Interview with Faleh Abdel Jabar

"Denominational Federalism Is Dangerous and Separatist"

Iraq is increasingly struggling with its centrifugal forces. In this interview, Faleh Abdel Jabar, head of the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies, discusses the various concepts of federalism and how they might work for Iraq

. Interview by Youssef Hijazi

Car bomb site in Sadr City, Baghdad (photo: AP)
According to Faleh Jabar, Iraq is currently experiencing a civil war, but as yet on smaller-than-usual scale

​​Dr. Jabar, in 2003, shortly before the beginning of the war, you wrote in the French newspaper Le Monde that a dark nightmare was awaiting Iraq in the form of a civil war. Has your prediction come true?

Faleh Abdel Jabar: What we're experiencing in Iraq is a mini civil war. These tactics are being used by certain fundamental and Iraqi and some non-Iraqi forces who want to newly define the balance of power in Baghdad. It is part of an even greater strategy aimed at destabilizing the country. The intentions of the forces that exercise power within the country are as varied as the forces themselves. The situation is painful. Untamed violence is being aimed at simple, soft targets.

Above all, it affects civilians: If you're a Shiite and you live in a Sunni neighborhood, you are killed or expelled; if you're a Sunni and you live in a primarily Shiite area, the same thing happens to you. There is denominational cleansing.

It started with the former Baathists, fundamental Salafists, some paid mafia gangs and local fanatics. Each one has his own goals: The Baathists want to regain power, the fundamentalists are carrying out their global war, and several forces are pursuing denominational aims in a narrow sense. The battle that is now being fought over Baghdad is a continuation of the violence that was initially directed toward the occupying forces and gradually developed into violence against the Iraqis themselves.

Is there a way out of this spiral of violence?

Jabar: First one must ask who is stirring up the violence. The first and biggest group is made up of former officers of the Iraqi army and high state officials who were running the country. They are not necessarily Baathists or followers of Saddam Hussein, but they were dishonorably removed from office by the US civil administrator Paul Bremer. They have concentrated their war against the Americans and have a certain degree of legitimation.

Faleh Jabar (photo: private)
According to Faleh Jabar, there is "denominational cleansing" among Shiites and Sunnites

​​The defeated Baathists make up the second group. Here I am referring to members of Saddam Hussein's tribal networks as well as the ideological Baath party. Both of them want to regain power. They would have reacted in the same way even if the changes had been initiated internally and not by the Americans. They had already ruined the country with three wars.

The third group is the Salafists – meaning followers of Sarkawi and his kind.

In addition there is the native Muslim Brotherhood as a relatively moderate Islamic movement. Their goals are clear: They want to share in power and also expel the occupiers. There are also mafia groups acting as henchmen for the Baathists.

Considering this analysis: What political path is conceivable?

Jabar: The development in Iraq wasn't completed little by little. Instead, there was a sudden break, and this leads to explosions. For that reason, we will have to pay the price for the long period of dictatorship and the destruction which followed, just as we will pay the price for the occupation, which has led to an abrupt and sudden change in politics, economy and society.

What is needed currently is a further sharing in power and the return to office of institutional powers – the former army officers, administrative officials and so forth. Political reform is necessary, and the Iraqis must take control of their own affairs so that the Americans can leave the country gradually and in peace.

If they do not go in a peaceful manner, then we can protest via general strikes, demonstrations and similar activities without taking up arms. Additionally we must work to get rid of the fundamentalists from abroad and the Baathist who robbed the country. The solution won't come over night, however.

Do you also observe an increased sense of belonging to a religious denomination or ethnic group rather than to the state?

Jabar: Yes and no! Yes in the sense that denominational identities have the upper hand with regard to political mobilization. By now, this has become the case with all Islamic political powers. Islamic politics in Iraq is denominational by definition. Their following is made up of the poor classes of society, and these became broader during the US-dictated blockade.

This shattered the classes that would have been in a position to advance civil and democratic development in the country. This class is now impoverished and is trying to regain its position by any means. That's why their current political activities are violent and bloodthirsty.

Nevertheless, denominationalism remains a means for political mobilization, to keep hold of the power within a united Iraq and not to split away. You have to understand it this way: Iraqi patriotism means keeping Iraq united, and denominationalism is a way of retaining a larger portion of the political power and the resources within the context of a united Iraq.

That's why we see both levels within a single person or within a particular camp. But when denominational language dominates it creates the impression that there is no "patriotic" discourse in Iraq.

What then is the nature of this patriotic discourse born from denominational discourse?

Jabar: There are many examples: Currently, we have an Islamic-Shiite government in Iraq. But when Iran interferes, the government protests. How do we evaluate this attitude? How do we explain it when this government defends every square meter of Iraqi soil? What is the meaning of the Shiite Prime Minister's call to fly the national flag in Kurdistan as well? The concept of Iraqi patriotism is not new. It goes back to the beginning of the 20th century.

Is federalism a suitable solution to the issue of "minorities and majorities" in Iraq?

