States of Imagination: Four Perspectives on Iraqi Political Culture, 1900-2014

MESA 2015 Panel Report

States of Imagination: Four Perspectives on Iraqi Political Culture, 1900–2014

Report by Annie Greene and Carl Shook, co-organizers

When the 2003 invasion of Iraq failed to establish the stable and Western-friendly state its American architects hoped for, and instead directly precipitated civil war and helped increase the salience of sectarian identification in politics and society, the social fabric and geography of the Iraqi state itself was held responsible. The narrative of Iraq as a contrived state, which arbitrarily and irresponsibly combined the “Kurdish north,” the “Shiʿi south,” and the “Sunni west,” all with an imbalance of political power and natural resources, was dusted off in order to explain the political failures and challenges after 2003. This narrative grew more common, and its proponents more vocal, upon the development of Islamic State and its conquest of Iraqi and Syrian territory in 2014.

In the last two decades or so, a growing number of scholars who specialize in Iraqi history and politics have steadily worked against this narrative through studies that focused on the contingent contexts and processes that may result in political, civil, or religious conflict. The state was rarely the sole or even dominant subject of these studies. Among other advantages, this problematized representations of Iraqi society as either a passive or reactionary partner in Iraqi political history. Our goal in forming this panel was to contribute to this trend of decentralizing politics by looking at the Iraqi state from the perspective of the diverse institutions and actors involved and in contact with, but not necessarily part of, the state. We contend that a de-centered political vantage point is more analytically useful because it treats the Iraqi state as a product of political imagination, negotiation, definition, and contestation.

Therefore, we set out to design a panel that considered the Iraqi state through the country’s political history from four very different perspectives. The first perspective was that of Ottoman-Iraqi intellectuals carving out a discursive space for themselves between Ottoman centralization and local expression in verse, the press, and the parliament. Annie Greene (University of Chicago) examined some of the writings of three Ottoman-era Iraqi intellectuals, the poet Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi, journalist Sulayman Faydi, and parliamentarian İsmail Hakkı Babanzade. She demonstrated that their critiques and praises of Ottoman state policies, all the while sitting in Baghdad and Basra, reveal an importance and relevance to the imperial capital Istanbul as provincial intellectuals, not merely peripheral ones. They saw themselves as active agents of the reform and renaissance currents going on in the empire, even in the frontier.

Carl Shook (University of Chicago) presents at the “States of Imagination” panel.

The second perspective was that of British Mandate officials towards Iraq as a distinct socio-political entity. Carl Shook (University of Chicago) presented the geographical and historical rationale for dividing territory into irrigated and non-irrigated land, and categorizing the population into “settled” and “un-settled” (read: Bedouin) groups. He then described the normalizing effects of this simplistic social dichotomy on the formation of the Iraq-Syria border between 1918 and 1932. Parts of the new political boundary were delimited to shield agricultural land and trade routes from both “foreign” and “Iraqi” tribal groups, but accommodation of and resistance to the new boundaries by tribal elites, shepherds, traders, and smugglers nevertheless influenced the location and permeability of the resulting border.

The intellectual and avant-garde clientele of Baghdad’s coffee shops provided a third perspective, this time challenging the state’s rationalization and nationalization during the monarchical period of the 1940s. Pelle Valentin Olsen (University of Chicago) discussed leisure as a domain that is not free from political intervention and disciplinary power, but that is rather one of the sites in which different and competing ideals and visions of nation and temporality manifest and in which social norms are both practiced and contested.

Pelle Valentin Olsen (University of Chicago), right, presents at the “States of Imagination” panel. From left to right: Omar Sirri (University of Toronto), Carl Shook (University of Chicago), Annie Greene (University of Chicago), and panel moderator Peter Wien (University of Maryland and current TAARII president)

The fourth perspective was that of the contested legal foundations of Iraq following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Omar Sirri (University of Toronto) described the absence of constituent power of the people during the drafting of the Iraqi Constitution in 2004 and 2005. Through interviews with constitution makers in Baghdad, his paper indicated that Iraqi political elites came to occupy the seat of constituent power, and showed the implications of this by arguing that these elites remained engaged in a Schmittian political dynamic, which marginalizes the Iraqi people, and that has come to define constitutional politics in Iraq.

This panel intentionally accentuated periods across Iraq’s political history that reject easy narratives and trajectories of continuity of the Iraqi state. Instead of defining the state, we sought to amplify some of the voices and discourses that contributed, one way or another, to its existence. By favoring Iraq’s political history and culture over a state-centric approach, we hope to have illuminated diverse but meaningful moments in Iraqi political history which, taken together, challenge a hard state-society distinction in favor of a “blurred lines” perspective. In other words, the state was taken as just one of many sites where political interaction, through which identity, religion, language, politics, and history are being molded and made concrete, takes place. These four perspectives represent just a few of the ways Iraq was imagined, shaped, critiqued, and invested with meaning and purpose during Iraq’s long twentieth century.

“States of Imagination” panel, from left to right: Omar Sirri (University of Toronto), Pelle Valentin Olsen (University of Chicago), Carl Shook (University of Chicago), and Annie Greene (University of Chicago)

On behalf of all the presenters, we would like to express our gratitude to our panel chair and discussant, Peter Wien, for his time and thoughtful, constructive comments. We would also like to thank TAARII for sponsoring our panel, and all who attended for contributing to an engaging and productive discussion.