Politics and Society in Iraq in the 20th Century

author: Sami Zubaida, Birkbeck College, University of London
published: March 7, 2013,   recorded: March 2005,   views: 2247

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Many Westerners view the Iraqis as a tribal, clannish people unlikely to achieve modern statehood. This view must be modified, says Sami Zubaida, in light of the country’s attempt to embrace civil society less than a century ago. In an illuminating history, Zubaida points out that in response to the British-imposed rule, which lasted until 1958, many Iraqi groups aimed at liberation and reform. Sunnis promoted pan-Arab nationalism, but there was also a Communist Party of Iraq, and Shi’ites, Christians, Jews and Kurds advocated their own ideologies. Zubaida sees “a genuine commitment to citizenship” in this period. After the Iraqi revolution, which toppled the monarchy, and the rapid rise of the Baathists, there was “still social effervescence, under political repression and censorship.” Intellectuals, labor groups and students opposed the new regime, as well as daring poets and musicians, who poked fun at politicians, and got a night in jail. While the Sunni remained politically powerful, Shi’a religious institutions collected revenues from pilgrimages and holy shrines, and Shi’a merchant families arose, including the infamous Chalabis. But the Baath under Saddam Hussein increasingly clamped down on subversives and groups considered a threat, expelling and persecuting millions. “What the Baath regime did was to colonize civil society….All previous autonomous forms of associations, of art and literature, of universities, all of this was firmly put under the control of the party. All that was left was religion, patriarchy, communal and local sentiments.” To Zubaida, the prospect of a democratic, pluralist state under rule of law “seems utopian right now.” Yet recent elections “showed excitement that echoed the past and showed reason for guarded optimism.”

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