Victor Argo
Last updated: 3 July, 2015

Back to secularism for Iraq?

In this second part of Victor Argo's trilogy on Iraq, one man suggests that the only way forward is a secular national identity – perhaps even atheism.

“Maybe the only solution for Iraq and the Iraqis is to become atheists,” said Sameer when I asked him about a way out of the mess Iraq finds itself in. 

“Many Iraqis were atheists before,” Sameer continued. “They were atheists until the plane was about to crash.”

The Iraqi plane crashed in 2003, brought down by the shock and awe campaign of the American military and the subsequent regime of George W. Bush’s governor in Baghdad, Paul Bremer.

Sameer was born in Baghdad in 1972, but now lives in the UAE, working as a civil engineer and building skyscrapers. He has experienced the best and worst of Iraqi history.

“How did the Sunnis of Iraq go from being Iraq’s elite to become today’s enemy of the state?”, I asked Sameer.

“For a long time, the Sunnis of Iraq felt protected by the Baath regime since Saddam Hussein was a Sunni,” he replied. “After the Baath party was gone, the Sunnis of Iraq had to look for another shield to protect them. They felt targeted just because they were Sunnis. My faith seems to be the problem, they said, so they went looking for protection under the blanket of sectarianism.”


Feeling increasingly marginalized and threatened, the Sunnis of Iraq boycotted the political process forced upon them by the USA. They began to support militants who at first opposed the US occupation and then the new central government in Baghdad.

“Let’s play an analytical guessing game on Iraq,” Sameer suggested. “Where would the survivors of the Iraqi plane crash of 2003 stand today? What could have been their fate in the past twelve years?”

“Sounds interesting,” I said. “Let’s start with the pilot, let’s start with an Iraqi Baathist.”

“For a Baathist to the core,” Sameer elaborated, “life was pretty tough since 2003. If they have found him in Baghdad, the Shia militias killed him, regardless of his faith or sect. Being a true Baathist, this man is still secular. Being a Baathist Iraqi Arab, his priority to this day is Pan-Arabism. Some of these people are nowadays protected by the Kurds, as strange as this may seem.”


“Did you read the recent article in Der Spiegel,” I interrupted Sameer. “It claimed that behind the Islamic State there was a now deceased Baathist Iraqi army officer who gave them strategic directions.”

“If this is true, and the journalist seems to be well informed,” said Sameer, “then I don’t think that this guy was a firm believer in Baathism. My guess is that this man had been a Baathist party member for the sake of the privileges that this would entail. If you had ambitions in Saddam’s Iraq, you had to be a party member. Baathists who now have joined the IS were only Baathists by name and not by heart.”

“Where would a young Sunni Iraqi born in 1993 be today,” I continued the game, “considering the rough sectarian environment in which he grew up during his adolescence?”

“It depends if this young Sunni is from a secular or from a tribal family. Generally that kid,” Sameer explained, “who was ten years old in 2003, began his teens feeling targeted and not knowing why. In 2015, he knows better.

Now for this young adult in 2015, where to go? You have to chose sides. No Iraqi will say, I don’t give a fuck. There is always a side A and a side B in Iraq. And nothing in between.”

“I know a Shia girl born in the late 1980s,” Sameer went on; “by her family name you would assume that she hails from a family of Shia extremists. But actually they were strong believers in the Baathist ideology. These days, this girl lives in Canada and she is a flat out atheist. Her mom lives in Jordan and she is still a Baathist. And her sisters have become firm believers of the Shia faith. Everyone chose a side.”


This game was very instructive indeed. “What are your ideas about a young Shia born in Iraq in 1993?” I wanted to know from Sameer.

“My guess is,” and his thoughts started to roam, “that this young man holds a grudge against the Baathists, the protectors of the Sunnis. He grew up hating Sunnis. Certainly some of his family members were killed in the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s; his uncle maybe or his grandfather.”

