Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Deconstructing Destruction: The Second Gulf War and the New Historiography of Twentieth-Century Iraq

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Deconstructing Destruction: The Second Gulf War and the New Historiography of Twentieth-Century Iraq

Article excerpt

In this article, I reflect on the themes historians of twentieth-century Iraq have been writing about in the last decade in Europe and the United States.1 The rewriting of Iraqi history in the last ten years responded to and challenged the realities the US occupation and the ensuing civil war created. As Iraq weathered civil war, minoritization, and a shaky, if not violent, democratization, scholars labored to underscore Iraqi patriotism, the constructedness of sectarian policies, and the presence of popular bids for sovereignty. Their labor has failed to influence public policy or media coverage. And yet paradoxically, it was during the years when Iraq's archival resources were suffering destruction and a bitter sectarian struggle was tearing the state apart that scholars undertook the rewriting of Iraq's modern history.

Deconstructing Saddam Hussein: Historiographical Shifts in the 1980s and 1990s

Prior to 2003, scholars in Britain and the United States explored the history of modern Iraq. Peter Sluglett (when still in the United Kingdom), Charles Tripp, and Sami Zubaida produced seminal works. In the United States, scholars included Thabit Abdullah, Samira Haj, Hala Fattah (who later moved to Jordan), Phebe Marr, Dina Rizk Khoury, Sarah Shields, Reeva Simon, and especially Peter and Marion Sluglett.2 In the 1970s and 1980s, Hanna Batatu and Peter Sluglett made the major contributions to the establishment of the field of twentieth-century Iraqi history. Batatu's magnum opus, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and Its Communists, Ba'thists, and Free Officers, was the most influential study of modern Iraqi history. Based on unprecedented archival work, the book charted Iraq's modern social groups, showing how certain state-related processes, from the Tanzimat to postcolonial land reforms, shaped new relationships between groups whose access to capital was highly complicated by networks of kinship and socialization, which Batatu analyzed. His meticulous social histories, and his reference to hundreds of previously unseen state documents to reconstruct the politics of the communists and the nationalists in Iraq, created a text to which all historians of modern Iraq return.3 Peter Sluglett used social and economic parameters in order to analyze Iraqi history and to point to the constructed nature of sectarianism, both in his own works and in highly significant publications coauthored with Marion Farouk-Sluglett.4 His important work on the British mandate was one of the first to think of the mandate systems as part of the colonial system and to show its effects on Iraqi society and notions of sovereignty.5 Both Batatu and Sluglett saw class as the primary category for analysis. For both, the ways to understand Iraqi politics relied on questions of land ownership, access to the state's resources, and place of residence (city and countryside), as well as imperialism and the global politics of oil. Batatu was clear that he was a student of Marx and Weber.6 Despite these commonalities, Batatu and Sluglett were also very different in their approach. Peter and Marion Sluglett were extremely critical of the Ba'th, chronicling in detail its crimes and adopting a very negative approach to the pan-Arab nationalists of the 1930s and 1940s. Batatu, on the other hand, took a less critical approach toward the party. His magnum opus ended on a rather optimistic note as to Iraq's future. In 1979, at least, he believed that the regime was intent on using the oil boom to develop the state and combat neo-imperial politics.7

A new direction in the field of Iraqi studies took shape in the years 1987-2000. The 1991 Gulf War was the impetus for a burgeoning interest in Iraqi history. Yet the sanctions regime that followed it, and the limitations on buying books from Iraq faced by US libraries, actually narrowed the scope of the study of modern Iraqi history in the years to come. …

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