C. J. Edmonds and the Invention of Modern Iraq

Edmonds’ emphasis on the need to unify the Kurdish language by turning Surani into the official dialect in southern Kurdistan was meant to establish Kurdish on the same footing as Arabic and to dismiss the governments attempt to undermine its political importance. Edmonds was also the first scholar to transcribe Kurdish into Latin characters, as no Kurdish alphabet existed. He believed it was important to use the Latin alphabet in order to distinguish Kurdish from the area’s two dominant vernaculars, Arabic and Persian.

Edmonds’ emphasis on the need to unify the Kurdish language by turning Surani into the official dialect in southern Kurdistan was meant to establish Kurdish on the same footing as Arabic and to dismiss the governments attempt to undermine its political importance. Edmonds was also the first scholar to transcribe Kurdish into Latin characters, as no Kurdish alphabet existed. He believed it was important to use the Latin alphabet in order to distinguish Kurdish from the area’s two dominant vernaculars, Arabic and Persian.

Political thought and political history: studies in memory of Elie Kedourie
By Elie Kedourie, M. Gammer, Joseph Kostiner, Moshe Shemesh
Routledge, 2003, 186 pages
Dating the past: C. J. Edmonds and the Invention of Modern Iraq

Liora Lukitz

The ‘invention’ of new States, or the ‘reinvention” of old ones – expressions much in vogue today – reflect ideas that are difficult to define. The difficulty stems, first and foremost, from the impossibility of pinpointing the precise moment when the process of invention actually takes place, letting new entities emerge on the political scene. It also stems from the impossibility of drawing a line that separates past definitions from more recent approaches to men’s relations among themselves and with their social environment.

An attempt to deal with these notions brings to mind two classic propositions, as both refer to the existence of a national movement that either precedes the process of invention or explains it after the fact. Ernest Gellner’s classic proposition that nationalism ‘invents nations where they do not exist’ and Benedict Anderson’s elaboration on the same theme,’ are examples linking the phenomenon to men’s conscious decisions. According to both authors, even voluntary acts of self-definition can rake place only when technical progress and the spread of modern means of communication permit the tightening of bonds among the members of a nation, bonds that previously existed mainly in their imagination.3 But even then, so We are further told, these new nations (imagined, invented, or reinvented) draw their legitimacy from historic collective memories readapted to match the needs of modern times.4

This View of the nation as perennial rather than a product of modernity remains a point of debate when studying modern Iraq and its emergence into the political arena after the First World War. Has Iraq, in its modern version, been invented by a naturalist movement? Or is it an outcome or a linear evolution linking historic Mesopotamia to modern time? Can this evolution be traced by following an organic thread proving the perenniality of Iraq’s national existence? Or were the fissures too many and the gaps too wide to allow such a generalization to take place? In other words, was the process of Iraq’s creation a non-continuous one, the sum of the series of episodes created as much by random events as by men’s conscious acts and decisions?5

Or, if one subscribes to the idea of an historic ‘Big Bang’, when did a coherent picture of Iraq’s path to modernity emerge? Was this movement strong enough to create a deeper sense of political consciousness and national awareness among the inhabitants of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul, split otherwise by geographic, ethnic, and economic differences? And, to sum it all up, can Iraq’s invention be dated, the process documented, hinting at the same time at the way with which modern nationalism is experimented within other multiethnic states?

The creation of modern Iraq has been, up to now, registered, recorded, and mapped by historians focusing mainly on the political evolution of the national idea and on a Baghdad·centred version of Iraq’s national experience.‘ The search for alternative explanations to this well-known story brings us, among other important studies] to C. j. Edmonds‘ papers currently assembled at St Antony ’s College, Oxford. Edmonds was British advisor to Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior during the post independence years (1935-45), and his letters and reports provide valuable insights into the controversial tendencies underlying the double process of ‘nation- building‘ and ‘nation destroying‘.’ In letters posted in the years preceding independence from Mosul and adjacent areas, where he served as political officer, Edmonds wrote extensively of the resistance of Kurds, Turkmen, Yazidis, and other ethnic and religious groups to a state ruled by a Sunni Arab elite. Working closely with Kinahan Cornwallis, then advisor to the Ministry of the Interior, Edmonds provided his superiors in Baghdad and London with reports and memorandum that are invaluable to the understanding of the process of Iraq’s invention by their supply of empirical experience and precisely dated facts.

Edmonds’ book Kurds, Turks and Arabs9 offers one of the best accounts of the actual conditions in Iraq’s Kurdish areas and the work of the Special Commission sent to Mosul in 1925 by the League of Nations.10 The commission’s main purpose was to investigate local conditions and provide information to help in the decision whether Mosul should become part of Iraq or be returned to Turkey.

