Why I am not an Iraqi

My grandparents, born in the 1920s, saw themselves as the future of their country. That class was the creation of the nation-building project of Noori al-Saeed* and Faisal I, they were well educated, westernised, secular, ambitious, and modern. They were not entirely western – my grandmother once sacrificed a goat after her son had a near-death experience – but by and large they had far more in common with Europeans of their age and social class than with their countrymen. And their vision – and that of the government – was that they would use their skills to transform the country to resemble them. They would build an educated, westernised, secular, ambitious, and modern Iraq. This was an almost fantastic task. In 1915, when Britain invaded, Iraq had been the most backward area of the most backward countries in the world. It had no history of being a country, it was simply three Ottoman provinces tacked together, and then effectively abandoned by the British as too difficult to govern.

And yet this was the vision of Noori Pasha, and he was determined to achieve it. So my grandparents studied abroad and returned to Iraq, where they became professors and taught the next generation of Iraqi doctors. And the same took place in engineering, in architecture, in science, even in art and music… in every field the country was to be educated and transformed under modern western lines, so that the country could jump from a late-medieval backwater into modernity.

Unfortunately, the modern western countries on which Iraq was being modelled were themselves in crisis. This was the high period of modernism, of central planning, of nationalisation of industry, and of neo-Mercantilism. And the western intellectual elite took this to its logical conclusion, and were avowedly communist – Russia was absolutely seen as the wave of the future, at least in economic terms. And so the new class of Iraqi intellectuals absorbed the politics of the western intellectuals, just as they absorbed their tastes in art, music, clothing and so on. Now, this was absolutely not the intention of Noori Pasha, who was a determined anti-communist. But the effect of his nation-building was to create an elite class that, far from being a basis of support, was hostile to the government and wished for its overthrow. When the revolution came in 1958, not only did my grandparents’ generation not rise up to defend the government that had done so much for them, it cheered from the sidelines as Brigadier Qassim seized power.

The emigre Iraqis you meet today are the heirs of my grandparents generation. Of course, as the reality of military rule set in they regretted it, and they are (mostly) no longer explicitly communist, but otherwise they are the same. And of course that makes them dead, because they are no longer an elite class moving their nation towards a better future, because they have been cut off from that nation. They are just a bunch of westerners who have funny accents and like to shop at Liberty, but with nothing else that really defines them. I want nothing to do with their salons – and these are the Iraqis I can identify with most! As for the ordinary Iraqi citizen, mostly young, uneducated and poverty-stricken, I cannot tell you what I am supposed to have in common with him. I find it hard enough to relate to my cousin Deema, who lived there till she was 20 and has not really shaken off that mentality.

I was talking to an Iraqi lady the other day and, perhaps recklessly, I pointed out that part of Iraq’s failure is its lack of a national identity (I called it a “mythology” to make the notion more palatable to her). Typically Marxist, she replied that these national mythologies are a product of the centralisation caused by the Industrial Revolution. She said that while sitting in a pub in England, which has had an extremely strong national identity at least since the Armada, but this was lost on her. Iraqis like her, lacking a history and mythology of their own, fail to understand how ancient and important it is in other countries – be it William of Orange, Paul Revere, or whoever. They think that unstable pseudo-nations such as Belgium or the former Yugoslavia are the rule, rather than the exception, in Europe.

The truth is that countries need a national identity – why should we hang together if we’re just lines on a map? You can’t have a nation-state without a nation, and Iraq’s failure on that score doomed Noori al-Saeed’s great project. Of course, the failure of the Iraqi state to build one did not stop other identities and ideologies from arising – the major ones before 1958 were the communism of the elite and the pan-Arabism of the people at large, neither of which were specifically Iraqi, and both of which have become utterly discredited. Since then other identities have come and gone within Iraq, at present the most successful are political Islam, and Kurdish nationalism, both of which are of course inimical to the Iraqi state.

I was born and brought up in England. To be quite honest, I feel like a foreigner here at times, but compared to how I feel about Iraq, it’s home. On a grand level, the failure to build an Iraqi identity has made the state unstable and chaotic – but on a personal level it means I have nothing to buy into. If there’s no identity, how can I identify? There is literally no group in Iraq carrying a torch whose light shines on me. Oh sure, I prefer Allawi to Maliki, and Pachachi to either, but ultimately why do I care? It’s something I feel sad about, because I wish I could feel some kind of identity on that account… if not as an Iraqi, then as an Arab, or as something… but the failure of pan-Arabism is at least as complete as the failure of Iraqi nation-building.

Ultimately, I feel a sense of loss, that there is a part of me missing.

I guess the other thing that arises is the counterfactual – what should Noori al-Saeed have done differently? Ultimately I don’t think he could have done much else. He was hemmed in on all sides, by the Iraqi military with its pan-Arabist and Ba’athi sympathies, by court factions, by popular opinion, and by the failure of the British and American governments to give proper help. Yes, he was Prime Minister 8 times, but that means he fell from power 7 times even prior to the revolution. Unlike in success stories such as Japan, there was no pre-existing identity, and the creation of one was simply too hard in those circumstances. Perhaps the biggest mistake was to think that the military could help build the nation, rather than destabilise it – however, those were uncertain times. After all, Britain and France stood by and watched when ibn Saud crushed their ally Sharif Hussein in 1924. It was probably necessary to have a powerful military, and at any rate that decision was taken before Noori came to power.

The real blame must go to my grandparents’ generation, for their failure to support the constitutional monarchy, and instead placing their faith in communism and revolutionary progress. They could have been the bulwark of liberal democracy, and instead they participated in its overthrow. Now certainly, the pre-1958 government had plenty of problems, and I wouldn’t want to romanticise it. But the reason that people do romanticise it is because how much better it was than what followed. My point is not just the obvious Burkean one, that revolutions aren’t such a great idea, but that revolutions are most dangerous when institutional history and political identity are weakest (a point amply borne out in European history too). Perhaps it was too much to expect the Iraqi elites to recognise this, but even now they mostly do not realise the degree of their own responsibility for the situation.

Like any good person, I care about the humanitarian catastrophe that has been wrought in Iraq. But that apart, unless and until someone shows me an ideal I can buy into, I’ll be damned if I waste a second of my time or a penny of my money on Iraq’s future. I may be entitled to the passport, but I am not an Iraqi.

*I put the wikipedia link here only with great hesitation, as the article on Noori al-Saeed is a travesty. Consider yourself warned.


One response to this post.

  1. […] to make certain words unacceptable (e.g. retard). And it’s not always a bad thing. Indeed, I argued that a large part of Iraq’s problems have been due to the failure to put enough (positive) […]


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