Horizontal Inequality: A Brief Account through the Study of Iraqi Insurgency

By Deba Sankar 

Tracing the history of countries that faced civil wars after 1945, it was observed that there is a prominence in the frequency of internal civil wars between ethnic groups of the region, who were involved in the act of political violence against one another (McMurray, 2017). Conflicts in Iraq would essentially fall into this category considering the long history of ethnic conflicts in the region dating back to the 16th century Iraq where Islam’s two mighty empires, namely the Shia Safavid empire based in Persia and Sunni dominated empire of Ottomans, waged a war against each other to gain power over the region as well as to establish the dominance of their respective sects. From the 16th century to the reign of Saddam Hussein and to the recent evolution of the Iraq War against Islamic State (2013-2017), there were conflicts that resulted from the existence of horizontal inequalities (HI),-defined as the measure of inequalities between groups rather than individuals (Stewart, 2008).

The presence of horizontal inequalities, as explained by Scholars like Frances Stewart, would increase the likelihood of initiating conflict however is not a necessary factor for igniting a conflict. It is the collective mobilization questioning the group-based inequality that generates violence, and not just the presence of horizontal inequalities. HI between categories, would result in intersecting inequalities (age, race, ethnicity, religion, and location). These are not restricted to the economic aspect of various groups but can be explained using the political, social and cultural dimensions. Groups that suffer HI have a larger tendency to engage in actions to assert group interests which may be nonviolent in some cases, but also have the chances of turning into violent rebellions (Stewart, 2002). This being said, studies have also found out that horizontal inequality in society reinforces and constructs ethnic identities. Even though we perceive culture as inherited, people might have multiple identities constructed throughout their lifetime, for instance, many of the ethnic identities in Africa today were created for the administrative purpose by the colonial power.

Horizontal inequalities based on economic circumstance crosscuts the ethnic identity, increasing the probability of internal conflicts. As seen in the case of Kurds in Iraq who are economically more disadvantaged than the rest of the sects and also have higher levels of poverty, implying that ethnic identity is not crosscut by the economic stature and would eventually deepen the ethnic identity of Kurds to gain more power and legitimacy (McMurray, 2017).  

The prominent ethnic and sectarian groups present in Iraq (Sunni, Shia and Kurds) have experienced large-scale violence which can be explained by the presence of significant horizontal inequalities between these groups. In order to grasp the concept of HI, it is crucial to look into the history of conflict, which would suggest the structural factors that led to violence in the first place and would have higher chances of being the factors for mobilising people in future (Stewart, 2002). 

Iraq is a developing country with a very diverse set of people and it is crucial to note that approximately 97% of its population are Muslims, with 60-65% of them identifying as Shia and 30-32% are Sunni. Even though 16-20% of the population who are ethnically Kurdish are more or less Sunni Muslims, they are different in almost all aspects of life. The composition of Sunni, Shia and Kurds are specifically mentioned here as it is important to the past conflicts and ongoing conflicts in the region. Looking back at the creation of Modern-day Iraq by the British colonial power, an amalgamation of ethnically, religiously and linguistically variant groups of the population, the British clearly favoured the Sunni minority. This can be observed in the installation of a Sunni Muslim as the King of Iraq. The reason underlying this support by British and other western powers is to gain an advantage through the availability of cheap oil from the Iraqi regime. This period was followed by the events that led to overthrowing of the monarchy by the military force in 1958 with General Abd al-Karim Qasim as the leader. The cold-war era led Iraq into a period of political instability, with US forces speculating a communist takeover in Iraq (McMurray, 2017). This resulted in the reign of Saddam Hussein and the rise of the Baath Party in Iraq, which was supported by the US and CIA with underlying pro-capitalist and pro-western motives. This dictatorship in Iraq which lasted from 1979 to 2003, came to an end with the US-led invasion that eventually overthrew him.

