Shlomo Avineri, Anthropology and Ending the War In Iraq

Experts such as Israel’s Dr. Shlomo Avineri, who often appear on television and radio, in Israel and abroad, and who try to explain the war in Iraq to the general public, are usually political scientists, Arabists and Middle Eastern specialists, politicians and sometimes even journalists.

Almost all of them have studied the history of the modern near east at one or a number of the West’s (and Israel’s) great universities and specialized research institutes. Since understanding the modern world is high on the agenda of today’s governments, these men and women are often well funded and many of them, like the British Jewish historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis, have become world famous and almost household names.

I have yet to come across any news agency that has seriously turned to anthropologists, archaeologists, ancient historians, Bible scholars or odder still, natural historians, to try and better explain the civil war that is now raging in Iraq. And, it would create much mirth among the news agencies and the gatekeepers of the news, to suggest that this kind of academic expertise may hold  a “solution” to this apparently endless conflict, especially given the fact that ISIS is now running wild in central Iraq.

So, I will attempt in this short essay to show how a minor branch of anthropology called “cultural ecology,” can not only give us a better understanding of the war in Iraq today, but it may help us find a workable, if rough edged, political solution to it.

In order to better understand the dynamics of today’s Iraqi conflict we must first recognize its four different ecological niches. The first is upper Mesopotamia, which includes the northern and central parts of the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers and whose southern frontier is around the city of Baghdad on the river. Lower Mesopotamia goes from near Baghdad downstream until it reaches the Persian Gulf. The highlands are found in the mountainous north. The desert begins west of the two river valleys, and merges with the eastern deserts of what is now Syria and Jordan.

Each one of these regions has its own micro-climate, its own distinct vegetation, its own distinct forms and combinations of livestock and agriculture and its dominant, regional, ethnic identity. If you look at the map reproduced below(care of the American CIA), you will see the ethnic breakdown of contemporary Iraq and the areas where each of these major ethnic groups dominates their part of the country.


To the north and northeast in Iraq, is a mountainous area inhabited by different tribes of Kurds, coloured green on the map. The Kurds are a non-Semitic, Indo-European speaking group of clans who have developed a national identity. Although they are largely Sunni Muslims (some are Shia), they do not identify with the Arabic speaking Sunni Muslims to the south and southwest of them, nor with the Shia Arabs in the far south of Iraq. And, they have so far avoided the religious fanaticism of the Sunni and Shia Arabs, so when indigenous Christians and Yazidi have been driven out of their ancestral Iraqi homelands, they continue to give them refuge in the Kurdish dominated part of the country.

North and west of Baghdad you will see red on the map, representing the homeland of tribal Arabs (the Sunni tribes or clans, referred to so often in the press) and which dominate central Iraq along the Tigris and the Euphrates (upper Mesopotamia according to the geographers). Despite his avowed and very strange totalitarian secularism, this was the ethnic and linguistic heartland of the former dictator Saddam Hussein, and from where he drew his military and political support. ISIS is now dominant in this area but that may not last, as the traditional tribes who have let them run wild, may desert them under military pressure from the West.

To the south of Baghdad along the Tigris and Euphrates (lower Mesopotamia according to geographers) you will see beige, the heartland of the Arabic speaking Shia Muslims whose territory goes all the way to the mouth of those rivers that empty into the Persian Gulf south of Basra. Simply put, the ecology of contemporary Iraq consists of Kurds in the mountains, Sunni Arabs in the upper river valley, and Shia Arabs in the lower river valley. The nomadic Bedouin Sunni Arabs inhabit the Western deserts.

Anthropologists who practice cultural ecology often look at the long term social identities that correlate with distinct ecological niches. Very often they find that the names may change, but the people stay the same.

If they decided to look at Iraq according to the map below, they would immediately point out that the Turkish Ottomans Muslims, who ruled Iraq  for centuries until they lost the middle east to the British and the French during WWI, divided Iraq into three administrative districts; the Vilayet of Mosul for the mountainous north, the Vilayet of Baghdad for the Sunni center and the Vilayet of Basra for the Shia south. This corresponded to and still correlates with Iraq’s three major ethnic groups, Kurds in the North, Sunni Arabs in the centre and Shia Arabs in the south.


By taking a cultural ecological approach to the war in Iraq, we may then find the “root ecological cause” of the conflict, not just centuries earlier during Ottoman times, or even during the time of the Roman and Hellenistic Empires, but all the way back to the time of Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees, or even before; for it is the ancient historians, the Bible scholars and archaeologists who would be the first to point out the three ecological regions of contemporary Iraq correspond roughly to three ancient ethnic groups, who seemed to be in near constant conflict with each other. If that is indeed the case, then we may conclude that this is the natural historical condition for this part of the world, a rather sobering insight, but one worthy of consideration for contemporary policy makers and peacekeepers.

