Many commentators on the state of Iraq after the removal of the Baathist regime in 2003 have attributed the chaos and sectarian-ethnic conflict to some essence of Iraqi society: fissiparous and tribal, only governable by the firm hand of authoritarian dictatorship. This is, of course, an ahistorical view. These traits are not, somehow, in the “nature” of Iraqi society; they are products of its transformation by the violent and arbitrary regime, along with three destructive wars.

It would be equally ahistorical to assert the existence of some golden age of uninterrupted inter-communal harmony and national unity before the deposed regime took charge. In all the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional states that succeeded the Ottoman Empire and European colonial mandates, non-Arab ethnic and non-Muslim religious communities were faced with the question of how to react to the dominance of mostly Arab Muslim states and elites embracing ideologies of Arab nationalism and naming Islam as the official religion. Muslims, as well, were faced with dictatorial regimes that, despite their nationalist pretensions, depended for their perpetuation on communal and tribal solidarities that sharpen boundaries and differences. Citizenship, the path to integration into a national life for all communities, was mostly a thwarted aspiration. The regimes’ wars on ethnic autonomy and their elimination of pluralist politics had the consequence of leaving the field to religious and communal ideologies and movements, of which Islamism is the most prominent, thus further barring the way to common citizenship.

Modern Iraq presents an extreme example of these processes. An important distinction has to be made between the Kurdish “national” minority, striving as it has for separation or self-governance, and religious differences within the presumed national entity of Arab Iraq. Kurdish aspirations, for the most part, were met with such intransigence by the state that the Kurds took up arms they are reluctant to part with even now that Iraq’s new constitution recognizes far-reaching autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan. Even within Arab Iraq, however, the regime systematically undermined communities’ integration as citizens, pushing Iraqis toward communalism.

Between Citizenship and Communalism

At the start of the twentieth century, like the rest of the old Ottoman Empire, what is now the state of Iraq was divided by boundaries of ethnicity, religion, kinship, tribe and locality. In this respect, it was like most of the rest of the Middle East, only perhaps more so because the country had been an Ottoman backwater. Nevertheless, Ottoman reforms of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries trickled slowly into Iraq, culminating in the Young Turks’ constitution of 1908. Reform created spheres and institutions that were home to the new intelligentsia; they were further expanded with the British Mandate, and then the new state. The new Iraqi intelligentsia, drawn from various communities and regions, became a “national class,” one that imagined the nation and spoke the modern language of national politics. Their outlook was shaped by stirrings of modern politics in the region: the Young Turks, the Iranian constitutional revolution of 1906 and the “Arab revolt” coming from the Hijaz during World War I. [1] Christian and Jewish intellectuals were prominent in these classes, and had particular reason to desire an escape from their cultural and social ghettos and oppressive religious authorities into the public domain of citizenship, ideas and culture. Jewish entre- preneurs had introduced the first printing presses into Iraq in the twentieth century.

These developments, of course, did not erase the communal boundaries — far from it. But the boundaries did not stand still. The processes of modernity that proceeded throughout the century led to wide-ranging social and geographical mobility, which loosened and, in some cases, transformed communal bonds and redrew the boundaries. Most notably, the “national class” of the intelligentsia became ever larger and more complex. They formed parties and movements, and interacted in cafés, clubs and salons, declaiming poetry, pursuing (sometimes violent) polemics and weaving conspiracies. These were func- tionaries, poets, journalists, teachers, professionals, military officers and modern businessmen. They were drawn from the various communities of religion, tribe and locality, and the traces of these affiliations were never erased: everyone knew who was who. Against the pull of these affiliations, however, they harbored aspirations to escape from traditional bonds and communal ghettos and to form parts of a universalist and national public life. In the violent politics that followed, though, each participant’s communal affiliation counted and was used for or against him or her.

Governments and their police were repressive and arbitrary, but never totally so. Until the Baathist regime of the 1970s, Iraq always contained a plurality of parties and movements, public and clandestine, and had some elements of (controlled and corrupt) parliamentary life. The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), formed in the 1920s, but reaching its apogee between the 1940s and 1970s, was central to this national life. For most of its existence it was a clandestine party, suffering from repression and giving many martyrs. Like other communist parties, it followed the Soviet line, with adverse effects on its national operations. Yet it continued to be at the heart of Iraqi politics and cultural spheres, with the adherence of many prominent intellectuals, poets, journalists, academics and students, as well as grassroots affiliations to trade unions, syndicates, peasant associations, and women’s and youth organizations. Above all, it was the national party, drawing Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shi‘is, Christians and Jews. Most other parties, if they were not vehicles for the leadership of prominent personalities, appealed to narrow constituencies, Kurdish nationalist parties being only one case in point. Arab nationalist parties, including the Baath, had their main constituency among Arab Sunnis (with some Shi‘is and Christians). The National Democratic Party was another national party with a small and elite constituency of the modern bourgeoisie.