The decision to send the commission followed the stalemate created at the 1923 Lausanne Conference by Turkey’s refusal to consider Britain’s claim over the former Ottoman vilayet. Anchoring their position on the resolutions of the 1920 San Remo Conference that accorded Britain a mandate over Iraq and annexed territories, the British claimed that Mosul was to be automatically annexed to Iraq once the mandate was over. Refusing to comply with the implications of Ottoman policies, the new Turkish leader, Mustafa Kemal, reaffirmed modern Turkey’s rights over Mosul and its non-Arab population. In his view, Mosul should not be included in the former Arab provinces recognized by Turkey’s 1920 National Pact11 as having the right to secede from the empire. Mosul’s Kurds, for their part, based their refusal to be attached either to Turkey or to Iraq on the 1920 Treaty of Servès (Articles 62 and 64), which accorded them the right to join their East Anatolian counterparts if and when the Kurdish area in Turkey became autonomous, forming thereafter an independent Kurdish state.

Edmonds describe the commission’s difficulties in trying to prepare the plebiscite that was to seal the area’s destiny. His position as the commission’, liaison officer and translator in many of the interviews with the local population provided him a vantage point from which to glimpse the difficulty of gathering free opinions when patron-client relationships, as well as tribal and personal interests, underlie local politics. Personal rivalries and the divisiveness that characterized Kurdish politics then appeared in all their complexity.

Iraq’s Kurdistan was divided at the time into four main districts: Mosul (with Zakho, Dohuk, Amadina, and Zihar as subdivisions), Arbil, Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniyya. In explaining the pitfalls of local politics in his reports, Edmonds describes the ethnic and linguistic divisions, that shaped the politics of the day, often playing into the hands of the proponents of modern nationalism, be they Kurds or Arabs. A good example was Kirkuk’s refusal to be engulfed by either Sulaymaniyya or Baghdad.12 Kirkuk’s Turkmen notables, accustomed from Ottoman times to the advantages of Kirkuk’s administrative control over Arbil, Rowanduz, Ko’i, and Raniyya, could hardly accept submitting to Baghdad after Iraq ‘s official creation as a state in 1921. Joining in efforts with Arbil’s Turkmen notables, they claimed the right to retain their administrative autonomy by dealing directly with the British authorities.13 Kirkuk’s Kurdish notables -the Talabanis – also wanted Kirkuk to remain to idara makhsusa, that is, an area under a special regime. Their reasons stemmed, however, from personal and tribal rivalries in Kurdish politics. The Talabanis wanted in fact to prevent Kirkuk’, engulfment by Sulayrnentyya, then the rising centre of Kurdish protonationalism.

Linguistic, ethnic, and religious divisions influencing Kurdish polities14 played into the hands of Iraqi and British authorities by preventing the ‘Kurdification’ of Kirkuk and the  subsequent formation of a territorial unit that would impede the extension of Bagdad’s writ over the northern provinces. Kirkuk’s dilemma throws some light on the parameters of ethnic conflict at the time of Iraq’s creation. 

Without specifically framing the moment of Iraq’s invention, Edmonds deals instead with its implifications. Edmonds’ reports reveal that different moments could be identified as the precise one carrying the seeds of decisions to create as new nation. Could the 1921 conference in Cairo15 be referred to as the moment of Iraq’s invention? Did it happen when the designs of the British officers serving in Baghdad merged with those of the Iraqi born ex-Ottoman officers who settled for the idea of an Iraqi state as a first step to the larger Pan Arab state promised to the Arabs during the First World War? Or should the moment of Iraq’s invention be framed as the arrival of Faysal ibn Husayn in Basra and his reticent advance toward Baghdad, culminating finally in his coronation as King of Iraq in August 1921? Or, should the search for the precise moment of Iraq’s inception go further back to Britain’s indecision regarding the political fate of Basra and Baghdad after Baghdad’s occupation by British troops in March 19179 All these moments, episodes, events can be seen less as the result of an historic ‘Big Bang’ than as steps in a process born from accidents and the will of men.

But again, not all men on the spot could freely express their opinions on what Iraq was all about and what it was meant to become. Edmonds seems to consider the 1923 elections to the Constituent Assembly as the culminating moment in a series of steps supposed to turn the amorphous idea of an Iraqi state into reality. The elections were meant to reinforce support for the treaty signed some months earlier with Britain, formalizing Iraq’s creation by seeking the approval of the population. It meant, in fact, the first official attempt to consolidate the grounds for the ratification of Iraq’s invention as a modern state.

Existence as a modern state required unity and the relinquishment of divisiveness for the sake of nation-building. In this context, Kirkuk emerges again as an example of resistance to newly created frames of allegiance. Measuring the advantages and disadvantages of becoming ‘Iraqis’, the Kirkuklis conditioned their participation in the elections on the safeguard of their cultural, linguistic, and administrative rights. The choice to become Iraqis and fulfil the condition put forth by the government to participate in the elections would mean the adoption of new personal and collective frames of allegiance that did not count much yet for the inhabitants of Iraq’s northern provinces. This condition became, in fact, a two·edged sword, preventing many from taking part in the process. A de jure acceptance of Iraqi nationality meant, for the majority of Kurds and Turkmen, the relinquishment of their own identity and involuntary participation in a process of cultural assimilation.

