By Ellen Laipson – The rise of sectarianism – allegiance to one’s religious sect over national identity – is causing the dissolution of Iraq and its society, perhaps more than any other factor. Increasing numbers of Iraqis now think of themselves first as Sunni, or Shia, or Kurd, and no longer want to live peacefully with Iraqis outside their group. But a dramatic parliamentary debate on January 25 suggests that Iraqi politicians are trying to get beyond sectarian passions. One cried “Why can’t we be nationalists?”
At a recent conference in Bahrain sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iraqis of diverse backgrounds argued for help in deemphasizing sectarian identity. Iraqi ministers representing all the major groups in Iraqi society were critical of democracy-promotion efforts that deepen sectarian identity rather than national identity. Now that Iraq’s government and parliament are committed to the new security measures that will isolate violent militias, both Sunni and Shia, the international community should quickly look for ways to support programs and activities that will strengthen national identity and give hope to those Iraqis who are working to prevent the irreparable breakdown of their society. Targetting youth in each community to de-radicalize their views, support to neighborhoods that prevent ethnic cleansing, and opportunities for civil society leaders to meet to promote cross-sectarian activities would be useful steps.