Bernhardsson explores the Iraqi identity in second faculty lecture

In front of an overflowing audience at Wege Auditorium last Thursday, Magnus Bernhardsson posed the central, titular question in his Icelandic accent: “What is Iraq?” Bernhardsson, professor of history, was quoting Hanna Batatu, a famous scholar of Iraq, who uttered those very words while watching Jeopardy just moments before his death. This was a fitting introduction to Bernhardsson’s lecture on the past, present and future of Iraqi identity at the second talk of the faculty lecture series.

In his lecture, “What is Iraq? Defining the Nation,” Bernhardsson advocated for an Iraq determined solely by Iraqis, arguing that the sooner the U.S. leaves the country, the more successful Iraqis will be in rebuilding it for themselves. “When all is said and done, the war in Iraq will cost two trillion dollars,” Bernhardsson said, “That’s approximately 200 million dollars a day or about eight million dollars an hour.” Considering these impressive figures, Bernhardsson listed a few of the options that have been suggested as alternatives to current U.S. policy, including a troop surge, various forms of withdrawal and the “Biden plan,” a proposal by Democratic Senator Joseph Biden that would partition the country into distinct regions.

Bernhardsson, who teaches classes on Middle Eastern history, the modern Middle East and Islam, began by emphasizing the importance of Iraq’s 80-year history. Since its formal establishment in 1921, Iraq has changed from a country that denied its Arabic heritage to one that embraces it. Similarly, Iraq has been Islamic as well as secular at different points in its history. Bernhardsson characterized the nation under Saddam Hussein’s rule as a “catch-all” – both Islamic and Arabic. In today’s Iraq, Bernhardsson believes that religious and ethnic identities are still extremely prominent. The country’s future remains in question.

Bernhardsson then addressed the issue of who exactly should decide the next step for Iraq. Given the country’s history as an “imperial project,” Iraq has been a country forced to reinvent itself “under the impact of change,” Bernhardsson said. This, in turn, has strengthened Iraqi nationalism over the years – a nationalism based on culture, a “paradigmatic nationalism,” rather than a nationalism based on race, religion or language. This type of nationalism “seeks homogeneity [and] unity in the Iraqi experience.” Bernhardsson sees the Biden plan, which would divide the country based on ethnic lines, as antithetical to this nationalism.

Ultimately, Bernhardsson emphasized Iraqis’ “sense of belonging, a pride in their history, poets [and] cooking,” adding that they “really feel distinct.” It is because of this pride that Bernhardsson would like to see the future of Iraq determined by Iraqis. While there is support for the partition plan, Bernhardsson believes that it is a top-down imposed solution. “Iraqis do not want the country to be split apart,” he said.

Although Bernhardsson did not explicitly answer his initial question of the Iraqi identity, he argued that the solution should be up to the Iraqis themselves. “Iraq should be defined by Iraqis and for Iraqis without external imposition or interference,” he said.

The next faculty lecture, entitled “Financial Crises: A Hardy Perennial” will take place tomorrow in Wege Auditorium and will be given by Gerard Caprio, professor of economics. Next week, Safa Zaki, professor of psychology, will deliver a lecture entitled “Modeling the Mind: What Clues Can Be Gleaned from Amnesia.”

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