As sectarian divisions roar, Iraq is remembered as being defined by its diversity

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The deep religious and ethnic divisions that haunt Iraq today weren't always as apparent. In fact, Shamiran Mako didn't know about them as a child growing up there. Mako is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and a research fellow at Northeastern University in Boston. She stopped by The World's studios to talk about her Iraq.

Shamiran Mako: I grew up enjoying all sorts of cultural and religious activities of people from our surrounding neighborhoods. We had neighbors who were Turkmens, Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians. The rich cultural diversity that we grew up with was something that we cherished. Christians would join in celebrating Ramadan and vice versa. I grew up with these very vivid memories of enjoying these different festivities with our neighbors and as schoolchildren you kind of learned to celebrate that. We didn't really know about these differences. We just knew that this is what people did and these were people's traditions.

Werman: These days always seem to hear about Iraq as the sectarian divides between people. Did you detect any tension when you were growing up in this diversity?

Mako: No. We didn't know if our neighbors who were Arab were Shia or Sunni. This is something that I think most Iraqis can speak to. I've spoken with my parents, I've spoken with relatives who grew up throughout the 1940's, '50's and '60's - they also didn't know. I was born in Basra and I grew up in Kirkuk and I remember asking my mom "What does it mean to be a Shia? What does it mean to be a Sunni?" And she said "We didn't know these differences. We didn't ask our neighbors if they were Shia or Sunni."

Werman: How did that make you identify yourself? Did you ask your parents "What are we?" or did it matter? Did they care?

Mako: My family is Assyrian. We're the small, native Christian community of Iraq. We speak Aramaic or Assyrian at home and so there was a language difference there. We knew that this is the ethnicity or community that we belong to but at the same time it wasn't necessarily something that was heightened. People just knew that these differences existed but they weren't necessarily something that was bad. Growing up, we knew that we were Iraqis but at the same time Iraqi also meant being Assyrian, being Kurd, being a Turkman, being Yazidis, etc.

Werman: It was all about the melting pot in many ways. It was very similar to the United States. People from all these different roots coming together.

Mako: Absolutely. I think one of the biggest points of contention was the regime itself. You had a one party Sunni-dominated Arab regime, Saddam Hussein's regime, that tried to impose the melting pot. I think that had different reverberating effects that we started seeing post-2003. I would say that the contention at that point was more with the regime itself and trying to suppress these different ethnic religious differences rather than with the people themselves.

Werman: Do you have family back in Iraq still?

Mako: I have extended family.

Werman: Are you talking to them and how are they feeling?

Mako: We've spoken with them. Most of them are in the Nineveh plains region.

Werman: Which is where, in relation to Baghdad?

Mako: It's above Mosul and it's probably a couple of hundred kilometers north of Baghdad. They are also very disheartened to see this happening. There's an estimated 500,000 people that have become displaced from Mosul and it's an estimated population of about 2 million people, so that's quite substantive and the number is growing. There is massive internal displacement amongst that, so there are a lot of Sunni Arabs who are trying to seek refuge in the Kurdish-controlled region. But for the Assyrians and the Yazidis and the Turkmens, the smaller communities, they're really feeling the brunt of it because so many of their community members have already left. For the few relatives that I have left, they see this as an ongoing problem and one that is only going to continue to affect the massive outpouring of Iraqis into neighboring countries.

Werman: I'm curious to know - what is the discussion among Iraqis who are not in Iraq, like the Iraqis you speak to here? What are they saying about what's going on right now?

Mako: They're a bit shocked about the visceral response that we're seeing as a result of these different factions that are behind the underlying causes of this violence. They're also in shock that over the past 10 years there hasn't really been much of socioeconomic development alleviating poverty, boosting education. Especially the ones who have left awhile ago, a couple of decades or so ago. It's hard for them to see that no progress has been made.

Werman: Shamiran Mako, thanks very much for coming in. It was great to meet you.

Mako: Thank you. Likewise.