The Political Redefinition of Memory: The Problem of Studying History in Contemporary Iraq
تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.
By Haidar Lashkry (History, Koya University, Iraq)
To contextualize, I am an Iraqi Kurdish historian who teaches medieval history at Koya University. Koya is a young university and has had a history department since its foundation in 2003; the department teaches general history with a focus on the Middle East in all periods but especially the medieval.
When I entered the field of historical studies in the late 1990s and early 2000s, medieval history posed a challenge to Kurdish researchers at universities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The reason was the nationalist perspective that dominated historical studies in general and a political-cultural discourse that took contemporary history as simply a manifestation of national identity. As a result, the cultural milieu’s approach to medieval history concentrated on issues that fed into debates of the moment. Exemplarily, was the Islamic conquest of the Kurdish lands an occupation or a liberation? Should one praise Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin) as a Muslim warrior or disparage him for not establishing a state for the Kurds? In this way, all history, whether in its usage as a cultural discourse or its written form as an academic discipline, becomes contemporary history. In the context of the humanities, the status of history and its study has been affected by such conceptual underpinnings. And this does not apply exclusively to Kurdish historians but extends, particularly after the fall of the Saddam regime in 2003, to those from other religious or ethnic groups. The study of medieval history – and even all historical periods – has been affected by political, religious and cultural conditions in the Iraqi public sphere.
Remaking Iraq’s Memory in a Time of Conflict
The phenomenon of ‘rupture’ is an endemic problem when it comes to memorializing the past and writing history, and this is especially so in societies that have undergone pivotal transitions from authoritarian to more open regimes. ‘Rupture’ here means the process that severs these societies from their memory through the erasure of the understanding of the past – except regarding what it is desired that they remember. This is just what happened in Iraq after the fall of the Saddam regime.
Iraqi communities are communities of memory. They ground their identity according to the culturally manifested dictates of their collective memories, and each of them preserves its past based on its own specificities and desire for continuity in its geo-ethnic context. Since groups interpenetrate and are involved in political conflict with each other, they have all concentrated on delineating their own self-image through difference with other groups – i.e. the distinction between Kurd and Arab, Shiite and Sunni, Ezidi and Muslim, and so on – after the history written under Baathist rule and ideology had already marginalized the multicultural nature of Iraq. It was, hence, difficult for a state divided on ethnic lines to build a national historical memory. As Eric Davis says, the divisions characterizing this society created boundaries which its constituents found difficult to transcend. The political elites used state-sponsored historical memory to foster feelings of paranoia, xenophobia and distrust. The roots of this way of handling memory go back to the racist discourse of the Baath, which Saddam Hussein termed the ‘Project for the Rewriting of History.’
Following the fall of the regime, the various groups seem to have reacted according to the previous model, since they each reformulated their cultural memory to suit the immediate challenges. Perhaps the easiest way to confront those challenges now is self-closure and to view others with suspicion. So, for example, the Kurds and the Shiites proceeded to organize a project for political hegemony, one that supported their ethnic or religious interests, by means of reconfiguring the historical memory. Closure inside ‘our’ past undoubtedly prevents us from being readily open to the other. Furthermore, the Iraqi authorities in the period post Baathist rule did not efface that regime’s racist understanding of coexistence. Unfortunately and on the contrary, each group tried to incorporate the Baath’s racist discourse into its own ideological political discourse. The elites of all these groups failed to offer anything in terms of coexistence with the other. In the end, memory did its job and each group’s solo pursuit of its own destiny ran its course and continues to do so.
The problematic of collective group memory in Iraq lies in its authoritarianism. This memory is acritical, subjective, confrontational and embodied in a discourse of the moment. Each acts to ostracize and demonize the other, while taking care of the self and making it seem positively angelic. Memory also does its job of refashioning and reorienting the relationships between heterogeneous local identities – those identities whose capacity for trust and optimism has been sent packing by political, ethnic and religious conflicts. Conflict, therefore, has forced memory to invoke and employ the past to create an ever increasing distance from others.
Since the political authority animates the memorialization process most strongly, we find it, as a disciplinary system, actively manipulating memory. When it seeks self-legitimacy, it looks backwards to the past, and when it seeks continuity and permanence, it looks forwards to the future. The features of memory are defined within this functional ideological framework. Hence, the political authority controls what we may remember and what we must forget. Using the possibilities for control available, it tries by means of manipulation to activate the memory or resist its infiltration. Hence, understandings of coexistence and hatred are connected to the political authority’s identification of the other and its ability to control the public sphere of the group it represents in the Iraqi space.
This control is aided by the sacralization of memory and its embodiment of the idea of the ‘hostile other.’ Therefore, today we are witnessing how the memory of enmity has got the better of coexistence, and this creates a self with limited understanding and expression that is only dynamic within its own group and excludes coexistence with the other in every clash with it. The group lives its present through its painful past experience with this other, thereby reconstituting this past in the lived present.
As cultural memory naturally focuses on difference, the political authority can potentially exploit and direct it according to its factional interests. The current Iraqi scene makes it clear that awareness of difference has been turned into a political discourse that is employed by parties competing over power so as to control the group to which the producers of this discourse belong.
