Shermeen Yousif

A Bottom-Up Approach to Peace in Iraq

An AI-generated image depicting an imaginary scene in Iraq with doves as symbols of peace.
An AI-generated image depicting an imaginary scene in Iraq with doves as symbols of peace.

Iraq, a nation replete with historical grandeur and cultural richness, has been ensnared in the predicament of conflict and instability for decades. Notable periods of unrest include the 2003 war, sectarian violence and civil war post 2003, the rise of ISIS in 2014, and the demonstrations demanding reforms since 2019. Recent protests stemmed from grievances related to governance, insurgency, political instability, corruption, and economic challenges. The pursuit of a future marked by enduring peace and comprehensive development stands as a formidable endeavor.

The tumultuous trajectory of Iraq since the year 2003 serves as a testament to the limitations of “top-down” interventions, characterized by the external removal of an authoritarian dictator. Rather than witnessing a swift and orderly transition to stability and prosperity, Iraq has grappled with a harrowing array of challenges. These include political turbulence, rampant chaos, sectarian violence tearing at the social fabric, and the proliferation of armed militias vying for control. Most alarmingly, Iraq has become fertile ground for terrorist groups to flourish, further exacerbating its predicament.

In light of those sobering events, a fundamental reevaluation of the approach to nation-building and transformation is warranted. A paradigm shift towards a “bottom-up” strategy emerges as a more viable path forward. Under this framework, the impetus for change emanates from the citizenry themselves, not imposed externally. This approach empowers individuals and communities to create spaces of participation at the local level, fostering a sense of ownership over their destinies. Key to this “bottom-up” approach is the decentralization of decision-making. Instead of entrusting governance solely to central government actors, power is diffused to local levels where citizens have a direct stake in shaping their communities. This shift not only aligns with the principles of democracy and self-determination but also acknowledges the diverse and intricate tapestry of Iraqi society. 

Political Reconciliation: A Prerequisite for Stability

Iraq’s historical narrative is marred by the scars of sectarian strife and deep-rooted political divisions, which underscore the critical necessity of concerted efforts to promote inclusivity, representation, and the equitable sharing of power among its ethnically and religiously diverse populace. Political reconciliation in Iraq finds its roots in the intricate dynamics of the nation’s political landscape. This multifaceted process underscores the importance of bridging divisive gaps through sustained dialogue and principled compromise. Such an approach, as history has shown, is pivotal in countering extremism and cultivating an environment conducive to prosperity. A progressive path towards political reconciliation in Iraq could involve the promotion of secular politics, advocating for the separation of religion from state affairs. This secular orientation may not only serve as a potent catalyst for reconciliation but also offer a blueprint for harmonious coexistence, transcending sectarian and religious fault lines.

When it comes to international affairs, it is clear that Iran’s external influence is hindering the possibility of productive diplomatic ties with countries in the region that oppose Iran. Forming positive relations with key nations could yield economic and developmental advantages. Establishing new peace deals such as normalization with Israel can also bring progress and development. Around two years ago, a conference held in Erbil and attended by 300 notable Iraqi leaders advocated for peace and normalizing relations with Israel, unfortunately faced severe governmental backlash. This was subsequently followed by the enactment of a law criminalizing any expressions of support or relations with Israel. Such extreme responses from the troubled Iraqi government stifle peace initiatives sharply diverge from the route leading to peace and progress.

Iraq is a Tribal Society, not a Unified Nation

Bottom-up nation building can happen when the constituent communities of that nation start to change. Societies are not just composed of individual citizens but are rather communities of communities, or “tribes”. These communities, whether based on ethnicity, religion, or national origin, greatly influence individuals’ choices and behaviors, even though individuals retain some degree of freedom in their decisions.

Recognizing the power and influence of communities, “tribes,” in the context of nation-building efforts becomes crucial. The question is whether a central government-focused approach, including training national forces and improving justice and social services, is feasible or if it’s more practical to build from the periphery to the center, recognizing the influence of diverse ethnic and confessional communities. In some societies, and we can argue that Iraq is one example, nation-building cannot begin from the center, and those who insist otherwise face significant challenges.

It is important to understand the complex tribal and sectarian dynamics in Iraq, where citizens primarily align themselves with major tribal groups such as Sunni, Shia, and Kurds. These groups have deep-rooted loyalties, distinct religious beliefs, and internal hierarchies. Thus, there is a need for a more nuanced and context-specific approach when forming security forces, acknowledging local dynamics and avoiding the imposition of an external national model.

Empowerment Through Education and Literacy

Empowering the citizens of Iraq through education and equipping them with the skills of critical thinking represents an important strategy in the battle against extremist ideologies and the fostering of societal cohesion. First and foremost, education serves as the cornerstone of enlightenment and intellectual empowerment. In a report conducted by the UNAMI Human Rights Office and OHCHR, the main findings suggest that children and young individuals residing in regions of conflict have significantly fallen behind in their education due to prolonged periods of absence from school; in the aftermath of the conflict, children from these areas confront various obstacles hindering their access to education.

