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The Assyrians, Between the State and the Opposition

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Alda Benjamen is a Kluge Fellow, and was most recently a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. She studies the Modern Middle East and Iraqi history, focusing on minoritization and pluralism in bilingual communities, as well as identity, memory and cultural heritage, and women and gender issues. Her current project is titled Negotiating the Place of Assyrians in Modern Iraq.


Alda Benjamen in the Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Reading Room. Credit: Kim Tomadjoglou

To start, could you give some background on Assyrians, and specifically their presence and history in Iraq?

The Assyrians are an ethnoreligious community that adhere to the Syriac Christian faith. They speak dialects of Aramaic with Akkadian and Sumerian influences that are indicative of their long presence in Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq and neighboring countries. [1]

Until the early-mid 20th century, Assyrians lived as majorities or substantial minorities in districts, towns, and villages of northern Iraq, within a rich and diverse tapestry of multilingual and religiously diverse communities, including Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Kurds, Turkomens, and Yezidis. Most of the languages spoken by these communities were used in this area on a daily basis.

The book I have been researching at the Kluge Center focuses on the second half of the twentieth century, particularly the years 1960-1988, when Assyrians began migrating to urban centers, moving to larger Iraqi cities in search of modern professional employment — primarily in the expanding oil industry — and better educational opportunities. Within these urban spaces, Assyrians became attracted to intellectual and political movements that allowed them to emerge from the peripheries of their society, temporarily discarding their minoritized status to engage with other Iraqis of their socioeconomic background. Within these secular and often leftist political spaces, Assyrians found room to maneuver and form strategic alliances, both as individuals and as a community, in order to advance issues that were often beneficial to the community as a whole.

The Assyrians discussed in my book were generally active within political opposition parties. But, especially in the early 1970s, they also found room to negotiate with the Iraqi state using historical narratives that were accepted by the Baʿthist regime, which allowed Assyrians agency in pursuing issues that were important to them.

The creative employment of popular culture, and in particular the use of modern technology to produce and disseminate music, enabled Assyrians to celebrate their culture, engage in transnational interactions with Assyrians outside Iraq, and counter the official narrative more assertively than was possible in the press.

The Baʿth had just succeeded in consolidating its political power in Iraq following two coups d’état in July 1968. Wanting to increase its physical and ideological hegemony, and wary of its political opponents, it made various short-lived concessions, including favorable policies for members of minority communities. Assyrians found themselves clashing with the state, yet also motivated to collaborate with it, given the expansion of the state’s resources and influence relating to oil. The Assyrians were not a direct threat to the Baʿth party, since they lacked autonomous political representation during this period. Their political influence was realized through their membership in the Iraqi opposition.

Related to your project Negotiating the Place of Assyrians in Modern Iraq, what kind of relationship did Assyrians have with the Ba‘th regime and Iraqi society in terms of political activity, language, and religion?

The Assyrians were significant not only for their role within the opposition to the Ba’thist regime, but also for the transnational character they conferred upon it. During the Cold War, they employed transnational networks that benefited the community and the political entities affiliated with it, lobbying Western governments and human rights organizations through Assyrians living in the West.

The state abandoned conciliatory efforts towards Assyrians and oppositional groups, and employed various levels of state repression during periods of violence, or when it was strong economically and in its foreign relations. During these periods, the hierarchy of citizenship that ranked Iraqi society according to ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, gender, political, geographical, and other criteria was enforced more openly. State policies towards the Assyrians were not always applied consistently between rural and urban Assyrian communities, or between Assyrians opposing the state or veering from accepted state narratives, and those supportive of the state.

The Baʿthist state’s policies towards the Assyrians were often reflective of internal and external pressures the state was confronted with. The role of Assyrians within oppositional parties necessitated the state’s attempt to attract Assyrian political, religious, and intellectual leaders into cooperative arrangements, with incentives such as the promulgation of law 1972 that promised cultural and social rights.

As for religious practices, the Ba‘th archives indicate that the state generally negotiated with the community at large, while at the same time trying to infiltrate religious institutions. The state also used religious sectarianism to split off adherents of different Syriac religious sects, particularly the Nestorians and the Chaldeans. For example, even Aramaic-language classes in the 1980s in Mosul, attended collectively by Chaldeans and Nestorians, were viewed with suspicion. The state was always fearful of interdenominational closeness and calls for unity.

What are the challenges Iraq faces in trying to build a pluralistic society that respects all of its ethno-religious communities?

Minorities in Iraq find themselves in a position similar to the one their communities experienced in the 1970s and early 1980s, in which both the central and regional governments of Baghdad and Arbil are dependent on the international community for a variety of needs, and thus interested in appearing in a positive light. The actions of government at both levels, including their failures, are broadcast by a growing diasporic Assyrian community. As in earlier periods, the grievances of Assyrians in Iraq are heard in the international arena, crucially by human rights organizations, resulting in negative publicity.

As in the past, narratives of integration and pluralism are promoted by government agencies, and are at times combined with concessions to minority communities—cultural and linguistic rights, for example, were guaranteed as long ago as the 1970s. But, as we know, those concessions and negotiations were not honored. Once the Iran–Iraq war began in 1980, all of these tokens of progress were swept under the carpet.

