Youth Views Survey

youth views: future of the iraqi state

results of EPIC's 2022 national survey of young iraqis' VIEWS TOWARD RELIGION, SECULARISM, AND THE FUTURE OF THE IRAQI STATE

Iraq’s massive “Tishreen” protest movement is only the latest wave in a long sea of political and social change. Now, the next generation of young Iraqis are making their presence felt. But what kind of state are they striving for? What are their views about a secular state and the role of religion in politics? 

With support from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung foundation and Dijlah Consulting Engineers, EPIC surveyed 1,062 eligible Iraqi voters ages 18-40 from across the country this summer, 2022. The results shed new light on the road ahead for Iraq. Read the introduction below, or download the full report, written by Geneive Abdo

Students of Baghdad universities march to reject the nomination of Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi for the premiership, and condemn the occupation of Tahrir Square by Sadr’s “blue hats.” Near the Higher Education Ministry building in Baghdad. January 26, 2020. (Image: Azhar al-Rubaie)

Charting a Nationalist and Secular Iraqi State: The Road Ahead

EPIC’s latest national poll surveyed a nationally-representative sample of 1,062 eligible Iraqi voters. Download the full report:


Since the early 20th century, societies in the Arab Middle East have struggled with the role of identity in state formation, in part because national identity was often in flux among a multitude of ethnic and religious groups. The region has had three primary state identities: Arab nationalist identity; religious identity; or royal family identity.

Arab nationalist identity became prominent in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, while the Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain maintained a royal family identity. Later into the century, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran brought into worldview a state with a religious identity that was revolutionary and also a threat to the region.

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Over time, Arab nationalism took root in many of the region’s biggest, most influential states, bringing with it the institutionalization of secular ideology. This ideology served as a useful and largely effective counterbalance among ruling elites to popular attitudes toward Islam. Thus, national identity was emphasized over religious identity. In states such as Egypt, the government created secular institutions and brought religious institutions under its direct control to counter the powerful Muslim Brotherhood.

In Iraq, when the country gained independence from British colonial rule, the existing Sunni elites clung to their privileged positions and refused to surrender power to the majority Shia population. The state was the focus and agent of change, and top-down modernization was a priority. The rise to power of Saddam Hussein in 1968 and his role as president beginning in 1979, saw a continuation of trends toward pan-Arabism and Iraqi nationalism that had first emerged in the 1920s.

But eventually, under Saddam, who gave priority to Sunni tribal networks, marginalization, particularly of the majority Shia, became rampant, leading to the repression and persecution of the Shia marjiyya in Najaf and Karbala and the general majority Shia population. Today, about 60 to 65 percent of Iraqis are Shia. The 1979 Iranian revolution and

subsequent Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988 pitted the Sunni state of Iraq against the Iranian Shia state and fueled Saddam’s repression of the Shia inside his country.

Shortly after the 2003 US-led invasion, Iraq’s political system was completely transformed. A power-sharing system, which was envisioned by Iraqis in exile before the invasion, was implemented to institutionalize a place in power for the sectarian and ethnic-based parties that would come to dominate Iraqi politics for years to come. The theory was that because Iraq is comprised of ethno sectarian groups, including Shia, Sunni, Kurds, and Christians, political representation should be based on these categories.

Academics call this system, “consociationalism.” In Arabic, the Iraqi system is often referred to as Muhasasa Tai’fiya, or apportionment of political positions among sectarian parties. This has served to ensure political power primarily for Kurdish parties and Islamist Shia parties, which often comprise the largest relatively cohesive blocs in elections. This sectarian system became powerful not only because it was institutionalized from the top down, but because civil society players also believed they could benefit from it, creating sectarianism from below as well. A similar process 

“A power-sharing system… was implemented to institutionalize a place in power for the sectarian and ethnic-based parties that would come to dominate Iraqi politics for years to come.”

has been seen in Lebanon, which has had a long history of sectarian allocation of political power.

