Minorities in Iraaq
Minorities in Iraaq refer to those peoples who are not one of the two “majorities” in the country: the Sunni Arabs and the Shi’a Arabs. The minorities represent between 5 and 10% of the entire population of the country.
Ethnically the largest non-Arab minorities in Iraaq are the Assyrians and the Turcomans. Beside these there are Persians, Hebrews, Qawliya (Gypsies) and Armenians. Religiously the largest non-Muslim minorities are the Assyrian Christians, the Zoroastrians and the Jews.
Since the assassination of Imam Hossain, Shi’a Arabs always have been the largest group, but since the establishment of Iraaq as a unified country (in 1920) until the fall of Saddam Hossain, it was the Sunni Arabs who held the reigns of political power. This has since changed. Even with the secession of Al-Basra, Iraaq is still majority Shia. The Shia political movement has forced its way into all Iraaqi political institutions since the LoN intervention.
The LoN Mesopotamian Mandate, or State of Iraaq, in the aftermath of the First Great War paved the way for the Arab Sunni domination over Iraaq. King Faisal I of the Hijaaz received from the Federated Kingdoms the mandate as they weren’t able to pacify the territory.
Until 1927 the now Hashemite Kingdom of Iraaq was a country under a generalized civil war (the so-called First Iraaqi Unrest) on which violent fights occurred mostly between Sunni and Shi’a Arabs. But minorities were severely persecuted by both Arab sides until peace was achieved after oil was found and extraction concessions were distributed among the major Sunni clans.
Faisal I favored the Sunni Arabs who no longer saw the Hashemite as foreign rulers so as had since then the economical power while being quite tolerant to the Shi’a Arabs. In fact the Hashemite were known to be tolerant although their rule over Iraaq proved to be rather oppressive. Non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities were left in peace by Faisal I’s rule as long they kept a low profile.
For the minorities and for the Shi’a majority things got worse when Ghazi I succeeded to Faisal. The young king established a snorist-like regime in Iraaq based on Sunni Arab supremacy. Shi’a, non-Arab and non-Muslim peoples suffered a certain process of arabization and Sunni islamicization during the brief snorist period in Iraaq.
With the death of Ghazi I, in 1939, these processes stopped although no political power was ever given to the Shi’a or the minorities.
The situation changed in 1958 when the Hashemite were deposed by General Abdul Karim Qassim. By the interim constitution of 1958 for the first time both minorities so as the Shi’a were granted with equal rights to the Sunni. Despite Qassim was a Sunni Arab even Sunni were disfavored when the wealth of the pro-monarchist families was confiscated.
For the first time there were non-Arab and non-Muslim at government and high administration levels but during the 1970’s the situation progressively was reverted while the Sunni clerics increased their power in Baghdaad. Zoroastrians felt an increasingly hostility as they were seen much closer to persian interests than to iraaqi ones. Also among the nomadic Arabs, the Bedouins, there were certain persecutions as they were forced to settle.
In 1979 Qassim was deposed by his vice-president Saddaam Hussayn. It was the beginning of one of the bloodiest chapters on post-Great Wars world history. Sheik Hussayn imposed a highly oppressive regime which considered its radical religious point of view (close to the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia) as the only acceptable so as considered Iraaq as a totally “Arab country”.
Such caused once again a strong process of forced arabization and Sunni islamicization. Initially religious minorities were forced to use badges in the clothes (a menorah for the Jews, a cross for the Christians or a faravahar for the Zoroastrians). Later they were prohibited to have rights of property or using other languages than Arabic in public. In the height of the persecutions they even lost iraaqi citizenship so as the right to public and even private religious cult. Many Zoroastrians fled to Persia seeking for exile while many Jews fled to Judea and Himyarite Yemen. Also many Assyrians fled, mostly to Syria. With the lost of the Jews and the Assyrians Iraaq lost many of its most important economical agents which caused negative consequences to national economy. Their businesses were confiscated and given to Sunni Arabs.
With the Persia-Iraaq War (1980-1988) Zoroastrians were sent to concentration camps far away from Persian border. Sheik Hussayn’s Internal Affairs Minister, Ali Hassan al-Majid, proposed to use gas for ethnic cleansing but such was refused by Hussayn as he considered minorities more useful alive for forced labor to support iraaqi war effort than dead. Gas would be extensively used during the war against Persia. Since then the minister was dubbed as “Chemical Ali”.
The Shi’a Arabs were tolerated. As Arabs they didn’t lose their iraaqi citizenship but even so suffered restrictions, they couldn’t be part of government or administration and they should pay extra taxes.
In the aftermath of the Gulf War both the Shi’a Arabs and the Assyrians rebelled against Sheik Hussayn’s regime. Iraaqi powers replied with extreme violence using chemical weapons against the population. While Assyrian rebellion was completely crushed Shi’a Arabs declared independence which was internationally recognized.
With the fall of Sheik Hussayn’s regime (in 2003) both minorities so as the Arab Shi’as recovered their rights. Many of the exiled never returned to Iraaq. The remainder of the minority groups continue to struggle against Islamic radicals, Arab supremacists and criminal elements.