Until the 1970s, Iraqi society featured a lively, and sometimes violent, political field, with a plurality of actors with diverse constituencies. It also featured diverse sources and forms of social power, some based on primordial solidarities of community and religion, but others on property (not yet controlled and distributed by the arbitrary appropriations of regime cliques) and common interests and actions. Religion, tribe and locality continued to play important roles in the drawing of boundaries and solidarities, but these ties were rivaled, transformed and mediated by the formations and ideologies of modern politics. One illustration of these processes is the unique history of the Jews of Iraq, a history of which we need to be reminded.

The Jews of Iraq

By the time of their mass migration, mostly to Israel, in 1950–1951, there were an estimated 120,000 to 150,000 Jews in an Iraqi population of five million. Their presence in Baghdad, however, was disproportionate to their numbers. They constituted a considerable part of the Iraqi middle class, although the majority of their number worked in the more humble occupations of peddlers and craftsmen. Iraqi Jews were Arabophone, unlike many other Middle Eastern communities that spoke Ladino or French. Their elites, like their Christian compatriots, enjoyed the opportunities for a European education from the later decades of the nineteenth century, through the schools of the Alliance Israelite, then a diversity of communal schools, for boys and girls, featuring curricula in French and English, as well as following the Arabic national curriculum installed by the national government. This gave Jews an advantage in recruitment to positions in government, public utilities (notably the railways), the professions, the arts and education, as well as in business and finance. Jews were prominent in medicine, law, journalism, literature and, above all, in music: all the instrumentalists in the Iraqi radio orchestra at its incep- tion in 1936 were Jews, who also formed the Iraqi delegation to the 1932 Arab Music Congress in Cairo. [2] Their presence in the markets of Baghdad was such that the weekly holiday fell on Saturday. Where did this community feature in the social and political landscape?

The majority of Jews, like any other people, aspired to a quiet and secure life. They avoided politics, and sought for their chiefs and notables to exert influence and ensure communal security through connections and bribes. Jews, despite their prominence in public life and business, or perhaps partly because of it, were always vulnerable and open to suspicion and accusation of sympathy or collaboration with the “enemies”: first British imperialism, then Zionism. Indeed, the pro-Nazi nationalist coup of 1941 culminated in a “pogrom” of the Jews before it was put down by British intervention. This left a bitter memory for the community.

At the same time, the intelligentsia and professionals of the community were divided between the two orientations of Iraqi citizenship and European/Zionist identification. Those in the professions, the arts and public service shared the social and cultural spheres and networks with their other compatriots, and identified with an Iraqi national life. Some of the younger members, rebelling against the conservatism and caution of their elders, jumped into the illicit politics of the ICP and the left. They sought comradeship with their non-Jewish fellows and the dream of a better world. Jews were prominent in the leadership of the ICP in the 1940s, and suffered imprisonment, torture and execution, alongside their comrades. They were among the foremost activists in the anti-Zionist league.
The shift in party orientation, in line with Soviet policy in the later 1950s, toward a Third Worldist nationalism in support of Nasserism and the “national bourgeoisie,” made the ICP cautious about its Jewish members, whom it discarded, but that is another history. Other Jews sought their citizenship aspirations in Zionist organizations and the dream of a modern Jewish state. Many were to be disappointed in the early days of Iraqis in Israel, and the contempt in which “orientals” were held there.

The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and the nationalist and Islamic fervor that gripped the Arab world, made life difficult for the Jews of Iraq. Public servants were sacked, arbitrary limitations were imposed on professions, business and property, and waves of arrest and persecution accompanied accusations of communism and Zionism (the two conveniently merged in police parlance). These were powerful push factors that led to the migration of Jews under a secret agreement between Iraqi politicians and the Jewish Agency in Israel. Mass migration left a few thousand, mostly prosperous, Jews in Iraq after 1951. Those, in turn, were targeted by the second Baathist regime for another wave of persecution as Israeli spies in 1968–1969, culminating in the exodus of the survivors in the following years.

One important aspect of the departure of the Jews is that a vital sector of the middle classes was eliminated from Iraqi society, with their property confiscated, and their knowledge, skills and sentiments lost to the country. Their place in the Baghdad markets was taken by the Shi‘i bourgeoisie, who were already active in business, having been excluded from many other spheres of public life. Those, in turn, were expelled by Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1970s and 1980s, on the pretext that they were Iranian, and their property was confiscated to the benefit of regime personalities. Thus, Iraq lost its propertied middle classes twice in the span of three decades. This is part of the malaise of Iraqi society and politics. Those middle classes are the most important props of civil society and public life, and their elimination could only facilitate the ascendancy of dictatorship in government and tribalism in society.

The Jews, of course, were a special case, given their association in the public mind with Israel and the bitter conflict with the Arabs. Their story, however, does illustrate the tension between communalism and citizenship in Iraq. Modern political and social forces were making good progress against the old politics of communities and tribes, and the height of this progress occurred during the Qasim years of 1958–1963.