Although this power-sharing system is not formally enshrined in the Iraqi constitution, national elections between 2005 and 2021, and the government formation processes that followed, indicate a repeated pattern of outcomes whereby the speaker of Parliament is a Sunni, the prime minister a Shia, and the president of the republic a Kurd. The appointment of these positions, which occur long after the votes are cast, has allowed the dominant political parties in each group, such as Shia Islamist factions, to use their political weight to demand that their preferred candidates be chosen. The backroom negotiations have also opened the door for interference in the selection process from foreign governments, particularly Shia- dominated Iran, as part of a regional geopolitical struggle that is both politically and religiously motivated.

From the beginning, there was resistance within Iraq to this power-sharing system, and opposition has grown steadily to the political distortions and opportunities for corruption that it has introduced. Iraqis today perceive their country as a sectarian state verging on collapse, with competing ethnic and religious groups vying for power in a zero-sum game. This competition sometimes has erupted into periods of intense violence, most notably during the 2006-2008 civil war and the 2013-2017 war against ISIS. 1

Even at times of peace, this competition has resulted in government dysfunction, corruption among political elites, and intervention from the Shia Muslim clerical establishment, the marjiyya, who have tried to protect the best interests of Iraqis, even if they could not control the behavior of politicians. The marjiyya, particularly Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, took on an important role beginning in 2003 in response to the weak Iraqi state, the increase in Shia political power, and later in response to sectarian strife, the rise of ISIS, and an intra-Shia rift.

In recent years a more hybrid form of politics has emerged in Iraq, whereby nationalism and sectarianism uneasily coexist. As Iraqis became more opposed to the muhasasa system and more outraged by general government dysfunction, protests broke out in 2015 to express a harsh critique of the system. By 2019, anti- government protests, which began on a massive scale that October, brought to light the profound depth of opposition to the muhasasa system. Although the protest leaders were largely Shia, the focus of the movement was not on sectarian interests; it was an

“Iraqis today perceive their country as a sectarian state verging on collapse, with competing ethnic and religious groups vying for power in a zero-sum game.”

issues-based, nationwide movement, centered on improving the economy, creating more government accountability and ending corruption, and regulating renegade Iran-backed militias which operate outside government control. The protests underscored that public discontent is driven by socioeconomic grievances, rather than by ideological or religious divisions.

Throughout the protests, religious arguments were largely missing from the scene. When they were present, they were used by protesters to expose the self-serving exploitation of religion by Islamist Shia parties. Similarly, the symbols and iconography of Shia Islam were used not to claim a sectarian identity for the protest but to emphasize traditional notions of martyrdom and struggle between the oppressed and their oppressors that are central to Shia identity.

Indeed, exposing the failures of Islamist parties in governance had been a prominent theme in protests even before 2019. During the 2015 protests, Iraqis in southern provinces chanted “bism il-din bagona il-haramiyah” (“in religion’s name, the thieves robbed us”).

These public sentiments are consistent with a profound shift in Iraqis’ ideas of how they want their state to be governed. Opinion polls conducted since 2019 show consistent trends: Iraqis oppose the sectarian system, and they increasingly favor a secular, democratic state that is divorced from religious influence. For example, a series of surveys conducted by Arab Barometer, a research organization at Princeton University, concluded that current political systems in countries such as Iraq serve to make religious identity more dominant. But in 2019 polling, Arab Barometer determined there had been a decline in trust in religious-based parties across the Middle East, even though there is more trust in religious leaders than the parties themselves, which are perceived to be corrupt. Across the region, according to the Arab Barometer polling, the share of people expressing much trust in political parties, of which many have a religious identity, fell by over a third between 2011 and 2019, to 15 percent. The decline in trust in Islamist parties fell from 35 percent in 2013 to 20 percent in 2018, according to Barometer polling. 2

New polling data outlined in these pages and the focus of this report confirms Iraqis’ aspiration for secular rule. In polling conducted in July 2022, the Enabling Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) found that a substantial number of Iraqi respondents – 47 percent – said the system should be a secular democracy with a clear separation between religion and state, while another 41 percent wanted a democratic state where religion is a source of legislation but religious parties are banned from government.

