Simele massacre and the birth of Iraqi nationalism

In order to understand how genocide happens and therefore, how to avoid it, one must understand how integral it is to nationalism, and especially the martial nationalism that existed in the Middle East after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Ethnic violence by state actors against the Assyrians was both a product of nationalism and a cause for the rise of the army as the central focus of nationalism in Iraq.

To appreciate the causes of the 1933 simele massacre, it is necessary to understand the major events leading to it. Mass violence is never inevitable and always contingent on specific events.  One such historical contingency was the decision of the Assyrians’ religious leader to fight for the Entente in 1915, providing a pretext to accelerate earlier ethnic cleansing, and making problematic a return to their original homeland in what had become the Republic of Turkey after the war. The patriarch made that decision in part as a response to the Sultan’s declaration of jihad against the majority-Christian empires of the Entente. In turn, the Russian collapse after the 1917 revolution left the Assyrians at the mercy of Ottoman forces.

 First Ottoman and then Iraqi nationalism caused the Assyrian people to be a distrusted minority because of their apparent link to British imperialists. The Iraqi army was in the ascendency in the 1930s, and its action against what many perceived as a foreign threat aided that rise to prominence. State-sponsored violence against Assyrians, especially on 11 August 1933, reinforced Iraqi nationalism. In 1933, after enduring genocide during the war, migration to Iraq, and pogroms there, a small expedition of armed Assyrian men attempted to emigrate to Syria in an act of apparent desperation. The French authorities stopped them at the border and sent them back to their village of Simele, still fully armed.

En route returning, they encountered Iraqi army regulars with British Royal Air Force aircraft in support. There was a skirmish, and the Assyrian survivors proceeded home. Hearing the news of the firefight, Feisal, the Iraqi King, directed Bekir Sidqi, a high-ranking army officer, to retaliate against the men of the village. On 11 August, the Iraqi army with the help of local police disarmed and then murdered most of the men of Simele. At the same time, Kurds and Arabs conducted a wider genocidal campaign against Assyrian villages in northern Iraq. Assyrian sources note that the murder and rape continued against the Assyrians in northern Iraq for a month.

At the present time, the question of whether ethnic mass violence occurred at the relevant times and places is not at issue, as it is well established in the historical record and scholarship.

Assyrians themselves had their own concept of nationalism that began in the nineteenth century. The Assyrians did not think of themselves in nationalist terms until the arrival of Christian missionaries from Europe and America in the mid-nineteenth century. They had, in fact, a largely confessional group identity, as they were Syriac Christians who used Aramaic in their church liturgy. Missionaries either created or revived the Assyrian national identity and romanticized the Assyrians as the beginning of a new Christian Middle East. These missionaries intended either to convert Assyrians from Syriac Christianity to Protestantism, or else to “educate” Assyrians about their own religion. They included many American Protestants and effectively invented the narrative that modern Assyrian Christians were the descendants and successors to the Bronze Age Assyrian Empire.8 As we shall see in the discussion of R.L. Stafford, a British army officer and political liaison to the Iraqi government, the Assyrians may have internalized these racist European and American attitudes. One aggravating factor was the alignment of Assyrians with Britain, a hostile, foreign empire with designs on the Middle East. Indeed, starting with the end of the war, the British considered the displaced Hakkari Assyrians to be a special problem requiring their direct intervention.

The existence of an Iraqi nationalist narrative was necessary to have defined the Assyrians in opposition to that, and that Othering was a precondition to state sponsored violence. To a large degree, Iraqi nationalism arose from the perceived threat of the Assyrians, and solidified around the army as the instrument of the people. A precondition for that was a belief that Iraq was a nation and that the Assyrians were dangerous interlopers. Despite being native to the general area, many Sunni Arabs and Kurds saw the Hakkari Assyrians in particular as a foreign threat to the fledgling nation. The close association of the Assyrians with the British and their use of Assyrian soldiers to suppress Kurdish unrest reinforced the preconception.