By investing in a robust educational infrastructure that prioritizes access and quality, Iraq can cultivate a generation of informed citizens who possess the capacity to discern fact from propaganda, to scrutinize extremist narratives critically, and to engage in constructive dialogue. Education, particularly in the realms of history, philosophy, and ethics, equips individuals with a broader worldview and the ability to contextualize contemporary challenges within a historical and moral framework. It is imperative, however, to underscore the pivotal role of women’s empowerment within this educational paradigm, albeit necessitating a more comprehensive exploration. Enabling and fortifying the initiatives of organizations dedicated to advancing women’s education and economic autonomy represents an indispensable facet of this multifaceted strategy.

Critical thinking, as an indispensable skillset cultivated within the educational landscape, encourages citizens to question assumptions, challenge dogma, and approach complex issues with analytical rigor. This intellectual autonomy becomes a bulwark against the seductive allure of extremist ideologies, as individuals are equipped to deconstruct the simplistic and often fallacious narratives propagated by extremist groups. Moreover, critical thinking fosters tolerance and empathy, enabling citizens to appreciate diverse perspectives and engage in respectful discourse, thereby diminishing the fertile ground for radicalization. By promoting an educational infrastructure and literacy that instills a sense of national identity, citizens can transcend sectarian divisions and ethno-religious rivalries. An educated populace is more likely to embrace democratic values, civic engagement, and participatory governance, thereby forging a society where collective aspirations take precedence over divisive agendas.

Social Cohesion: Mending the Fabric of Society

Rebuilding social cohesion is significant in healing the wounds inflicted by years of conflict. “Iraq is still a collection of “components” rather than a cohesive society with shared values and a common goal.” Initiatives such as reconciliation programs, truth and reconciliation commissions, and community-based efforts can address grievances and facilitate healing. Understanding the importance of social cohesion in post-conflict settings is crucial. Drawing on empirical evidence from various countries, social cohesion is not only a product but also a driver of peace and development. The UNDP has identified two conceptualizations of social cohesion. The first, horizontal social cohesion, pertains to the interactions among citizens and various societal groups. The second, vertical social cohesion, pertains to the interactions between citizens and the government. While the latter is more complex, an approach to the former can be addressed here.

Reconciliation programs, often at the forefront of post-conflict initiatives, play a pivotal role in Iraq’s endeavor to rebuild a cohesive society. These programs are designed to bridge the chasms created by years of strife and foster an environment of mutual trust and understanding. A multitude of reconciliation programs can be actively engaged in facilitating dialogue and promoting reconciliation among Iraq’s diverse communities. These initiatives provide a platform for individuals from different backgrounds to come together, share their grievances, and seek common ground.

Truth and reconciliation commissions are another vital instrument in Iraq’s quest for social healing. These commissions serve as mechanisms for uncovering past atrocities, addressing historical grievances, and providing a path towards accountability and justice. Drawing inspiration from models implemented in other post-conflict societies, Iraq can establish its truth and reconciliation commission to investigate and document human rights abuses and acts of violence that have marred its history. By acknowledging past wrongs, providing redress to victims, and facilitating a collective reckoning with history, these commissions can contribute significantly to healing and reconciliation.

At the grassroots level, community-based efforts play a pivotal role in fostering social cohesion. These initiatives often involve local leaders, civil society organizations, and community members in the reconciliation process. In Iraq, community-based projects can encompass a wide range of activities, from interfaith dialogues to cultural exchange programs, aimed at nurturing understanding and cooperation among diverse communities. Such efforts empower communities to take ownership of the reconciliation process, fostering a sense of agency and shared responsibility.

After all, societies with high levels of social cohesion are better equipped to withstand the shocks of conflict, mitigate violence, and facilitate recovery. In post-conflict settings, social cohesion fosters a sense of belonging, trust, and cooperation among individuals and groups, enabling them to collectively address challenges and work towards shared goals.

Iraq’s journey towards enduring peace is a multifaceted endeavor that demands an integrative approach. Political reconciliation, empowerment through education, and social cohesion are of the keystones upon which Iraq’s transformative narrative can be built. By approaching a “bottom-up” model, Iraq can potentially unlock the latent potential of its citizenry, fostering a sense of agency and unity that transcends historical divisions. While challenges persist, this approach offers a more promising avenue to navigate the complex path towards lasting stability and genuine progress, one that respects the aspirations and agency of the Iraqi people themselves.

About the Author
Shermeen is an assistant professor, a female academic who witnessed women’s rights issues within the civil unrest of post-war Iraq, escaped to the United States and earned a doctorate degree. She is an activist and a writer who focuses on social and political change in Iraq and the Middle East, as well as feminism and increasing awareness of women’s rights in the region.
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