Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Minority Identities before and after Iraq: The Making of the Modern Assyrian and Chaldean Appellations

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Minority Identities before and after Iraq: The Making of the Modern Assyrian and Chaldean Appellations

Article excerpt

I am an Assyrian today, tomorrow, forever, and I am proud of it.

-Raphael Bidawid

Chaldean Patriarch of Babylonia, 19741

Any Chaldean who calls himself Assyrian is a traitor, and any Assyrian who calls himself Chaldean is a traitor.

-Emmanuel Dally

Chaldean Patriarch of Babylonia, 20062

Disputes, negotiations, and resolutions regarding the representatively "accurate" appellations for the modern Chaldeans and Assyrians are not confined to the two patriarchs' statements above. They dot the diasporic history of the two Eastern Christian communities throughout the twentieth century and extend well into the present. In the diasporas of Europe and the United States, where most of the communities are now settled, Syriac studies and Assyriology developed as the two authoritative scholarly tradi- tions of writing about Eastern Christianity. The appellation debate has also found its way into various contemporary religious and political discourses at home (present-day Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria). Additionally, a discursive transnational social field of native scholarship on Chaldean and Assyrian history and nomenclature has emerged in the diasporic locales, creating distinct narratives of identity that link the ancient past to the current present in specific ahistorical ways.

This study offers a rereading of these narratives to locate the links, or missing links, between the ancient and modern Assyrians and Chaldeans. It seeks to retrace the occurrences of the appellations "Chaldean," "Assyrian," and "Nestorian" to particular periods or events. The controversies over collective identities that this study disentangles for the first time are central to Arab studies. Understanding the genealogy of these identities is pivotal for understanding the churches that make up the historic Iraqi Christian presence. More importantly, it provides insights into the formative imperialist relations responsible for West-East dichotomies and the intermediary position these native Christian institutions and communities served within those divides. This marginalized history critically locates some of the earliest hegemonic dynamics that led to constructing the identitarian crisis in the Arab world. By highlighting the intervention of institutional powers such as the Roman Church and other organized Western Christian missions to the Middle East, it marks some of the earliest sectarian politics that augmented the tensions between ethno-religious majorities and minorities in the modern Middle East.

Three questions direct the inquiry into the appellation dispute: First, how did the term "Assyrian" become attached to a church that materialized in 431 CE, when the last-needless to say, non-Christian-Assyrian kingdom began to dissolve in 612 BCE? That is, who are the modern Assyrians, who today affiliate with the "Assyrian Church of the East," in relation to the ancient Assyrians from whom they claim descent? Second, what is the relationship between the ancient Chaldeans of southern Mesopotamia and the modern Catholic Chaldeans of the Nineveh Plains3 (and Detroit suburbs),4 followers of the "Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans"? Third, how are the ancient and modern Chaldeans and Assyrians related or unrelated to each other? That is, how did the "Nestorian" appellation that used to apply to both groups fall out of use, and how did its holders become the ancient- turned-modern Chaldeans and Assyrians?

Initially, Chaldeans and Assyrians both belonged to the Nestorian Church of the East. Later on, they formed several distinct communities that conceptually converge or diverge in selective political and cultural contexts. Understanding how members of these communities reconstruct and appropriate pre-Christian history and the strategic utility they designate for its use in the present is key to understanding the contentious modern history of these communities. The importance of the complicit, Europeanand American-enabled history of modern Chaldean and Assyrian identities is twofold. …

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