Despite the popular narrative, Iraq is not simply an ‘artificial creation’

Lorenzo Kamel looks at the history behind the modern states of Iraq and Syria.

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“Gertrude of Arabia, the woman who invented Iraq.” This is the title of an article published last summer by Clive Irving on the Daily Beast website. It is just one of a long series of journalistic and academic articles that in recent years have linked the ongoing civil war in the country to the invention of an Iraqi nation at the hands of Gertrude Bell and a small group of British personalities.

Indeed, what nowadays would be referred to as a “nonsectarian patriotism” has, in the Iraqi context, more complex roots than often claimed. Such feeling proved historically to be stronger and more rooted than sectarianism. A study conducted by a group of Iraqi intellectuals for a Norwegian think tank points out, for instance, that the claim that Iraq is an artificial creation concocted by the British after the First World War overlooks the fact that “the separation between the three Ottoman provinces that was in place in 1914 dated back only 30 years, to 1884”.

For much of the 18th and 19th centuries those same three Ottoman provinces – Basra, Baghdad and Mosul – were governed as a single entity with Baghdad as their centre of gravity. Already at the time numerous local intellectuals indicated the area as “Iraq”. The thesis expressed by Paul Rich in Iraq and Gertrude Bell that the only person who has ever believed in the existence of Iraq was Saddam Hussein, is thus a misleading simplification. Iraq and Syria are much more than simple “artificial creations”.

This is not meant to suggest that the various local ethnic groups were in need of well-defined boundaries, nor intends to downplay London’s historical role in the genesis of the problems that are still affecting the region (Faysal I, chosen by the British authorities as the new king of Iraq in August 1921, never set a foot in Mesopotamia before then, spoke a different dialect than the local Arabs and was a Sunni).

The aim instead is to emphasise that the modern and contemporary Iraqi identity has been “imagined” and “constructed” like any other identity in history and that it is at that complex and shared identity, often stronger than sectarian divisions, toward which a considerable majority of the local population – about 70 per cent, according to a survey conducted in 2008 by Iraq Center for Research & Strategic Studies – is looking at.

In a letter sent in March 2004 to the then UN representative in Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, Ayatollah Ali Al Husayni Al Sistani emphasised that the establishment of a tripartite presidency formed by a Sunni, a Shiite and a Kurd, would have “enshrined sectarian divisions in Iraqi society [ ...] that could lead to partition, God forbid”.

Similar concerns are shared, paradoxically, by a significant percentage of the Kurdish population, which, despite Kurdistan’s peculiar history and the most recent political developments, perceives with growing apprehension the problems that the collapsing of the country might trigger – including an almost complete dependence on Ankara.

The “balkanization of Iraq” appears to many analysts as imminent: the conquest of Mosul by ISIL has further reinforced this perception. The parallel with the Balkans, however, seems risky. If not for the fact that, unlike the case of Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s, Iraqi Shiites show no interest in being represented by Iran, or in considering it as their regional representative.

On a more general level, it is the very idea of a divided Iraq on sectarian lines that appears problematic. The local reality is not characterised by homogeneous communities. On top of this, and with some analogies with the history of the last decade, only following three invasions coming from areas external to modern Iraq – the Safavids in 1508 and 1623, and the Wahhabi sack of Karbala in 1801 – did bloody sectarian clashes occur in the region.

As noted by Fanar Haddad, in early medieval Baghdad there were sectarian clashes, but that is extremely different from what you have in more recent ages.

Today, Baghdad hosts about a million Kurds who have never suffered from violence of a sectarian nature; a fifth of the population of Basra are Sunni, while in Samarra, a predominantly Sunni city, there are two of the most important Shiite ruins. The provinces of Diyala and Salah ad-Din have for centuries been the image of a multi-ethnic Iraq in which the splitting of one or more of its component parts cannot but trigger more violence and ethnic cleansing.

The awareness of this – an antidote to the rise of ISIL as well as to the policies of former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki and the sectarian-based quotas introduced following the American invasion of 2003 – represents the cornerstone on which to start the process of reconstruction of the Iraqi nation.

Dr Lorenzo Kamel is a research fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies