By Biryar Bahhaalddin:
Have you ever thought what you will do if one day you are driven out of your own town just because you belong to a particular nationality? I experienced this when Saddam Hussein regime’s decreed to expel the Kurds from Xanaqien Karkuk and other places in Kurdistan to the Middle and Southern part of Iraq. When we moved to Baghdad, I can admit that I became worried about my identity, which was mostly my language and nationality at that time. I thought that I might forget my language, forget where I am originally from, my nation, through the passage of time. Some racist Arabs treated me and my family in a harsh way. In my primary school, every year there were elections of a role model for each class, and I was very excited at the prospect of standing for election by my class. However, I was rejected by the school principle and she told me, “You are just a stupid Kurd.” Furthermore, my family had to pay a bribe to enroll me in school. My nationality was marginalized everywhere.
I started to wonder: why are these people so mean, and why do they deny my nationality? This caused a reverse reaction inside me. My nationality and language became the only important part in my identity.
Amin Maalouf a Lebanese–born French writer published “Les Identités Meurtrières” the ‘Killer Identities’ or ‘In The Name of Identities”, which links the tribal concept of identity with the conflicts in world history. He argues that, when the person feels that a specific part of his or her identity is threatened, he or she will focus on this, and try to defend this part of identity. I can admit that I hated all Arabs, and I thought that all Arabs are against Kurds. However, after moving a lot from one place to another and learning the Arabic language, which has enabled me to communicate with different peoples with different points of view and perspectives, I became aware that what I’d thought about Arabs was not right but actually a stereotype. Not all the Arabs hate Kurds. When we moved back to Kurdistan, after the liberation of Iraq by the United States of America, our Arab neighbors cried for us because we were leaving them. This means that living and communicating with people, instead of thinking that “they are all the same”, can reduce conflicts between different ethnicities, religions and nationalities.
Maalouf explained this in his book. He pointed out that people who belong to one particular religion or nation do not have the same ideas and beliefs. For instance, not all Muslims are like each other, nor are all Arabs. I think that most conflicts are caused because of misunderstandings because we are not listening to each other. Emma Thompson, the British actor said, “Any problem, big or small, within a family, always seems to start with bad communication. Someone isn’t listening.” The same thing applies for the nations and the entire world: they are like families and most of their conflicts arise because people are not listening to each other. After experiencing all the events in my life, and communicating with people of different origins, I came to realize that all these experiences have become part of my identity. It is true that I am originally from Kurdistan, but how can I forget the nights of Baghdad, and how can I forget its large mosques and its cafés overlooking the Tigris River? All these memories have become an integral part of my identity.
In the past, the world changed gradually over thousands of years, but today’s world changes radically in a very short period of time, ever since people began to interchange many things with each other via technology and media. In the past there weren’t phones, media and internet and so people could be not in touch with each other easily like now. Because of the development of technology, today we can easily know everything that’s happening in the wider community. Social Media such as email, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram facilitates communication and tends to makes us similar to each other in our clothes, way of thinking, behavior, and morality. This interaction with the external world community is called globalization. Globalization has changed many things, and caused the horizontal heritage – the one we have learned from the different peoples around the world, and our contemporaries – to overlap the vertical heritage. Globalization reduces the differences between us, but it also causes conflict between the different groups of people.
Maalouf said, “we invoke most frequently the vertical heritage”, but in fact we do not. We are influenced by more our contemporaries than our ancestors. Maalouf himself gave an example for this by saying, “It would not be exaggeration to say I have much more in common with a random passerby in a street in Prague or Seoul or San Francisco than with (my) own great grandfather.”
However, despite this, people still believe that they belong to their ancestors. If we introduce new things to a specific culture like new clothes, ideas, and behavior, then members of that culture may be worried about the parts they feel are threatened, parts that might disappear. This is a simple example about the effects of the semse of threat. Conflict starts when members of a particular identity start to feel that they are threatened by the other, different identities. When they feel that they are in danger of extinction, they want to fight those people who are different from them and have a different culture and beliefs. They will worry the most about the threatened part of their identity, and they will start to develop a sense of exclusive identity based on that. Maalouf explained this with an example from real life by asking, “What causes a Muslim in Yugoslavia to suddenly stop calling himself a Yugoslav and proclaim himself first and foremost a Muslim?” It is the threat that causes people to be worried about their religion, nationality, and ethnicity. Furthermore, they start to believe that killing is permissible to save their identity, and they see it as a holy duty. Unfortunately this returns us back to the age of the Crusades.
Culture and traditions are the vertical heritage, which comes from our ancestors. Language, religion, and nationality are examples of “vertical heritage”, But if I just believe in what our ancestors did in the past and follow them directly without thinking critically, this causes conflicts. There are many people who turned into killers in the name of “identity defenders”. Many fanatical beliefs come from the “vertical heritage”. For example, the old conflicts in the past between Kurds and Turks have transferred to the new generation through the vertical heritage. Maalouf said that “the tribal concept of identity still prevalent all over the world facilitates such a distortion. It’s a concept inherited from the conflicts of the past, and many of us would reject it if we examined it more closely”. The point is to examine everything carefully, and imagine the consequences that might happen: this is very important to reduce conflicts. On the other hand, if we just do what our ancestors did in the past without thinking critically, inadvertently we will become a part of these bloody conflicts, and we will spend our lives in bloody wars. As Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher, said, “Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another.” I believe in this idea and this is how I protect myself from inadvertently being a part of these conflicts.
Biryar Bahhaalddin is a Library Assistant at The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani