Barometer of Pluralism
by Jonathan Eric Lewis
The Middle East Quarterly SUMMER 2003
· VOLUME X: NUMBER 3
In "Seventy Thousand Assyrians,"
a short story penned in 1934, Armenian-American writer William
Saroyan's fictional character, Theodore Badal, painted a stark
portrait of Assyrian identity:
We're washed up as a race, we're through,
it's all over, why should I learn to read the language? We have
no writers, we have no news-well, there is a little news: once
in a while the English encourage the Arabs to massacre us, that
is all. It's an old story, we know all about it.
Despite his paean to the Assyrian people,
Saroyan's tone in the piece belied his skepticism that this ancient
Christian people, who had just survived not only the Ottoman
massacres but also a massive anti-Christian jihad in northern
Iraq in 1933, would retain a strong national identity decades
into the future.
Saroyan would thus perhaps be stunned
to realize that the Assyrian people not only continue to eke
out an existence in their traditional homeland of northern Iraq,
but that they are thriving in diaspora centers, are politically
organized, and are working for a pluralistic Iraq.
Much as in 1933 when the modern Iraqi
state was created out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire,
the Assyrians once again find themselves at the center of the
storm. Those Assyrians living both in northern Iraq, as well
as in the cities of Baghdad and Mosul, once again have an opportunity
to reassert their rights within the framework of the new Iraqi
polity. It thus behooves policymakers and activists interested
in creating a more democratic, pluralistic, and religiously tolerant
Iraq to take the plight of the Assyrian people seriously.
Indeed, the status of the Assyrians in a post-Baathist Iraq will
be an accurate barometer of the success of the United States
and its allies in creating an Iraq freed from the shackles of
its violent and troubled past.
The Assyrians are a non-Arab, Semitic,
and Christian people whose ancestral homeland includes parts
of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. They constitute some 3 to 5
percent of the Iraqi population although some estimates range
up to 10 percent. The most oft-cited statistic is that there
are 1.5 million Assyrians in Iraq with population centers in
Baghdad, Mosul, and villages in northwest Iraq.
Modern Assyrians trace their heritage
to the ancient Assyrians, Mesopotamians, and Aramaeans who converted
from Ashurism to Eastern Christianity in the three centuries
after Christ. Iraqi Assyrians primarily belong to the Assyrian
Church of the East (Nestorian) and to the Chaldean Church (Catholic),
the latter the result of a 1551 church schism when a segment
of the Nestorian Assyrians adopted Catholicism. Catholic Assyrians
are thus sometimes referred to as Assyro-Chaldeans and as Chaldeans.
The patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Mar Raphael, has
stated, however, that "Assyrian" is an ethnic identity,
with the implication that "Chaldean" is a religious
rather than an ethnic identity.
Religious factionalism has been a hindrance
to those Assyrians who advocate an Assyrian national identity
that transcends these cleavages, particularly the differences
between those who belong to the Assyrian Church of the East and
the Chaldean Catholic Church. Prior to the 1940s and 1950s, class
divisions and tribal affiliations were quite strong among Assyrians
and limited the ability of the community to unite in a more cohesive
manner. Today, sectarian differences account for the fragmentation
of the Assyrian community, a topic that is much discussed among
Assyrian intellectuals and political activists.
The vernacular of Assyrians is neo-Aramaic,
a language also referred to as neo-Syriac and Assyrian. It is
a point of pride for Assyrians that they speak the language of
Jesus. Following the Islamization of Iraq in the seventh century
C.E., Assyrians continued to live as Christians in the mountainous
region between what is today the Turkish Republic and Iraq. For
much of their history after the advent of Islam, the Assyrians
were referred to as either "Syrians" or as part of
the Nestorian millet, or religious community, a category officially
recognized by the sultan in 1845. Unlike some other ethno-religious
groups, the Assyrians were able to maintain an identity separate
from that of the Arab-Muslim majority and resisted assimilation
into the broader Muslim society. Both their language and strong
Christian identity fortified them in this regard. Indeed, Syriac
Christianity has been a uniting force for Assyrians, particularly
in the period before there was a collective Assyrian national
Assyrians have long had to distinguish
themselves as Assyrians rather than as "Arab Christians,"
the term of choice used by Arab nationalists who deny the existence
of a distinct Assyrian identity. Indeed, there is not one member
state of the Arab League that recognizes Assyrians as a distinct
ethnic and cultural group. The Islamic Republic of Iran, incidentally,
is the only Islamic country to recognize Assyrians officially
and to allow for their participation as minorities in parliament.
