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"If the Islamic State became so powerful it is because the West did not want to eliminate it"
Interview with Yasmeen Hanoosh, professor at Portland State University, who offered a conference on minorities in Iraq in the inauguration of the first edition of the Master's Degree in Contemporary Arabic Studies at the UAB.
Yasmeen Hanoosh, professor at Portland State University, gave a conference on the "Minorities in Today's Iraq: an interdisciplinary perspective" at the inauguration of the Master's Degree in Contemporary Arabic Studies which took place on 22 September at the Faculty of Translation and Interpreting. Hanoosh specialised in literary translations and in Iraqi literature. She is also an expert in Arabian cinema and in Middle Eastern minorities. She gave her conference in Arabic and simultaneous interpreting was provided.
How many minorities are there in Iraq?
There are many: ethnic minorities, national, linguistic, cultural... And some of them are not as recognised: homosexuals, for example. There are also religious group like the Baha'is, who have no formal identity. If we count them all, there are some twenty or thirty minority groups. The main ethnic and language minorities are the Kurds - an ethnic group, not a religious one - the Christians and the Turkmen.
During your conference you spoke of an Arabisation process. When did this take place?
We must go back to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The Arab states needed to reaffirm their "Arabness" and their unity in combating the presence of Israel in the region. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was the one to launch the idea of Pan-Arabism, an Arab identity which surpassed states and nationalities. When the Ba'ath party came into power in Iraq (1968), it looked to capitalise on this idea. And Saddam Hussein aimed to lead the Arab nation in the fight against Israel and in uniting the entire region. There was a gradual process to make everyone either Arabs or Kurds, but nothing else. In the Iraqi census of 1977, under the government of Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr (later ousted by Saddam Hussein), many of the minorities chose to proclaim themselves Arabs. Their languages were no longer taught in schools; only Kurds had the right to teach their own language apart from Arabic. In the following census, in 1987, due to the war with Iran many minorities identified themselves as Kurds instead of Arabs in order to avoid being drafted.
How was the relationship between communities before the occupation by American forces?
It was definitely better. The country's infrastructure was stronger and more stable, and that helped also maintain a stability in social and cultural relations. Later, it became easier for extremist political groups to appear and perpetrate violent acts against those with less power. There was a lot of violence and it created a civil war between the majorities. The minorities were trapped in the fight between Sunnis and Shias since they were the weaker ones and less in numbers.
What consequences did these confrontations have?
The peak in violence existed from 2004 to 2007. All types of groups were in the headlines: Shias against Sunnis, Sunnis against Shias, both of them against anyone who spoke a different language or had another religion. People began to move within Iraq looking for safer places where more people of their own kind lived; other left Iraq altogether. In 2012, there were four million Iraqi refugees around the world. Before 2003, the Christian minority, for example, represented around 5% of the total population and now this figure is down to less than 1%. This is a huge change for a country which had been very multi-ethnic, multilingual and multi-religious, and it was proud of this diversity. It is something even the majorities now regret.
Are the Sunnis the only ones to give support to the Islamic State?
The Islamic State is a very suspicious organisation with a very extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam. It is not clear how it penetrated into Iraq. Many say it was put there either by agents who are neither Arabs nor Iraqis, or that they are an extension of the Western colonialism of Iraq and Syria. If they still have power or have had it for some time now, it is mainly because the Western world does not want to eliminate them. It would have been very easy if they had wanted to. The generalised idea is that ISIS is an artificial entity; and that it was almost inevitable, given the political void, for an extremist groups to arrive and take advantage of the situation. If it hadn't been the Islamic State, it would have been someone else. Since 2003 there are many extremist groups, and not only Sunnites: there is also the al-Mahdi army, which is Shia. Whoever has the power and will to use violence will win when there is no law. And that is what happened in Iraq.
What is the current political status of minorities in Iraq?
There is no one status. There are many minorities trying to demonstrate that they deserve better political representation and the recognition of more rights. There are also many minorities who are divided among themselves. For example, Christians have six seats in the Iraqi Government, but they cannot agree upon common policies. Some want a self-governed autonomous region in Niniveh; others want to belong to the Kurdish Government; and others prefer to stay under the government of Iraq.
Do you consider useful the quota system in government, parliament, etc.?
It has been problematic at practical level. From the ethical viewpoint, more representation could be given to minorities which have none. However, people may have needs which are not represented by the Kurdish, Christian and other parties. Moreover, there is a great deal of corruption in Iraq's political system since 2003 and the representation of many minorities is only superficial, while the powerful continue to make deals under the table.
What do you think will happen with the Kurdish independence referendum?
There is tension in the air. The Kurdish government, led by Massud Barzani, has high hopes that the referendum will propel the Kurdish region towards independence. But there are also many threats. Baghdad has clearly rejected the possibility of a referendum; Turkish officials are pressuring against the movement; Iran is also making moves... From what I can see in the media, many Iraqis are afraid that if Kurdistan separates from the rest of Iraq, the immediate result will be a civil war. I am not a political analyst; I understand that a people who are different linguistically, historically and ethnically would want to be independent, especially if they have been governing themselves since 1991. It is a logical demand, particularly in such an unstable region.
Master's Degree in Contemporary Arabic Studies