The limited (and monitored) participation of the local population in the electoral process did not prevent the annexation of the northern districts to Iraq, however.” The idea of an Iraqi nation was not a reflection of the realities in the villages and towns in the northern areas (excluding the town of Mosul and its Arab Muslim population). Nor was it the outcome of tighter bonds created by technical progress and economic development. On the contrary, it was its political implementation that generated an economic response and cultural resistance.

It was Baghdad increasing political influence and economic appeal that changed the axis of resistance to the new state. The idea of administrative autonomy was abandoned after the reoccupation of Sulaymaniyya by Iraqi troops in 1924, putting an end of Shaykh Mahmud’s autonomous utopia. Britain’s indecisive policies of promoting and overturning local leaders, such as Shaykh Mahmud, in accordance with its own shifting interests propelled more pragmatic elements to the fore, among them those who believe in the advantages to be derived from an economic merger with Baghdad that had the most to gain from the incorporation of Mosul in Iraq’s economy, and not the other way around. Mosul could have easily found other markets for its products (wheat, rice, and tobacco), whereas Baghdad could hardly survive economically without Mosul.

But again political reasons weighed more heavily than economic ones. The political pressure exerted on Sulaymaniyya by the British authorities brought its notables to finally accept Mosul’s annexation to Iraq. Sulaymaniyya has struck the decisive blow in the fight for the preservation of Iraq and knows it’, Edmond reported in March 1925.17 The process of lraq’s invention had now been completed.

Although dealing little with the problems of the Shii south during the years he spent in the northern districts, Edmonds points out in his writings the differences between the Kurds and the Shi’i.in their relations with the Iraqi state. The chicken-and-egg question of whether national identity takes precedence over nationalism per se (doctrine and movement) or vice versa could also serve to frame the case of Iraq’s Shi’is. Although identified with the Arab dimension of a nascent Iraqi identity, Iraq’s Shi’is  reacted to the Sunnis ideological and political dominance and monolithic view of Iraq’s nationalism. The cracks in the Sunni-Shi’i collaboration that had bestowed upon Iraq’s national movement – the legitimacy of a cross-sectarian political leadership had grown deeper already and claims regarding a Shi’i-British alliance that would have made possible the creation of an autonomous Shi’ir territory in southern Iraq were heard again in the late 1920s,19 The differences between Shi’is and Kurds in their support of, or antagonism toward, the state were as much of form as of substance20. But all in all, after the announcement, in 1930, of Iraq’s forthcoming independent the Shii saw their integration into the state as natural corollary of their common Arab roots with the Sunnis. This was not the case with the Kurds, however, Ethnic and linguistic differences made them question, at this late stage of state formation, the very validity of their becoming a part of the predominantly Arab state.

Edmonds was not in favour of retuning Mosul and its Kurdish population to Turkey, however, the Kurds should be included in Iraq on equal terms and not as semi-Arabized provincials’, her explained in 1929. Among the measures he recommended was the inclusion of Kurdish symbols on the Iraqi flag, the formation of a Kurdish squadron as part of the Royal Body Guard, and the creation of a translation bureau to find equivalent terms in the Kurdish language to those used in Arabic official jargon.” The idea was to preserve the symbols of Kurdish identity but prevent the expansion of nationalism drawing mainly from the linguistic criterion, which could not, in his view, provide enough reason to upset political arrangements? Edmonds’ recommendations fell on deaf ears, however. Sati‘ al-I-Iusri, then director of education, saw in uniformity of language the very tools for promoting identification with the Arab nation in general and the Iraqi state in particular.“ The romanticization of language, especially the language of the politically dominant group – an idea imported from European nationalist movements — was hardly an adequate response to the mosaic·like ethnic and linguistic diversity of Iraq’s northern provinces. In fact, turning language into a political issue misfired. Instead of creating ‘the nationwide field of exchange and communication’, seen as a sine qua non condition for a flourishing national identity,” Husri watched as the language issue developed into the very core of ethnic and cultural resistance to the state.

The attempt to introduce Arabic as the official vernacular in the administration of the northern provinces turned the language issue into the dominant point of discordance in the political negotiations between Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds. The Kurds began relating to their language as the very core of national existence and requested that it become the official vernacular in all public offices. Edmonds, himself a linguist, stood firmly for a policy designating Surani as the official dialect in Iraq’s Kurdish areas, as well as the literary language to be used in schools, cultural centres, and tribunals. His close knowledge of the language served him in the preparation of the first Kurdish grammar, in collaboration with Tawfiq Wahbi, the leading Kurdish intellectual. The importance of imposing one dialect as the official one stemmed from the need to find a common denominator whose importance was as much political as cultural. 

