Historical Memory and the Building of Democracy in Iraq

Eric Davis Eric Davis

Elizabeth A. Cole Elizabeth A. Cole


Analytical Summary

It is apparent that history can be mobilized by authoritarian regimes for many purposes, including justifying their own rule, discrediting or suppressing social memory of earlier, different forms of government, and setting different ethnic, religious or class-based groups against one another. But can history be mobilized for more positive purposes such as promoting civil society, building democracy and creating a sense of social solidarity in an ethnically or religiously diverse state, and if so, how? Eric Davis, a Middle East specialist and consultant to peace-building projects in Iraq, discusses these questions in the context of modern Iraq.

Historical Background: The Pre-Ba’athist Legacy and the Ba’athist Project to Rewrite History

Davis begins his analysis of historical memory’s potential role in contemporary Iraq from the theoretical position that, until recently, historical memory as a force in political transitions has been overlooked and under-theorized. For Davis, this lacuna is important to remedy because bringing memory “back in” takes better account than political science approaches have traditionally done of the role of culture and ideology, as well as violence and force, in political change. It also potentially moves the analysis of political change beyond political elites to encompass other sectors of society.

Both current Western discourses on Iraq and Ba’athist ideology have overlooked what Davis sees as a rich heritage of democratizing social and political tendencies as well as examples of cross-ethnic cooperation and the development of civil society institutions in pre-1963 (pre-Ba’athist) Iraq. Western neglect of this important background to the current crisis in Iraq may be due essentially to ignorance about Iraqi history and the tendency of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority [CPA] to focus solely on the present and future, thus omitting a crucial dimension that political scientists and international relations specialists have tended to neglect as well. In the case of the Ba’athist regime, however, silence about this past, or active attempts to rewrite it, were very deliberate proof that the regime understood the power of historical memory and the legitimacy it could bestow if manipulated and distorted.

Davis has selected a set of events that illustrate that Iraq’s modern history is not lacking in examples of nascent democratic tendencies and the creation of civil society. These could be drawn upon by Iraqi leaders today as they try to build viable elements of both. These events, which often involved collaboration between Iraqis of all ethnicities and religions, Sunni and Shi’i Muslims, Kurds, Christians, Jews, Turkmans, and others, include:

• Pre- and during World War I: Efforts to reform the Iraqi education system prior to World War I, which included both Sunni and Shi'i notables, and self-rule by the shrine cities of al-Najaf and Karbala‘ during World War I, after the Ottomans had withdrawn, based on participatory norms.

• The 1920s: The June – October 1920 revolution, which included all of Iraqi’s ethno-religious groups; the cross-ethnic student alliance in 1929 to prevent dismissal of a prominent secondary school teacher by the Ministry of Education.

• The 1930s: The general strike of 1931 and the formation of programmatic parties and professional associations and clubs.

• The 1940s: The rapid expansion of labor unions during and after World War II with mixed ethnic membership; the Wathba, or “Great Leap,“ of 1948, which brought down the government of Salih Jabr through non-violent and cross-ethnic collective action; the formation of two major political parties, the National Democratic Party and the Independence Party.

• The 1950s: The Intifada [Uprising] of 1953; the blossoming of artistic, literary and cultural movements through a network of coffee-houses; and the formation of the National Electoral Front during the parliamentary elections of June 1954.

• The 1960s: The founding of over 200 independent labor unions and new organizations of writers and authors before 1963.

• The 1990s: After the failed Intifada of 1991 against Saddam Hussein’s regime, Charter 1991 was formulated by a new Iraqi Democratic Opposition. For the first time, the Charter directly confronted the issue of sectarianism in public discourse, a compelling concern for large numbers of political and intellectual figures both inside and outside Iraq (by the late 1990s, about 15% of Iraqi intellectuals had become expatriates).

By studying how the Ba’athists sought to rewrite history through their major texts, Davis hopes to encourage a reconceptualization of modern Iraqi history by reviving an awareness of these pre-Ba’athist events and trends that the Ba’athists tried to erase from public memory. An examination of the Ba’athist era Project for the Rewriting of History [Mashru’a I’adat Kitabat al-Tarikh] also reveals attempts by thoughtful and resourceful intellectuals to subvert the Ba’athist message, another positive legacy that should become part of public discourse in Iraq today.

The Ba’athist project to restructure understandings of the past began in the 1970s when the Iraqi state began to acquire extensive wealth from rising oil revenues. Davis, who first visited Iraq in 1980, found not only a state actively engaged in the intensive production of history-writing, but also a public which eagerly consumed it, despite state repression of discussions about the past.

