Understanding Iraqi Society

Iraqis are endlessly contradictory.” That is what I used to tell the U.S. Army generals.

I lived thirty years in Iraq, including my formative years. It is a gregarious and rather parochial society. What follows is a brief synopsis on Iraqi society.

Iraqi society is governed by a common and well-accepted dictum: “My brother and I against my cousin, and my cousin and I against the stranger.” Understanding this is a key to the major conflicts in Iraqi society.



A “stranger” in this context could be from a different family, street, neighborhood, tribe, religious sect or religious ethnicity.

It is important to note that, ostensibly, you support your brother, cousin, tribe, or religious sect even if they are the victimizer. Problems begin here.

It is also important to note that this dictum is not exclusive to Iraqi Muslims, but inclusive to all sects of Iraqi society, i.e., Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, even Mandaes in southern Iraq.

To understand this from a family level to a more general level and how it affects the dynamic of the group mindset and society, here are a few examples that I’ve seen in my personal life, work environments, and social gatherings:

Select a political topic and it is easy to determine who is for it or against it in a social gathering. Sometimes, just by a naming the subject, you can deduce an impromptu statistic. Let say five Iraqis -Two Shia and three Sunnis – and the political topic is Iran. You can lay odds that the two Shia would favor Iran, and the three Sunnis would go against it. Often without any discussion, the topic heading predetermines the results. (The conversation sounds like this: “OK… Topic – Iran.” “40% in favor, 60% opposed. Next question?”)

At the family level, two brothers would fight their cousin in a dispute, yet the same two brothers and the cousin would unite against a neighbor, i.e. if the neighbor acted licentiously against the two brother’s sister, then their cousin with them and any visiting tribal members, would jump the poor neighbor and beat him mercilessly in the street. (Adding to the neighbor’s chagrin, in the middle of all that two third-world flip-flops would land squarely in his face – thrown by the mother.)

Or let’s assume three Iraqis – two Arabs and a Kurd – are involved in a conflict. The two Arabs would bond against the Kurd. (what conflict? Doesn’t matter – 66% to 33%)

Nowhere is this more evident than at the national level in Iraqi society.

The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime caused the sectarian violence of 2006-7 between Sunnis and Shia. The Sunni militias killed Shias randomly and vice versa.

This crucial dictum also played a role in ISIS propaganda: uniting the Sunnis against the Shia. Currently, the Sunnis and Shia might be in conflict based on their religious sects. But even some Sunnis are supporting ISIS, just because ISIS is against the Shia.

And beyond the national level, another variation can be witnessed in the conflict between the Arabs and the Kurds of Iraq.

Kurds have ambitions to annex the province of Kirkuk into the Kurdistan region (north of Iraq) before declaring their independence. Kirkuk is an oil-rich region. At that point both, Sunnis and Shia would unite against the Kurds. (Ever heard the Kurds calling for a vote on this? And you won’t. This is why.)

You can also see how it is playing out at an international level in the wider region of the Middle East. Iraq is polarized. Saudi Arabia and Iran are siding with their corresponding religious sects: Sunni and Shia, respectively

Granted, no sociological theory is 100% true, and we humans like to organize life in a causal narrative. You might observe this unity/biasness to be wrong in another social gathering. Individuals can be irrational beings irrespective of any belief or bias. But collective behaviors, behaviors of the group, form recognizable patterns. 

It is a serious issue, even if I’m making light of it here. The take away is: This dictum is a building block that is useful for understanding Iraqi society.

I asked two friends if they thought I had a point, the Yazidi guy said “definitely.” The Kurdish woman immediately disagreed. So, it’s fifty fifty – I might be right. 

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