Over the past few weeks, graphic artists have been busy creating ever-flashier graphics and eye-catching icons of Iraq that reflect the so-called religio-ethnic division in the country. This cartographic representation of Iraq— roughly, a Kurdish one in the north, a Sunni one in the middle and a Shi’ite one in the south—has become so common, so normalized an image, that we have stopped questioning the problematic assumptions embedded in it. The common explanation is that the sections represented in these maps are supposed to reflect the organic reality of Iraq's indigenous and “ancient” sectarian and ethnic divisions.
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Ancient? How then have these peoples been living together for centuries, often in mixed neighborhoods and villages? Are we to believe the increasingly common refrain from policy makers and so-called subject matter experts that these communities have harbored deep hatred towards one another and have been waiting for the opportunity to jump at each other’s throats, prevented only by the forceful hand of Saddam Hussein and, later, by the American military occupation?
There is nothing ancient or indigenous about sectarian and ethnic conflict in Iraq. The three Ottoman provinces which together roughly corresponded to the geographic area of modern-day Iraq, and which are often incorrectly used as a historic justification to divide Iraq up, were in fact provincial administrative zones reflecting the economic and political relations of these provinces with the Ottoman capital, Istanbul, and were in no way a reflection of the population's religious and ethnic make-up. Any claim to the contrary is teleological and misleading. Thus, the “three-state Iraq” is no more historically justified than any unified Iraq.
Saddam followed a strategy of ethnic cleansing, as well as creating and mobilizing sectarian divisions during the period of his rule. The American invasion and the subsequent “restructuring” plan did not even try to mediate this situation. In fact, policies followed by the American administration cultivated and entrenched these cleavages. Put simply, the violence that we have witnessed between the three main groups—Shi’ite, Sunnis, and Kurds—is the result of relatively recent conditions created by several devastating wars and the destruction of much of the fabric of Iraqi national society.
While it’s true that the modern boundaries of Iraq were drawn by post-World War I imperial powers to include Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites, blaming current problems on what took place close to 90 years ago assumes that the Iraqi people (with all of their dizzying numbers of clan, city, religious and ethnic alliances) have, somehow, escaped the influence of modern state-sponsored nationalism entirely.
Other than the huge leap in logic involved in such an assumption, presenting the idea of a three-state Iraq as somehow a late corrective to the evils of early-20th century imperialism conveniently ignores much more recent imperial intervention. A united Iraq might be falling apart, but it is not as a result of a century-old miscalculation, or assumed ancient inter-communal hatred. It is the result of years of turmoil culminating in a devastating American invasion and occupation. How many nation-states, whether in the global north or south, would survive such an intervention, particularly on the heel of decades-long dictatorial rule?
History has shown us that entrenching divisions based on ethnic and religious identifications, particularly in times of conflict, is a short-sighted solution that almost never works in the favor of the local population. But dividing the region by ethnic and religious groups as a solution to the so-called “ancient” hatreds of the Middle East is as old as Western imperialism itself.
British and French imperialists imagined the Middle East to be made up of a number of ethno-religious tribes or nations and used religious identification to create separate and often splintered political communities. When the “natural separation” of these imagined tribes or nations were not neatly reflected in demographic terms on the ground (and they never were), the result was often the uprooting and resettlement of populations to fit imperialists’ plan of clearly defined demographic boundaries. Examples of these plans – and their failures – abound: Mount Lebanon in the mid-19th century; Syria during the inter-war period; and Palestine at the close of WWII, all of them at great and continuing human suffering and material cost to the indigenous population.
The three-state solution being discussed in Iraq would similarly require massive uprooting of populations from those groups that happen to inconveniently live on the wrong side of the projected boundary.
Thus, if we want to look at history for lessons, we know that dividing Iraq up is not the solution; it would in fact only help to kick-start another long-term human tragedy, with the Iraqi population paying the cost. Knowing all this, if these proposed solution are not in the Iraqis’ favor, who would then be the true beneficiary of a “new Middle East” further segmented and splintered along religious and ethnic lines?
Dr. Mostafa Minawi is an Assistant Professor of History and the Director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative (OTSI) at Cornell University. His upcoming book is titled The Ottoman Scramble for Africa and the Empire's Strategy Along its African and Arabian Frontiers (1882-1902). He earned his Ph.D in History and Middle Eastern Studies in 2011 from NYU.