In the Arab world, there has always been a great interest in the past, expressed through a concern with the concept of al-turath [heritage]. Historical memory is often associated with questions of cultural authenticity, or which political forces best represent the culture and traditions of a society, and who should therefore rule the nation-state. Under the Ba’ath, Iraqis deployed the past to discuss the present in very sophisticated ways: Davis found material on ancient Mesopotamia, the ‘Abbasid Empire, folklore and literature, all used, in one way or another, to implicitly criticize the Ba’athist regime, e.g., criticizing Saddam through invoking the Mesopotamian king Nebuchadnezzar.

Davis selected the following texts, produced mainly in the 1980s, to illustrate this trend. These books filled Iraqi bookstores at the time and sold well. The main text for Ba’athist era Project for the Rewriting of History, On the Writing of History, was purportedly written by Saddam but was actually comprised of four speeches by the Iraqi president and twenty-four essays by Iraq’s top historians and cultural theorists. The Project for the Rewriting of History had many important adherents, including Nuri Hammudi al-Qaysi, a Baghdad University professor of literature who rose to become a major regime intellectual. His book, Poetry and History, attempts to undermine religious authority in Iraq by valorizing poets of the so-called "Ignorant" or Jahili period, the pre-Islamic period, and arguing that Arabism preceded Islam and that Jahili poets were proto-Arab nationalists. By substituting the phrasing, "the period prior to Islam," for the traditional religious appellation of the period as "jahili," (noun: "al-Jahiliya"), the Ba'ath sought to further marginalize the Shi'i clergy who constituted one of their main and most stubborn sources of opposition.

Iraq in History, a text with no visible editor, thereby playing down the importance of the individual author, and the first in an anonymous series of books distinguished by a palm design on the cover, was widely distributed and used in the higher education system. Not all the articles in texts in this series represented distortions: one volume, The Civilization of Iraq, contained an important essay by a folklorist and former leftist, 'Abd al-Hamid al-'Alwaji, who tried to document the rise of Iraqi folklore and the influences on it, especially that of German folklore which was transmitted to Iraq prior to World War I through the Ottoman Empire.

During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the regime, concerned with the morale of youth, began publishing a monthly journal called The Literary Vanguard, which identified itself as being concerned with “the literature of our youth.” This journal attempted to promote support for the war, and more subtly, anti-Shi’i sentiments, despite the fact that most of the Iraqi infantry was composed of Shi’is. The Journal of Popular Culture was also very popular at the time, despite the required odes to Saddam it contained, demonstrating the highly literate quality of Iraqi society as well as the search at the time for a sense of roots among the Iraqis, especially the urban middle classes whose families were often second generation rural migrants. The Ba’athist regime’s support for the journal demonstrated its shrewd manipulation of the past and the skills with which it created a syncretism between its own interests and the needs of the populace.

Resistance to the Ba’athist regime’s historical memory can be found in a number of texts, including a journal volume entitled The Iraqi Working Class: Its Formation and Early Activities, which intelligently did not go beyond 1934, when the Iraqi Communist Party, the arch-nemesis of the Ba’ath Party, was formed, in order to avoid being accused of supporting communism. The Ba’ath Party promoted the book because it wanted to establish its own credentials as a socialist party on the side of the working class. The author, Kamal Mazhar Ahmad, however, wanted to show that the artisans and workers were able to form labor organizations and organize the General Strike of 1931 without state assistance. The strike forced the British to rescind their proposed expensive increase in municipal fees. Political Problems in the Third World, by Riyad ‘Aziz Hadi, is a university level text in comparative politics. It can be considered a good textbook even by contemporary standards—except for the chapter on Pan-Arabism and Iraq, which relies on speeches by Saddam Hussein. The presence of Saddam’s speeches protected the author, but their juxtaposition to chapters full of strong analysis supported by citations and footnotes made his book a clever and effective critique of the Iraqi regime.

The final text, The Iraqi Novel and the Question of the Countryside, by Baqir Muhammad Jawad al-Zujaji (a member of the Ministry of Education in charge of secondary school curriculum), was written as a critique of leftist and left leaning authors writing during the 1940s and 1950s who sought to defend peasant interests but who did not support the chauvinist Pan-Arabism of the Ba’ath Party. However, a close reading of the text shows that the same things for which al-Zujaji criticizes these leftists can be attributed to the Ba’athists in the 1970s and 1980s.

A study of these and other regime-sponsored works reveals how the Ba’ath party attempted to remove from the historical record the achievements of all groups in Iraqi society that it felt challenged its political project. Through the promotion of particular books, articles, visual images, films, and television shows, certain historical events were marginalized and labeled as having a minimal bearing on modernity e.g., by being placed as exhibits in museums, or even being removed from the historical record entirely. How can this lost or hidden Iraqi history be brought back into public discourse, so that the Ba’athist project for the rewriting of history is turned, so to speak, on its head? the context of modern Iraq.