  1. Nationalism is not naturally occurring.

Nationalism is based on constructed narratives, usually of recent creation, that project a national existence backward in time into an imaginary and idealized past. It is, in large measure, an assumption that modern nation-states are somehow the naturally occurring, inevitable, end result of social evolution, to which one owes his or her primary loyalty, and from which one receives her or his primary identity. In this, Iraqi nationalism is a case in point. To understand how Iraqi nationalism made the Assyrians into a Saidian Other, it is necessary to deconstruct the national narrative. 

In order to understand nationalist thinking, one must first understand what nationalism is not, and what it is not is either inevitable or natural. Present-day persons, especially those who grew up in the twentieth century in majority white English or French-speaking countries, with tales of heroics and sacrifice in defense of the nation in two world wars, tend to regard the nation and the nation-state as an assumed reality. For the nationalist narrative, the nation and the state are one and the same, and with exceptions, those with citizenship are all of the same nationality. Likewise, “nation,” “country,” and “state” (when not used to mean “province”) are synonymous in modern, nationalist thought. Nationalism is so accepted as normal that even ostensibly postnationalist revolutionary states have followed the nationalist global norm. Even racially

and linguistically diverse empires such as the United States and the antebellum Ottoman Empire have used nationalism to cement control over its people and territories, and to exclude those who do not fit the nationalist model. Likewise, Ottoman successor states promoted their own nationalist narratives following the Ottoman period while under direct European control, and then after nominal independence. 

Despite nationalism’s modernity, the non-historian public does not give a second thought to fictional film portrayals of a thirteenth-century Scottish nationalist movement or of Iron Age warriors fighting for Greece, as if such a nation could have existed then against Eastern aggression. Nation is a natural condition for non-historians, as well as for previous generations of modern historians, and is easily projected backward in time to connect present day conditions to those in a mostly imagined past. Sadly for those seeking neat social categories, none of the assumptions of nationalism is true in any objective sense. Like all social identities, nations, nation-states, and nationalities are constructed social entities. Further, to a large degree they are not merely artificially constructed, but deliberately so for purposes advanced by those who controlled and continue to control the national narrative.

Imagined Communities and The Invention of Tradition deconstruct nationalist norms and common national identities. Of particular importance is the revelation in The Invention of Tradition of the artificiality of these national traditions, especially in colonized countries.3 The British invention and manipulation of ceremony and nationalist symbols for their own imperial benefit illustrates the point starkly. Colonizers fabricated a national tradition for colonized people. Likewise, first Ottoman and then Arab nationalism were deliberate creations to achieve certain political and social goals. The British as colonizers used these techniques in creating the modern state of Iraq. The establishment of the Iraqi monarchy based on a transplanted Arabian prince is one such example. Likewise, Iraq as an Arab Sunni state, independent from both the Ottomans and the British, at least nominally, was an imagined community Despite nationalist narratives that created a past for the Iraqi nation, it remained the heterogeneous creation of Sykes- Picot, the post war agreement between the British and the French to divide the Middle East between them.

Present-day historians, of course, realize that the nation is a constructed identity based on a narrative of common descent, culture, religion, and language. People who fit the description provided by the national narrative are nationals, while those who do not become “marked citizens” or Saidian Others. A marked citizen is one whose acceptance in society is always qualified as being somehow atypical of the “normal,” generic citizen in color, language, religion, or some other characteristic, which may include gender. An unmarked citizen has a position of relative privilege in society. That person’s loyalty is assumed and his or her actions reflect only on the individual in question. By contrast, a marked citizen must continuously justify his or her place in society, and the majority views a marked citizen’s actions as reflective of his or her whole race, religion, or ethnicity.  The construction of majorities and minorities and the relegation of minorities into the role of marked citizens are means of allocating political power within a society. States marginalize minorities to produce the “core” unmarked citizen majorities. Minorities, like Assyrians in Iraq, are necessarily excluded in this view.

