has transformed into a regional Gordion knot ever since the American occupation. As the Saddam administration ended, a very politically and administratively fragmented structure surfaced in Iraq. No one, including the Shiite actors, was prepared for the newly emerging political structure. In the case of weakened state authorities and insecure conditions, identity politics has become one of the central canons of Iraqi politics.


The importance of sectarian, religious, regional, and tribal affiliations in Iraqi political life is an ongoing reality that must be dealt with in detail. And recently, groups of differing religious and ethnic identities of increasing influence have become actors of the power struggle in Iraq that cannot be taken lightly. And we have been witnessing this power struggle not only between different groups with different identities but also within the same identity blocks. Considering that various Iraqi ethnic and sectarian groups do not constitute a monolithic structure, the differences between their methods and approaches (approaches to politics, state and other ideologies) should be realized. And we should not fail to notice that all these struggles, interactions and political realities on the ground have a transformative effect on every different group. Over the last 15 years, whereas some groups have become much more moderate and pragmatist even leaving some of their ideological principles behind, some others have become more radical. As the research project Striking from the Margins seeks a nuanced and dynamic understanding of the transformations of religion in relation to those of state and social structures, most specifically in Syria and Iraq, examining religious groups in Iraq through various dimensions has vital importance for grasping the dynamics behind the recent transformations.


Given the fact that Shiite groups have been running the country since 2003, putting transformations in the Shiite identity under examination would be a meaningful endeavor. During the initial stages of the Shiite rule in Iraq, for instance, the de-Baatification process turned into a political tool for the Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to marginalize and suppress his rivals. His alliances with radical splinter Shiite groups, as opposed to collaboration with the mainstream, moderate and centrist groups compelled the central government to more uncompromising attitudes. It was a reflection of the fact that they (Shiite groups) were not prepared to the post-2003 period and it was harming to the social cohesion in Iraq. First of all, the initial failure of the Shiite rule (mainly with the Maliki rule); secondly the Arab uprisings and of course finally, the emerge of ISIS made it much more complicated. It is possible to say that on-going tensions between different religious groups, let’s say the sectarian tension reached its peak with the Arab uprisings. It seems that the dynamics of interaction between different Shiite groups and their approaches to ideology, state and politics are very complex and diverse since the American occupation. However, if we consider the last 15 years as a political learning process, then we may claim that there are some positive developments, mainly since 2014, regarding redefinition and reassessments of their respective ideological and political stances.


For the very reason, Dr. Abbas Akeel’s seminar on May 31, 2018, was an instructive and accurate one for the Project. In analytical terms, the project deliberately intends to question assumptions about religious or sectarian ‘revivals,’ ‘returns of the repressed,’ and related analytical terms and categories. Dr. Akeel as a Middle East specialist, currently teaching at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, did an outstanding presentation by emphasizing the evolution of the doctrinal and practical differences among the Shiite groups in Iraq. Specializing mainly in cultural studies, his current research and academic interests revolve around modernity, democratization, the politics of identity (national and religious) and human rights in the Middle East. Accordingly, his presentation was mainly related to identity politics in Iraq. It was an exciting opportunity for the audience and primarily for the project team to hear Dr. Akeel’s insights about the transformation of Shiasm in Iraq. Without elucidating the historical trajectory, it would be challenging to grasp the current state of affairs -what has changed to what extent and how- regarding Shiasm in Iraq since 2003. To make a better sense of the Islamist Shiasm in the context of post-2003 Iraq, Dr. Abbas stated during the seminar that a serious look at the purist worldview of the faith was necessary.


For him, purism is not an isolated concept, but a robust network of ideas and practices that was the theo-doctrinal basis of Shiasm since its emergence in the fourth Hijri century. He elaborated how this network organizes Imami Shiasm as a worldview that offers answers to the fundamental questions of human existence, such as justice, faith, diversity, politics, and the state, suggesting particular roles for the faithful in this universal drama. This worldview, he stated, divides knowledge and, with it, the entirety of the experience of life into two opposed realms locked in an endless conflict: the pure and the tainted. Imami Shiasm belongs to the former while all non-Imami knowledge and experiences that do not conform to the purist standards of the faith belong to the latter. This purist network is responsible for Shia alienation whose historical effect has been relegating Shias to the margins of mainstream political meaning-making and activity, rather than marginalization by powerful anti-Shia forces as generally agreed upon by many scholars on Shiasm.


According to Dr. Akeel, since 2003, the formal Shia clerical establishment (the Marjaya) and Shia political parties came to face this alienation unprepared, misrecognizing it as marginalization, hence acting initially in response to the latter, rather than the former. However, gradually, starting in 2014, he added that the Shia clerical establishment began to perform based on an implicit recognition of the latter (alienation), finding itself in the uncomfortable but necessary position to adopt a reformist line of action to fundamentally reconnect ordinary Shias, political Islamist Shia parties, and itself, with the modern project of the nation-state that it was historically ideologically reluctant to engage in, if not outright opposed to. As a result, a new and activist mainstream Shia political awareness and action began to materialize, informed by the creative tension between ideology (theology as the bedrock of the Shia purist network) and pragmatics (the significant pressure caused by the initial colossal failure of Shia rule in Iraq). Given the fact that the main thematic areas of the project involve some parallel, analogous or intersecting trends such as the reframing of religion and the devolution of religious authority to new actors; the atrophy and devolution of state functions, Dr. Akeel’s seminar was entirely related to the core themes of the Project.

Faculty Akeel Abbas.JPG


Dr Akeel Abbas is a Middle East specialist, currently teaching at the University of Sulaimani. He holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from Purdue University, USA. Previously Abbas taught at Houston and Old Dominion Universities. His research and publications deal with national and religious identity, modernity and democratization in the Middle East.