Mobilizing Historical Memory to Build Democracy in Post-Ba’athist Iraq

Today, conducting research through a grant from the United States Institute of Peace [USIP], and in his role as a professor of political science and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, Davis is exploring how history can be used to build democracy, civil society and multiethnic cooperation in Iraq, rather than destroy these processes.

In this intellectual endeavor, four broad types of positive developments prior to 1963 can be emphasized: institutional development; a political culture of toleration; a desire for a broad political dialogue; and a lack of sectarian violence among Iraq’s ethnic groups. Iraq’s mass media and appropriate government ministries can be used in the effort to disseminate a better societal understanding of these developments. Because historical memory needs to be syncretic, they can choose forms of memory that resonate with the populace’s needs. This can be done, for example, through television programs, new educational curricula at the secondary school and university levels based not on imported norms but on Iraqi history, and through soliciting opinions from an array of social groups, such as professional, labor and women’s groups, on how best to discuss the past in order to construct fora in which to launch the rebuilding of Iraqi civil society.

For the USIP project in which he is engaged, “The Future of Higher Education in Iraq,“ Davis has proposed developing a three-part “bottom-up” project that will engage Iraqi intellectuals through a series of three conferences. The first conference is an exploration of the ways, listed above, that civil society was built in the pre-Ba’athist period, from 1921 to 1963. The second conference studies resistance to Ba’athist cultural repression (1968-2003), which may help to alleviate the shame felt by many Iraqis, especially younger people, that Iraq was liberated from Ba’athist rule only through the intervention of foreign military force. The proposed third conference focuses specifically on the role of the Iraqi higher education system might play in building civil society in post-Ba’athist Iraq.

Davis hypothesizes that historical memory has many potentially positive uses: it can help promote transition in nation-states like Iraq, where precedents for the elements needed for democratic governance do exist. It can create bonds of trust by engaging contentious political issues in the more “neutral“ realm of the past. It can help overcome generational divides (which are a danger in present-day Iraq, since, as Davis notes, a very large percent of the Iraqi population is under twenty-five.) It can help demonstrate that sectarian strife, especially conflict between ethnic groups, is an elite phenomenon, not common to society at large. And finally, it can help undermine efforts by pro-authoritarian forces to rewrite the past when such forces are trying to create civil strife, as is happening today in Iraq.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Should we question the concept of restorative memory? If a comparison with Eastern Europe after the fall of communism is at all relevant, we find an appeal to the period of the 1920s, especially in Central Europe, together with fears of using a hegemonic approach to history because it would recall the ways the communists had used history. What is the mechanism for a truly restorative memory? And what is the core, besides nostalgia? What will the desired identity look like? For one thing, religion and identity are not interchangeable. Is memory a progressive force for the creation of national identity?

DAVIS: First of all, there is debate about whether the Shi‘a are a religious or an ethnic group. Politically they certainly have tended to be on the left historically, and the idea of them supporting an Islamic state is highly unlikely. Support for an Islamic state is not given much support in recent public opinion polls, such as the February 2004 poll conducted by Oxford Research Associates, and is only supported by a minority of lower middle-class Shi’is, particularly young males in certain areas who are lacking jobs. Should the economy improve, one would expect to see this movement, the so-called Jaysh al-Mahdi, or Mahdi Army, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, to dissipate. It is not a matter of nostalgia. Nostalgia was what the Ba’athist regime advocated, with their return to the 'Abbasid and ancient Mesopotamian empires. I am speaking of a memory of concrete events, involving concrete actors. We are not speaking of Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger here and trying to engage in “inventing tradition.”

QUESTION: Based on your historical perspective, what kind of legal mechanisms for transition would you like to see in Iraq today?

DAVIS: The current proposed constitution has two good precedents, one being the Organic Law of 1925 and the other the excellent provisional constitution of 1959 that also gave rights to women and advocated a “partnership” between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq. A strong legal profession also existed (the College of Law was established in 1908), and the strength of the civil legal training still lives among practicing lawyers in Iraq. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the kind we had in South Africa is not a good idea: it could intensify the effect of the June 30 deadline when the Coalition Provisional Authority [CPA] is due to hand over power to a new Iraqi government, creating dissent and conflict, and people could end up doing and saying certain things because they feel they are expected to do so by their own political constituencies. A lot could and should be done informally, what I call "micropolitics", in the form of the creation of fora to bring people together in small, unpublicized workshops across the country. People can discuss how to use the past and the present to build the future.

If you are asking my opinion about how to try Saddam, that is a complex issue. A trial of Saddam should be by Iraqis but in a tribunal committed to international norms. Saddam still resonates with a rural, traditional Sunni Arab constituency, an important part of the population even if it only represents about 5%, as it is well-armed and well financed. This is a group that has been in economic decline for many years and fears it will not have a stake in the new Iraq. It was this group that was adversely affected by the CPA’s early decision to disband the army, leaving many men without jobs or money. So a trial needs to be credible, and including the Sunni Arab community in a dialogue about how to reckon with the past at an early stage, before the legal norms for the new Iraq are established, is crucial.