“Unless,” Sameer concluded, “this young Shia left Iraq at a very early age to study in the West. Maybe then he has a more balanced view of the Iraqi realities.”

“How about a middle aged Iraqi Sunni born in 1960?”

“This man lived the golden age of Iraq at an early peak of his manhood.” Sameer seemed to reminisce about his own upbringing in Iraq. “He lived a vibrant nightlife in Baghdad of the 1980s and early 1990s.”

“I know a person who was a party animal up until 2003,” he kept going. “Then he somehow ended up in an American prison where he was brainwashed by al Qaeda fanatics. Out of prison, he joined al Qaeda. He was out to kill Shia. His only pride was in Islam and he called Baath a very bad project. For some reason he left Iraq and finally settled down in a Gulf country being a practicing, but liberal Muslim. Not secular anymore, but not an extremist either. How you end up really depends on the environment in which you live.”

“Last curriculum vitae,” I said. “Tell me about the middle aged Iraqi Shia born in 1960.”

“If he was born in the south of Iraq,” Sameer said, “chances are that he was born into an extremist Shia family; if he was born in Baghdad, his path is less clear. He could have been a practicing Muslim, but also hold secular views.

“He lived a vibrant nightlife in Baghdad of the 1980s and early 1990s.”

Then he participated in the war against Iran. He witnessed comrades die and he was fighting a country that is the protector of his faith. That must mess you up in your head.

In 2015, and after all that he has experienced in his life, this man is blindly pro Iran and he is blindly following the government of Iraq.” Sameer was totally sure about this.

Historically, co-existence between different sects was the rule rather than the exception in Iraq and in the Middle East. The ‘original sectarian sin’ of the modern Iraqi state happened in 1920. In their Mandate of Iraq, the British worked to check the Shia’s majority by keeping Sunni Arabs in senior positions in government and in the armed forces.

And still: “I remember Baghdad before the war – one could live anywhere,” wrote ‘Riverbend’, a Baghdadi computer programmer, in her then famous blog ‘Baghdad Burning‘ in 2007. “We didn’t know what our neighbors were – we didn’t care. No one asked about religion or sect. No one bothered with was considered a trivial topic: are you a Sunni or Shia?”

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the vast majority of Iraqis were secular. Some of them even were swinging between secular and atheist, I learned from Sameer. Some didn’t have any God. The Iraqi police would monitor people going to the mosque. It was considered a threat to national security.

And then came 2003 and its aftermath. “The sectarian war really started in 2006,” Sameer said. “It took less than three years until Iraq became the unstable shithole the Americans had intended it to be. Car bombs went off nearly every day. No one knew who was behind these car bombings. Victims came from both sides. The feeling of sectarianism grew.”

Maybe it was all a misunderstanding, even an analytical failure. Paul Bremer and his men from Washington had bought into the narrative that Iraq under Saddam had been an entirely Sunni project when in fact it was not. Their solution, therefore, for a better, more democratic Iraq, was to reverse course and make it a Shia enterprise. Bremer saw Iraq trough a sectarian lens and started to plan his project under sectarian assumptions.


“Iraqis are emotional people, you know,” said Sameer, before we ended our conversation. “This land was a well of wars throughout its history. I firmly believe that this tendency for violence and emotional instability has become part of our genes. It is the place that shapes the man!”

“Can the Arab identity unite the Sunni and Shia of Iraq? Can the Singapore of Lee Kuan Yew be a model for a future Iraq?” I asked my last questions.

Sameer offered no hope. “A secular identity, paired with an Iraqi – not Arab! – identity will maybe unite Iraq. Baath was painfully Pan-Arab, at the expense of Iraq.”

But then: “I am an admirer of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore. He successfully implanted the concept of ‘keep your religion at home and take your patriotism to the street’ in the minds of the Singaporeans. Saddam Hussein tried the same in Iraq, to a certain extent. However Singapore is different than Iraq.”

“What is that so?” I asked Sameer.

“Because they don’t educate their children to have resentments towards a certain race or religion.”