New survey data finds the Iraqi public demonstrates the highest levels of intolerance of foreigners and other social out-groups out of 80 countries for which data is available, along with extraordinarily high levels of ethnic solidarity. The implications for the future of Iraq include a set of direct challenges to the emergence of stable democracy as well as the possibility that a restoration of order and security could reverse these trends over time. The analysis is based on surveys conducted in Iraq in 2004 and 2006 as part of the World Values Survey.
The research findings appear in an article coauthored by Ronald Inglehart (University of Michigan), Mansoor Moaddel (Eastern Michigan University) and Mark Tessler (University of Michigan), entitled “Xenophobia and In-Group Solidarity in Iraq: A Natural Experiment on the Impact of Insecurity.” The article appears in the September 2006 issue of Perspectives on Politics, a journal of the American Political Science Association. It is online at: /imgtest/PerspectivesSep06_Inglehart.pdf
In addition to recent terrorism and the instability following the 2003 invasion the authors consider the impact of Saddam Hussein’s repressive rule, which differentially affected ethnic groups in Iraq. Broadly speaking, “the Arab regions of Iraq show levels of xenophobia that are almost twice as high as those found in the Kurdish region”–even as the Kurds still show “one of the world’s highest levels of xenophobia” compared to other countries.
Since 9/11 thousands of lives have been lost to terrorist attacks around the world. More than half these deaths have been in Iraq, leading to “widespread feelings that life has become unpredictable and society is falling apart” as well as “a severe sense of existential insecurity” on the part of the Iraqi public. Accordingly, 59% of all Iraqis strongly agree that life in Iraq is unpredictable and dangerous today.
The full impact of this collective trauma is evident in the survey data. “The Iraqi public,” state the authors, “reject foreigners to a degree that is virtually unknown in other societies throughout the world, including more than a dozen predominantly Islamic countries.” Accordingly, 90% of all Iraqis reject Americans or British as neighbors, compared to an international median of 16% who reject foreign neighbors. Surprisingly, 90% of Iraqis reject French neighbors as well–despite the strong objections of the French to the invasion of Iraq–including approximately 51% of Kurds and 90% of Arab Iraqis.
The authors also find that “despite severe internal divisions…the Iraqi public as a whole expresses relatively strong feelings of national pride.” These sentiments are reflected by the 86% of Arab Iraqis who say they are “very proud” to be Iraqi, ranking among the top six countries surveyed–what the authors term “a defiant expression of solidarity against outsiders.” Only 34% of Kurds expressed similar sentiments. Moreover, Iraqis show extraordinarily high levels of solidarity with their specific ethnic group: 96% of Kurds say they trust other Kurds “a great deal” while the corresponding figures are 86% for Shi’a and 68% for Sunnis. This solidarity does not carry over to other ethnic groups, however. Although 86% of all Iraqis strongly trust their own group, only 33% strongly trust other groups.
The current high levels of insecurity have led to the marginalization of other out-groups such as women: 93% of Arab Iraqis and 72% of Kurds agree that men make better political leaders. In addition, adherence to traditional values such as loyalty and conformity is also extremely high today. Obedience, instead of individual autonomy, is emphasized more strongly by Iraqis than in any of the other 80 societies measured. Furthermore, “fully 97% of Arab Iraqis say that religion is important in their lives” and Arab Iraqis also ranked among the world’s highest in terms of the rejection of atheists as political leaders. Kurdish Iraqis also exhibited internationally high levels of religiosity and adherence to traditional values, albeit less than their Arab compatriots.
What are the implications of this new data for democracy in Iraq? Despite the current turmoil 85% of all Iraqis believe democracy is the best form of government and “their commitment to democracy seems genuine,” state the authors. Moreover, the trend appears to be in favor of secular politics, as the percentage of Iraqis who said it was ‘very good to have an Islamic government where religious leaders have absolute power’ declined from 30% (2004) to 22% (2006). This decline varied by ethnicity: among the Shi’a it decreased from 39% to 35%, among the Sunnis from 20% to 6%, among all Muslims from 23% to 10%, and among the Kurds from 11% to 5%. The decline in support for an Islamic state among Sunnis is most dramatic, and may have significant ramifications for the influence of religious extremists to recruit among them. Moreover, only 53% of Sunnis think Iraq is better without Saddam.
“The restoration of public order and…economic security” should help reverse the levels of inter-ethnic mistrust and the intolerance of foreigners, conclude the authors, and “as the psychological gulf between groups decreases, the prospect for stable democracy will improve.” The emergence of a new Iraqi government with greater legitimacy and independence from foreign military support could also counter the violence fueled by high levels of xenophobia.
Three years after the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, Iraq remains at the forefront of political debate in the US and the world. This important new study sheds more light, not heat, on the situation on the ground and on important questions related to the future course of American policy in Iraq.