Assyrians in Iraq: Competing Visions of Identity

By Patrick Harned
Submitted to Session P5025 (Sectarianism: States, Parties, and Representations, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Ethnic Groups;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
The Islamic State in northern Iraq has committed egregious human rights abuses, particularly against the many ethnic and religious minorities that populate the region surrounding Mosul. Many of those displaced are ethnic Assyrians, a traditionally Christian ethnic minority settled in Iraq since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The European Union, the United Nations and the United States Congress have attempted to impose a permanent solution by creating an ethno-religious enclave within Iraq under United Nations auspices, in an attempt to permanently end the historic marginalization faced by the Assyrians people.
Attempts by Western and international government to intervene in Iraq’s complex ethno culture frame the problem in starkly religious terms, embodying an antagonistic vision of Christian-Islamic relations in the Middle East. Moreover, they ignore the complicating factor of ethnic identity and the presence of multiple ethnic and religious groups in northern Iraq, advocating for the top down implementation of a “Christian State” within Iraq. Despite the overly religious rhetoric employed in discussing the continuing persecution of Assyrians, current violence has its historical roots in ethnic rather than religious divides.
By revisiting historical literature on Iraq, and incorporating an analysis of Assyrian history, media, and human rights reports presenting competing narratives of identity, I uncover the historical construction of Assyrian identity in the context of the Arab/Muslim Iraqi state. Based on alternative historical documents and reports from Assyrian media, I show that Saddam Hussein, rather than directly suppressing Assyrian national identity, sought to inculcate various sects of the Assyrian churches in order to present a religiously tolerant regime. The historical literature reflects the efforts of various regimes to suppress Assyrian national identity while advocating religious tolerance, resulting in an Assyrian ethnic identity that has been “forgotten”, replaced instead with an antagonistic understanding of Islamic-Christian relations in Iraq that ignores local context and effaces Assyrian ethnic identity. A lack of understanding of complex ethnic divisions in Iraq feeds essentializing narratives of civilizational conflict between Christianity and Islam. Despite these attempts to essentialize Assyrian identity as Christian in the context of global religious antagonism, I propose in my paper that Assyrians in Iraq are actively involved in creating multi-ethnic coalitions that promote a broader vision of diversity and inclusion, rather than advocating merely for narrow nationalist goals.