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ten years on
will iraqis ever be able to live together?

Saad Salloum
The editor of Masarat, a magazine focused on minorities in Iraq, asks whether all Iraqis can actually live together in peace. And whether they should even try.
11.04.2013  |  Baghdad

Over a decade has passed and many Iraqis still disagree on how to describe “the changes” that have taken place in their country, as a result of the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Some still call it an occupation and invasion, others describe it as liberation. Some wanted to fight a war against the US, others thought the US was waging war on them. Which leads us to the present day – and a whole new conflict.

The war being fought in Iraq today pits Iraqis against one another. Today the people of Iraq are fighting over a ruined and divided country with no real national identity. Iraqis don’t know whether they have a theocracy, similar to that in neighbouring Iran, or whether they have a more secular democracy, complete with sectarian and ethnic quotas in leadership, similar to those used to rule Lebanon.

After 2003 the US has played a similar role to that played by Great Britain in 1921, when they installed Faisal bin Hussein as the king of a new Iraq. Some say Iraq was never created by God; rather it was created by Winston Churchill, who was Colonial Secretary with special responsibility for the Middle East at the time.

Now, in 2013, Iraqis are still trying to formulate their identity – but they’re doing it in a way where they must challenge one another. On the ethnic level, they are Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmen. On the religious level, they are Muslims, Christians and Yazidis as well as Sunnis and Shiites too.

It has become clear to many that the US only removed the lid to a melting pot containing a stew of many foul-smelling flavours. Those smells had been repressed during the short life of the Iraqi state.

This newly discovered pluralism makes Iraqis more afraid of each other than they are of missiles and weapons of mass destruction. It makes them more afraid of each other than of the Safawi [Shiite Muslim religious] state, an Ottoman Empire [out of Turkey] or the UK or US.

And it scares them the most because it raises this question: how can this very diverse group of people be governed fairly? And how can these groups of people become one society without the use of force? For individuals, it also begs this question: what, or who, is an Iraqi today?

Since the modern state of Iraq was created in the 1920s, the government’s approach has often involved the subjugation of the raging Iraqi individual – so that the individual doesn’t become stronger than the state and able to destroy it.

So mostly the Iraqi state has been a stupid, horrible beast and it has created a collective memory full of wounds. It suppressed its people’s identities by opting for a pan-Arab model. And that model marginalized many different components of Iraqi society.

It\'s been fascinating for me – as an Iraqi man in his 30s who has lived through three wars – to rediscover the rich colours and subcultures that are part of my identity. I’m lucky because I’ve been given the opportunity to write about some of these, before they become extinct.

For example, the Mandaeans, a gnostic religion, who have been living in Iraq and surrounds for more than 2,000 years. Since 2003 though, the Mandaeans have become targets for Muslim extremists. Their religion prohibits violence, even in self defence, and they are often kidnapped for ransoms because they have a tradition of gold and silver smithing - kidnappers think they’re wealthy. As a result, many Mandaeans have left the country and Iraq is in danger of losing their rich legacy.

I spoke with the head of the Mandaean community worldwide, Sattar Jabbar, after a photo session on the banks of the Tigris river in Baghdad. “Today, we have only 45 Mandaean clerics around the world,” he told me sadly. “They are the only ones who speak our language now because it is a liturgical language and not practiced in everyday life.”

There are only an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Mandaeans living in Iraq now. And many live in fear, their bags packed.

I only found out that Iraq actually had people of the Baha’i faith about two years ago. The Baath party, to which Saddam Hussein belonged, criminalized their religion and imprisoned many Baha’i families. When Hussein came to power being Baha’i was a death sentence.

Today Iraq’s Baha’is practice their religion in private; in public, on passports and identifying documents, they’re still categorised as Muslims!

One Baha’i woman told me how she had spent 15 years in a prison from the 1970s onwards. In prison though, she said, she had been able to practice her religion freely. “Today I am not imprisoned,” she said. “But I feel like I am living in a very big prison with bars extending from the sky to the earth. I am even more afraid to say who I am and what religion I practice.”

I’ve also visited the black Iraqis who live mainly in the poor area of Zubair near Basra. I listened to the stories they told me about how they came from many different places to settle in southern Iraq and I visited a school founded by a human rights activist that had pictures of US president Barack Obama and US human rights activist Martin Luther King on the walls.

Many Iraqi blacks identify strongly with these two men and I discovered a rich African culture in Basra, that has certainly contributed to the city’s cultural identity.

So yes, ten years have passed since the fall of Saddam Hussein\'s statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad. And for me, there are some very important questions that we now desperately need to answer.

What did the removal of Saddam Hussein do for this country? Did it remove more than just Hussein, or did it remove the figurehead for a political system that continues to this day? Will the pluralism we currently have, only lead to Iraq’s minorities being sacrificed as larger ethnic and religious groups struggle for land, wealth and power?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I believe they are an important starting point. I believe we should defend this pluralism because I can’t imagine Iraq without all of its parts. By being more sensitive to all of these groups myself, I hope to change the country from within. Because I believe that without a strong belief in the importance of this kind of diversity, alongside the hope for a better future for Iraq, it would be impossible to achieve anything.