Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Reclaiming Iraq: The 1920 Revolution and the Foundation of the Modern State Abbas Kadhim

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Reclaiming Iraq: The 1920 Revolution and the Foundation of the Modern State Abbas Kadhim

Article excerpt

RECLAIMING IRAQ: THE 1920 REVOLUTION AND THE FOUNDATION OF THE MODERN STATE ABBAS KADHIM Austin: Universit y of Texas Press, 2012 (x + 213 pages, notes, bibliography, index) $25.00 (paper)

In 1920 several Arab tribes rose up in a massive rebellion against the British occupation of central and southern Iraq. These tribes managed to score a handful of victories, but were defeated by the more heavily armed British military after several months of intense fighting. The high cost of fighting and the loss of British lives led the British to establish the kingdom of Iraq in 1921. They enthroned King Faysal I (r. 1921-33) because he had previously cooperated with the British, including with the famous Lawrence of Arabia, and had fought the Ottomans. After Faysal triumphed over Jamal Pasha's army in Damascus, he declared himself king of greater Syria in 1920. The British immediately withdrew their support because they had secretly promised Syria to France, which soon invaded and overthrew the nascent Arab regime. To ensure that Iraq would remain under their tutelage, the British decided to make Faysal the head of the new state of Iraq. Since then, each of Iraq's various governments has sought to legitimize its rule by representing the revolution of 1920 through a different interpretive lens. Striving for a more objective and comprehensive account, Abbas Kadhim argues that it was primarily a nationalist revolution fought by Shi'i tribesmen from the middle Euphrates region, though it also involved Shi'i clerics, Shi'i townspeople, and some Sunni tribes from central Iraq.

Kadhim's book presents an implicit case for Iraqi unity. Arguing against the common assertion that Iraq was a British invention, Kadhim cites the use of the name "Iraq" by the fourth Sunni caliph and the first Shi'i imam, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661), the Umayyad governor of Iraq al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf (d. 714), and the thirteenth biographer of Sufi master Rumi, Yaqut al-Hamawi. Moreover, he asserts that the 1920 revolution was infused with nationalist sentiment, though by merely equating the tribes' desire for political and economic freedom with Iraqi nationalism he fails to make a convincing case.

Kadhim's study discusses the English-language literature by the established political scientists and historians of modern Iraq, such as Hanna Batatu, Phebe Marr, Yitzhak Nakash, Charles Tripp, Toby Dodge, and Eric Davis, although most of these scholars have dedicated only short passages to the 1920 revolution. Some he critiques for misidentifying the revolution's causes; for instance, he writes that Nakash gives too much credit to the Shi'i clergy in the shrine cities, and he notes that Batatu referred to the revolution as "a Shaykh's affair" (26). Discussing the Arabic literature on the revolution, Kadhim dissects the dispute between Fariq Mizhir Al Far'un, Ja'far al-Khalili, and 'Ali al-Bazirgan. Al-Khalili, who was a well-known historian and essayist from Najaf, rebuked Al Far'un, who witnessed the events in 1920, for exaggerating the role of his own tribe in the revolution. Al-Bazirgan, who also participated in the revolution, similarly critiqued Al Far'un though al-Bazirgan's account, according to Kadhim, was highly problematic because it demonstrated clear prejudices against both Shi'a and Jews.

Reclaiming Iraq examines how, since the founding of the Iraqi monarchy in 1921, subsequent governments have reinterpreted and appropriated the revolution. The British and their collaborators, for their part, dismissed the revolution as the act of "a mob of medieval-minded trouble-makers" (20). Under the rule of King Faysal I, the Iraqi revolution was depicted as having been inspired by the Arab Revolt (1916-18) in the Levant. By portraying themselves as the pioneers of all Arab resistance to foreign rule, former Ottoman officers who had fought alongside Faysal felt justified in accepting high-ranking positions in the Iraqi government, even though they had not participated in the Iraqi revolution. …

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