Written by: Martha Stutchbury
In 1921, the British combined three Mesopotamian vilayets (districts) into statehood under King Faisal I, establishing the geo-political territory that we recognise as present-day Iraq. This article briefly considers the ethnically and religiously diverse composition of Iraq in 1921, and the subsequent attempts of British and Iraqi authorities to engender a national identity amongst the divided population.
Guiditta Fontana claims that the British initially intended to construct Iraq as a predominantly ethnically homogeneous state. It was hoped that this would ease the country’s transition into nationhood, and aid the development of a national or cultural identity during a period of such geo-political upheaval. Indeed, Arnold T. Wilson – British Civil Commissioner of Mesopotamia in 1919, claimed that the frontiers of the future state “should, as far as possible, be racial” as opposed to geographical or economic. However, Fontana argues that it was subsequently decided that “financial demands” associated with maintaining the Mesopotamian region undermined this aim for her Majesty’s government. London ‘pushed ahead’ with the construction of the Iraqi state, with regional and ethnic compatibility as a decreased priority.
Subsequently, the state of Iraq was constructed from three key regions: each with distinct economic and cultural allegiances: Basra, orientated towards the Persian Gulf and located close to the country’s borders with Kuwait and Iran, had a history of trading primarily with India; Baghdad, which became the nation’s centrally located capital city, traded and identified predominantly with Iran; and Mosul, in Northern Iraq, maintaining economic links to Anatolia and Greater Syria. In 1921, Faisal – a monarch selected by British authorities and without a popular mandate for rule amongst his citizens, was coronated in Baghdad to the soundtrack of Britain’s national anthem – a ceremony and choice of music that epitomised the complete absence of national identity in the new country. Iraq was absent of many symbolic and functional representations of statehood, including an army.
What is fascinating in the construction of Iraq is the ethnic and religious composition of its population. Arabs made up approximately 80 percent of the population at the time of Iraq’s formation, of whom slightly over half were Shi’a Muslims, culturally ‘tied’ to and aiming to maintain their links with the Shi’a-dominated Iran. The remainder of the Arabs were Sunni Muslims, who were proportionately over-represented in the government of the new state, generating a cycle of protest and repression that has come to characterise much of Iraq’s modern internal conflict. Contributing even further to the divided population in 1921 was the presence of both an Assyrian Christian minority in the North of the country, and the existence of a substantial Jewish community in Baghdad. Particularly impressive in Britain’s construction of the state was their failure to appreciate the complete ethnic and cultural divergence of the population’s remaining 20 percent, who were Kurdish, and uninterested in the enforced development of a national identity.
It is the dysfunctional composition of this population that leads Fontana to such a cynical analysis of Iraq’s history. She argues that we can characterise much of Iraq’s past through: “the persistence of tensions between different ethno-religious groups,” as well as “the efforts of Sunni dominated central governments to impose their…authority over the Kurds”. To this day, the Kurdish population seeks independence from the Iraqi state, marking the continued failure of Iraq’s government to acknowledge their cultural autonomy.
Perhaps surprisingly, considering the state’s lack of national unity, Iraq achieved its admittance to the League of Nations – signifying its independence, in 1932. This was before other, arguably more unified, British mandates in the Middle East (such as those in Lebanon and Syria) had achieved such status. This was due in part to attempts at state unification that took place quickly after 1921, such as the creation of a national curriculum. Indeed, by 1930, the number of secondary students in Iraqi state education had increased from just over 200, to over 20,000. But perhaps most significant in the short-term development of nation-statehood was the creation of the Iraqi army in 1921. The army was to become a significant symbol of national identity within the new state and, after Faisal’s death in 1933, played a consistent role in opposing the four Sunni elites that came to dominate and divide Iraq’s government.
Faisal himself must be considered instrumental in the attempted creation of nation-statehood within Iraq. Despite his allegiance to the British government, who had appointed him King in 1921, he played an important role in contesting the British acquisition of oil concessions; becoming increasingly sceptical of Britain’s obtrusive efforts to obtain oil monopoly in Iraq. However, the fragile state remained desperate for the royalty funds that would accompany a British concession. Therefore, in 1925, a 75-year concession was awarded to the firm that would come to be known as the ‘Iraq Petroleum Company’ – a ‘turning point’ in Iraq’s political and economic relationship with the UK. Faisal’s death in 1933 resulted in significant regression regarding the political unity of the state, whose elites persistently bickered without the King’s skilful mediation. This arguably caused a return to increased levels of the divided sectarianism that first presented itself in 1921, and remains a dominant feature of Iraqi politics today.
Image: Photograph of King Faisal I of Iraq, early 1900s.
Fontana, G. (2010). Creating Nations, Establishing States: Ethno-Religious Heterogeneity and the British Creation of Iraq in 1919–23. Middle Eastern Studies, 46(1), 1-16.
Zubaida, S. (2002). The Fragments Imagine the Nation: The Case of Iraq. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 34(2), 205-15.