Discourses on Statehood in Iraq (Christian Thuselt)

The research project aims to bring together two research paradigms that have hardly been connected so far: the study of spatially bound identity patterns in political geography and a political science perspective on the constitution of political orders. Using an interpretative-constructivist approach on statehood, borrowing from political philosophy and philosophical anthropology, it is argued that three dimensions of political-territorial orders can be analytically distinguished: (1) sociocultural differentiations separate an "us" from the "others" (identity) and (2) in many cases naturalise this differentiation with, among other things, the delimitation of spaces through a location of supposedly pre-existent spaces based on these practices. Finally, they connect these two dimensions with the conception of a "polity" (3), understood as the formal constitution of societies.
By focusing on "polity", we avoid limiting research to formal statehood without losing sight of the importance of polity. Empirically, we focus on the designs of "future spaces" that have been produced and disseminated by key actors in the region since 2003. The aim of this project is to gain, against the background of the destabilisation or "dislocation" of nation-state orders in Iraq, a comparative and systematic overview of the orders that have been designed by central actors in the region since 2003. On this basis, we contribute to the debate on possible post-war orders in the region.

Since the question now obviously arises in the Middle East whether, analogous to sub-Saharan Africa, a "post-Westphalian" order beyond legalistic statehood could also be a relevant vision of the future in the Middle East, the selection of cases must be oriented to the positioning of relevant actors in relation to the existing statehood of the region, i.e. Iraq as an internationally recognised subject of international law. First and foremost, we will focus on the communication of political orders, which is to be understood as a hegemonic practice and aims at hegemony in the sense of an unquestioned validity of order. 

The first group includes those actors who exercise governmental power in Iraq, or who at least refer most outspoken to it. They thus strive for a re-establishment of a centralised polity. We will here analyse Muqtada a-Sadr’s discourse. In a second group, we survey actors who strive for a new polity based on an ethnic "us"-identity, here: the Iraqi KDP. A third group consists of those actors who initially define their identity in a way, often dubbed “sectarianisation”, which seem to be oriented primarily against the discursive hegemony of just another actor. In their apparent retreat into the lifeworld of the "microstructure", they seem at first glance like prototypes of a "denationalisation" of the Middle East, although that seems to be rather doubtful. 

In 2022 and 2023, we analysed Muqtada al-Sadr's discourse, which is certainly the most influential in Iraq at the moment with regard to the defence of established statehood. We have succeeded in localizing core elements of the untouchable resources of the order al-Sadr seeks to establish. Of particular relevance here were the questions of embedding the underlying normativity into regional narrative patterns, especially the significance of the region as a normative point of reference, but also the central question of the connection between secularity and modern statehood, and Sadr's populist political style. His case offers an interesting input into research on populism which largely focusses on Western cases: obviously, it makes more sense to understand populism as a style than as a ‘thin ideology.’ Like all populisms, also this one walks a thin line between democratic self-articulation of at least part of society and anti-democratic practices of excluding other Iraqis from the rhetorical constitution of ‘the people’ as a homogeneous body politic. Yet, his discourse on ‘the people’ and the nation-state allows him to increase his own factual power while at the same time shifting partially at least the conditions under which authority is recognized. Sadr oscillates here between different logics: the political with the state and its system with its very own logic, and the religious. These findings necessitate further exploration of the question of secularity and statehood. It is becoming apparent that a purely Asadian-inspired understanding of secularity as a discursive practice will not suffice to cope with the underlying systemic logics.

Author: Dr. Christian Thuselt