Kali Rubaii on Sectarianism in Iraq: PoLAR Author Interview

Still image from the animated film, “La Parfum d’Irak,” by journalist Feurat Alani.

PoLAR editor Jessica Greenberg and associate editor Jennifer Curtis conducted an interview with Kali Rubaii, whose article “Tripartheid: How Sectarianism Became Internal to Being in Anbar, Iraqappears in the May 2019 issue of PoLAR.

Your article powerfully articulates the argument against primordialism as an explanation for communalism or sectarianism. How does Iraq’s sectarian sedimentation of place and persons compare with research on communalism other regions, such as south Asia or Europe? What are some of differences and similarities that emerge from comparisons of sectarianism, political violence, and occupation from other times and places?

I think it is very important to distinguish between sectarianism and sectarian violence. Sectarian difference is something people manage, thrive in, and suffer from in subtle, complex ways that rarely result in mass killing. Because the concept of sectarianism often appears in public discourse only when it reaches a flashpoint or highlights a particular form of violence, it is easy to imagine that the many different ways people negotiate difference are inherently problematic. (That is not to say they are never problematic; just that the inherent-ness is not given.) What makes some kinds of violence visible as “sectarian” has a lot to do with what institutions are in place to channel political struggle. For example, conflict between Nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland was not only a matter of Protestantism and Catholicism, and yet it was visible through church involvement in resistance, the ethical framing of Irish insurgents, and the way British counterinsurgency operatives perceived clergy. Much of the sectarian violence in Iraq speaks to the institutional structures available to people amidst transitions of power after the US invasion (Barakat 2005; Ismael and Ismael 2005; Cardosa 2007).

Still image from the animated film, “La Parfum d’Irak,” by journalist Feurat Alani.

What we are calling sectarian strife in Iraq fits the pattern of violent spatial reorganization evident in other places and historical moments. Appadurai (2002), Borneman (1998), and Hayden (2000) write about how mass rape is used to separate minority populations in ethnically mixed, contested territory, while Besteman (1996, 1999) argues that clan mobilization in Somalia glossed more powerful and novel fracture lines of class and race. Hayden argues it took greater violence to disaggregate multiethnic communities than it would have were they already segregated (1996).

But these examples of violent spatial reorganization should not obscure the ways space and place are also regulated and maintained by regimes of segregation. In the United States, Trayvon Martin was killed because he was imagined to be “out of place,” just as thousands of people are pulled over every day for being too mobile: we call it “Driving While Black” or “Driving While Brown” in the United States, but in my article, Dr. Mohammed described a related form of demobilizing structural violence in Iraq as, “The Terrorist Sandwich.” So, I am less interested in sectarianism specifically, as I am in social cleavages and how they come to be exploited in order to generate enclaves of power and regulate access to those enclaves.

Still image from the animated film, “La Parfum d’Irak,” by journalist Feurat Alani.

As with all comparisons, the political conditions that made communalist violence possible are unique, but I think Apartheid South Africa and the Rwandan genocide both tell the processual story of how social cleavages can be exploited.

In South Africa, the pass system not only classified a diverse and mixed collection of people by racial categories, but it also generated place-based rules and legal regimes to accompany those categories. That is what apartheid means: different laws applying to different people, including where one is allowed to come and go. The Animal Farm way of putting it is that “some citizens have more citizenship than others.” The need to have different IDs to travel or get jobs is evidence of how legal and spatial regimes produces conditions under which one is forced to perform identities until they become truer and truer. What happens to people with “less” citizenship, who are not allowed to take up any physical space? South Africans lived this violence by and through space and mobility, similarly to the people in Iraq.

Still image from the animated film, “La Parfum d’Irak,” by journalist Feurat Alani.

In Rwanda, the Belgians generated systems for classifying Tutsi and Hutu people. These categories favored Tutsi people similarly to how the Baath party favored Sunni people: a large minority accessing greater economic and political power than a majority. What happens when social cleavages like race or sect are linked intimately with economic potential and political power? And then, what happens when an oppressed majority gains political power?

In Rwanda, South Africa, and Iraq, it is unrealistic to imagine “divide” without “conquer.” Social cleavages are never sole catalysts to mass violence, but always infused with deeper historical, and broader regional, geopolitical interests shaping local social relations through and across human difference.

Still image from the animated film, “La Parfum d’Irak,” by journalist Feurat Alani.

You demonstrate the clear role that U.S. military intervention plays in the production and consolidation of sectarian categories as part of local lived experiences and landscapes. In postconflict contexts such as the Balkans, NGOs, humanitarian agencies and the like often perpetuate sectarian divisions (unwittingly or not) through postconflict work. They may fall into the logic of ethnicized redistribution programs, or even political arrangements that follow “ethnic” lines. How would you characterize the humanitarianization of sectarianism in contemporary Iraq? Is this something that is already playing out on the ground, and what role do nonstate actors, NGOs and the like play in both reproducing and contesting sectarian categories?