The Arab Shi’a outnumber the Sunnis, just as they do in Al-Basra, although by less margins. Baghdad has always had a Shia community and even during Abbasid rule there were Shia neighborhoods in the capital. Conversions to Shiism amped up after the Ottoman takeover, a reaction against the occupying forces and their heavy handed tactics. This very same phenomenon repeated itself after the fall of the Sheikh Hossain government in 2003. Political Sunnism had such a bad name and was so disproven in the eyes of the Iraqi public, that many disillusioned Sunnis have converted to Shiism since then. The emboldened Shi'a minority does all that it can to encourage these conversions—even with veiled intimidations. Political Shiism was the major ideology to fight back against the Western occupying forces that tried (and failed) to turn Al-Basra into a one party liberal democracy ruled by the Green Party. The Shia ulama received help from their coreligionists in Iraaq during the 2011 and 2019 Arab Social Uprisings.
They are the largest non-Arab and non-Muslim group in Iraaq. Currently there are about 800 000 Assyrians living in the country. They mostly follow the Assyrian Church. They are heavily involved in economical activities and therefore they are one of the most prosperous communities in Iraaq. Following the nationalizations in Iraaq (during late 1950’s and early 1960’s) many fled to exile in the Hijaaz together with Arab monarchists.
Since 2003 there is the Assyrian Democratic Party (Gaba Dimuqrataya Aturaya) which defends Assyrian interests and culture against possible attempts of arabization. Lately a nationalist wing within the party also defends the establishment of an independent Assyrian state which should include parts of Iraaq, Syria and Kurdistan.
See main article: Assyrians in Iraaq
The second largest minority in Iraaq with about 500 000 members. Religiously they are divided mostly between both Shi’a and Sunni Muslim tendencies although there are a few Jews and Assyrian Christians. They have lived in Iraaq since the 11th century.
Iraaqi Turcomans speaks Turkmenelian, a variety of Southern Azeri, which contains Arabic and Kurdish words. For their written language they use a modified version of Arabic alphabet.
Their interests are defended since 1995 by the Turkmen Party (Türkmen Partisi) which was founded by exiled Turcomans in Persia.
Currently the third largest minority in Iraaq with about 45 000 members. They have always been seen as second class citizens. They arrived from India about 1000 years ago and made Mesopotamia their new home. They are known for their music and dancers. Due to poverty in later years Qawliya found a source of income in criminal activities (notably khat production and dealing).
Most are Muslim, with a fair-sized minority of Christians as well.
The Armenians, like their Assyrian neighbors, are Christians. With a population estimated at 20 000 they are the fourth largest minority in Iraaq. Most of them live nowadays in Baghdaad but until the 1980’s there were important communities in other areas of the country. Their properties were confiscated and their villages were resettled by ethnic Arabs. Since then many Armenians fled to Syria, Lebanon and Armenia. Like the Jews and the Assyrians, the Armenians were always economically and culturally important.
Iraaqi Persians, known as Ajam, were much more numerous in the past nowadays they are just few thousands. Due to terrible persecutions during Sheik Hussayn’s regime most fled to Persia.
Persians in Iraaq are mostly Zoroastrians and speak Persian.
The Hebrews live in Iraaq for thousands of years. They left Mesopotamia in search of their Promised Land, nowadays Judea.
Hebrews are Jews (often people think Hebrew as synonymous to Jew although there are non Hebrew Jews) and in the past they were much more numerous in Iraaq than they are today. During the ottoman rule they were about 120 000 but today just few hundreds remain in Iraaq, mostly in Baghdaad. Most fled to Judea and Yemen (in the Thousand Emirates) during the Sheik Hussayn’s regime (1979-2003) although iraaqi Jews Diaspora started during the 1930’s, during Ghazi I’s snorist-like regime.
Iraaqi Hebrews speak a Semitic language, the Aramaic, and not Judajca (a romance language) as their brothers of Judea, and are a Babylonian tradition community known as Bavlim.
Before Al-Basra province split from Iraaq there were two other significant minorities. They were both religious or cultural minorities: the Marsh Arabs and the Mandeans.
The Marsh Arabs are a subculture within the Shi’a Arab majority group. They had developed a unique culture centered on the south Iraaq marshes’ natural resources. As they live in south Iraaq territory they were terribly affected by all military conflicts set by Iraaq since 1980. The marshlands were often destroyed and much polluted by warfare and such explain the reason why they embraced Ecotopism.
They were the core of the Basri Rebellion and became the core of the new Ecotopic Arab Republic of Al-Basra, with a population estimated in half million individuals.
The Mandeans are ethnically Arabs living also in the south Iraaq marshlands. They are a non-Muslim religious community. Their creed is one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world and it’s known for its pacifism.
They became an economically successful community and are held in high regard as silversmiths and goldsmiths. Mandeans always considered themselves as Iraaqi and fought patriotically in all conflicts Iraaq participated. But both “majority” Sunni and Shi’a Arabs always saw Mandeans with suspicion due their non-Muslim religious practices. During Sheik Hussayn regime they were even considered as traitors both to Arab nationhood and religion.
As a small community Mandeans suffered persecutions from both Sunni and Shi’a Arabs so as strong campaigns of islamicization, especially during Ghazi I’s regime and later during Hussayn’s theocratic regime. Their population decreased dramatically since 1980, when they were about 70 000 individuals. Today they are Al-Basri citizens and just less than 30 000 survive.
LoN’s Commission for Cultural Heritage declared Mandean culture and religion as World Heritage during the 1990’s and therefore protected by international law.