Some Arab-American groups have imported
this denial of Assyrian identity to the United States. In 2001,
a coalition of Assyrian and Assyrian-Chaldean organizations,
along with their Maronite counterparts, wrote to the Washington-based
Arab-American Institute, to reprimand them for claiming that
Assyrians were Arabs. In a terse letter signed by seven organizations
and copied to the White House, they asked the Arab-American Institute
"to cease and desist from portraying Assyrians and Maronites
of past and present as Arabs, and from speaking on behalf of
Assyrians and Maronites." In a press release of that same
year, the Assyrian International News Agency wrote that the Arab-American
Institute's "perpetuation of Arabist ideology represents
an egregious, willful, and deliberate mischaracterization of
Assyrian identity." They likewise pointed out that Arab
nationalist groups have wrongly included Assyrian-Americans in
their head count of Arab Americans, in order to bolster their
political clout in Washington.
Turkism and Arabism
The advent of nationalism in the Middle
East was unkind to the Assyrians. After 1909, the Young Turk
regime in Istanbul promoted an aggressive Turkish nationalism,
and with the entry of the Ottoman Empire into World War I, the
Assyrians found themselves swept into a violent genocidal whirlwind.
In 1915, up to two-thirds of the Assyrian community of southeastern
Turkey and northern Iran was physically decimated in a matter
of months. Survivors of the massacres sought refuge in the
territories that now constitute Lebanon, particularly around
Zahle, and in northern Iraq. Approximately 50,000 Assyrian refugees
arrived in northern Iraq and were housed in British-run refugee
camps. Similar upheavals in1918 in Iran forced more Assyrian
refugees into Mesopotamia, where already-established Assyrian
communities had existed for centuries. This combined influx of
Assyrian Christian refugees into heavily Kurdish and Turkmen-populated
northern Iraq altered the fragile demographic balance of the
region and laid the groundwork for decades of ethnic conflict
Although Assyrians had lived as a distinct
Christian community for centuries and were the indigenous people
of Iraq, it was not until the twentieth century that Assyrian
intellectuals formulated a modern Assyrian nationalism. This
nationalism went to great lengths to distinguish Assyrian identity
from Arab identity. Indeed, Assyrians, like other pre-Arab peoples
in the Middle East such as the Berbers, Copts, Jews, and Maronites,
drew upon their ancient past as a way of resurrecting their national
identity in the present. But despite appeals by the Patriarch
Mar Shimun, the victorious powers did not regard the Assyrians
as worthy of an autonomous or independent state. Unlike the Jews,
they had no great power patron or an equivalent of the Balfour
Declaration. After the postwar settlement, Assyrians found themselves
once again a small, vulnerable minority in the modern states
of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey.
Following the mass displacement of Assyrians
from Turkey and Iran and their resettlement in northern Iraq,
the British authorities decided to employ Assyrian men as protectors
of the crown's interests in Iraq. Under the British mandate for
Iraq (1920-32), the Assyrians were organized into militia groups-the
Assyrian Levies-modeled on the Indian army. They were used to
put down revolts and support the British military presence in
Iraq. This relationship between Assyrian refugees and the British
colonial power would prove to be a disaster for the Assyrians
who, just a few years earlier, had survived massacre and genocide.
Once Iraq became an independent state and the Levies were no
longer needed, the British abandoned their former partners to
During the mandate, some Assyrians had
been resettled into villages in northern Iraq. Nevertheless,
there remained many refugees and survivors, particularly of the
Tiari and Tkhuma tribes from the Hakkari Mountains in Turkey,
who had not yet found a place to call home. Various plans for
the resettlement of Assyrians in France and South America came
to naught. Neither did Atatürk's newly formed Turkish Republic
want to take in Assyrians.
These circumstances led to the creation
of an Assyrian political movement that sought international support
for Assyrian political autonomy in northern Iraq. The leader
of this movement, the aforementioned Mar Shimun, was by no means
universally loved among Assyrians and had his detractors who
hoped to stay on good terms with the Iraqi authorities. Nevertheless,
he did his best to engage the League of Nations on behalf of
the displaced Assyrians. He argued that the Assyrians should
be granted millet status and that Assyrians from around the world
should have the right to resettle in and around Amadiya, Dohuk,
This struggle between Assyrians and
the newly independent Iraqi government came to a head in late
summer of 1933 when an armed group of some 800 Assyrians crossed
from Iraq into Syria in order to assert what they perceived as
their legitimate national rights. The migration was a disaster.
The French authorities in Syria forced the Assyrians back into
Iraq where they were attacked by the Iraqi military. The Assyrian
nationalist movement, small and never a threat to Iraqi independence,
was finally crushed in August 1933 when the Iraqi army and Kurdish
irregulars, with genuine popular support, committed a massacre
at Simele. Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya wryly calls the massacre
"the first genuine expression of national independence in
a former Arab province of the Ottoman Empire." Assyrian
sources put the number of dead at 3,000.