Iraq has not really seen a major post-war influx of humanitarian support at all, because so much of the country remains too unstable for large aid organizations to operate. In spite of international non-governmental organizations (INGO)’s early integration into coalition military plans in the early 2000s, humanitarianism inside Iraq has remained too haphazard to become patterned at all. A rush of international and local resources did go to Yazidi minorities fleeing violence into Iraqi Kurdistan in 2014. There, organizations like the Barzani foundation and civil society groups, were eager to support the Yazidi as an ethnic and religious minority over Arabs fleeing similar violence. During my undergraduate fieldwork among refugees in Amman, Jordan, I found Christian organizations like Caritas gave priority to Iraqi Christians over Iraqi Muslims, and that the UNHCR had a policy of resettling Mandaean and other minority peoples over majority Sunni Muslim Iraqis. In these cases, however, organizations were mostly trying to sustain the continuity of minority groups, and I do not believe this exacerbated sectarian violence inside Iraq.

Still image from the animated film, “La Parfum d’Irak,” by journalist Feurat Alani.

One of the most heartbreaking ethnographic interactions you describe in the article occurs when the Conductor explains to you “how sectarianism became real.” Relaxing in his garden, surrounded by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the Conductor describes a life of travel and exploration in sharp contrast to his descendants’ constricted experience of social and spatial orders. When his granddaughter Rose declares, “The sooner we are completely segregated: the sooner we will stop dying and killing,” the Conductor’s sorrow is palpable. “I am sad to hear that my grandchildren can live with closed spaced alone, instead of integration,” he says softly. The conversation, and the Conductor’s family themselves, are living, breathing examples of how sectarianism works. Rose, like research participants Jessica and I have met in the Balkans and Northern Ireland, has learned a harsh lesson, that sectarianism offers a single solution to the suffering it produces: the ordering and management of populations. Can your research participants see a pathway out of this brutal dynamic? Do you see other kinds of categories of solidarity, or identification emerging? If so where and what are the institutions, vocabularies and moral registers that people draw on? How can the experiences of people living through such cataclysmic changes inform effective policy and political actions to counter the sectarian logics imposed by the occupation?

Still image from the animated film, “La Parfum d’Irak,” by journalist Feurat Alani.

The underpinning force behind mass violence is the military industrial complex, a structure that exceeds the various social cleavages it exploits. Anbari people are not living out sectarian violence just because of categories: they are living out a geopolitical struggle by militaries and militias willing to bomb and shoot human beings in order to profit from the plunders of war. The US is a major exporter of weapons worldwide, often arming two sides of a conflict in order to profit doubly. Defunding this industry is an essential political step: sectarian violence in Iraq will continue to be lethal if there is not a popular campaign to end the ongoing flow of weapons. I do not see much evidence that my interlocutors in Iraq envision a large-scale pathway out of sectarian violence, but at the level of everyday interface, people are doing the small-scale work of continuing to find ways to collaborate in spite of the imposed restrictions on their conviviality. One cannot necessarily be expected to lead radical political revision while also ducking and covering from bombs.

Still image from the animated film, “La Parfum d’Irak,” by journalist Feurat Alani.

For the most part, the lesson I learned from Iraqis who are making sense of this political moment is that one cannot be too uncritically attached to “good things” like diversity. This is about scale: what I mean by this is that sometimes what we struggle for at one level of intervention and what we must contend with at another level are actually opposites. For example, while almost any Iraqi I speak with believes Iraq’s diversity is a valued long-term solution to violence, those facing acute violence might also view diversity as an immediate problem. People like Rose are making a claim that being alive is more important (and possible) than being alive with others. Her model of survival is one influenced by a bombardment of militarism.

This model of survival-by-isolation fits the apocalyptic literature and film we see in popular media in the US where one lone survivor makes it by killing off or outliving all others; or in the xenophobic policies of many European countries eager to protect resources and leave people to drown in the sea; and in the world-wide rise of personalized security (ie facial recognition passwords). The idea that survival from crisis is possible by individualizing or isolating is so fundamentally untrue – we cannot survive without collaboration across difference, whether that is in co-breathing with trees or moving medication across national boundaries– and yet isolation is so appealing to people who have grown up in militarized environments. My next research project is about the politics of repair, because people like Rose have drawn my attention to an urgent need to demilitarize survival.

Still image from the animated film, “La Parfum d’Irak,” by journalist Feurat Alani.

