The entrance to Karemlash, a small village in northern Iraq, is marked by a sign featuring Jesus Christ, hands beckoning, next to the words ‘Wellcome Back’ [sic]. His beaming smile has taken on an ironic cast for the residents of this minority enclave. Since the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group destroyed Karemlash in 2014, at least 20 to 30 per cent of the Christian families in the village have left Iraq altogether, according to a local priest. In Iraq as a whole, other sources put the figure as high as 80 per cent. When Karemlash was freed from ISIS in 2016, those who did come back found their homes burnt down and looted, with graffiti sprayed on their walls and militants’ tunnels dug beneath their floors. When I visited in May 2018, most of the village remained empty. Tangles of exposed wire, glass and rubble lined the streets. Electricity and water worked only sporadically; ISIS polluted the pipes with oil; there was no formal schooling, and little opportunity for work.
Almost a year after the Iraqi city of Mosul and its surrounding areas were officially liberated from ISIS, few of the minority ethnic and religious groups had returned. A debate now rages about how to protect those minority populations remaining in Iraq – especially Christians, who tend to garner extra attention in the West. This contemporary question ties into a longstanding dialogue among scholars and policymakers about nation-building and nationalism: can countries maintain long-term stability and cohesion while possessing a wide range of ethnic and religious identities?
One popular argument in Iraq’s case might be called separation as protection. ISIS was only the latest of a long chain of genocidal events directed against minorities in Iraq, the argument goes; this violence will continue as long as fundamentalist forces dominate the region; so the best way to resolve such ‘ethnic conflicts’ is to give each group its own autonomous region, instead of drawing arbitrary borders and forcing them to live together.
The former US vice president Joe Biden first put forth the idea of dividing Iraq in a New York Times op-ed in 2006, co-authored with the foreign policy writer Leslie Gelb. He suggested that sectarian cleansing could best be resolved by establishing a federal system – not three states, but three largely autonomous Kurdish, Sunni and Shia regions, each with their own laws, administration and security forces. Fastforward to 2016, and Mark Pfeifle, a former national security advisor to George W Bush, wrote in TIME magazine that Biden was right: Sunni Arabs must be given an ‘autonomous area’ in Iraq as incentive for fighting ISIS.
But these ideas are premised on a dubious understanding of both Iraq’s history and the reality on the ground. Like many Western analyses of the Middle East, they reduce Iraq’s complex internal conflicts to catchall explainers of ‘sectarianism’ and ‘tribalism’ – presuming that some groups of people are intrinsically primed for antagonism. Following that logic, Kurds would be fine if they could only have their own Kurdistan, while Christians and Yazidis would be safe in their own safe-haven states. Sunnis and Shias likewise might get along if they weren’t being squeezed into the same living space.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that it’s built on an Orientalist perception of Iraq as inherently riven with primordial conflicts, a picture that’s been inflated by Western media portrayals of Iraq since the US invasion in 2003. Partition as a ‘solution’ overlooks what many Iraqis themselves, minorities included, say they want. So would separation really reduce ethnic and religious violence? [Continue reading…]