Is Iraqi national identity dying?

Is Iraqi national identity dying?
In-depth: Theirs is a country plagued by divisions, sectarianism and violence - yet there is much which unites Iraqis, reports Paul Iddon.
5 min read
22 March, 2017
Watching a national team football match can bring out Iraqis' nationalist sentiments [AFP]

"There is still - and I say this with a heart full of sorrow - no Iraqi people, but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever."

So said Iraq's first monarch, King Faisal I, all the way back in 1933 - in words that could be considered prophetic in light of the violence which has so infamously plagued Iraq throughout its modern history.

When Mosul fell to the Islamic State group, TIME Magazine ran a cover story declaring "The End of Iraq".

Today, as the Iraqis force the militants from that key city, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has sought to dispel such a diagnosis.

"They said Iraq will never be back; it had already been divided," he declared earlier this month at an international forum at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani (AUIS). "But now, we did not go back. We made progress forth with more unity."

Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan Region, told an Italian newspaper: "The desire to keep the united Iraq is there, but the reality is that today Iraq is already divided by unsolvable problems.

"Too many massacres have occurred, leaving no room for reconciliation."

The desire to keep the united Iraq is there, but the reality is that today Iraq is already divided by unsolvable problems

Kurds in the autonomous region often talk about independence and have long planned to hold a referendum. Few, if any, Kurds identify as Iraqis and feel little sense of Iraqi identity or nationalism.

"Iraqi nationalism does not mean anything for Kurds," Dana Nawzar Ali, a Kurd from Halabja, told The New Arab.

"It is not a matter of feelings for me," he added. "Iraq under different governments has committed atrocities against Kurds, but I do not see Iraqi nationalism responsible for that. Iraq has never had a nationalistic movement with emphasis on Iraqi identity because there was no Iraq from the beginning. It was an artificial country made by adding up entirely different peoples together."

But Hamzeh Hadad, an Iraqi analyst from Baghdad who writes for the 1001 Iraqi Thoughts blog, argues that Iraqi nationalism is far from dead.

"It was Iraqi nationalism that saved Iraq from collapsing as a state in 2014," he said. "If it wasn't for the sense of national duty of southern Iraqis to join the Popular Mobilisation movement to go fight and die for their countrymen and land in the north then there wouldn't be an Iraq today.

There's nothing like a football victory
to stir a bit of patriotism [AFP]

"Therefore it's nonsense to suggest Iraqi nationalism is dead. Even if Kurdish ultra-nationalists want to argue otherwise," Hadad concluded.

"There will always be an Iraq, with or without Kurdistan."

Michael Knights, Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute, who has followed events in Iraq very closely for decades, suggests three tests to assess the state of Iraqi nationalism. 

"First, ask Iraqis if they would rather be Saudis, Iranians, Jordanians, Turks, Kuwaitis or Syrians," he told The New Arab. "Are these places better than Iraq?

"Second," he added, "sit with Iraqis while they watch an international football match where Iraq plays. Do they appear disinterested?

"Third, go to one of the million-man protests in Baghdad. Do you see Iraqi flags? The answer is yes, tens of thousands of them," he concluded.

Hayder Al-Shakeri, an Iraqi from Baghdad, still believes "we are witnessing a decline in Iraqi nationalism".

"This is due to numerous reasons, but at the same time there is an increase in nationalistic sentiment due to IS' threats, which have a unifying affect among Iraqis."

However, as IS is rolled back and eventually defeated, Haydar isn't certain this feeling will remain as strong a factor.

Al-Shakeri echoed Knights when he points out that Iraqis especially feel united when Iraq is playing a football match "or when an Iraqi artist participates in one of the regional singing competitions".

There is still some sense of unity among regular citizens. But many politicians, religious leaders and influencers tend to try and increase the differences between the people

"It's also different in different cities," he added, pointing out the lack of Iraqi nationalism in the cities of Iraqi Kurdistan.

"[Furthermore], people in the south feel differently than those in the west of the country," he added. 

"There is still some sense of unity among regular citizens," he argued. "But many politicians, religious leaders and influencers tend to try and increase the differences between the people."

Rasha al-Aqeedi, a native of Mosul who is currently a Research Fellow at the Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center in Dubai, agrees that Iraqi nationalism is far from dead.

"This is a legitimate question that is overdue,” she says.

"Sub-identities prevailed in Iraq early on from the state's establishment as a result of failed policies in managing them," she explained. "Nationalism and patriotism have been defined in accordance to the leadership.

"At this point of Iraq's history we have to answer, each ethnic-religious group, to ourselves: What kind of 'Iraq”' do we want? If the answer is remotely close to 'my way or the highway' - whatever that way be - then we do have a serious problem regarding the future of Iraqi nationalism."

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon