Identities in Motion: Thoughts on the Group Dynamics of Displacement and Return in Iraq

“What does it mean to be who you are in the place where you live?”

This seems the eternal question to me, growing up as I did mixed-race, religion, ethnicity and bewildered as to how to fit in. From an early age, I recognized that within my mixed-up and often contentious household and outside of it, my identity politic was political: fitting into any one group would mean picking one over another. I chose instead to perform the mental geometry necessary to fill all these pieces into a cohesive whole, figuring out connections and commonalities no one else could see. This is all to say, it’s not lost on me that this search for consilience amongst the noise of seemingly intractable difference is also what societies torn apart by conflict must do, writ large and small, to piece themselves back together as a whole or into something else entirely.

The question posed then is at the crux of understanding displacement and return, and serves as the lodestar to Social Inquiry’s exploration, in conjunction with the International Organization for Migration, of social dynamics in Iraq. Answers to this question, particularly in a context as complex as Iraq, serve to uncover social fragility at the local level and how everyday citizens navigate their communities amidst upheaval not only in terms of their relationship to the state, but to each other. Reframing fragility by placing social cohesion and relationships at its center allows us to examine in more detail the divisions and connections among and between groups that are influenced by identity and historical factors. These factors must be taken into account to understand more latent sources of tensions in already fragile local communities, layered on top of more immediate causes such as lack of access to services, livelihoods, and security.

As we finalize our analysis of 121 interviews with host, displaced, and returning communities on issues of identity, history, and social change across neighborhoods, towns, and villages in Sulaimaniya, Kirkuk, and Nineveh governorates, the following themes stood out about what it means, and how, to belong (or not) in and to Iraq:

Social Glue v. Elastic Band

It would be a misnomer to say that there is no social cohesion in Iraq. In some ways, our fieldwork suggests, there is too much in that within groups there is a rigid sense of identity and shared history, coupled with strong tribalism/clan structures. This type of bonding has the capacity to breed a “crude” form of cohesion that may prepetuate norms and values that are hierarchical, exclusionary, and even xenophobic, as a means of self-protection. We see this across Iraq and it appears within our data, particularly when homogenous host communities take in internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are of a different ethnic and/or religious group.

At the same time, we have found there is a change in the social order within communities that the multiple crises the country is facing, if not started, then exacerbated. What this means is family or clan structure and interaction is loosening. On one hand, this weakening of bonds and structure has the capacity to further subdivide individuals into more tightly held identity groups and entrench even more difference. The rising sectarianism referenced in our interviews between Turkmen, a once cohesive ethnic group, is one example of this starting to happen. On the other, these shifts may help to break insularity and even spur more individual and critical thinking, particularly given greater access to outside societies through technology. This in turn may create openings for developing a more elastic within-group dynamic that enables outside groups to bridge into it, allowing for both more individual and group rights.

We see this in places like Altun Kupri in Kirkuk, a historically mixed and integrated town with a host community comprised of Sunni Kurds and Sunni Turkmen who have lived more or less side-by-side for decades. This gives the host community members the tools to foster acceptance of newcomers a bit easier, recognizing that it takes time and requires effort from both sides –a circumstance that came as a surprise to the predominantly Sunni Arab IDPs hosted there, who expected ethnic diversity in and of itself to be the source of all tensions.

Homogeneity has its Discontents

The fact that many IDPs entering into Altun Kupri were puzzled by how a place with so much ethnic diversity could be relatively safe and welcoming highlights just how fragmented Iraqi society has become. Experiences of this kind of integration seem few and far between. But, the opposite scenario, of completely homogenous societies having better outcomes, is not what our data tells us. Instead, what we find is that in areas with homogenous host communities, their interactions with IDPs, even those of the same ethno-religious identity, are superficial and transactional at best, with the two groups living together, in parallel. As such, IDPs in these areas have overall found community with each other exclusively. This can be seen as an important coping strategy but also serves to further create identity-based enclaves within these neighborhoods, which may cause greater tensions down the line if displacement continues to protract.

It seems then that the age of a neighborhood and the social configurations of different groups including how they occupy the urban constructed space together and whether or not some have more tribal affiliation than others, plays a significant role in determining perceptions of inclusion. Rural versus urban divides should also not be underestimated in affecting interactions, regardless of ethno-religious homogeneity or not.

The Complexities of Identity, Victimization, and Return to Place of Origin

Part of this disconnect may come from the fact that individuals did not seem to feel like their personal or group suffering was acknowledged appropriately or that they shared a common narrative with others. It is not for nothing that despite the heat during the fieldwork period and the fact that it was Ramadan, Muslim respondents across population groups took the time to speak with us at length even though there was not material incentive to do so.

That said, we found tightly held group identities related to past victimization as well as emerging demands toward nationalism and/or autonomy among Kurds, Turkmen, Yezidis, and Christians. While these groups were able to lay claim to a mantle of victimhood directly in interviews, Sunni Arabs insisted that they felt like “strangers” in their own country with no rights anymore. Owing to the alienation of being perceived to be connected to the previous regime and its Arab nationalism, Al-Qaeda, and now ISIS by virtue of ethno-religious affiliation, many tended to refer to themselves as Iraqis first, equivocating on other identifiers. These details seem to matter with regard to how well different groups acknowledge the difficulties the others face now and have faced previously, particularly since this conflict is serving only to dredge up unredressed resentments of the past.

The focus on one’s own group’s suffering is understandable, but the consistent comparing of one suffering over another, stemming from perceptions of inequity and invisibility, only serves to obscure the commonalities inherent in various groups’ narratives. Recognition of each group’s suffering is imperative, but at the same time, finding points of connection in these narratives could further serve to open deeper and more meaningful interaction, if they were to take place. This is critical because as noted, and at present, groups seem to be living in parallel, which may not be sustainable as displacement protracts.

This parallel existence is also present in areas of return, where some ethno-religious groups are allowed back to their places of origin and others are blocked for identity-based reasons. Disconnect then between returnees and those still displaced will also limit ways of appropriately deciding if, when, how, and where returns occur, taking into account all victims’ needs. Whether this means groups will live together again or separately matters less, to a certain extent, than the process to get everyone to the point of compromise that will allow for peaceful existence of all. This includes processes that delve into past and present victimization and justice needs, prevent revenge, and reform security apparatus.

A Legacy of Dictatorship on People’s Will

Despite all this division and strife, nearly every person we interviewed longed for peace, tolerance, and an end to discrimination. But they felt that only God, and short of that a strong government, could change things for the better in the country. Interestingly, the ethnic divisions and sectarianism seen at present are bewildering to many as a seemingly new phenomenon that came with the 2003 invasion of the country, rather than something inherent and latent within it, despite the ethnic discrimination and growing sectarianism of the previous regime to say nothing of difficult cross-group relations dating even further back.

That people want to end it and get out from under it, but feel that change cannot come from them, indicates a loss or lack of agency –one of the legacies of a dictatorship where how they lived, and with whom, was determined for them. Freedom now indeed brings with it choice, including the choice to accept or reject your neighborhoods. One neighborhood on its own cannot change the country, but it can potentially change for the better the lives of all the people who live there. This then may be an opportunity, neighborhood by neighborhood, to loosen existing bonds and create new ones, based on a shared understanding and recognition of others, of intersecting, similar, and divergent narratives, and of the need, regardless of the solution, to work together to get to peace.

It may even be a chance to show what new leadership can look like, from the bottom-up. If they would, to borrow some famous words, only connect.

Social Inquiry