  1. Early Twentieth-Century Egypt Is an Example of Arab Nationalism.

Egypt is an illustrative example of Arab nationalism as a tool of resistance to European colonialism. In the early twentieth century, Egyptian elites developed their own nationalism in part to counter the colonial narrative from Britain, which included the European rationale that colonialism was necessary in order to modernize and civilize the Egyptians. The Egyptian nationalist narrative of the time saw Sudan as an inferior people in terms of race, religion, and degree of being civilized. This allowed Egyptian elites a pretext for colonizing Sudan. Egyptians, they believed, needed to colonize Sudan in order to civilize them and to impart what they saw as the correct form of Islam onto the Sudanese. Being Saharan Africans, Egyptians tended to be lighter in skin color than Sudanese people. This gave the Egyptian elites a sense of racial superiority over those from Sudan, a racist ideology they shared with the British colonizers. Troutt Powell includes cartoons of the time that illustrate these racist attitudes.

Egyptian elites bought and keep Sudanese persons as slaves, both under the pretense of educating them in the proper practice of Islam and as an exercise in agency in opposition to their anti-slavery British colonizers. Consequently, Egyptian nationalism of the early twentieth-century was an alternative narrative to the British Orientalist rationale for its continued occupation of Egypt. If Egypt can behave as a colonizing power, it undermined the argument that there was moral superiority on the part of the British to justify their continued colonization of Egypt. Likewise during the last few decades of the Ottoman Empire, Arab nationalists constructed their own narratives as resistance to Ottoman imperial rule. By claiming the attributes of a nation-state, the Iraqi leadership resisted British domination both during and immediately following the mandate period. That included reprisals against unpopular minority groups with ties to the British in order to create a nation-state of a homogenous nationality.

  1. Debunking the East-Versus-West Dichotomy.

In addition to the nationalist narratives, there is also a broader East-versus-West narrative that imagines a contest between the values and norms of the Middle East against those of Europe. This narrative states that the conflict began in the Bronze Age and included the basis for the story of the Trojan War, if such a thing ever actually happened, continued through the Greco-Persian wars, the Alexandrian Empire, the Crusades, the Ottoman conquest of Byzantium, and into modern times. Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, among others, typify this type of narrative. The shortcomings of this train of thought are numerous, but the two most significant are that they are entirely teleological, measuring past events, the distant past in some cases by modern standards, and that they completely ignore the effects of colonialism and imperialism. Those effects included the post-war creation of new states based on the aspirations of French and British imperialists, and the decision to move the Hakkari Assyrians south of the new border of Turkey and Iraq.

Nothing in history is inevitable, and all events turn on the contingencies of their times, including genocide. For instance, Lewis wrote What Went Wrong?, in which he eponymously introduces the premise that something “went wrong” with Middle Eastern civilization, inevitably causing it to develop into a backward abnormality. He selectively examines the evidence to provide a narrative that supports his premise, and yet ignore European colonialism as a cause of any real or imagined dysfunction. His thesis is, in fact, a conclusion in search of an argument. He and Huntington assume that there is a specific, normal course of history that is typified by Western Europe and the United States, and that the Islamic world deviated from that otherwise inevitable and desirous outcome. Islam, Huntington in particular argues, rejects the supposed rationality of the West, and poses an existential threat to it. The entire East-versus-West argument appears, at least, to have been designed to justify Western control of the Middle East. Whatever the subjective motivation, Lewis’s and Huntington’s views represent the reversal of a proper historical analysis where the evidence informs the conclusion and not the other way around.

 Orientalism is the system of thought where Westerners measure the “Orient,” colonized territory that includes the Middle East, against the assumed superiority of the Western model. The imagined superiority of European civilization over that of the Middle East provided the British and French with an intellectual justification for the continued domination of the Middle East long after the First World War, a necessary precondition to the genocide of Assyrians in Iraq. Orientalism looks for differences between civilizations, preferably outlandish and lurid differences, and uses them to justify Western control over the Orient. The Orient is classified as emotional, while the West is rational, superstitious versus pious, tribal versus bureaucratic, and in a state of decay versus modernity.