The Conductor’s interaction with Rose reminds me that imagination, or visioning, is not always forward-facing. Speaking to our elders about what the past was like is necessary to imagining what the future can be, and to imagining possibilities that were forfeited before our time. For example, public school textbooks in many Middle Eastern countries suddenly started printing a dangerous “fact” that has worked to cement sectarian violence in the region: that Shia do not believe in the Prophet Mohammed. This is an untrue statement, but children are growing up “knowing” that, essentially, Sunni are “real” Muslims and Shia are not. This started in the mid 2000’s, not long after US military personnel I interviewed say they were provided with information cards saying the same thing. So a generation of young people is growing up without actually understanding the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims. They are living by imagined gulfs between the two sects that simply do not exist. One way academics can engage the politics of sectarian violence is to actively audit and struggle for corrections in educational materials, some of which are produced right where I am currently living in Texas.

Still image from the animated film, “La Parfum d’Irak,” by journalist Feurat Alani.

Different generations can unteach militarism to each other. The way people narrate the stories of the past has everything to do with the way future generations can imagine what is and is not possible. If the world believes sectarian hatred has always existed in Iraq, they are likely to normalize and accept sectarian violence today. Knowing that sectarian violence is the result of systematic divide-and-conquer policies activates a pathway toward dismantling those policies. There was an incredible intergenerational campaign on social media a few years back that I really loved. A mother and father and child each held signs for a group photo they would share on Facebook. One parent’s sign said, “I am Sunni,” and others parent’s sign said, “I am Shia,” and the child’s sign said, “I am Sushi.” Some people started holding signs that said, “We are all Sushi!” It was a playful way of showing just how many people defy the false construct of a binary category, but what I liked most about it was that the campaign required two generations to work together to push against narratives that rely heavily on interrogational forgetting to perpetuate violence. Demilitarizing survival requires memory work, and I do see this happening a lot among family members and neighbors in Iraq who share homes and meals and time together.

Whether in Iraq or the US—two heavily militarized societies—the steps to demilitarization require that we recognize we have been militarized; that we identify the institutions, policies, and economic engines that require reform or abolition; that we organize a popular campaign to realize reform or abolition; and that we have a vision of alternatives. As I learned from families in Iraq, demilitarizing one’s society is more difficult than militarizing it, but the alternatives are there.

Kali Rubaii is an Andrew Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Humanities Research Center at Rice University. She received her PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research explores the environmental impacts of less-than-lethal militarism, especially how military projects (re)arrange landscapes in the name of “letting live.” Her book project, Counterinsurgency: the Ecology of Coercion,examines how Anbari farmers survive the rearrangements of their landscape by transnational counterinsurgency projects. Taking toxicity as an analytic for material politics, Rubaii book highlights the alterlives of war objects as they facilitate particular configurations of relations among humans, ghosts, plants, animals and molecular agents, while precluding others. Her current ethnographic research approaches the corporate-military enterprise of concrete production in post-invasion Iraq, and how the concrete industry enforces global regimes of race, class, and environmental degradation. Rubaii is interested in sharpening resistance strategies that target the vulnerable nexus between coercive power and the material world.


Appadurai, Arjun. 2002. “Deep democracy: urban governmentality and the horizon of politics.” Environment & Urbanization 13 (2): 23-44.

Barakat, Sultan. 2005. “Post-Saddam Iraq: Deconstructing a Regime, Reconstructing a Nation.” Third World Quarterly 26 (4):571–591.

Besteman, Catherine. 1999. Unraveling Somalia: Race, Violence, and the Legacy of Slavery. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Besteman, Catherine. 1996. ‘Representing Violence and “Othering” Somalia,’ Cultural Anthropology 11 (1):120-133.

Borneman, John. 1987. Settling Accounts: Violence, Justice, and Accountability in Postsocialist Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cardosa, Amy. 2007. Iraq at a Crossroads. New York, NY: Nova Science.

Hayden, Robert. 2000. “Rape and Rape Avoidance in Ethno-National Conflicts: Sexual Violence in Liminalized States.” American Anthropologist 102 (1):27-41.

Ismael, Tareq Y. and Jacqueline S. Ismael. 2005. “Whither Iraq? Beyond Saddam, Sanctions and occupation.” Third World Quarterly 26 (4-5):609-629. doi: 10.1080/01436590500128303

There is one comment

  1. Darrell Darling

    Word for word, this interview was among the most elucidating, succinct pieces I have read on sectarianism, diversity, and the nexus between historic sectarianism and violent strategies for organizing and controlling masses of human beings, as well as affirming “it ain’t NECESSARILY so.” Two phrases stand out in this context: “…it is unrealistic to imagine ‘divide’ without ‘conquer;’ and your conclusion regarding step 1 that “we [must] recognize that we have been militarized and identify the institutions, policies,and economic engines that must be modified or abolished.”
    Darrell Darling


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