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The Otherness in Iraq: A Complex Divided State

Author: Shermeen Yousif

The troubling, complicated scene in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries with civil unrest, is often attributed to external hands.

Yet, it is also known for those who live there or had lived there, like myself, that the rhetoric is charged with preconceived notions of dehumanization among the disconnected social groups, ethnicities, religions, and sects.

The Otherness in Divided Iraq

There is often the “us versus them” mentality, fed by twisted religious dogma, bigotry, and socioeconomic divisions. To understand how such an ecosystem emerged, it is important to note that some of the most problematic issues are ignorance and dehumanization of the “other”.

The “other” is always vague and abstract. There is often a stigmatizing idea about the other religion, race, or ethnicity.

Book on the Otherness in Divided Iraq

In psychology, the act of “othering” has unique meanings. One common interpretation of the term “othering” is the stigmatization of a group to protect one’s own positive identity. Social differentiation characterizes the “us” and “them” concept and is interpreted as racial, geographic, ideological, or ethnic differences. This always dangerously leads to bias and prejudice and thrives on the denigration of the other group.

In ethnocentrism, the term “othering” delineates the tendency of an in-group to regard itself as superior to the out-group The other then becomes a member of the out-group and is therefore vulnerable to prejudice and discrimination. “Othering” becomes the process of distinguishing between the inner circle and outer circle.

The perception of the “other” is often a constructed concept, determined by ideologies, cultural norms, and experiences, and thus it differs from the “real” or “ground truth”.

Therefore, the commentary on the “other” defines the rhetoric and becomes powerful in either charging hatred, or sometimes positively changing misconceptions. Acceptance and co-existence of diverse groups begin with the understanding of inevitable differences.

It is self-evident that the rhetoric of divisiveness in my home country of Iraq feeds off ignorance and illiteracy, which has worsened over the past few decades.

The importance of literature and access to knowledge has diminished and is subordinate to survival needs and to navigating post-war Iraq.

The consequences of long-term civil unrest have led to the segregation of those diverse groups. Christians, Yezidi, Kurds, Shia, and Sunni live in their own worlds. The corrupted government is satisfied. “Divide and conquer” always works.

In one instance, when election times approach, religiously based Shia politicians remind their folks of the importance of loyalty to their sect.

The spirit of civic citizenship becomes subordinated to loyalty to the group. The pledge of allegiance occurs for the sect, which is the in-group.

Unfortunately, the Iranian sectarian government model is one of the most influential and problematic issues in contemporary Iraq, which Iraqi Shia adhere to. Devotion to the sect becomes more important, compared to that to the country.

To further our understanding of such an issue, a referral to historical instances can be informative.

For example, the Renaissance era was a transformational societal change towards favored science, rational thinking, and logic. In the subsequent Age of Enlightenment (Age of Reason), medieval Europe emerged from the darkness with an intellectual and philosophical wave.

This led to major societal and governmental reformations, in addition to positive aspects of liberty, progress, toleration, constitutional governments, and most important separation of religion and state.

This kind of transformation is needed in Iraq, but the country has recently seen a sad step back into a darker age. This is fueled by multiple interrelated political agendas, toward controlling the masses and ensuring long-term existence.

The masses are manipulated by fear of the “other”. The slogan “Don’t let the Sunni govern” has been a long-term phrase in the Shia-dominated government.

What is happening in Iraq is also happening in other parts of the world where hatred and bigotry have brewed which led to disconnectedness.

We learned that history could repeat itself from recent global, political, and societal changes.

Therefore it is important to deconstruct what can lead to such segregation. In order to have sympathy for others, it is necessary to learn, communicate, listen, and be open to dialogue.

To establish such qualities, a transition from judgment-based to acceptance-based rhetoric becomes essential. “Re-humanisation”, as Elif Shafak describes, is a key concept to a positive change in such troubled environments. Before general judgments and misconceptions, we need to humanize the “other”.

Elif Shafak in black top looking away

Attempts of changing the existing rhetoric start with much-needed enlightenment in the Middle East, and in particular, Iraq. In order for people to develop acceptance and establish “re-humanization”, open-mindedness becomes necessary. This is often guided by a certain level of intellectual and analytical thinking, in addition to other ways of thinking.

Communication between different groups should occur at multiple levels and in various forms, which is why access to literature on the “out-group” is important. Tolerance, acceptance, and sympathy for the “other” are needed qualities. However, we all know that changing a popular mindset is a huge shift that is only attainable when the public is ready. Until people read, listen, learn, respect, and accept the out-group, the public scene can barely change.

Short Biography: Dr. Shermeen Yousif is an assistant professor in architecture, an immigrant from Iraq, and an activist for women’s rights and Middle Eastern issues. She has written this article for Ideas Beyond Borders.

Portrait of Dr. Shermeen Yousif in a library

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