No event has shaped Iraqi Assyrian collective
identity more than the August 7, 1933 massacre of Assyrian civilians
and mass destruction of Assyrian villages by the Iraqi army and
Kurdish irregulars in and around Simele. Assyrians consider the
anniversary of August 7 to be a national day of mourning.
Assyrians under Baathism
For the next several decades, Assyrians
did their best to survive and maintain their heritage. Compared
with the period from 1915 to 1933, the years of the Iraqi monarchy
were good years indeed. The regime of Brigadier 'Abd al-Karim
Qasim (1958-63) also favored the Assyrians. But Baathist domination
(1968-2003) was nothing short of a nightmare for those Assyrians
who wanted to retain their distinct ethnic identity.
As Baathist power increased, Assyrian
influence and rights within Iraq decreased. Fear and intimidation
became the rule as the regime attempted to divide families and
communities; religious schisms among the Assyrians were manipulated
in order to weaken their power. For example, in 1970, the regime
succeeded in luring back to Iraq the venerable Mar Shimun, once
the Assyrian nationalist firebrand who had sought millet status
for the Assyrians some thirty-seven years before. Back in Iraq,
he gave fulsome praise to the "leadership of the revolution."
Under the divide-and-rule policies of the Baath, some individual
Assyrians enjoyed privileges. But Assyrian national and cultural
life in Iraq virtually ended. Those Assyrians who held official
positions under the Baath did so at the price of discarding their
unique identity and native language. In short they had to cease
By the time of the 1977 census, the
regime referred to Assyrians as being either Arabs or Kurds.
Assyrians were thus forced to deny their identity as Assyrians
and became, in the parlance of the regime, "Arab Christians."
Speaking Assyrian in public became a crime, and Assyrian nationalism
was harshly punished. One extreme example of this "Arabization"
program was Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, an Assyrian-Chaldean
Christian who changed his surname from Youkhana upon joining
the Baath. Yet, despite Aziz's prominence in Iraqi politics and
Saddam Hussein's use of Christian chefs to cook his meals, it
was a shibboleth that Saddam was especially tolerant toward Christians.
Although regime propaganda claimed that Iraqis enjoyed religious
freedom, this applied only to ritual. The Baath prohibited all
religious activities that linked Iraqi Christians to co-religionists
abroad. For example, in 1978, the regime imprisoned more than
500 Assyrian members of the Bible Study Committee.
In the Iran-Iraq war, many Assyrians
were drafted and sent to fight on the front lines. This resulted
in a disproportionately high casualty rate. Soon thereafter,
numerous Assyrians left for Kuwait, Lebanon, and other countries.
Some families remained relatively secure for a while longer and
hoped for the best. By 1990, however, Assyrian national identity
in Iraq had all but been erased, to the point where foreign journalists
unfamiliar with Iraqi history completely missed this hidden community
and reported instead on the presence of Arab Christians (rather
than Assyrians or Assyro-Chaldeans) in Baghdad. In the 1990s,
the regime manipulated the United Nations Oil-for-Food program
in order to further persecute the Assyrians, by stipulating that
only "Arab Christians," and not Assyrians, could use
Around this time and shortly after the
1991 Kuwait war, many Iraqi Assyrians left for Australia, Canada,
and the United States. Indeed, since 1991, some 50 percent of
Iraq's Christians have left the country. Some 400,000 Assyrians
are now living in North America, particularly Detroit, Phoenix,
San Jose, Toronto, and Windsor. Community life in North America
is vibrant. In addition to churches, Assyrian-Americans have
a multitude of websites, chat rooms, and message boards that
allow for Assyrians throughout the world to communicate and share
ideas. There are likewise several radio shows devoted to Assyrian
concerns. Sargon Dadesho, a staunch Assyrian nationalist
who survived an assassination attempt by Iraqi agents in California,
founded an Assyrian satellite television station that broadcasts
into Assyrian homes in the diaspora.
Those Assyrians fortunate enough to
live in the Kurdish autonomous area since 1991 have been subject
to occasional discrimination by their Kurdish neighbors. Still,
Assyrian cultural and religious life has flourished in this enclave
in a way unimaginable under Saddam Hussein. This
cultural effervescence has been fertile ground for oppositional
The future of Iraq now hangs in the
balance. Should a postwar Iraq blossom into a democratic or quasi-democratic
state, no one would welcome this more than the Assyrians. It
would allow them to assert their cultural and religious rights
within the context of the new Iraqi polity and relieve them of
the fear of being persecuted as Christians or non-Arabs. This
means assuring that Assyrians have a place in a post-Saddam Iraqi
state and that their concerns about the role of Islam in the
new polity are addressed. While Assyrians have demonstrated their
willingness and desire for an Iraq for all Iraqis, they would
not fare well in a state constitutionally influenced by shari'a
(Islamic law). This is a point that policymakers interested in
promoting democracy in the Middle East would be well advised
Beyond the constitutional question,
the most contentious issue facing Assyrians in the near future
is the status of land claims and confiscated property. From the
mid-1970s on, the Baath regime made a point of expropriating
Assyrian villages and property. There are Assyrian activists
in the United States who would like to reclaim lost lands. Indeed,
much like the Kurds and Turkmen, the Assyrians have legally viable
claims to some oil-rich lands in northern Iraq, particularly
in and around the Mosul vilayet, a former Ottoman territory that
the council of the League of Nations annexed to Iraq in 1925.