As in the past, there are worrisome signs today, in both Baghdad and Arbil, that the narrative of minority rights and the creation of a pluralistic society are being used to further political agendas and project a positive international image, while in reality this narrative is not accurate, and its principles aren’t being applied on the ground.

In the past, exigencies surrounding the conduct of the Iran -Iraq war were used as cover for the crimes the Iraqi state committed against minorities ( for example, the Anfal campaign of 1988 that led to the destruction of Kurdish and Assyrian villages and the extermination of thousands of citizens). Today it’s ISIS that is blamed. While the genocidal campaigns of ISIS against minority communities and Iraqis in general were indeed horribly brutal, many of the problems minorities have experienced are the result of neglect and marginalization by the central and regional governments that preceded the emergence of ISIS. To build a pluralistic society in the aftermath of 2003, there must be accountability, real inclusion of all segments of the Iraqi community, and a serious re-examination of laws, institutional memories and practices, educational curricula, official histories, public memorials, and so on.

How has the US invasion of Iraq and subsequent rise of the Islamic State impacted the Assyrian community?

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, more than half of Iraqi Christians were displaced. This was a result of the violence and instability that affected all Iraqis, but was also due to heightened sectarianism and the creation of militias that ethnically and religiously cleansed various neighborhoods in the major cities, and targeted minorities and their places of worship.

In many ways, ISIS was the result of the failures of the international community in leaving political security voids, and of the instability it created with the ongoing wars in Iraq and neighboring countries. And matters were made worse by the failures of central and regional government in Iraq to serve their citizens, and particularly their minority communities. ISIS’s genocidal campaigns caused the destruction of lives, the forcible displacement of communities, the enslavement and torture of women and girls; it also led to the demolition of important cultural landmarks. The destruction and ongoing violence caused the displacement of rural communities, putting an end to their agricultural way of life and endangering a range of oral traditions.

At the beginning of the interview, I mentioned the uniqueness and long history of the Aramaic dialects spoken by Assyrians in the rural communities where their culture and language have endured. The violent campaigns of recent years, the various phases of displacement and migration, and the periods of state restriction on the advancement of minority languages have led to the disappearance of many Aramaic dialects — and the ones that survive are endangered.

How have approaches and understandings changed in recent years in regard to groups we would have previously called minority groups in the Middle East?

Scholars are starting to pay more attention to the historical processes that led to the minoritization of a particular community, while still looking beyond the “minority” designation to study the ways in which a community interacts both within and beyond its social and geographical confines. Such approaches allow scholars to challenge any notion that minority communities are static and unchanging, enabling us to employ intersectionality as an analytical tool relating to categories such as gender, race, and socioeconomic status.

We can also question top-down and structural approaches that have been wrongly deployed to study Christian communities, in particular. These communities have been considered exclusively through the lens of religion, ignoring both their minoritization on the basis of language, cultural practices and ethnicity, and also their more pluralistic engagements within secular spaces. We are also starting to challenge the monolithic perspectives of majorities that leave out the history of minorities — perspectives that have traditionally been reinforced by an overreliance on colonial and mainly Western sources and approaches that have been used to study minority communities. In adopting this new approach, we are also moving beyond the capitals and city centers and beginning to explore the peripheries, where communities like the Assyrians mostly lived.

Most importantly, by learning their languages, developing more complex analytical paradigms, and expanding our sources, we open up the possibility of developing exciting avenues of enquiry that challenge previously dominant perspectives, and of contributing in nuanced and important ways to the study of “majorities” as well.

What challenges do you encounter in studying a minoritized community?

The absence of certain communities, such as the Assyrians, from national archives and libraries seriously impedes the works of scholars, myself included, and also reflects the absence of these minority communities from scholarly discussion. In addition, the lack of training of archivists, librarians, and scholars in the modern languages used by these communities makes work more difficult.

Due to a general overreliance on British colonial sources, Assyrians in Iraq are frequently portrayed as mere agents of an imperial power. To present a more balanced and nuanced perspective that incorporates women’s and gender issues, I have woven together conventional and unconventional archival sources, as well as ethnographic data (music, art, poetry).

In addition to using the Library of Congress’s wonderful collection, I traveled to Iraq several times to conduct research at the Iraqi National Library and Archives (INLA) in Baghdad, as well as smaller libraries and publishing houses in and around Mosul, Erbil, and Duhok. The secular and religious textual material found in these libraries helped to balance the study. I complemented archival research sources with Arabic- and Aramaic-language Assyrian periodicals. A focus on Iraq’s linguistic diversity enabled me to introduce hitherto unknown Iraqi Assyrian intellectuals.

In addition to archival documents, I included music and poetry. The significance of popular culture as a medium of intellectual and cultural production is that it includes voices beyond those found in traditional sources. Also, oral interviews provided a perspective that I felt was missing in print sources and archival documents. This approach is particularly important when examining rural movements.

Unfortunately, the waves of displacements — beginning in the early twentieth century, and continuing most recently in Iraq and Syria — have led to the destruction of many of the smaller libraries and privately held collections. They have also displaced many minority communities and led to the destruction of their cultural heritage and agricultural traditions, which are most often preserved orally.

[1] See the works of philologist Geoffrey Khan, including: Geoffrey Khan, The Neo-Aramaic Dialect of Qaraqosh (Leiden: Brill, 2002) and The Neo-Aramaic Dialect of Barwar Volume Two: Lexicon (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

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