The reporting for this project was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
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?
Sectarianism is obvious in Iraq. You turn on the television to hear political and religious leaders railing against ‘non-believers’ of different sects; you drive past myriad checkpoints belonging to sectarian militias; you speak with survivors of targeted violence – not only minorities who fled ISIS, but also Shia civilians targeted by Sunni militants, Sunni civilians tortured by Shia militias, Kurds attacked by Arabs, Arabs detained by Kurds, and Shabak, Turkmen, Yazidi, Kaka’i and other minorities caught in the claws of fighting or ethnic cleansing.
The problem is not so much recognising the existence of sectarianism, but misattributing its causes. The idea that Iraq’s conflicts come from its contrived borders centres on a common discourse of ‘lines in the sand’ drawn by Europeans carelessly dividing the Middle East for their imperial interests. Central to this narrative is the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, a secret treaty between the British and the French to divide up the Ottoman Arab provinces of the Middle East into two spheres of influence.
Yet a fixation on redrawing borders is problematic for several reasons. First, Sykes-Picot didn’t actually determine Iraq’s borders. The region’s borders were contested and determined gradually through the years following the First World War, with negotiations, power struggles, insurgencies and counter-insurgencies often involving local actors challenging European plans. Ottoman maps already designated provinces including Basra and Baghdad in the south as ‘al-Iraq al-Arabi’; the name ‘Iraq’ and a sense of Iraqi nationalism already existed in late-Ottoman times. The final map was far from what the Europeans powers initially imagined.
As historians such as Sara Pursley and David Siddhartha Patel have pointed out, the discourse about Iraq’s ‘artificial borders’ was later put in the service of full-throated British colonialism. In 1922, The Times of London published the following in response to Iraqi nationalists who revolted in the name of self-sovereignty:
No common purpose yet animates these heterogeneous communities … Mesopotamia, with its vague frontiers and mixed population, was treated as a nation, as an embryo State, to be ranked with the modern democracies included under the League of Nations.
These colonial discourses sound suspiciously similar to modern-day narratives of how Iraq simply can’t stay together and must therefore be repartitioned. Given the history of these narratives, we should consider how Western talk of reshaping the region might be, again, in the service of Western interests rather than those of the people living there.
‘The basic, fundamental problem is political, not social’
On the ground today, minorities do speak of distrust in sectarian terms. Yet they express their need for protection in the vocabulary of power imbalance, unstable institutions and a weak rule of law. When I went to Qaraqosh, once the largest Christian city in Iraq, reconstruction was taking place: there were open liquor stores and functioning churches, a buzzing downtown market and street cafés filled with men drinking tea and playing cards. Yet only about 40 per cent of Christians had returned, according to Louis Markos Ayub, a city council member and head of a Nineveh-based human-rights organisation.
To bring the other Christians back to Qaraqosh, the area needs local security forces whom residents could trust, said Ayub. ‘Power is what talks in this land,’ he told me. He believes that Christian forces are not strong enough to defend themselves, while Kurdish and Iraqi forces don’t care about minorities. ‘We have no trust in the Iraq government or Kurdish regional government. We will build our own security with our own people,’ he said.
When I asked Ayub if he meant that Christians should have an independent state, however, he clarified: ‘I don’t want this to be a Christian area. There are Muslims and Yazidis and Kaka’is,’ he said. ‘The basic, fundamental problem is political, not social.’ The problem isn’t that Qaraqosh’s Christians can’t get along with Shabak or Shia or Sunni Arabs or Kurds, he claimed. Their problem has always been with top-down, authoritarian governance, as well as foreign players trying to control the Nineveh plains. The point of establishing local security is not to separate from Iraq, he said, but to make Nineveh safe enough so that Christians would stay.
Christine van den Toorn, director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, agreed that Iraq needs a new security model with local governance and local security, but that local protection should not mean segregation. ‘If you get the right governing and security structures in place that incorporates locals at all levels, you have a situation where segregation isn’t necessary. Minorities are safer when they’re integrated into local governing structures and provincial councils and state structures,’ she told me.