The Sumerians of southern Iraq (beginning around 4,000 BC) were the first civilization to develop writing, scribes, temples, and theology, bureaucracy, urban elites with dependent peasantries, trade, craftsmen, social hierarchies, empire, a polytheistic religion with ziggurats and all the things we mean when archaeologists talk about urban civilization (Their language was neither Semitic nor Indo European). Their ancient homeland is almost identical with the area that is now inhabited by Iraq’s Arabic speaking Shia Arabs.

The Sumerians flourished for centuries and were then conquered by Semitic speaking people from what is now central Iraq, about two thousand years later, the most famous of them being the empire builder Sargon of Akkad, who established his capital somewhere near modern Baghdad, and whose culture adopted much of what the Sumerians had to offer, but, who ruled with an iron fist and incorporated the south into his empire. Other subsequent Semitic empire builders include the Babylonians and Assyrians, familiar to readers of the Bible. This is the area of Iraq now inhabited by the Sunni Arabs. Occasionally, the Sumerians in the south revolted, but eventually the Semites, whether Babylonians or Assyrians dominated them.

In the north lived the Guti, mountain tribes, who may actually be the direct ancestors of today’s Kurds and who although sometimes were conquered, inevitably rebelled as is often the case with so many mountain dwellers.And so when one enters university libraries one reads ancient texts such as this one, written centuries after Sargon of Akkad conquered much of ancient Iraq, from the hand of a Babylonian scribe.

Sargon, king of Agade [Akkad], came to power during the reign of Ištar and he had neither rival nor equal…He crossed the sea in the east. In the eleventh year he conquered the western land to its farthest point. He brought it under one authority… and ferried the west’s booty [treasures] across on barges. He stationed his court officials at intervals of five double hours and ruled in unity the tribes of the lands. He marched to Kazallu and turned Kazallu into a ruin heap, so that there was not even a perch for a bird left. Afterwards, in his old age, all of the lands rebelled again and surrounded him in Agade. Sargon went out to fight and brought about their defeat. He overthrew them and overpowered their extensive army. Afterwards, Subartu attacked Sargon in full force and called him to arms. Sargon set an ambush and completely defeated them. He overpowered their extensive army and sent their possessions into Akkad.

This ancient quotation is not a bad evocation of the recent history of Iraq. For Sargon, you could substitute Saddam Hussein, who has now been succeeded by ISIS. In the south where the Sumerians once thrived, Al Maliki’s Shia are ready to fight the Sunnis and in the north, where they Guti used to rebel, the Kurds, under various branches of the Barazani clans in the mountains are willing and able to take on all comers.

Further research may suggest that the three major ethnic groups of Iraq also have an ancient, genetic continuity that goes back to the Sumerians. In the case of the Arabic speaking Shia Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq a recent genetic study concluded:

Overall our results indicate that the introduction of water buffalo breeding and rice farming, most likely from the Indian sub-continent, only marginally affected the gene pool of autochthonous people of the region. Furthermore, a prevalent Middle Eastern ancestry of the modern population of the marshes of southern Iraq implies that if the Marsh Arabs are descendants of the ancient Sumerians, also the Sumerians were most likely autochthonous and not of Indian or South Asian ancestry.

Perhaps it is time for the diplomats and politicians of America, Europe and the Middle East to recognize the cultural ecological imperative that shows that the three main ethnic groups of Iraq have been fighting it out since the time of Abraham, if not before.

At the start of the last Iraq war, I heard Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri being interviewed on an English-speaking radio station. He argued that Iraq is really three countries and should be treated as such. He explained that a unified Iraq was an invention of the British after WWI and had never really worked out. He said a solution to the conflict there would only occur when this is clearly recognized.

He did not mention that this has been the case for about four to five thousand years and will not change soon. Perhaps he needed to probe a bit deeper to strengthen his argument, for, oddly enough, it is still the “great powers” who created Iraq (with America) after WWI, who may still be able to influence its future, for the Arab world and the Arab League are clearly unable to do so.

Bearing all this in mind, the creation of three autonomous states in what was once modern Iraq can provide some balance among these eternally warring groups, and allow them to learn how to cooperate, instead of fight. In a region desperately short of viable solutions, this one may be worth trying.

The powers that be and that can influence the future of Iraq, including the Israel government, need to listen to experts like Dr. Avineri. I would argue that his initial insight now has the weight of cultural ecology behind it. I hope he will make use of it.


About the Author
Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large. Having spent more than twenty years living and working in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, he offers readers a cross cultural perspective on the pressing issues of our times. He has contributed numerous articles to the National Post, the Globe and Mail, the New York Post, the Brooklyn Rail, the American Thinker, Books in Canada, Minerva Magazine and is a Contributing Editor at the New English Review.