In short, Orientalism formed a moral rationale for colonialism. Said’s Orientalism in 1978 began to expose and debunk this perspective.  Since then, decades of scholarship have deconstructed various aspects of orientalism. While generally accepted by historians, examples like Huntington and Lewis show that “Saidianism” is not without its dissenting voices. That perspective limits agency since the narrative makes conflict inevitable without an opportunity to improve relations between East and West. Said also developed the concept of “Othering,” which is similar to the construction of marked citizens, later described by Pandey. Others are defined based on differences from hegemonic culture, and by focusing on odd, lurid differences between cultures while ignoring more typical similarities. The Iraqi Arabs and Kurds saw the Assyrians as an Other, which make it easy to believe that they were a threat to the state, justifying mass violence.

  1. Mass Violence Is the Result of Constructed Identities.

The relevance of this discussion to the present case is that all identity, including nationalism, is constructed, often by reading non-native assumptions into the historical record. Promoting the idea that the Ottomans founded their empire on religious fervency in the fourteenth century provides a precedent and normalization for “continuing” that mission through jihad (in the violent sense of the word) in 1914. We are necessarily influenced by our own subjective identity and cultural norms. States, nation-states and otherwise, are power structures that can exist because individuals normalize their power. People construct narratives to explain the origins of their societies and their place in it. People accept and perpetuate the national narrative, and enforce their own compliance with it. This, of course, is the nature of Foucauldian power.

Rather than emanating from powerful institutions, power exists because people believe it exists and accept it as normal. The nationalist narrative, therefore, provides a rhetorical vehicle for self-reinforcement and reproduction of the nationalist state. While the society, including the nation-state apparatus creates individuals, those individuals also create the state. The constructed national majority tends to accept the contrived status of Saidian others as “marked citizens,” those who do not fit the preconceived norms of the hegemonic culture, making them easy targets for discrimination and pogroms. As a result, the majority, which is as much of a social construct as minorities, tends to view non-conforming persons as a foreign element within the society.

If some members of an Othered community really did come from outside the state, then it impugns the whole group. If that group has connections, real or imagined, to foreign powers, especially powers hostile to the state, then it is easy to naturalize the idea that the Othered group is a dangerous subversive element within society. The Armenians and Assyrians experienced that social and political perception, and in the nineteenth century, and especially during World War I, both groups suffered severely at the hands of state actors as a result. In the 1930s, nationalism created “majorities” out of Arab Sunnis. That allowed the majority to construct the Assyrians as Others. Ethnic cleansing then reinforced the nationalist narratives by allowing the army to grow in importance in the national identity.

Assyrians for their part, and contrary to the Arab perception that they were foreigners, are indigenous to present day Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. As with Armenians, what distinguishes Assyrians in Middle Eastern nationalist thought is religious identity. “Assyrians” is a blanket term for the various communities of Syriac Christians. Their sectarian denominations were native to the area and used Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language, for their liturgy. Stafford, relying on the constructed racialized identities of his time, claimed that in terms of common descent, the Assyrians were Semitic people, like Arabs, while the neighboring Kurds were “Aryan,” that is to say Indo-European, like the Persians. More importantly, Stafford noted that the Assyrians who were the focus of his attention lived in the mountains during the summer, often at altitudes of 8000 feet (2400 meters), and descended during the winter, suggesting that some of them must have lived part of the year in what is now Iraq. He also noted other Assyrian communities who did not live in the mountains were subjects of the Kurdish tribal leaders. The appendix of Stafford’s book containing various maps gives some idea to how diverse the Assyrian people were at the time, with many villages across northern Iraq. This, along with the British diplomatic sources, show that the mass violence was not directed toward Simile or Hakkari Assyrians alone, but was part of campaign against a larger Assyrian community.

By Sanjida Jannat

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