QUESTION: What has been the development of the news media in the last ten months, especially TV? What kind of economic support has it had, especially from the American coalition?

DAVIS: There are over 200 newspapers in existence now, some more ephemeral, some more stable than others. A communist newspaper, The Path of the People, was reestablished less than two weeks after Saddam’s overthrow, which demonstrates that opposition groups such as the Communist Party had retained considerable life despite the repressiveness of the dictatorship. In general, a wide variety of political perspectives are available in the press, which shows that the Iraqis want to engage in discourse and dialogue. In television, the CPA tried to support the Iraq Media Network (a Coalition-oriented TV station which would function like a state television station), which has been completely discredited. Its programming was very badly conceived by people who did not necessarily know Arabic and Iraqi culture and was of no interest to the large majority of Iraqis. Many people have satellite dishes and watch the al-Jazeera television station. The electronic media in Iraqi Kurdistan are the most extensive, representing a range of points of view. It is worth considering the example of the development of civil society in the Kurdish sector, and other important processes such as the expansion of women’s education and professional associations, which have taken place in a region with virtually no oil wealth except from smuggled oil revenues from the south. The Kurdish sector is a stunning example of civil society developing from below.

QUESTION: You have mentioned the role of groups such as labor unions and professional organizations in the rewriting of history. Do religious groups in Iraq have any role in opening new discussions on history, or do they mainly represent a problematic force in post-Ba’athist, post-Coalition Iraq?

DAVIS: First I would like to say that I mean the opening of new debates on history rather than its rewriting, involving not just groups like labor unions but also intellectuals, scholars and others who will bring what actually happened in the past to the attention of the Iraqi populace, especially younger Iraqis. Of course, the events I have discussed tonight are still open to debate. History is not a fixed entity. Rather, it is fluid and constantly open to reinterpretation, and that is why it should be open to discussion. As for religious groups: There was another development during the 1990s and the repression of the February-March 1991 Intifada (which was largely the responsibility of the United States, because had the U.S. not allowed the helicopter gunships of the Iraqi forces to take to the air, in all likelihood Saddam would have been overthrown in March of 1991 and we would have been spared a lot of suffering all around): religion and its relationship to politics is taken much more seriously now by secularists, although not in the way portrayed by our media. Many religious groups in Iraq do not want to mix religion and politics, including Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani, although he wants the clerics to be consulted, especially in the area of personal status law, which has elicited the opposition of many Iraqi women’s groups. However, it is clear that religion became an important force for shelter and comfort during the suffering caused by the onerous sanctions regime of the 1990s.

QUESTION: Are there any spiritual or intellectual resources for Iraqis today that stem from the ancient world?

DAVIS: One could take into account publications like the archaeological journal Sumer, founded in 1945 by a U.S.-educated archaeologist, Taha Baqir, who was eventually marginalized by the Ba’athist regime. Baqir, and a number of Iraqi colleagues from diverse ethnic backgrounds, founded it and brought together historians and archaeologists both inside and outside Iraq, not only to develop the capacities of Iraqi archaeologists, but also to expand sophisticated debate inside Iraq on the cultural significance of Iraq’s ancient history. This infuriated Pan-Arabists, because it reminded people that Iraqi civilization preceded Arabism, extending back to ancient Mesopotamia, and that this heritage should be taken seriously, an argument that was made before the Ba’athists came to power in 1963, and then again in 1968. This discourse was also intended as a way of overcoming divisions between Sunnis and Shi’is, because these distinctions would not have existed in pre-Islamic, pre-Arab Iraq. This is an important topic that requires a lengthy discussion.

Further Readings

Eric Davis’ forthcoming book, Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (University of California Press, 2004), is posted on this website in its entirety.

The Politics of Memory: Transitional Justice in Democratizing Societies, edited by Alexandra Barahona de Brito, Carmen Gonzaléz-Enríquez and Paloma Aguilar (Oxford 2001) examines the role of historical memory in a number of transitions from authoritarian rule to democracy. This collection of case studies is largely Euro-American centered (Spain, Portugal, Eastern Europe, Russia, countries in the Southern Cone of Latin America), with just one case from outside Europe and the Americas, the oft-studied South Africa. The range of cases selected shows the difficulty and necessity of extending this approach to other regions, especially the Middle East, which, as Davis said, is rarely integrated into comparative political studies. Iraq and perhaps Iran and Lebanon may provide material for future efforts to remedy this lack in the literature.

--Prepared by Elizabeth (Lili) Cole, Senior Program Officer

Read More: Reconciliation, Democracy Promotion, Postwar Reconstruction, Postwar Reconciliation, Iraq

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