This August, a harsh heat wave across Iraq came alongside electricity blackouts, sending tens of thousands of people onto the streets in an ongoing protest. Six weeks of massive — and still growing — rallies across central and southern Iraq called not merely for reliable electricity, but for an end to the sectarian power-sharing agreement that many consider to be the culprit behind ongoing problems in Iraq. This sectarian system had been set up by U.S. envoy Paul Bremer in 2003, and mandates “power sharing” among representatives from Iraq’s many religious and ethnic communities at every level of government. Popular unrest against this system has gripped the country for the past decade because — among other faults — it so clearly disrupted politics across Iraq’s ethnic and religious divides. This time, with people at his doorstep, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed to hear them. He proposed reforms to “distance all top government posts from sectarian and party quotas.”
Religious sect is a real force in Iraqi society, all the more since regional players have poured billions into hyper-sectarian militias and media outlets. At the same time, Iraqis have consistently fought against the imposition of a quota system for government positions, as well as the culture of animosity that political sectarianism brings. Iraqis identify politically and socially in many ways — geographically, generationally and ideologically. They organize for gender justice, public sector jobs, cultural flourishing, environmental protection and more. Faith is only one aspect of these identities, though one that the world seems obsessed with boxing Iraqis into.
“We want an end to this sectarian quota system,” Uday al-Zaidi, the brother of famed shoe-thrower and journalist Muntazar al-Zaidi, told me back in 2011. That was in the midst of one of Iraq’s earlier protest moments, when the al-Zaidi brothers played a prominent role in leading calls for Iraqi unity and independence from the United States and regional powers, most prominently the Iranian government. And that’s just one example.
The Federation of Oil Unions in Iraq prominently called out the sect in 2007 as “a distraction” from their fight for labor rights and a say in Iraq’s oil contracts. Five years later in 2012, I interviewed Hashmeya al-Saadawi, president of the Electrical Utility Workers Union in Iraq, when then, as now, many Iraqis only get a few hours of power every day. While describing the scandalous Iraqi budget surplus — which totaled in the tens of billions of dollars — she called the sectarian system “hated” and asserted it was at the heart of the government’s dysfunction.
Perhaps the most crucial example is from 2013, when yet another protest upsurge that began in al-Anbar province, spread north and gained support across Iraqi society. The demonstrations, which were tragically transformed and infiltrated by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups that became ISIS, began as a struggle against sectarianism. “No to sectarianism … exclusion, marginalization and the politicization of the judiciary,” read a banner from a January 2013 demonstration.
At that time, former Prime Minister Al-Maliki’s use of security forces and prisons in a blatantly discriminatory manner pushed people into the street, and the harsh government crackdown provided an opening for armed and brutally divisive groups. Although Mosul is now controlled by the sectarian and vicious ISIS, it is not surprising that Iraqis I have spoken with from there feel good about the recent demands for a post-sectarian future. After all, it was a series of tragic turns of history — from the United States’ empowering of sectarian and patriarchal Islamist parties in Iraq to the exclusive targeting of progressive opposition in Iraq and Syria by both regimes respectively — that led to the ISIS phenomenon to begin with.
Since a new wave of protest in Iraq — the largest in decades — has forced the Iraqi government to finally begin acknowledging the fundamental problems with the now 12-year-old quota system, Iraqis across sectors and at the grassroots are striving to chart a new political course. It’s also time for the world at large to see Iraqis in a new way. Not as simply Sunni, Shi’ite or Kurd, Gulf-backed or Iran-backed, terrorist or victim. Iraqis are asking us to do much better than that.