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.