The Chaldeans: Politics and Identity in Iraq and the American Diaspora

By Yasmeen Hanoosh.

When articulating their identity in the United States, Iraqi Catholic immigrants and refugees often reference an association between their monumental history, the progress of modernity, and the identity label “Chaldean.” These identity benchmarks are often exported back home through various political and social networks of remittance. Among the political agendas of this construction of identity is setting Chaldeans apart from Islamic and Arab discourses associated with Iraqi ethno-religious majorities (Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Kurds) and bringing them conceptually closer to the Christian west, particularly in the diasporic locale of the United States where they must contend with Islamophobia. The Chaldeans examines the ancient-modern inflections in contemporary Chaldean identity discourses, the uses of history as a collective commodity for sustaining a positive community image in the present, and the uses of language revival and monumental symbolism to reclaim association with Christian and pre-Christian traditions. Going beyond the customary definition of the Chaldeans as an Aramaic-speaking Catholic minority from the ancient land of Mesopotamia, the book also engages with the modern contexts that go into muting the Chaldean, particularity in Iraq, and augmenting this particularity to the western diaspora.

Although their numbers in Iraq have significantly dwindled in the past three decades due to sectarian violence, displacement, and westward migration, the modern Chaldeans continue to form the largest Christian group in the Arab country. In the American diaspora, Chaldeans also constitute the largest non-Muslim Iraqi group. Sizable, Arabic-speaking and boasting a long native history that predates the creation of the Iraqi nation-state, the Chaldean community has traditionally articulated its Mesopotamian belonging and political demands in ways that contrast significantly with the demands and articulations of other Christian minorities from Iraq, most notably the Assyrians. The two Eastern Christian groups share common religious and ethnic origins, yet since the beginning of their gradual conversion to Catholicism in the fifteenth century, the Chaldeans have been diverging geographically and doctrinally from the Assyrians. The linguistic and social distinction was so great by the twentieth century that the Assyrians who were displaced by Ottoman massacres and the exigencies of World War I were settled in Iraqi camps as foreign refugees at a time when the Chaldeans occupied nearby villages as Iraqi citizens.

The collective memory and identity of the Assyrians, their relationship to the nascent Iraqi state, and their demands for autonomous nationhood have been the subject of several notable studies.[1] A striking question emerges in this context: why have the concomitant Chaldeans—a larger and more established Eastern church and community—not been the subject of similar academic scrutiny? The Chaldeans answers this question and redresses the scholarly gap by turning to the politics of religious and ethnic belonging at home and in the diaspora. In the process, it provides the first multi-site history of the modern Chaldeans.

Understanding how members of the Chaldean communities reconstruct and appropriate their Christian and pre-Christian history and the strategic utility they designate for its use in the present is key to understanding the contentious modern history of these communities. The importance of the complicit, European- and American-enabled heritage of modern Chaldeans and Assyrians is twofold. Significantly, we may be on the verge of witnessing the erasure of Christianity in Iraq. Moreover, this heritage has shaped the articulation of collective Assyrian and Chaldean identities and the conception of self both at home and in the diasporic settlements. To what extent were the appellations “Chaldean” and “Assyrian” transmitted from antiquity, revived, invented and reinvented in modern times? This is a pivotal question which the book explores by forging a new inquiry into the intersectionality of colonial influence, nation-building, westward migration, and transnational networking. Recent identity debates within the Chaldean and Assyrian communities and their historical origins and political or religious motivations reveal different notions and beliefs about descent, appropriate identity labels, social definitions and interpretations of the past. These identity debates have been in conflict with each other since the earliest recorded usage of the appellation Chaldean in modern history. Retracing the origins of the appellations “Chaldean,” “Nestorian,” “Aramean,” and “Assyrian” demarcates the historical periods or events during which the labels overlapped or diverged. Understanding their genealogy is pivotal for understanding the churches and communities that make up the historic Iraqi-Christian presence. The formative imperialist relations responsible for West-East dichotomies and the intermediary position these native Christian institutions and communities serve within those divides helps reconstruct this marginalized history that critically locates some of the earliest hegemonic dynamics leading to the current identitarian crisis in the Arab world. By highlighting the intervention of institutional powers such as the Roman Church and other organized Western Christian missions to the Middle East, the book marks some of the earliest sectarian politics that augmented the tensions between ethno-religious majorities and minorities in the modern Middle East. 

