Secular, nationalist surge in Iraq continues, new survey shows

With the Bush Administration’s progress report on Iraq due by Sept. 15, a new survey of nationally representative samples of the Iraqi population shows a continuation of two trends that give some reason for optimism about the future of that battle-scarred country: A continued shift away from political Islam among Sunnis and Kurds and a shift toward Iraqi nationalism among majority Shiites.

Those are the key findings from a July 2007 survey of 7,732 Iraqis, the fifth in a series, according to Mansoor Moaddel, a sociology professor at Eastern Michigan University and a research affiliate at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR).

Moaddel has been working with U-M colleagues and a private Iraqi research group, the Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies, on a series of face-to-face surveys of nationally representative samples of the Iraqi population. Previous surveys were conducted in December 2004, April and October 2006, and March 2007.

In the July survey, 53 percent of those interviewed identified themselves as Shiites, 26 percent as Sunnis, 16 percent as Kurds and 5 percent as Muslims. Those who identified themselves as Muslim only declined to claim identity with a specific Islamic sect.

A majority of the Sunnis (54 percent) and Kurds (65 percent) said that it was “very important” to have a government that makes law according to the people’s wishes, while a much smaller percentage of the Shiites (34 percent) thought so. On the other hand, only a minority of the Sunnis (14 percent) and the Kurds (18 percent) said that it was “very important” to have a government that implements only the Shari’a (Islamic law). This percentage was higher among the Shiites (27 percent). In the country as a whole, 71 percent of Iraqis said that it was “very important” or “somewhat important” for the government to make laws according to the people’s wishes, compared with 51 percent who said that the same about implementing the shari’a only.

“The Kurds and the Sunnis dislike religious regimes,” said Moaddel, “while the Shiites have a problem with secular politics.”

The Shiites were also the least likely to strongly agree that Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were separated, the series of surveys shows. Specifically, 53 percent of the Sunnis, 68 percent of the Kurds, and 22 percent of the Shiites “strongly agreed” that Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were separated, according to the July 2007 survey.

In terms of national identity, however, the Shiites were most likely to describe themselves as “Iraqis, above all” as opposed to Muslims, Arabs or Kurds above all. In the July survey, 71 percent of Shiites described themselves as Iraqis, above all, compared with 66 percent of those who self-identified only as Muslims, 57 percent of Sunnis and just 17 percent of Kurds.

Moaddel also found that the more education people had, the more secular and nationalistic their attitudes were likely to be. For example, 65 percent of those with university educations described themselves as Iraqis, above all, compared with 60 percent of those with elementary and high school educations, and 55 percent of those with no education.

The catch: only about 10 percent of Iraqis have a university education, according to Moaddel. “Iraqi culture was destroyed 10 years before the invasion,” he said. “The harsh economic sanctions we imposed after the Persian Gulf War undermined Iraqi quality of life and quality of education, with money meant for food programs going into Saddam’s coffers.”

Moaddel’s book, “Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism,” a comparative historical analysis of ideological movements in the Islamic world from the mid-1800s to the present, was named co-winner of the 2007 Distinguished Book Award by the Sociology of Religion Section of the American Sociological Association. Born in Iran, Moaddel is a U.S. citizen who has lived in this country for 31 years.

The latest findings on Iraqi political attitudes provide reason for both optimism and gloom, according to Moaddel. “Whether U.S. forces should stay or remain is really the wrong question,” he noted. “The real issue is whether the Iraqis prefer to identify themselves as Iraqis or as members of particular ethnic or religious sects.”

“If religious sectarianism prevails, U.S. forces will not be able to establish security. The best we can hope to do is to prevent civil war.”

But the trends toward secularism and nationalism revealed in the surveys suggest that religious parties are losing popular support and secular parties are gaining ground, according to Moaddel.

The paradox is whether the U.S. can effectively support this trend. “A nationalist identification emerges in response to foreign occupation,” Moaddel said. “We can’t directly support this trend, of course, or we will destroy it. But perhaps by getting rid of religious extremists, we can help to create an environment that will support Iraqi nationalism.”

The growth in Iraqi national identity is particularly important given the situation in other Islamic countries, Moaddel said. In Morocco, 65 percent of the population in 2002 describes themselves as “Muslims, above all,” the lowest figure among Arab countries after Iraq, he noted. This figure for Egypt in 2007 was approximately 84 percent, compared with 31 percent of Iraqis.

“Iraqi nationalism, if well-articulated, may not only save Iraq from disintegration but transcend sectarianism and sectarian politics,” said Moaddel. “The recruits to the Iraqi army may gain the technical competence to use weapons, but it is a heartfelt commitment to a united Iraq that acts as a social cement to make these recruits capable of subduing sectarian warlords and foreign intrusion. Whether such an ideology will be formulated and whether Iraq will create its own Mustafa Kamil [a 19th century Egyptian nationalist] only the future can tell. What seems clear is that Iraqis are ready to convey the same feeling of nationalist sensibility about their country as Kamil articulated about Egypt under British occupation: ‘To you my love and my heart. To you my life and my existence. To you my blood and my soul. To you my mind and my speech. . . . You, you, O… [Iraq] are life itself, and there is no life but in you.'”


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