The past is one of the most useful–and most convenient–tools for creating a feeling of identity in a country. In trying to understand the current dynamics of identity in Iraq, it can thus be useful to look at the history of the country, which was the cradle of civilisation, and though emerged as a nation only in the first half of the twentieth century. In this article, we shall focus mainly on the period from the beginning of the Ottoman Empire to the arrival of Saddam Hussein , the following period being the object of later article.

Since the birth of society and the spread of the idea of identity on larger scales than anything previously seen in Mesopotamia, Iraq belonged to many different kingdoms and empires, from the Sumerian to the Omayyad. But it is under the Abbasid dynasty that it became, for the first time, the centre of a rather well-defined territorial entity. In 1258, however, Bagdad was taken by the Mongols, and Iraq remained under Mongolian domination until 1534, when it was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. It is then that it was divided into three provinces, whose significance in shaping territorial identity can still be perceived today. These three provinces–“Wilayat”–were articulated around the cities of Bagdad, Mosul and Basra. They were thus subject to Ottoman rule, and if regional identities were allowed to develop within each one of them, there was no particular reason for a transcendental identity to arise between them. One exception to this was the presence of a trans-regional religious identity, by far the most important unifying dynamic in the Ottoman Empire. As soon as 1764, the British Empire started to gain influence over the province of Basra, and over Bagdad after 1798, seeking to secure the route to India so fundamental to its economic and colonial progress.

The outbreak of the First World War opened Pandora’s Box for the Ottoman Empire, which had by then become the “sick man of Europe”. Fighting on the side of Germany, it had to face opportunistic internal revolts often supported by the Allied Powers, and particularly by the United Kingdom. In November 1914, the latter took Basra, and it won over Bagdad in March 1917. This was to bring considerable power to Britain in extending its rights over the three provinces–later known as Iraq–during the Sykes-Picot agreements of May 1916. The conference of San Remo in April 1920, despite the idea of self-determination of the peoples promoted by American President Woodrow Wilson, eventually turned them into an official British mandate. This was in contradiction with the will expressed by the Shi’ite majority to become an independent Kingdom governed by an Arab king. The beginning of the appearance of a cohesive national identity was thus suppressed and replaced with a new form of–“indirect”–colonialism. One of the most remarkable mistakes of the Sykes-Picot agreement was the complete omission of the Kurdish question when drawing the future borders of the Middle East. This would create an identity problem which would pervade through the twentieth century, in Iraq but also in Turkey and in Syria, and is still vivid nowadays. 

This is important and needs to be considered when looking at identity in Iraq nowadays, as we see that Iraq was in fact not an entity of its own until very late. Likewise, it is only at the beginning of the twentieth century that the Shi’ite became a majority in Iraq. This can be one of the reasons that the British mandate usually favoured the Sunnis over the Shi’ites for administrative and military positions. This in turn is seen by some historians, who claim that identities are “sticky” , as one of the reasons for the clear cleavage still present between Sunnis and Shi’ites, even though the trend has been reversed after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In 1920, as a response to this unequal treatment of the Iraqi population by the British, representatives of the Shia Clergy led a broad uprising of the Shi’ites and tribal leaders, and chaos was overcome only by the military suppression of this movement, without however curing the underlying tension.

In August 1921, King Faisal was enthroned by the British after he had been expelled from Syria by the French. He undertook to create a strong state, and the foundation of the army in the same year reinforced the social cohesion of the country. The idea of national belonging was carried by the establishment of primary and secondary schools, which had an undeniable impact on the younger generation, who started feeling that they were Arabs, and Iraqis.

On May 30th, 1932, Iraq became independent, and was the first Arab country to enter the League of Nations in Geneva. This had the effect of putting an end to the negative social cohesion between Sunnis and Shi’ites which had existed as long as there was an external element in Iraq against which they could ally–namely, the British. The Shi’ites started reproaching the Sunnis to be involved in politics much more than them, a leftover of the British mandate. After the death of King Faisal in 1933, political instability became the new trend, and many different–and usually weak–governments succeeded each other, alternating between pan-Arab policies and policies of detachment from the rest of the Arab world. This of course did not play a stabilising role in the shaping of an Iraqi identity.

Until the end of the 1950s, Iraq was torn between nationalists, pan-Arabs, and the return of a British influence following the Second World War. However, from 1946 to 1958, what became known as the “Decade of Silence” saw the appearance of social movements trying to reform the constitutional order, and progressively replacing the religious and ethnic grievances.

  But on July 14th, a date apparently propitious to political change, King Faisal II was killed in a coup d’état, and a Republic proclaimed, with at its head Abd al-Karim Qasim and Abdul Salam Arif, two military officers. The former defended the idea of an independent Iraq, and was supported by the Communists, the Kurds and the Shi’ites, while the latter was in favour of a pan-Arab republic, and was supported by the Baath Party. Arif was arrested by General Qasim in December. In 1959, uprisings took place in Mosul and Kirkuk, but the easiness with which Bagdad repressed them and avoided their spreading to other regions indicates the reinforcement of a stato-national cohesion, strong enough to avert a territorial disintegration or a collapse of the state. In a context of diplomatic instability due to tensions with Egypt about Kuwait, a new coup took place in February 1963. Arif previously arrested, became President of Iraq. In 1966, his brother succeeded him, and signed an agreement with the Kurds, recognising the rights of the Kurds, and adding them to the Constitution. This brought some stability to the country, but two years later, another coup was organised by the Baathists. General Bakr became President, and Saddam Hussein started becoming powerful in the state apparatus. In March 1970, Bagdad recognised Kurdish autonomy, and a year later, the Kurdistan Regional Government was established. The Kurds accepted this autonomy only in 1974, when they eventually failed in changing the terms of the agreement and were abandoned by one of their foreign supporters, Iran. General Bakr left office in July 1979, and he was replaced by Saddam Hussein as President of the Iraqi Republic.

Thus, we have seen that, until the second half of the twentieth century at least, sectarian violence was rather rare in Iraq. However, Iraq had been created as an artificial merging of three distinct Wilayat of the Ottoman Empire, which may have shared a religion, but little more in terms of identity. The cleavage between Sunnis and Shi’ites, if already existent, was reinforced by the British rule, which gave a political advantage to the Sunnis, a predominance which would stay until the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and which has since then been reversed. No equilibrium has been reached, and the country went from one extreme to the other, with regard to the political influences of Sunnis and Shi’ites. Nevertheless, we also saw that there were moments in the history of Iraq, and even quite recently, when national cohesion replaced sectarian and ethnic tensions, like during the “Decade of Silence”. Thus, it seems right to say that identity in Iraq is not inherently conflictual. It has been used and transformed by leaders and events, and what we now see happening in Iraq is more the result of the negative use Saddam Hussein and the United States made of identities than of identities themselves. Iraq’s past has been used, and laid the foundations of today’s conflict, but it is possible to overcome the cleavages which tear it apart. Identities are “sticky”, this is true, but we primordially have so many identities that they are not, in nature, the determinant of our behaviour. It is the way in which we choose to rank and express these identities that matters, and this way is constructed. Education is the most appropriate tool to correct wrong identity constructions, this is why it is so central to focus on it now.

by Hugo Côte-Petit-François

Bibliography on the topic of identity in Iraq:

Penner Angrist, Michele. Politics and Society in the Contemporary Middle East. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013. (Available in the library)

Moyen-Orient n°24, Egypte, Entre Révolution(s) et Autoritarisme. Dossier Irak (p. 70-83).,0690

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