From Memory to History
As a result of this strategy for using and directing memory, the writing of history in contemporary Iraq has taken a new turn. Perhaps the most prominent feature of the new historiography is the emergence of various historical schools of an academic nature, a trend that has been adopted by academic institutions around the country. It could be expected that this academic study, coupled with its institutionalization, would produce a discourse that would enable ethnic and religious groups to teach and write history within a system of knowledge based on clearly delineated methodological frameworks. However, the hierarchy of Iraqi academia and its social and epistemological context imparted a special character to its production of knowledge, both in terms of ideas and method, which hindered the process of knowledge creation.
It is important to clarify here that Iraqi academics whose academic personality was formed under the previous dispensation have played a major role in reconstructing the mindsets of new researchers, since their works formed the foundation stone for this new understanding of local history. Their writings formed the intellectual and methodological background, which has, in some way or another, been reflected in the harnessing of historical memory within the political activity of each group and its incorporation into their understanding of the nationalist or religious agency of their past. Revolutionary concepts, which Baathist ideology used as part of its revisionist historical project, also continued to feed into these researchers’ conception of the historical existence of their groups. The Kurdish, Shiite and Turkman appearance in historical contexts, for example, came under the influence of the hegemonic political discourse that arouses nationalist or religious fervor without attention to the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their use in grand historical narratives.
This time, however, the narratives were studied within methodological frameworks defined in advance by academic institutions. Building on this methodological legacy, researchers started zealously formulating the historical contents of group identity on the epistemological level. Their main concern was to refashion what needed to be remembered, reground the narrative identity of their groups, and attempt to reveal their historical status and agency according to their interpretation of the texts. It is worth mentioning that the classical philological approach based on the historical text and its makeup is still the prevailing method for historical studies in Iraq. Historians adopted this method in particular, and its conceptual order insinuated itself into the understanding of history once it had been adapted to their own historical mindset. According to this method, the objective of the process is to valorize the content of the research and its representation of their specific cultural identity within the ultimate goal of history, which is the affirmation of the centrality of their group. From there, they are required to confirm the uniqueness of their historical existence and the specificity of their stockpile of memory. The written text proves the legitimacy of their existence in the social and political arena and persuades their ideological readers of their historical distinctiveness from others.
However, for the new generation of researchers, it is still a question of amassing historical data. The reformulation of old narratives is the main goal of writing. Accounts are classified according to their archival significance, on the one hand, and their ability to strengthen the underlying structure of historical memory, on the other. Accordingly, history has not acquired its own autonomy, instead, the historical narrative has remained within the bounds of a nostalgic understanding of the past, an approach backed up by academic institutions. Hence, researchers are mostly not required to reach the level of knowledge-based understanding, a key concept in contemporary humanities. In this case, texts become sacred, especially those focusing on local identities in various historical contexts, which has aided the emergence of a belief among researchers regarding their ability to monopolize what they term ‘historical truth.’
The problem of dealing with historical texts does not, therefore, end here. The inability of these texts to encompass the narrow local history of the Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Shiites and Sunnis confronts the researcher committed to this understanding and method with the question of historical continuity, especially when facing a past of vague dimensions which cannot be seen through the traditional prism of historical presence. As this point, and because of their ideological makeup, researchers fall into a spiral of methodological questions. They overlook how the historical text was formed and just extract from these narratives what helps them beautify the historical image of their identity and affirms the agency of their group in the Iraqi memory.
This is all because zeal and political vision control how to deal with memory and the production of historical knowledge, in both written form and education. This is what happened in Iraqi Kurdistan after the 1991 uprising, in that nationalism and its revolutionary concepts continued to feed historians’ conception of identity at all historical periods. Historians were unduly influenced by the hegemonic political discourse that burned with nationalist zeal.
Researchers began to formulate historical material that embodied this identity. Exemplarily, they have worked in my specialist field to recast Kurdish accounts from the Middle Ages as found in the old sources. The subject began for the first generation of researchers by creating a chronological sequence of medieval Kurdish history from the Islamic to the Ottoman conquest. In terms of this history, there is nothing left for subsequent researchers to write, so they were confined to studying the works of individual historians, such as Ibn al-Athir, al-Maqrizi and others, with a focus on extracting accounts about the Kurds and their presence in historical context, as laid out by those historians. On the epistemological level, their concern has remained to constitute the narrative identity of the Kurds without any methodological or intellectual innovation in the field of historical studies.
Translated from Arabic by Raphael Cohen.
 Eric Davis, Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, 271-272.
Haidar Lashkry (حيدر لشكري) is assistant professor of medieval Islamic history and assistant director for academic affairs at Koya University, Kurdistan Region of Iraq. His research interests focus on the history of ideas and religious beliefs in the Middle Ages, the medieval history of the Kurds, the historical canon in Islamic culture, and theories of history and studies of cultural memory. His published books include: From Sharia to Truth: The Emergence of Sufism in the Kurdish Arena (2014, in Kurdish), The Kurds in Islamic Historical Knowledge (Damascus: Dar al-Zamān, 2018, in Arabic) and Muslims in Kurdistan (Dubai: Markaz al-Misbār, 2018, joint publication, in Arabic).
This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.
Further articles in the series “The Humanities in the 21st Century: Perspectives from the Arab World and Germany”:
Bashshar Haydar: The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021
Julia Hauser: Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021
Christian Junge: Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021
Amro Ali: Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021
Andrea Geier: Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021
Shereen Abouelnaga: The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021
Antje Flüchter: History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, 06.05.2021
Aisha Deemas: Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society, 12.05.2021
Daniel Weidner, Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today, 20.05.2021
Citation: Haidar Lashkry, The Political Redefinition of Memory: The Problem of Studying History in Contemporary Iraq, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.05.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/28796