First-Grade Syriac reading book, 20,000 copies issued by the Iraqi Ministry of Education, 1974.

As the first monograph to combine the study of Chaldeans both in Iraq and the American diaspora, The Chaldeans considers the contexts of the originary country (Iraq), the American diaspora and the global transnational social networks forged between Chaldeans in these locales, providing a broad account of the community’s historically-shifting political and ethnic profile, one that transcends the nation-centric models of belonging and bridges the divide between native historiographies, migration studies, and diaspora studies. The Chaldeans inhabit and negotiate multiple locales and continually reinvent their collective identity in accordance with geopolitical exigencies. By showing this, the book sheds new light on the concepts of minority, modernity, ethnic identity, sectarianism and islamophobia as they relate to citizenship in Iraq and the United States.

Though each book chapter deals with a distinct historical case and representational mode of Chaldeanness, the themes are each deployed across the chapters and thereby tied together. The first half of the book reconstructs the evolution of the dominant version of modern Chaldean identity, which heavily depended on external agency and shifts of governance patterns before, during, and after the Ottoman Period. The second half of the book focuses on the transitions to the identity articulations and inner power dynamics of communities and individuals who identify themselves as Chaldeans today. The conclusion brings together this external and internal agency, underlining the discursive relationship between the two. The parallel presentation of central and peripheral modes of Chaldeanness accentuates the power dynamics that animate the U.S.-based Chaldean collective and inflect it with the manifold shades of Chaldeanness it exhibits publicly but negotiates privately today.

Two critical contacts between the local Christians of Mesopotamia and the West took place in the nineteenth century: the encounters with the Catholic, Anglican and Protestant Christian missions and the encounter with French and English archeological missions. These missions fostered new associations between the enclaves of Christians among whom they proselytized in Mesopotamia and the ancient Chaldeans and Assyrians whom they knew through Biblical accounts and encountered anew through excavation finds. The Catholics had the capacity to inaugurate Chaldeanness in official religious discourses and to fortify the position of the Chaldeans, as a dhimmi minority, within the Islamic Ottoman state. Anglican missions brought in the notion of “discovery,” whereby mountaineer communities of Eastern Christians came to the attention of the missionaries as “primitive” enclaves of “protectors” of “pure” faith and resulted in bestowing the Assyrian title upon the Christian mountaineer communities. The American Protestant mission reveals how the encounter with the West resulted in the consolidation of “Biblical Syriac,” self-reliance and the idea of ethnic nationhood. The archeological missions and their groundbreaking discoveries of the sites of ancient Assyria and Babylonia situate the formative years of the ancient-new Chaldean and Assyrian identities within a parallel context to the significant cultural transformations that were taking shape in European societies during the Victorian era. These excavations aroused popular, literary and institutional interest in contemporary Christian Mesopotamian communities, among the European publics who construed them as the purported continuations of the ancient empires that were being uncovered and displayed in the Louvre and the British Museum.

Moving into the twentieth century, situating Iraq’s Chaldeans within the political context of the nascent nation-state of Iraq reveals how under Hashemite, Communist, and Ba‘thist rule the livelihood of the Chaldean communities and their Church depended on the right interplay between religion and politics, with Chaldeannessas an ethnicity falling outside of the confines of legally-recognized affiliations. For instance, the 1970 constitution recognized “the legitimate rights of all minorities in the context of Iraqi unity,” a statement that enacted the legal recognition of the existence of five Christian communities (Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syrian Orthodox, Armenians and Latins) as religious minorities, while the various ethnicities these groups professed elsewhere (in diaspora or during other historical periods) were subsumed under the new unifying identity of “Iraqi citizen”. Restrictions on collective identifications cumulatively affected the ways in which Chaldeans related to their homeland, reviving and reinforcing their conceptual affinity with the Christian west.

