Countering the Sectarian Metanarrative: Iraqi Literary Response to the US Occupation

Truslow, Chad, Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hueckstedt, Robert, AS-MidEast & SAsia Lang & Cult, University of Virginia

Sectarian conflict is a commonly understood concept that has largely shaped US foreign policy approach to the region throughout the modern Middle East. As a result of the conflict between Shia and Sunni militias in Iraq and the nature of Iraqi politics since 2003, many experts have accepted sectarianism as an enduring phenomenon in Iraq and use it as a foundation to understand Iraqi society. This paper problematizes the accepted narrative regarding the relevance of sectarian identity and demonstrates the fallacy of approaching Iraq through an exclusively “sectarian lens” in future foreign policy. This paper begins by exploring the role of the Iraqi intellectuals in the twentieth century and how political ideologies influenced and replaced traditional forms of identity. The paper then examines the common themes used by mid-twentieth century Iraqi literati to promote national unity and a sense of Iraqi identity that championed the nation’s heterogeneity. The paper then surveys the Iraqi literary response to the 2003 invasion in order to explain how some of the most popular Iraqi writers represent sectarianism in their works. The literary response to the US invasion and occupation provides a counter-narrative to western viewpoints and reveals the reality of the war from the Iraqi perspective. After considering works by Ahmed Saadawi, Hassan Blasim, and Sinan Antoon we find a conspicuous lack of emphasis on sectarianism as an essential element of identity in Iraqi society. To the contrary, most authors criticize sectarian ideologies with satire and contempt. The rise of sectarianism is often treated as an inorganic intrusion of divisive politics from foreign intervention, an antiquated past, or fringe elements of society. These contemporary authors show that sectarianism does not define Iraqis’ concepts of identity, but has instead torn the social fabric of Iraq through the oversimplification of complex notions of identity into a binary classification system. The paper concludes with a discussion on how experts and policy makers would be better informed about social undercurrents through the consideration of Iraqi literati and intellectuals who rarely serve in political offices, but are often more in touch with and representative of the people.

MA (Master of Arts)
Iraqi Literature, Sinan Antoon , Ahmed Saadawi , Hassan Blasim, sectarianism, sectarian violence
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