In tandem with land claims, Assyrians
will likewise find themselves in political competition with Kurdish
parties in the months and years ahead. In particular, Assyrians
have bitterly complained that the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP)
has been at best negligent and at worst hostile toward Assyrian
rights and aspirations. There is great apprehension among Assyrians
that those Kurdish militias that fought with the United States
against Saddam Hussein will now impose autocratic rule in those
areas now under nominal Kurdish control. As a result, there is
a strong possibility that Assyrian parties will join with their
Turkmen and Yazidi counterparts as a counterweight to Kurdish
political power in a postwar Iraq.
To achieve their goals, Assyrians will
rely very much on the Assyrian-American community. Before the
war, support for the removal of Saddam Hussein was widespread
among Assyrian-Americans. Many of them are now returning to visit
their ancestral homeland and the relatives they left behind.
Others from Jordan and Syria hope to return. Family reunification
and the ability to restore Assyrian churches and villages now
head the agendas of Assyrian-American aid organizations. The
California-based Assyrian Aid Society has been conducting such
projects in the Kurdish autonomous area since 1991. Assyrian-Americans,
as demonstrated by their participation in the State Department's
Future of Iraq Project, are likewise eager to work with all other
Iraqi ethnic and religious groups in the rebuilding of Iraq.
Assyrian communities in California, Illinois, and Michigan have
engaged in an impressive degree of Assyrian political activity.
Whether that activity can be translated into a guarantee of pluralism
within Iraq will be the great test of Assyrian-American influence
and cohesion. If they succeed, this might encourage greater diaspora
activism by other Middle Eastern minorities, notably the Berbers
Guaranteeing a pluralistic Iraq will
also be the great test of U.S. influence and resolve. The British
failed to guarantee the rights of the Assyrians, and that failure
presaged the decline of Iraq into authoritarianism and, ultimately,
Baathist dictatorship. The status of the Assyrians is a barometer
of Iraqi pluralism, and it would behoove the United States to
consider it at every step along the way in the reconstruction
of Iraq. Their concerns about the possible rise of Shi'ite extremism
should be given a fair hearing. Given the fact that Assyrians
from the diaspora have been willing to work with the Americans
for a free Iraq, Washington has a particular responsibility to
ensure that Assyrian voices and concerns for a postwar Iraq are
It is still the case, however, that
most Americans have never heard of Assyrians, at least as a contemporary
people. The American public assumes that Shi'ites, Sunnis, and
Kurds constitute the population of Iraq; the Assyrian element
is often overlooked. This makes it incumbent upon the Assyrians
to vigorously promote their cause in the corridors of power.
Washington should take heed. Assyrian freedom will be the most
convincing proof of Iraqi freedom and the most demonstrable validation
of the brilliant military campaign waged in its name.
Jonathan Eric Lewis is a political analyst
and writer, specializing in the history of Middle Eastern minority
groups and their political movements in the diaspora.
 William Saroyan, "Seventy
Thousand Assyrians," in William Saroyan, The Daring Young
Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories (New York: New Directions,
 Interview with Mar Raphael I. BeDawid, Lebanese Broadcasting
International Channel, Apr. 30, 2000.
 Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Feb. 27, 2003.
 Walid Phares, "Middle East Christians: The Captive Nations,"
in Malka Hillel Shulewitz, ed., The Forgotten Millions: The Modern
Jewish Exodus from Arab Lands (London: Continuum, 1999), pp.
 Assyrian International News Agency, Oct. 5, 27, 2001.
 Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh, Empires of the Sand: The Struggle
for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923 (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1999), p. 160.
 Kanan Makiya, Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p. 167.
 Ibid., p. 170.
 Ibid., p. 175
 For a particularly informative website, with a wide range
of news reports, see
http://www.zindamagazine.com. Another useful source of information
is the website of the Assyrian International News Agency, at
http://www.aina.org. Examples of radio and television programs
include Qala d'Khoyada, Qala Kheera d'Abroyeh (Chicago/Detroit);
Assyrian Star Radio Program (Phoenix); SBS Radio Interviews (Sydney);
and KSBV AssyrianVision TV