The Dangers Of Sectarian Leadership – Lessons From Iraq

The sectarian rule of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – a Shite – alienated and marginalized Sunnis and Kurds, in the process playing a significant role in the deterioration of security and the emergence of Sunni extremists.

According to The World Fact Book, Iraq is 60 to 65 per cent Shia, and 32 to 37 per cent Sunni. The rest are Kurds who are an ancient Indo-European people different from any of the neighboring nations. Beyond these differences, the groups are further divided among themselves. Under Malaki, Iraqi Sunnis were locked out of key jobs at universities and in government, their leaders barred from cabinet meetings or even marked as fugitives. Sunnis could not get help finding the bodies of loved ones killed in the war, and Shia banners were everywhere in Baghdad.

Understanding the Sunni-Shia Divide

The Sunni-Shia split is religious, rooted in the question of the rightful successor of Prophet Muhammad after his death in 632. The groups could not agree on whether to choose a bloodline successor (as in a monarchy) or one most likely to follow the doctrines of the faith. The group now known as Sunnis, preferred the latter and chose Abu Bakr, the prophet’s adviser, to become the first successor, or caliph. On the other hand, Shiites favored the bloodline approach and chose Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. These heirs ruled continuously in the Arab world until the break-up of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the First World War.

Sunni Muslims, who constitute approximately 90 percent of the Muslim world, found this loss of the caliphate  (an Islamic state led by a political and religious leader who is a successor of the Prophet Muhammad) devastating in light of the hitherto continuous historic presence of the caliph, the guardian of Islamic law and the Islamic state.

Professor Cole sums up the differences between Sunni and Shiite this way: “Shiites are more like traditional Catholics in venerating members of the holy family and attending at their shrines…. Sunni Islam is more like the militant brand of Protestantism of the late 1500s that denounced intermediaries between God and the individual and actually attacked and destroyed shrines to saints and other holy figures, where pleas for intercession were made”.

Formation of the Modern State of Iraq

During the First World War, based on what turned out to be faulty intelligence, the British invaded and occupied Mesopotamia. Their mandate ended when Iraq became a member of the League of Nations in October 1932. In their quest to control Iraq, the British found the minority Sunnis more agreeable partners than the Shite majority. So Sunnis, though the minority, ruled Iraq until 2003, when Saddam Hussein and his Sunni dominated leadership was ousted by the Americans.

The Americans favored the majority Shites and the minority Kurds, whom they identified en bloc as the groups most persecuted under the previous Sunni regime. After the U.S. forces departed, Iraq’s Shia majority quickly moved to keep the two branches of Islam separate and unequal. Meanwhile the region’s major powers have long pushed sectarian interests with Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab nations like Saudi Arabia moving to isolate Shia-ruled Iraq, while Shiite-majority Iran moved to support Iraq.

In neighboring Syria, a Sunni-majority country dominated by a Shiite sect, fighting that began as anti-government took on sectarian overtones that spilled over to Iraq. ISIS exploited these divisions to take over territory and declare a caliphate.

Leading a diverse group of people

Sectarianism impacts all nations around the world to one extent or another. Research shows that the ability to effectively lead people in different cultural contexts is rare and yet cultivating a climate that values cultural diversity adds significant value to any group.

The climate of diversity in a group can be measured by: the amount of prejudice for or against certain groups, the amount of stereotyping, the level of tribal focus in making decisions, the level of inter-group conflict, the strength of group identity, the quality of inter-group communication, and the amount of emphasis on cultural differences and similarities.

Sectarian leaders are blind to – or at least do not appreciate – cultural differences. They are self-centered and insensitive to others. Effective leaders challenge prejudices and stereotyping against cultural, tribal, racial, gender, and religious identities.

Travel and migration in countries all over the world is leading to leadership contexts becoming increasingly multicultural. All leaders therefore need a good understanding of culture, and skills in working with people “who are different from us”. Multicultural leaders unfreeze traditions and challenge assumptions about other people. They are continuous learners because cultures are dynamic, constantly changing and adapting.

Requisite Leadership Competences

In leading diverse groups, effective leaders foster a proactive approach to and respond effectively to diversity. They avoid automatic, tribal or mono-cultural responses. They have a mature understanding of diversity and find ways to make diversity an asset rather than a liability. An increasingly diverse world needs leaders with skills and policies that get the best from every group and encourage all to reach their full potential. Such leaders have learnt to interact effectively with those from “the other culture”.

Appreciation for diversity begins at home. Gone should be the days when we teach our children derogatory names of people from “the other group.”  Hopefully the increasing numbers of inter-tribal marriages in our country are reducing the inter-tribal fault lines tensions.

Every leader needs to ask themselves: Am I comfortable working with people from all demographic groups? Is there a group or groups that I struggle to accept? How will my comfort or lack of comfort with people different from me affect my ability to lead? Do I enjoy diversity and, if so, what kind and how much?

Implications for Iraq

In September 2014, after increasing calls for Maliki’s removal due to sectarianism, another Shiite, Haider al-Abadi, replaced him as Prime Minister. The new prime minister heads a cabinet with Sunni and Kurdish support, something Maliki lacked, and will need to build on this in order to push back ISIS militants who have seized parts of northern Iraq.

Hopefully he will promote respect for differing religious and cultural perspectives. It is a challenging path to take but the alternative is an abyss.  As we move towards electioneering for 2016, Ugandan leaders at all levels should draw sober lessons from Iraq.