Disappearing Identities by Dr Brian Brivati

Mustafa Field has described the way in which the current military operation in Iraq might represent an opportunity to rediscover a shared Iraq identity that reverses the trend towards sectarian politics. I hope he is right, he knows more about contemporary Iraq than I ever will, but the precedents do not look good. There are two stories that might give us clues to what has happened and is going to happen in Iraq.

Victor Klemperer a German Jewish veteran of the First World War, recorded in his monumental diaries a slow dawning sense of reality about the limits of assimilation in inter-war Germany. As the measures taken by the Nazis regime tightened around him he realized that virtually everyone in his life was an assimilated Jew. He has always believed that he was a German, having a German doctor, dentist, lawyer and circle of friends. As the racial laws were introduced it became clearer and clearer to him that his doctor, his dentist, his lawyer, his circle of friends were indeed all German but they were also all Jewish. There were limits to the 19th century idea of assimilation within German culture that for a time obscured the reality of identity politics. Perhaps over generations without the Nazis and with more and more intermarriage, this assimilation might have become a reality and those identities of Jew and German would have merged. Hitler, of course, made that impossible. The Nuremburg laws made visible the hidden sectarianism that permeated Germany. It did not create those identities, nor the division made legible by the German State which enacted laws that defined your citizenship by race and by ancestral lines. All these ideas are socially constructed, but even when invisible that social construction takes generations to disappear, if indeed it ever does.

Vesna Goldsworthy tells the same story of Yugoslavia. This was not a racial identity but a national or rather supra-national or cosmopolitan identity. To be a metropolitan Yugoslav was to believe that the state created by Tito out of the desperate nations of the Balkans could create a European identity that could replace Serb, Croatia and any other identity. This was constructed around a language, a culture and a way of life that wanted to European-ise the Communist state, show a different way to the rest of the Soviet Union and prove that the new values could replace the old certainties. The idea of Yugoslavia evaporated as the Soviet Union collapsed and the cosmopolitan Yugoslav identity disappeared with it.

As Klemperer realized he was a Jew who was also a German, so people realized that they were Serbs who lived in the geographical expression of Yugoslavia. Or, in Vesna’s case, they became stateless. At no moment did Klemperer feel more like a German and I suspect Vesna more like a Yugoslav than at the moment at which this identity was taken away from them.

I am not here arguing that there is natural order of identity to which we revert as a base. A Jewish identity is just as invented as a German identity. There is no English identity that will be saved by leaving the European Union. All we are doing is inventing a new identity to take place of the old. There is no natural order in these things. There is no such thing as races, or nations, we invent all these things. We also invent religious identities and we create sectarianism as much by the politics of the moment as we do from the contested histories of our pasts.

Given these examples, what are the prospects that Mustafa’s optimism can now play out? I am very sad to say that I believe the moment for an Iraqi Federal identity has passed. Even a few months ago I thought there was some prospect of that identity holding together. Now I believe that it has gone. The North of Iraq, the Kurdish region, despite all its current problems, left the idea of Iraq decades ago and will never return. They play along with Federal government because they have to. Other smaller minority groups have either sided with the Kurds, or need the Federal government to survive in order to protect them; their position is getting worse. The Turkmen are working more closely with the Shia groups but their objective is their own autonomous region and the Sunni have little trust left in the ability or willingness of the Iraqi state to defend their rights. As in Yugoslavia, the Iraqi identity has vanished – perhaps not as suddenly – but just as permanently. Conflict has made legible an indelible divide of ethnic minorities that existed quietly before. The sectarianism is flagrant, and in the days after daesh it will consume the Iraq political system and nation once again.