The Kurdish language, spoken in the area spreading from lake Urmiya to the Great Zab, was then roughly divided into several dialects. Kurdi (or Surani) and Kirmanii, the dialects spoken in southern and northern Kurdistan, respectively, were the main divisions. Kurdi was then subdivided into Mukri and Ardelani. Among other subdivisions, one could find Hawrami, a dialect spoken in a small and mountainous area south-east of Sulaymaniyya. Hawrami held a special religious and cultural significance as the language spoken by most Naqshabandi shaykhs and used by the nineteenth-century Kurdish poets originating from the area. Edmonds’ emphasis on the need to unify the Kurdish language by turning Surani into the official dialect in southern Kurdistan was meant to establish Kurdish on the same footing as Arabic and to dismiss the governments attempt to undermine its political importance. Edmonds was also the first scholar to transcribe Kurdish into Latin characters, as no Kurdish alphabet existed. He believed it was important to use the Latin alphabet in order to distinguish Kurdish from the area’s two dominant vernaculars, Arabic and Persian. 

The government’s reaction to these initiatives was to uphold ad absurdum its refusal to permit the transcription of Kurdish into Latin characters. Among others, it stood firmly against the transcription of the aspirant variants of R and L by marking a dot below the R and above the L. ‘How the inclusion of two dots or even fifty dots could prejudice the Iraqi state, it is difficult to conceive’, Edmonds commented in June 1929.

Defying the then current theories of romantic nationalism, Edmonds punctuated his accounts with clear and clever remarks drawn from contemporary Kurdish sources and the local press.“ He offers a different version of the episodes, myths, events, and experiments that shaped the Kurds’ self awareness as a distinct group, though he remains objective in his analysis of the reasons for their political failures. In his examination of the period prior to the First World War, he refers to the Young Turks’ revolution as the ‘Big Bang’ for three national movements: Turkish, Arab, and Kurdish. He stresses, however, that not all ethnic national groups could attempt to reach statehood.

While personally accepting as legitimate the Kurds’ appeal for the preservation of their cultural distinctiveness, Edmonds’ actions echoed the British official position, namely, doubt that an autonomous Kurdish state was feasible once the postwar rearrangement had been set in motion. The emergence of a Kurdish state would not just threaten Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, but, in the long run, it would affect Britain’s hegemonic position in the area. The political aspirations of the Kurds, as of other ethnic and cultural groups, were then subordinated to Britain’s main interests in the area: stability in the Gulf and protection of the aerial corridor linking London to Delhi. This scheme, based on Iraq’s territorial integrity, weighed more than the political aspirations of the Kurds, Assyrians, and Turkmen. Those groups should stick to their cultural, linguistic, and religious distinctiveness but conform to the idea of modern citizenship, comprising loyalty to the Iraqi state and its institutions.

The contradictions were hard to circumvent, however. Although he refuted the idea of a Kurdish state, Edmonds also realized that neither Iraq nor other existing states would be able to contain a growing Kurdish nationalism.” Iraq especially would never be able to subjugate its Kurdish population. The only viable solution was to develop the idea of a common citizenship that would contain the seeds of a future Arab-Kurdish cooperation and hopefully prevent Iraq’s disintegration. Edmonds’ recommendations on the Kurdish question were shelved by his superiors without ever affecting Britain’s policy in Iraq during the first two decades of state-building.

Transferred to Baghdad in the mid-1930s, Edmonds was able to follow other contradictions in Iraq’s internal and external policies more closely. From his description of the events preceding the 1936 Bakr Sidqi-Hikmar Sulayman coup (the set new norm regarding the intervention of the military in Iraqi politics), one could apprise the still influential position of the British ambassador (and in his absence, of Endmonds himself) as the mediator among the different forces – the politicians, the king, the army and the tribes – in Iraq’s political arena.28 /*

Read further at: Dating the past: C. J. Edmonds and the Invention of Modern Iraq by Liora Lukitz


Dr. L. Lukitz

Dr. Lukitz receiver her PhD in 1988 from London School of Economics and Political Science on ‘The History and Politics of Modern Iraq.’ She was  a fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies  at Harvard from 1989 to 1993, as well as the Wiener School of Modern European Studies at the Tel Aviv University (on Theories on Nationalism)  and a H.F. Guggenheim Fellow  at the Guggenheim Foundation  in NYC (writing on  Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Islam in Iraq of the 1990s). She is currently a fellow at the Truman Institute  at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

She is the author of two books: Iraq: the Search for National Identity ( London, 1995) and A Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq ( London, Ny 2006). She has also publlished articles  in political, historical, and literary journals and chapters in collective books.