The author chanting next to Patriarch Paul Cheikho in the last first communion he was to attend in Baghdad before his death. St Joseph Church, July 1988. Photo: private

Juxtaposing the Iraqi context to that of Southeast Michigan, which is home to the largest and most visible concentration of Chaldeans outside of the Middle East, reveals the interplay between Chaldeans’ religious markedness in Iraq and their ethnic markedness in the U.S. In Michigan, the Chaldean communities are situated among the oldest and largest population of Arabs in North America, where most nationalities, religions and ethnicities from the Middle East are represented. It is estimated that 58 per cent of the Middle Eastern population in Michigan is Christian, and that 35 per cent of this population is from Iraq. These figures place the Chaldean community as one of the largest sections of the Middle Eastern ethno-religious population of the state. As a Christian group in Michigan, Chaldeans experience belonging to the religious majority, a fact that stands in significant contrast with the status of the Chaldeans in Iraq and other Middle Eastern transit countries, where they have chronically been part of the religious minority. The alternation between religious and ethnic minority status of the same group of people becomes significant as we recount its transnational political outcomes. 

Iraq’s largest Christian group and one of Greater Detroit’s oldest and largest Iraqi immigrant communities, the Chaldeans have always lived on a political crossroad. The shift from being a religious minority in Iraq to becoming an ethnic minority in the United States overtime prompted forging new collective identity narratives and alternative political alignments in the host country. James Clifford’s rooted-routing dualorientation is well exemplified by this displaced minority, who, on the one hand, fights for citizenship and equal rights in the place of settlement, and, on the other, continues to live with a sense of loyalty to the ancestral land of Iraq, the remaining Chaldeans there, and to a reimagined brand of monumental history. This dual orientation of US-based Chaldean transnational activity is complicated further by a conflicting institutional investment in helping Chaldeans leave and settle in Iraq at the same time. While institutional players of the twenty-first century call for a “safe haven,”—an administratively autonomous Chaldean settlement in the ancestral land—they simultaneously aid these remaining Chaldeans to leave the ancestral land as expediently as possible by strategically lobbying on their behalf in the United States.

The bookmoves to the present context to synchronically examine the group as an ethno-religious minority with active multi-national affiliations. Chaldeans’ transnational identity as a diasporic community in the United States serves as the pivotal theme in the contemporary context. A transnational social field perspective reveals the particular social and conceptual locales where transnational activity is situationally enacted.  The traditional sites of the family, church, and co-ethnic institutional networks emerge in their overlapping capacity as transnational social fields.  Through this framework, the U.S.-based Chaldean community are further understood in light of undertakings such as the ethnic business, transnational marriages, and religious networking, and also in light of political projects such as voting in the Iraqi parliamentary elections, the Nineveh Plain Settlement for Christians in Iraq, and the campaign to change U.S. immigration policies to provide a more favorable asylum category for Christian Iraqi refugees.  These transnational projects underscore the transnational life of the U.S.-based Chaldean community and also stage the emergence of an elite Chaldean class, and an influential body of “culture-makers” from that class capable of marshaling community resources and networking successfully on the local level to publicize and carry out large-scale projects on the global level.


[1] E.g. John Joseph, The Modern Assyrians of the Middle East: Encounters with Western Christian Mission, Archaeologists, and Colonial Powers (Brill 2000); Adam Becker, Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism (U of Chicago 2015); Sargon Donabed, Reforging a Forgotten History: Iraq and the Assyrians in the Twentieth Century (Edinburgh UP 2016); Madawi al-Rasheed, Iraqi Assyrian Christians in London: The Construction of Ethnicity (Edwin Mellen 1998).


Yasmeen Hanoosh is an Iraqi-born writer, literary translator, and an Associate Professor of Arabic at the Department of Word Languages and Literatures of Portland State University. She holds a PhD (2008) in Arabic Studies from the University of Michigan. She specializes in the literatures and history of ethno-religious minorities in the Middle East, and also in Arabic literary translation. Her English translations of Arabic fiction have appeared in various literary journals and publications, including World Literature TodayBanipal, and The Iowa Review. Dr. Hanoosh’s translation Closing His Eyes (Abbas), received an NEA translation fellowship in 2010, and her translation of Scattered Crumbs (al-Ramli) won the Arkansas Arabic Translation Prize in 2002. In 2009/2010, she was a fellow of the research program Europe in the Middle East—the Middle East in Europe (EUME).


Citation: Yasmeen Hanoosh, The Chaldeans: Politics and Identity in Iraq and the American Diaspora, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 30.04.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18452.


Das könnte Dich auch interessieren …

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert.

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.