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Achieving social cohesion in Iraqi “nation building”

Achieving social cohesion in Iraqi “nation building”

By Dimitra Papavassiliou

With the battle of Mosul raging, another moment for Iraqi peace and nation building is expected. The international community stands by anticipating to implement a range of social cohesion and livelihood programs aimed at rebuilding a democratic and enlightened state. This is nothing uncommon or new to Iraqis, yet we are still making the same failures our predecessors did. We need to reexamine our assumptions and underlining theories of post war state building, including how to genuinely increase participation and engagement from communities in development practices.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge certain factors that contribute to the framework of development, which create the social fabric in the lives of new citizens. Frequently, the kind of post war building initiated by the international community comes with certain sanctions or conditions that impose western liberal ideologies. Sadly, this often denies existing resources, such as indigenous knowledge, grassroots movements and cultural traditions. This choice of wider economic and social reforms ignores the capacity and strength within local community practices that can often be collaborative and healing.

The plurality of Iraqi identity is complex and has repeatedly been misused to incite political violence. The role of peace building and democratising statehood intends to fashion a new vision and identity framed by geographic borders and citizenship. However, these boundaries often dehumanise and disregard the fluidity of identity, and the ‘other’, in the hope to maintain a statehood of control. We need to acknowledge that if personal identity is not static then why should a community be? The role of social cohesion should not solely rely on one-off “feel good” events, but address the bloody histories, hatred and violence that have shadowed Iraqi identity up until the present day. To invest in social cohesion is to re-conceptualise a new community by building trust, respect and belonging.

Identity politics are as important as ever in Iraq, especially in its connection to social cohesion. By the process of building a community there is an emergence of cultural and societal activities tied to historical memory. Benjamin Isakhan (2011) interestingly examines the “…use [of]… cultural and historical heritage… [on]…respective nation states to develop a unifying national memory designed to engender degrees of collective identity and cohesion via the inculcation of a shared past…” (pg. 257) He argues that monuments during the Baathist period were used to create national identity and thus their subsequent destruction in eroding the past after Saddam Hussein’s fall. His example on the attempt to destroy monuments commemorating the Iraq-Iran war, such as Victory Arches in Baghdad in 2007, would have deepened any ethno-religious sectarian divides, and consequently damaged social cohesion processes.

Young Iraqi girls completing their schoolwork (Credit: Pixabay)
Young Iraqi girls completing their schoolwork (Credit: Pixabay)

In this new phase of rebuilding Iraq after Islamic State we should scrutinise our attempts to erode spaces and symbols so easily. Such as cultural and historical monuments have provided, community spaces and groups are critical in shaping a sense of identity, especially through place and relationships. It would be valuable to acknowledge and understand community networks that existed under IS, including political, religious and ethnic exclusion to maintain status quo. The lack of attention to community assets and engagement will potentially damage opportunities to address trauma and collective identity. As Isakhan strongly argues “…the destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage has provided fertile ground for simplistic and exclusive models of identity to be promulgated, creating a rise in ethno-religious sectarianism and violence” (pg. 276).

Furthermore, institutional systems often lead to missed opportunities for inclusion. I was recently asked to conduct focus group discussions (FGD) to address program issues with urban IDPs and refugee communities in Iraqi Kurdistan. The objective was to receive feedback on an innovative outreach communication tool. Rather than using static FGDs we conducted participatory workshops using co-design methods to plan services. During the session we used methodologies including discussion, mapping and design to produce an end result with persons of concern. It was evident from our conversations that exclusion had played a big role in everyday life and access. Immediately Iraqis and Kurdish Syrians expressed a desire for a way that people could be brought together rather than deepening the cracks. Eligibility criteria had been an obstacle to communities working together. They had a desire to collaborate, but many programs had been separated by their identity. In emergency relief, exclusion has often been a common practice as limited materials and resources are distributed to the “neediest” or defined by “causes”.

Lastly, we must all acknowledge our privilege, behaviours and assumptions that shape our world view. Now more than ever we need to invest in active participation and community governance on all levels of interventions. Programs are designed by a recipe of inputs and outputs that must meet a predestined outcome. These outcomes assume that we already know the inner thoughts and aspirations of all Iraqis, denying them a voice and agency. Fundamentally, they should be able to make a choice and change in their own lives beyond participating in short lived focus group discussions. Greater focus is needed on the “process” rather than the “outcome”, including meaningful and respectful activities that deposit dignity in a fragile community. It is time to start talking about what has come before and what needs to happen next to ensure a period of stability for Iraqis, including genuinely inclusive programming.


Dimitra Papavassiliou has had extensive experience working throughout the Middle East. Dimitra was previously based in Cairo with St Andrews Refugee Service; as the Internal Development Officer for UNRWA at Zarqa Camp, Jordan; and has worked in community development and education roles across Australia. 

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