The Trade Union Movement of Iraq after 2003: Exploring the Role of Narratives in Turbulent Regions

The Trade Union Movement of Iraq after 2003: Exploring the Role of Narratives in Turbulent Regions

Thomas Erich Jakob (Philipps University of Marburg, Germany)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9675-4.ch013


This chapter argues that transition after critical junctures is heavily linked to the narratives which prevail the discourse of the respective country. Different political actors try to legitimize retroactively current claims to power. In such “zero hour” the extent of ability to organize, mobilize, set incentives, and protect followers is of the essence. This chapter uses the example of Iraq after 2003 where the split between Kurds, Shi'i Muslims, and Sunni Muslims, became the driving force behind political action and loyalty. An established counter-narrative deconstructs the claim that an eternal Shi'i – Sunni split determined all outcomes of Iraqi history, stating that religion was historically a rather subordinate identity. Then crucial contributions to the deepening of the sectarian cleavage by religious networks, the Iraqi constitution, and the policies of the Coalition Provisional Authority, (CPA) are shown and exemplified using the Iraqi trade union movement after 2003.
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We all know the allegory of an elephant standing in a dark room while several people enter the room from several sides, touch, feel, smell, and hear what they face and afterwards discuss what that silly thing in that room might have been. Of course, everyone has an own version, an own view, own experiences, and thus an own focus.

Such games are played more than often in scientific and political discourses. They can be applied to the history of countries and peoples, constructing path dependencies and thus legitimizing current policies, forming current identities, and societal fractions. These versions of events, opinions and views are called narratives. They constitute bonds, nations, or ethnicities and may affect directly or indirectly the distribution of power.

A recent illustration of the distribution of power against the background of narratives can be witnessed in Iraq. The narrative of the eternal and always underlying Sunna – Shi'a-dichotomy prevailed and led the country into an ethnosectarian division to an extent never witnessed before in its history. The reasons, of course, are complex and the case of Iraq will preoccupy scientists for at least some decades.

However, the notion that tensions in Iraq derive from an ethnosectarian division anchored in the history of Iraq because of a steady suppression of the Shi'a majority by a Sunni minority is consensus in the media, think tanks and even some scientific papers nowadays. This chapter argues that this perception is too narrow, even dangerous, and perpetuates itself. Hence, the chapter describes a vicious circle that started with the occupation in 2003 and ended with the almost complete destruction of secular civil society institutions and growing sectarian violence in Iraq.

This chapter is divided into three sections which descend from the described vicious circle, summed up in figure 1 (see appendix). The three main questions are: Is the ethnosectarian reading of Iraq's history unavoidable? Second, how did this reading become the dominant one after 2003? And third, how did it contribute to the destruction of secular civil society institutions?

Figure 1.

The Circle of perception and action in Iraq after 2003 (© Thomas E. Jakob, 2015)


The first part deals with the modern history of Iraq showing three things: First, it is much more likely that discrimination of certain groups started before the wave of mass conversion to Shi'ism in southern Iraq and that this discrimination had no genuine religious background. Second, Iraq witnessed a time of flourishing civil society with little importance of religious affiliations. Third, the religious question entered the political landscape in 1991 – and only to a marginal extent before – strongly influencing the US perception of Iraq.

Because of the above mentioned atmosphere of consensus about the leading role of religion in the tensions of Iraq and its history, it is difficult to make a contradictory point about the importance of the ethnosectarian division. Therefore, the first section is the most important pillar of the entire chapter. If this part fails to convince the reader, all other parts become more or less worthless. This is why it is the longest and probably the most elaborated section. However, those readers who are familiar with the modern history of Iraq can have only a short look or even skip this section.

In the second part, it will be shown how the occupational forces perpetuated the deepening of the sectarian cleavage by the state building strategy. This strategy consisted of a consociationalist system according to the perception of a religious divided country on the one hand and of a quick reactivation of the oil industry on the other. Additionally, clerical networks grew in importance in the shadow of the crushed political system, providing infrastructure and money for organization of interests.

Key Terms in this Chapter

State Building: Planned construction of a functioning state in post war countries focused on the power enforcement of state in society

Narrative: A particular view of the past, neglecting or dumping some information down and focusing on other to get a coherent version and explanation of past and present events

Kurds: Populace in northern Iraq and neighboring states with strong linguistic and traditional ties to the Persian cultural area struggling for recognition as nation

Consociationalism: Form of political power sharing between elites in an along several cleavages divided state aiming on stability

CPA: ( Coalition Provisional Authority) Transitional government established by the United States and their allies with legislative, executive, and judicial power in 2003 – 2004.

Trade Union: Body of organized labor providing mutual aid benefits and representing workers’ rights in civil society and politics

Zero Hour: The point of time where an old system has collapsed and society has to define its identity, ways of cohabitation, and political rules of the game again

Shi'ism: Current of Islam deriving from a dispute about the successor of prophet Muhammed with slightly different traditions and religious jurisdiction

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