The land of Iraq is home to some of the most ancient and precious civilizations in history. In the Mesopotamian valley that encompasses the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Babylonia, the world’s first empire was born. Writing was first developed along the banks of the rivers with tablets made of clay. Advanced government bureaucracies were first implemented here. It is truly one of the cradles of human civilization.
And when Islam was revealed in the deserts of Arabia south of Mesopotamia, the people of Iraq were some of the first to accept Islam outside of the Arabian Peninsula during the caliphate of Abu Bakr. As Islamic history went on, Iraq became one of the centers of the Muslim world, with Baghdad being established in the 8th century as the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. Politics, culture, science, and religion all flourished here in early Islamic history. After the Mongol invasion, however, Iraq’s importance declined, it eventually became a part of the Ottoman Empire from the early 1500s until the end of the empire in the First World War. After the war, it was organized into a British-controlled mandate, which sought to create an independent nation-state in this ancient land.
Which brings us to the question: what is Iraq? The British assumed they’d find a homogeneous people in this land that would easily coalesce into one united nation, but the reality has been much more complicated. When the British drew Iraq’s borders, the people within those false borders were of different ethnic groups, religious beliefs, and languages, yet they were all expected to adopt a new identity – Iraqi – and function as a modern nationalistic European nation. This article will address the origins of these problems of identity in 20th century Iraq.