Some political figures and scholars in Iraq agree that the political system in some ways is showing signs of moving toward a secular state. “There is no political party that calls for a religious or Islamic state and most of the Shia and Sunni sectarian parties proclaim that the present Iraqi state and constitution are already a civil state,” said Raid Fahmi, the head of the Iraqi Communist party, in an interview from Baghdad. Ruba Ali Al-Hassani, an Iraqi scholar who has conducted extensive research on waves of protests in the country, agreed. “A good majority of Iraqis, whether involved in the Tishreen Movement or not, want secular rule. The past 19 years have shown that the intertwining of religion and governance is a dangerous formula for the country as it has sectarianized society, divided people, and only benefited the corrupt political elite. Iraqis have largely learned the lesson from the sectarian violence and unrepresentative, kleptocratic governments who govern and rob the people in the name of religion… There is also growing acknowledgement of how the political elites have sectarianized society for their gain. This acknowledgment is crucial for the near and far future,” said Al-Hassani.

Considering that the quest for a secular state is a relatively new development in Iraq, the contours and definitions of such a state are as yet unclear. For example, even though Iraqi respondents said clerics should have a limited role in political affairs, during the protests in 2019 and 2020, activists often looked 

to the marjiyya, many of whom supported the protesters’ demands, as their allies. Public opinion, particularly among the urban educated under 40 years old, is clear: clerics should have a minimal role in politics, although this does not necessarily translate into anti-clerical sentiment; religious parties should not be allowed to run in elections; and state institutions should be free of religious influence.


Between July 10 and July 25, 2022, EPIC conducted telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,062 Iraqi citizens eligible to vote. The primary objective of the survey was to measure how young Iraqis, specifically eligible voters ages 18–40, perceive key actors, concepts, and questions related to the role of religion in politics, governance, and public life. The respondents were largely educated: 62 percent held or were pursuing a bachelor’s degree or two-year diploma and 19 percent a higher degree. Fourteen percent had a secondary education. Thirty-seven percent were employed in the public sector, while 20 percent were fully employed in the private sector.

“Even though Iraqi respondents said clerics should have a limited role in political affairs, during the protests in 2019 and 2020, activists often looked to the marjiyya, many of whom supported the protesters’ demands, as their allies.”

And the majority were employed, although a significant minority, 32 percent, said they were unemployed, and another 11 percent said they were underemployed.

Using advanced survey software and Iraqi government data, the sample size was calculated to ensure a margin of error that does not exceed ±3% at a 95 percent confidence level. To focus the research on Iraq’s young voters, a near equal number of men and women ages 18–40 were selected for interviews in each province based on the country’s male-to-female ratio of 1.01 (2020 estimate). 3

The sample included a proportional representation of Iraq’s 18 provinces based on each province’s share of the national population, which the Central Statistical Organization of Iraq’s Ministry of Planning estimates to be 39,127,900 as of 2019.

Watch the report launch event livestream

Religion and Aspirations for a Secular State in Iraq: Views from the Ground

Religion and Aspirations for a Secular State in Iraq: Views from the Ground

EPIC’s Director of Programs, Omar Al-Nidawi, will moderate a panel of experts at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC on November 1, 2022. Distinguished speakers will discuss the results of the report and the implications for Iraqi politics, including the report’s author, Geneive Abdo. 


Omar Al-Nidawi

(Moderator) Program Director, Enabling Peace in Iraq Center

geneive abdo

Wilson Fellow; Former Fellow, Brookings Doha Center

Sajad jiyad

Fellow, Century International; Director, Shia Politics Working Group

hamzeh hadad

Visiting Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations

Special thanks to our partners

The Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) is a German political foundation whose civic education programs aim at promoting freedom, liberty, peace and justice.

Dijlah Consulting Engineers is an Iraqi firm that has been providing professional engineering services and construction supervision for more than 25 years.