Resisting Classification: Iraqis' Responses to Arabization During the Iran-Iraq War

By Wisam Alshaibi
Submitted to Session P4894 (Maintaining Body and Mind in Modern Iraq, 2017 Annual Meeting
Middle East/Near East Studies;
Throughout the 1980s the Iraqi Ba’th Party led several “Arabization” (ta’rib) campaigns to manufacture, institutionalize, and activate a particular, state-sanctioned conception of Iraqi ethnic and religious identity. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Ba’th Party deployed one such campaign on the communities inhabiting southern Iraq in order to combat Iranian propaganda and to recruit more soldiers into the war effort. The Party rendered and institutionalized a uniquely Arab conception of Shi’a Islam which they argued was more authentic and distinctive than Iranian Shi’ism. This was accomplished through both material and symbolic forms of coercion and violence. Using the Iraq Memory Foundation’s collection of testimonies of Iraqis who lived under Ba’th suppression in the 1980s, this paper investigates how Iraqis internalized, interpreted, resisted, transformed, or otherwise, responded to these Arabization campaigns.
I analyzed 106 testimonies of Iraqis who lived in southern Iraq during the war with Iran. I coded the interviews with themes related to how Arabization affected individuals’ political affiliations, institutional trajectories through Iraqi society, experiences (if any) with Ba’thist violence, and, importantly, the meanings individuals attached to ethnic and religious identities. I find that the qualities of coercion and violence (material versus symbolic) employed by the state led to variation in how communities in the south of Iraq responded to Arabization projects. Secondly, my research suggests that ethnic and religious identities were not deeply held by individuals who were subject to Arabization. Rather, the experience of Ba’th suppression became a salient political and social identity among those living in the south during the war with Iran.