A key flaw in the ‘solution’ of partition is its assumption that ethnic homogeneity breeds stability. This idea came to a controversial peak in the 20th century, in the period between the First and Second World Wars, leading to harmful policies such as forced population transfers. At that time, these were accepted as supposed solutions to identitarian conflict, and logical parts of building homogeneous nation-states. Now, the UN deems ethnically based state-building exercises to be atrocities, grouped together with ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and genocide.
The concept of minority protection, in many ways, was a concession to the impossibility of constructing ethnically homogeneous states. As the Ottoman Empire broke apart, the League of Nations imposed rules upon new eastern European states such as Hungary and Romania with respect to how they should handle their minority populations. Yet behind this minority-rights regime, as explained by the historians Mark Mazower and Carole Fink, was a hypocritical and self-interested stance taken by the winning powers of the First World War.
At the time, political theory posited that there were two ways to form a state: through liberal civic agreement on a social contract, or through self-determination based on shared ethnic identity. Western Europe assumed its nations could sustain the former. Meanwhile, they imposed ‘minority protection’ upon eastern European states, on the assumption that they were more conservative, tribal and unable to assimilate diverse groups peacefully.
Yet minority protection soon broke apart. In the lead-up to the Second World War, Germany directly exploited the minority-protection paradigm; the regime used it to bolster claims of racial supremacy and justify military interventions on behalf of ethnic Germans in other countries, while inflicting increasingly brutal discrimination against minorities within Germany.
After the Second World War, the international community shifted from minority rights to human rights. Yet the partition solution for Iraq reverts to the older, ethnic concept of statehood that history has left behind. Western clamouring to apply these regressive frameworks to Iraq and Syria today are reminiscent of the Great Powers’ treatment of eastern Europe in the interwar period: condescending, Orientalist and ultimately ineffective.
Partition is not going to protect Iraq’s minorities because it addresses the wrong issues: borders and ethnic diversity. Meanwhile, it ignores the real drivers of conflict in Iraq, defined by both scholars and Iraqis themselves: a weak central state, rampant corruption, unequal access to resources, the legacy of Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian campaigns, and a sectarian political system built on a system that the US provisional authority mistakenly introduced in 2003.
‘We don’t want to be for or against anyone. We want to be with both and everyone’
The current Iraqi system is built on a confessional distribution of power that was introduced by the US after its invasion. Meant to ensure that every community in Iraq would get along through proportional quotas of confessional representation, this system instead enforced politicians’ incentives to intensify sectarian allegiances. For the most part, supporting a sectarian party is the only way that most regular Iraqis can get a job and a decent living.
The biggest losers in this system are Iraq’s minorities, who have representatives in the parliament, but find that none represents their interests. Electoral success requires allies in one of the major sectarian blocs: Sunnis, Shias or Kurds. In Qaraqosh, Father Ignatius Awfi of the St Behnam and Sarah Church said that the Christians had 18 candidates for elections, but none would win because everyone would spread their votes. ‘This is the biggest concentration of Christians, but everyone has a party,’ Awfi told me. As he spoke, he sat under the scorched-black dome ceiling of his church, a spray-painted ‘The Islamic State has risen’ still visible on the sanctuary’s back wall. ‘We don’t want to be for or against anyone,’ he said. ‘We want to be with both and everyone.’
Like the Christians in Nineveh, many Yazidis from Sinjar believe no one else can take care of them. ‘Equality and democracy are illusions. Eventually what will protect you is your strength,’ said Murad Ismael, director of Yazda, a local NGO dedicated to relief and advocacy for the Yazidis. His people suffered the worst of ISIS’s ethnic cleansing and sexual enslavement, with some 3,000 of their women and children still in captivity right now, and effectively no legal response from Iraqi or international courts so far. Ismael said that the ISIS genocide had shattered his view of humanity. ‘The ultimate saviour is to build a strong community, so you don’t beg for your rights, but defend your rights,’ he said.
Yet Ismael rejected the idea of Yazidi separatism. What minorities want, as do Iraqis writ large, is a nonsectarian state with secular citizenship, he explained. ‘Give every region their security, and have a just system,’ he said. ‘Iraq cannot be a Shia or Sunni country. Iraq can be nothing but Iraq. We have to build a true identity that’s not ethnic or religious.’ Even given his people’s experience with repeated massacre, ongoing marginalisation and denial of justice, Ismael said politics, not innate tribal identities, were to blame for Iraq’s violence. ‘Identity is fabrication,’ he said. ‘We decide what to be, Shia or Sunni or Kurdish or Arab. In America, you have black, white, Hispanic, but if you ask children, they will say: “I’m American.”’