The Qasim Regime

‘Abd al-Karim Qasim led the military coup that toppled the monarchy and the British client regime. He broke with his fellow “free officers,” mostly Sunni Arab nationalists who wanted union with Nasser’s Egypt, to pursue an Iraqist politics, appealing to the various sectors of Iraqi society. In that aim he was supported by the ICP, with whom he entered into an uneasy relationship. It was during this period that ideological politics of left and right, communists and nationalists, came to the fore, including yet another bloody battle with the Kurds. Qasim’s was also the regime that secularized family law in the country in favor of women’s rights, much to the chagrin of religious authorities, Sunni and Shi‘i. The regime was not democratic: in fact it abolished the limp parliament of the monarchy. It was, however, pluralist, with a diversity of political forces and social constituencies. The old religious and tribal forces were on the retreat in the face of land reforms and secularizing measures. Some sought influence in hitching their cause to the Sunni Arab nationalists as resistance to the strident forces of the left. Violent confrontations and attempted coups followed.

One was the ultimately successful Baathist coup in 1963 (reportedly with the aid of the CIA conspiring against Qasim and the ICP in the Cold War context), which was marked by a large-scale massacre of the communists and their allies. The coup featured the first televised assassination of a political leader, when the Baathists exhibited Qasim’s corpse to dissuade his followers from further resistance. The Baath always resorted to excessive violence, then and now, to make up for the fact that they have a small constituency in the country and can only rule by inordinate repression. In 1963, however, they were displaced by conservative Sunni nationalist officers who reversed many of the progressive and secularizing policies of the Qasim regime. This was not the end of the plural political field and its rival ideologies. The clandestine ICP, the Baath, the Kurds and various nationalist factions continued to operate. It was the second Baathist coup of 1968 which ultimately ended pluralism, by first bringing the communists into a common “front” government, and then, once their organization was exposed, turning on them in another massacre in 1978–1979. The ensuing collapse of communism on the world stage led to a further diminution in the importance of the ICP.

Falling Back on the Old

On the face of it, the Baathist regime stood for Iraq as part of the Arab nation, a polity of citizens faithful to the “revolution” and the party. In reality, the regime was always based on narrow sectarian and clan loyalties, a base that narrowed even further under the stresses of the Iran-Iraq war, the two wars with the West and the intervening 13 years of UN sanctions. Nationalist and “socialist” thrusts were used to dismantle and suppress all forms of independent association and centers of social power that the regime did not control. The regime controlled property, with arbitrary confiscations and appropriation by the denizens of the ruling family and its inner circle. It cultivated “crony capitalism” with contracts and businesses dependent on its favor. The largest confiscations followed the sectarian expulsion of the “Iranian” Shi‘a.

The salaried middle classes and professionals were firmly subordinated to Baath Party and regime control. Those who were not suppressed or driven into exile were first pampered in the “good years” of 1970s prosperity, then increasingly impoverished and repressed in the years of wars and sanctions from the 1980s. Women, first emancipated by the secular measures of the early years, were similarly subordinated and repressed when the regime turned to religion and tribe in the 1990s. Those years of war and sanctions, leading to poverty, disease and violence in many parts of the country, also drove people to take refuge in communities and localities of solidarity and mutual aid. These social milieux are dominated by the authority of religion and tribe.

When the regime failed to assert control of the population through war on external enemies, it sought to reconstruct the very primordial forces of tribe and religion it had once denounced, but as its own creatures and puppets. Since the regime had destroyed or taken over civic and political associations, and subordinated the educated middle classes, the opposition, too, had only the formations of religion, community and tribe to fall back on, mainly in sectarian and ethnic formations of Shi‘a and Kurds. The terrible trauma of the 2003 invasion and the insurgency that followed only reinforced these trends, crystallizing political allegiances around local, religious and communal leaderships. The secular and liberal middle classes, long suppressed and disorganized, have little voice or organization.

Can the pillars of civil society be raised again from chaos and ruin left by the regime and the invasion? It is difficult to give clear answers at this point, because there are so many imponderables. For one, a whole generation grew up under harsh authoritarian rule, coupled with the poverty and devastation of war and sanctions. Alienated and impoverished, what allegiances and outlooks can this young generation have? One thing is certain: to pursue, against mighty odds, a renewed civil life, they will need resources and security, which are the foremost problems of the Iraqi present.


[1] For an elaboration, see Sami Zubaida, “The Fragments Imagine the Nation: The Case of Iraq,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 34/2 (May 2002).
[2] See Sami Zubaida, “Entertainers in Iraq, 1900–1950” in Eugene Rogan, ed. Outside In: On the Margins of the Modern Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 2002), pp. 212–230.


How to cite this article:

Sami Zubaida "Communalism and Thwarted Aspirations of Iraqi Citizenship," Middle East Report 237 (Winter 2005).

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