Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there has been a significant increase in inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence among Iraqis. This paper seeks to understand why this violence is taking place in a country with a relatively strong history of tolerance for its religious and ethnic diversity. The acceptance of ethnic and religious pluralism – the existence of a variety of religious and ethnic groups – is critical for stabilizing Iraq. An overview of the history of Iraq, from Mesopotamia to the post-Saddam era, illustrates a pattern of tolerance turned to violence as a result of both external actors and internal processes following the U.S. Invasion. The literature on pluralism is discussed to understand the role of predominantly Christian faith-based aid organizations as unregulated external actors that were given disproportionate access in Iraq and consequently contributed to the current levels of violence against Iraq’s Christian minority. Internal barriers to upholding pluralism include the ambiguity of the current Iraqi constitution. The mistakes made in Iraq could have been avoided and further illustrate the importance of upholding pluralism at a time when Iraq will no longer be under the supervision of outside forces.


“If Iraq’s pain has been great in the modern era, so too, has been its betrayed promise.”

 (Ajami 2003, 10)

Iraq’s population is extremely diverse, both ethnically and religiously. It is made up of a majority of Arabs (divided between the Shi’ia and Sunni sects of Islam), Kurds (an ethnic group more closely related to Persians) and a small population of religious and ethnic minorities that include Turkomens, Assyrians, and Jews, among others (Byman 2003). Before the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq was estimated to have had the “best educated, most secular, and most progressive population of all of the Arab states” (Byman 2003, 72). However, the cleavages in Iraq’s society have been exacerbated by a 35 year dictatorship, 13 years of suffocating sanctions, two Gulf wars, and, as of 2003, an ongoing foreign occupation. Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, there has been a severe increase in the level of violence within Iraq, dividing citizens along ethnic and religious lines. In this paper, I seek to understand why this violence is taking place when, historically, Iraq has a relatively strong tradition of religious and ethnic diversity and tolerance for that diversity.

This paper argues that accepting ethnic and religious pluralism[1] is critical for stabilizing Iraq. Moreover, pluralism needs to be respected by external actors, including aid groups, and internal processes that include a revised constitution. I argue that the current level of violence, especially against Iraq’s Christian minority, is in large part a consequence of the disregard for pluralism that was evident in the unilateral U.S. support for Christian faith-based aid groups immediately following the 2003 U.S. invasion. As a result, the provisions of the new Iraqi constitution will prove critical for attempts to reduce violence in Iraq. This paper’s thesis and findings differ from arguments that violence in Iraq results from insurmountable conflicts between ethnic and religious groups. Instead, I focus on historical and contemporary content, and external as well as internal factors, to argue that pluralism is possible, to show the mistakes that have been made, and to point the way to a more stable future.

The first section of this paper will provide an overview of Iraq’s history of ethnic and religious pluralism from ancient Mesopotamia to present day Iraq. The second section will analyze the involvement of external aid groups in Iraq and the consequences this has had, especially for the local Christian population. The third section will break down the internal issues that are barriers to a pluralistic and democratic society in Iraq; these issues include elections and the ambiguity of the current Iraqi constitution. The sources used in section one include historical accounts as well as secondary sources; section two draws on primary and secondary sources as well as symposium reports from the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University from 2007-2010. Section three focuses primarily on scholarly articles and the Berkeley Center symposium reports.

Section I: Historical Iraq


Iraq has a very rich and ancient history. This section describes ancient Iraq, the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, Iraq under Saddam’s rule, and post-2003 Iraq in order to compare relative levels of tolerance. Present day Iraq was known as Mesopotamia for hundreds of years. It was considered the cradle of civilization where the ancient empires of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and Assyria flourished.  Ancient Mesopotamia produced many ‘firsts’, including the first written code of law and the first city-state, as well as the first advanced social, political, and economic institutions (Ismael and Ismael 2005, 610). This area later became part of the Persian, Greek, and then Roman empires until the 7th century, when Baghdad, the capital of present day Iraq, became integral to the Islamic world, beginning with the Abbasid caliphate (“Iraq” Britannica). The Ottoman Empire was the last empire to rule the region, from the 16th century until the early 20th century, when the British took control.