During the rule of Saddam Hussein, the strategy used upon the people, to remain in power, was to maintain severe inequalities between the Sunni, Shias and the Kurds. The Kurds who are mostly populated in north Iraq faced the threat of erasure of cultural status, where their cultural identity was not only unrecognized but was pushed as being “Arabs” and further increased the horizontal inequalities by not providing education in their native language, employment opportunities, and lack of political representation. Similarly, the situation of Shia Muslims in the country was deteriorating with poor political representation, low financial health that led to poor educational and employment status (McMurray, 2017). With the intentional advantage for Sunni Muslims by Saddam’s government, they were able to sustain a better life economically (employment opportunities favoured them), politically (representation in Baath Party was mostly Sunni Muslims), socially and culturally (Shia and Kurds were unrecognised, leading to erasure of their customs, norms and practices), creating horizontal-inequalities between Sunni, Shia and Kurds in the region. In this situation, to raise the issues faced by the Shia and Kurd population, they tried to overcome the problem of inequalities through collective action and violently revolting against the regime. Looking at the number of conflicts organised by the Shia Muslims throughout the years from 1969-1999 and the collective action by the Kurds through constant warfare and marking their opposition to Saddam’s rule throughout his regime reiterates the theory of horizontal inequalities that suggests an increased chance of conflict in situations that deal with groups facing strong horizontal inequalities. Even though, civil war is not the first option to address the issue of horizontal inequalities, the condition of the Shia Muslims and Kurd Community was extremely disadvantaged that they felt a lack of peaceful political and economic alternatives to civil war, in order to pursue their needs and interests (McMurray, 2017). 

 The question of how horizontal inequality accelerated towards the situation of a civil war is given below:

  1. Increased emphasis on the implied superiority of Sunni Muslim identity during Saddam’s reign weakened the Iraqi Nationalism, by deepening the sub-state identities as Shia Arab, Sunni Arab or Kurds rather than an amalgamation of different sects and ethnicities. This HI gave an opportunity for increased group mobilizations, which was a driving force for the creation of an ethnically-based militant organization that would initiate a “civil war” (McMurray, 2017). 

  2. Due to the presence of common issues faced by both Shias and Kurds which could be collectively addressed, the existing horizontal inequalities also provided a stimulus for the groups to join together to achieve a greater chance of success than to fight individually.

This shows that groups with stark political, cultural, and economic horizontal inequalities are more prone to engage in armed or violent rebellion as the most viable option to be heard. (McMurray, 2017).

The weakened sense of ‘unified’ Iraqi identity during Saddam’s rule has carried on to the years that followed and can be seen in the sectarian and ethnic strife that plagued the country during the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2013-2017. After the 2003 US invasion, the horizontal inequalities present before transformed themself and the formerly  Sunni dominant government was replaced by the Shia majority government, which exercised economical and political power over the population. This created a situation where Sunnis across the country were being marginalized, turning the tables for horizontal inequalities in the Sunni community. The status of Kurds in terms of horizontal inequalities has improved, in comparison to its state in the Saddam era, with the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous zone.  Thus, the Shia government’s take on excluding Sunni Muslims from political processes eventually increased the in-group grievances to address the rising horizontal inequalities. This led to the sectarian civil war in Iraq from 2004-2007 and the inception of a Sunni militant group, ISIS.

The reason for the sectarian wars was largely the  Sunni socio-political and economic inequalities after 2003 and this continued existence of horizontal inequalities between ethnic and sectoral groups would lead to a future insurgency in Iraq. ISIS is a group formed to address the issues faced by the Sunni community, but the majority of the population affected by and displaced after the end of wars were Sunni Muslims who did not receive any policy or measure to uplift them from their current situation. This situation is clearly stating a horizontal inequality, which would transform into a conflict if a collective mobilization takes place and, in fact, the Sunni insurgency and the ISIS rebellions are two prominent examples of how the HI faced by a community of shared identity provided the spark for war against the state.

To conclude, the Civil War that occurred in Iraq should be studied in depth by investigating the relationship between grievances of groups who face HI and inter-ethnic violence. Through the limited course of history discussed in this article, the presence of horizontal inequalities in Iraq and its widely discussed consequences including sectarian conflicts, the rise of insurgencies, overall instability in the structure of the country and even civil wars can be traced.




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