Jabar: Yes and no. Federalism came about as a reordering of the democratic system. Its goal was to reduce the central government's monopoly on power. Ever since Montesquieu, the distribution of powers has been regarded as the basis of modern society. Later, a new separation came along, specifically, the distribution of executive power between the central government and the individual states. In this way, federalism served to develop the democratic system and gave minorities in the states their right to self-determination.

In Iraq, self-determination, federalism and constitutional democracy have been discussed as forms for solving the issue of ethnicity. On the one hand, federalism offers a solution for the Kurdish issue in Iraq. But on the other hand, there are Turkmen and Assyrian minorities within the Kurdish regions who demand their rights. As long as there are no positive signs in this regard, this will be detrimental to federalism and cause additional regional problems for the central government. That's because Turkey will feel provoked if things become difficult for the Turkmen. That means that a new problem is created in place of the old one, even if the newly created problem is the lesser of two evils.

But there are also voices calling for federalism according to denominational membership …

Jabar: Yes, a Shiite federalism is being discussed. But it is an administrative federalism. The previous government blatantly neglected the south. There are cities there without hospitals or water. Iraq is a country of oil, but while you find the most modern buildings, streets and automobiles in Baghdad, there are other places that don't even have a water supply. It's as if you flew from Bangladesh to New York all at once, and all within the same country.

It is painful for the people in these areas and they believe to have found the reasons behind it in denominationalism: "Nobody cares about us because we are Shiites from the south." That's why there is a strong drive for federalism in Basra, because 75 percent of Iraqi oil is found there, and it is still the poorest city in Iraq.

In the metropolis of Basra with its great history, you see foul water on the streets. It's been 15 years since there has been any drinking water. These are the reasons we see a desire for decentralization there. It is a desire for justice and the fair distribution of resources.

But isn't there another concept of federalism within Shiite ranks …?

Jabar: Yes. Aziz Al Hakim of Nadjaf has made another demand. He has an Iran-oriented agenda and is calling for a great Shiite federation made up of nine provinces. He would like to be the president. There are, however, very strong forces within the Shiite camp that are fighting against this.

For that reason, we must distinguish between three federalist tendencies within Iraq:

Kurdish federalism, the administrative federalism of the south, and the denominational, Shiite federalism. The first two forms have certain advantages. With the first form, one could solve the ethnic issue. With the second, one could solve the problem of distributing resources. I reject the third form. Denominational federalism is dangerous, separatist and opposed to Iraq. Additionally, it includes a regional agenda and an agenda for a backward and archly conservative Islamic system.

What would be the actual characteristics of a successful federal state in Iraq?

Jabar: Therein lies the problem. There is a new theory of constitutional democracy. Montesquieu and John Locke, the advocates who proposed the theory of classical democracy, speak of a mutual consent and of government via an elected majority. That is unproblematic in homogenous states. For example, where everyone is white, Christian and Protestant, then the government is going to be white, Christian and Protestant.

But if a country is not homogenous and there is a majority, then this majority in the population will be reflected in a political majority. The result is an ethnocratic system. That means that a large ethnic group attains absolute power.

In order to overcome this dilemma, where the simple, classical democracy leads to the supremacy of one group over the others, constitutional democracy was invented. It is a European invention that was created to solve real problems, for example in Holland, Switzerland and Belgium, and came about after a long phase of democracy. In these places, one had recognized that simple democracy is not sufficient.

Is it possible to simply apply these experiences to a different world religion? Didn't the transfer of nationalistic and socialist ideas fail already in the past?

Jabar: At the time, we demanded things that comprise the core of constitutional theory without knowing that this theory exists at all. For example, we wanted a government of national unity. What does that really mean? It means a government with broad representation.

Arendt Lijphart, Lembruch and other theoreticians of constitutionalism wrote about this in the 1970s and 1980s. The first condition for them was a coalition government of a broad alliance that includes the majority party and others.

What is a government of national unity? It is nothing other than this principle. That means that the people create exactly the government they really need. Socialism is a future vision. But nationalism, constitutionalism and democracy are all theories that arose after the development of the political systems, not before. They were formulated from the political systems after they had crystallized.

Take, for example, the quota regulations in the ministries. We asked why it was that, when the foreign minister hails from the city of Anbar, all of the employees of that ministry come from the same city. Why shouldn't they come from Mosul or Baghdad?

We had already made these demands 20 years ago. Later we discovered that the principle behind the quota regulation is formulated in a theory. The broad alliance, the mutual right of veto between the minorities and the majority, the consultation and the self-government of the affairs of every ethnic group – all these things actually exist.

One need only acknowledge them and study the reasons behind their success and their failure. They must be anchored in the basic law, applied in institutions and give the people the chance to reflect upon them, so that they see what others have achieved and where they have failed. Who knows: maybe we will invent something new. We may be successful or unsuccessful, but that is the way.

Interview: Youssef Hijazi

© 2006

Faleh A. Jabar is a social scientist. He is head of the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies in Beirut. He has published several books in English and Arabic, addressing topics such as socialism, democracy and Islam. Jabar currently lives in Beirut.

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