Present day Iraq was carved out of the crumbling Ottoman Empire by the British in 1921. It included the regions of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul (Ismael and Ismael 2005) and included a plurality of religious and ethnic groups. However, Ottoman Iraq also had a history of religious and ethnic diversity and, more importantly, tolerance for that diversity. Non-Muslims under the Ottoman Empire were allowed to retain their religious practices in return for paying higher taxes. Known as the millet system, this structure provided protected religious minorities (dhimmis) – which included Christians and Jews – with social, economic, and cultural freedom, but not political opportunities (Nakhleh 2009).  The history of Iraq under Ottoman rule was one of ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity. This is why commentators such as Radwan Masmoudi state that “belief in freedom of religion is very strong in the Muslim conscience and in Muslim theology” and that the “Quran does support religious freedom, freedom to disbelieve, and the right to change one’s belief” (Masmoudi 2008, 18). Indeed, many analysts argue that there were significantly higher levels of religious tolerance for that diversity at the height of the Ottoman Empire than during the same time in Europe.[2] The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, however, brought a power struggle to the region for the first time in several hundred years.

After the Ottoman Empire

Present day Iraq is an externally constructed state lacking a unifying identity. The south is dominated by the Shi’ia Arabs, the center by the Sunni Arabs, and the north by the non-Arab Kurdish and a mix of the remaining religious and ethnic minorities (Dawisha 1999). Politically, from 1921 until 1958, Iraq was ruled, with the help of the British, by the Hashemite monarchy, which adopted a parliamentary system similar to that of the British (Dawisha and Dawisha 2003). The 1920 League of Nations mandate stipulated that Iraq’s minorities, particularly the Assyrians and Kurds, should be protected; additionally the British had specified social and economic aid for these minorities (Rayburn 2006).

However, in Britain’s hurry to leave Iraq in the late 1920s, it failed to include the protection of minorities in the 1926 Anglo-Iraqi treaty (Rayburn 2006). By 1958, there was unrest among a portion of Iraq’s population. Tired of limited Iraqi sovereignty and the British use of Iraq’s oil, a military coup ended the royal regime and Iraq became a republic (Ismael and Ismael 2005). Because the country included Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis, Shi’ias, Turkmen, Assyrians, Jews, and Chaldeans, problems increased when the minority Sunni Arabs came to power. As the British withdrew, the Sunni factions took control and quickly suppressed Iraq’s Kurds, Assyrians, and Shi’ias in an attempt to consolidate their rule (Rayburn 2006). In 1963, the Ba’athist party came to power with the aid of the CIA,[3] and by 1979, Saddam Hussein took control and Iraq became decidedly secularist.[4] However, prior to Saddam’s rule, Iraq was one of the most advanced countries in the Islamic world, with a comparatively well educated and affluent population (including women); it was also reasonably tolerant towards some minority groups (Inglehart et al. 2006, 501-502). It is surprising that this background could lead to the levels of xenophobia, sexism, and religiosity present in Iraq today (Inglehart et al. 2006, 501-502), but much of this can be explained by the manipulation of identity during Saddam Hussein’s rule, exacerbated by serious mistakes during and after the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Saddam’s Iraq

After Saddam Hussein came to power in1979 under the Ba’athist ticket of secularism (the separation of religion and state), he used “ruthless coercion, financial co-optation and a complex web of security agencies spying on the population and on each other” to subdue the Iraqi population (Ismael and Ismael 2005, 612). However, it was his use of identity manipulation that cemented his rule and became a prominent factor in Iraq’s ethnic and religious violence today. Saddam’s manipulation involved emphasizing first a nationalist identity and then a religious identity to further his political aspirations at different periods of time (Dawisha 1999). For example, during the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam proclaimed an Arabist identity for Iraq because it was fighting the non-Arab Iranians (Dawisha 1999). At home, however, the policy of “Arabization” resulted in the forced relocation of ethnic groups like the Kurds, Assyrians, and Turkmens, while financial incentives were given to Arabs to settle in these places (Byman 2003, 68).

During the first Gulf war, after his forces invaded and occupied Kuwait, Saddam discarded this (until then) steadfast secularism in favor of an Islamic identity, which he believed would unite Iraqis against the United States (Dawisha 1999).  According to Dawisha, “Saddam had become almost totally reliant on the country’s Islamic identity, a cornerstone of which was to emphasize the ‘Christian’ identity of the ‘other’ – those who were dropping bombs on Iraq” (1999, 561-562). The crippling sanctions imposed by the international community alienated the urban and westernized middle classes and made Saddam focus especially on ‘tribalism’ (strong in-group association) to muster a support base (Dawisha 1999, 563). In addition to tribalism, he exacerbated ethnic and personal differences to maintain power (Byman 2003). Dawisha quotes a member of the Ba’ath party as saying “secessionism, sectarianism and tribalism….are tearing the unity of society to pieces” (1999, 554). While Saddam attempted to cross the Sunni-Shi’ia divide by calling on an Arabist identity, he excluded the non-Arab Kurds and the remaining minorities (Dawisha 1999). His failure to build on an all-encompassing Iraqi national identity alienated different cadres of Iraqi society throughout his rule.