Secular, nonsectarian nationalism has deep roots in Iraq, with more backing than in most other Arab countries, according to Thanassis Cambanis, senior fellow at the American think tank the Century Foundation. ‘There’s a long history and tradition, including among the Shia with their rich history with the Communist Party – there’s been rural and urban nonsectarian politics for the entire modern period,’ Cambanis told me. Indeed, the recent unrest in Basra in southern Iraq is centred not around sectarian identity but unemployment and lack of services; those who call for autonomy do so not on a purely sectarian basis, as Western pundits tend to assume, but in hopes of securing fairer geographical distribution of wealth.
Many Iraqis are nostalgic for the days when they had a strong, stable state. But the last time that existed, it came with Saddam Hussein’s Arab-centric Ba’athism, which also killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including campaigns explicitly targeting the Kurds and other minorities. But that does not detract from the fact that Iraq’s main problem is a state that’s built on a sectarian spoils system, with violence as its coercive power, and sectarian parties as a distribution mechanism, Cambanis said. If Iraq’s minorities are to be protected, the solution is not further fragmentation and separation, but centralisation and structural reform. ‘The only viable long-term solution is a state that’s actually strong enough to enforce everything, and that’s interested in keeping these minorities there,’ Cambanis said.
Iraq’s most recent elections, the first since liberation from ISIS, featured an increase in cross-confessional alliances. This reflects a hunger for non-sectarian governance and an alternative to the spoils system. Yet the deep framework of politics in Iraq hasn’t changed. Election winners are doing ‘what every governing coalition has done since 2003’, according to Cambanis. That is: ‘have a big-tent government in which everyone has a part, with no actual policy or political differences between different parties. Everyone joins and the only question is who gets which ministries, and who gets which piece of the pie.’
Poverty, slow growth and weak states create conditions for insurgency and make civil conflict more likely
Overall, more recent scholarship suggests that ethnic partition does not protect minorities better. Nicholas Sambanis and Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl at Yale University have used empirical geopolitical data to show that partition does not increase stability after a conflict. That is, states that are partitioned following civil war are no less likely to break out into war again than states that are not partitioned. Even in a fantasy case where conflict was driven by ethnic diversity alone, and all states were divided into ethnically homogenous nations, a decrease in intrastate violence would be transformed only into an increase in interstate conflict, the scholars note.
The inverse assumption, that ethnic diversity drives conflict, has also been challenged. In a 2003 study of ethnicity, insurgency and civil war, James Fearon and David Laitin at Stanford University found that more ethnically and religiously diverse countries are no more likely to experience civil war than others. Instead, conditions such as poverty, slow growth and weak states are the factors that create conditions for insurgency and make civil conflict more likely. Another study by Lars-Erik Cederman in Zurich, and Andreas Wimmer and Brian Min at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that ethnic groups are more likely to rebel when they are deliberately excluded from state power, especially if they experienced a recent loss of power, when they have higher capacity to mobilise, and if they’ve experienced past conflict. Clearly, the logic of sectarian conflict goes far beyond ancient tribal or religious divisions.
Instead of taking minorities out of the Iraqi system and returning to the paternalistic interwar model, there’s a longer-term, more effective way of protecting minorities: address the problems of power imbalance, corruption, security and the rule of law. Iraq’s sectarianism is not an inherent, ancient tribal problem, and addressing Iraq’s minorities through that lens is likely to worsen their situation.
It’s a fundamentally colonialist approach to deem that Christians, Muslims and Yazidis should live in separate communities. The more nuanced, sustainable solutions are the same as what would be done in Western democracies: protect minorities through integration, not separation; address rights violations by upholding equal individual citizenship; respond to a broken system by fixing its structural problems, not by taking people out of it altogether. As the Yazidi community leader Murad Ismael said to me: ‘If people were safe, there would be no sectarianism.’