Why are Sunni Arabs largely silent in Shia-dominated protests?

While protests remain unorganised, it is unlikely there will be popular demonstrations by Sunni Arabs given the sectarian horrors they have already suffered.
Sunday 10/11/2019
An old man walks by a demonstrator wearing a mask during anti-government protests in Baghdad, November 7. (Reuters)
Scars of the past still linger. An old man walks by a demonstrator wearing a mask during anti-government protests in Baghdad, November 7. (Reuters)

For a demographic that has been acknowledged for its political activity in Iraq following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, it appears odd that Sunni Arabs of central, western and northern Iraq have largely been absent from the demonstrations raging across the Shia-dominated areas to the south.

Rather than having a conspicuous, even dominating, presence, as in previous national protest movements, Sunni Arabs have been withdrawn and reclusive, leading analysts to wonder why. The short answer is that their attitude has nothing to do with not wanting an Iraq that is free of corruption and Iranian influence.

The long answer, however, is directly tied to Sunni Arabs’ attempts at political engagement and how they were crushed almost into oblivion. The protest movement of 2012-13 was Sunni-led and called on Iraqis of all ethnic and religious backgrounds to join them in demanding an end to corruption, abusive anti-terrorism laws and sectarian politicking that marginalised everyone apart from the select political elite.

That same elite is still in power after having crushed the Sunni-led movement more than half a decade ago and is trying to do the same to the Shia-led popular struggle.

This is where the painful truth lies. Sunni Arabs felt abandoned by their fellow countrymen when they were demonised by pro-Iran politicians such as former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The sectarian discourse of the elites was left unchallenged and the Sunnis were slaughtered without a whisper of condemnation from those under the same boot of tyranny.

I remember seeing the aftermath of the Hawija protest site, with tents on fire and Iraqi security forces insulting protesters they had just killed, some of whom were disabled and had fallen dead beside their now-empty wheelchairs.

Those abuses were reported extensively by human rights organisations, yet nothing was done. Even protests by other Iraqis condemning the brutal crackdown were notably absent and this may well have been due to the government’s allegations that Sunni protesters were al-Qaeda and Ba’athist sympathisers.

They were dehumanised and demonised and slaughtered. The inaction of the international community, as well as those in Iraq, meant the door had been opened for the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group by Maliki and Iran’s cronies and we know how that ended.

ISIS conquered two-thirds of Iraq before it was forced back. The terror cult’s campaign led to the levelling of major Sunni Arab population centres. There were more human rights abuses and war crimes perpetrated against them, such as extrajudicial executions based on spurious allegations and mass displacement of the population into camps.

Some of these camps were filled with people who, to this day, are not allowed to renew identity documents and have been effectively ostracised from public life, with even children denied access to education.

The legacy of Iran-sponsored sectarianism in Iraq and the war against ISIS have scarred the Sunni governorates. While they were calling, years ago, for much the same as the current protest movements are, they are afraid that any action by them would be tarred as another attempt at a “Ba’athist resurgence” or as some sort of support for terrorists such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, leading to yet more tragedy for them.

However, if the leaderless protests become more organised and formally reach out to the Sunni Arab community, then it is almost certain the Sunnis would see the benefit of a cross-sectarian coordinated effort to weed out the corrupt political class that has caused Iraqis of all factions immeasurable harm.

While protests remain unorganised, though, it is unlikely there will be popular demonstrations by Sunni Arabs given the sectarian horrors they have already suffered.

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