Baghdad, when it fell in April 2003, was the first domino to tumble in the religious conflict that has spread throughout the entire Middle East. This was followed by the rise of a religious identity that is at odds with its counterparts on the one hand, and with other partial identities of other Middle Eastern communities on the other.
The fall of Baghdad set in motion the enormous momentum of fundamentalist projects that had gathered force over more than a century in the Middle East. These projects were critical of the liberal Western model, describing it as blasphemous from a religious perspective, imperialist from a leftist perspective or as both from the perspective of revolutionary Islam, which combines religious fundamentalism with a left-wing approach. The fronts of the conflict between those forces soon opened, and the destruction of the world came at the hands of the new gods, according to the Lebanese philosopher Ali Harb.
Iraq was and still is the most prominent model of religious conflict in the Middle East, predicating the expectation that it will be reproduced in other societies, especially in light of the circumstances witnessed in both Lebanon and Syria. After 2003, Iraqis suddenly discovered that they, as a people, do not form a single nation, but are rather composed of different identities. Religion plays a major role in these identities’ structure, self-awareness and perception of other identities in the country. This is what is happening in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt in very similar forms or with very insignificant differences.
This religious-identity conflict has led to the fragmentation of Iraqi society, which has been broken down into separate components. Individuals have resorted to their religious identities in order to protect themselves from the oppression of others. People are killed based on the information listed on their identity cards, which includes their sectarian affiliation. In this way, people have resorted to sectarian affiliation as a social identity that preserves and protects people, especially in the absence of a civil state or rule of law.
Emile Durkheim demonstrated in his approach to the sociology of religion that religion plays a major role in a human being’s self-awareness and distinction from other groups. According to him, religion provides people with a safeguard against threats made by others.
As a result, many military commanders, clan elders and secular figures have become sectarian, donning religious garb and adopting doctrinal rhetoric. Perhaps the most prominent example is former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who appeared during his trial with a long beard, a Quran in his hand and citing religious texts and doctrinal beliefs to defend himself.
This same conflict was recently exemplified by the altercation between Iraqi members of parliament regarding the posting of photos of religious figures in the streets of Baghdad.
The religious conflict has also led to the decline of the secular Iraqi movement, amid a rise in religious parties and militias that have gone viral. Secular parties are inherently unable to represent the new identities of the Iraqi components.
Regional powers are providing rival religious groups with substantial sources of support. Alternatively, there is a complete lack of regional and international support for secular trends, even from the United States, which entered Iraq with the aim of spreading a democracy that is conceptually and cognitively inseparable from the secular state model.
Secular movements have become an unprotected minority that are threatened by all other religious groups. Despite the sharp differences among these religious groups, they share hostility toward secular movements. This has led to three types of reactions among secularists. The first is an inclination toward irreligion and anti-religion. The second reaction is to resort to religion in a way that might contrive a humanitarian religious model that coexists with secularism, while the third reaction uses jokes and irony to criticize religious extremism.
The first reaction is evident through an increased demand in various parts of Iraq for books that deal with irreligion. When visiting Mutanabi Street, the historic center of Baghdad’s bookselling trade, one might notice that books on the various trends criticizing religions — such as communism, atheism, existentialism and others — see high sales figures, especially among the younger generation. This generation thirsts for an alternative to the tragic life they live, in a country with no discernable present or future. The strangest manifestation is the formation of youth groups keeping up with the latest books and trends criticizing religion in the various cities of Iraq, and even in conservative regions and sometimes radical regions, such as Anbar.
Anbar has seen the formation of an underground group that secretly trades books on atheism among its members for fear of oppression by their families and radical religious groups. There are also several Facebook pages criticizing religiosity and disseminating principles of atheism and irreligion. The most famous pages are Iraq's Atheists and The Concerned Reader. The latter publishes the philosophical work of leading atheists such as Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins.
The second reaction has included numerous attempts to revive and disseminate a rational and tolerant religious heritage by prominent Islamic figures such as Mohammad Mahdi Shamseddine, Mohammed Arkoun, AbdolKarim Soroush and Mostafa Malekian. Perhaps the most prominent figure who has exerted concentrated efforts in this field is Abdul Jabbar al-Rifai, who has published dozens of books and publications supporting his project to “save humanism in religion.”
Another example of the efforts being made is the Open University founded by the Dominican Fathers in Baghdad and headed by Joseph Thomas. This university studies religious problems and methods to remedy the country's crisis. However, these projects are still absent on the Iraqi street and among predominant political parties, both of which are preoccupied with religious identity conflicts.
As for the third reaction, Internet websites witnessed the emergence of satirical characters with religious titles, ironically wearing the outfits of religious preachers and sheikhs. These characters mock a certain type of religiousness or religion in general. The most famous one is the Abu al-Bara Facebook page, which has received tens of thousands of likes. This spurred many copycats.
Despite the secular reaction to the religious identity conflict, the Iraqi identity will likely — within the general context in the region — become further mired in its present crisis due to the presence of powerful influences fueling its flames.
Ali Mamouri is a researcher and writer who specializes in religion. He is a former teacher in Iranian universities and seminaries in Iran and Iraq. He has published several articles related to religious affairs in the two countries and societal transformations and sectarianism in the Middle East.