For many Iraqis, the anti-British revolt of 1920 was the greatest event in their modern history, an inspiring revolutionary movement which ushered in the birth of a new nation in ancient Mesopotamia.
Even though the revolt was crushed by the British, it has been established since in Iraqi collective memory as a war of independence against colonialism and a milestone event that forged Iraqi nationalism.
Yet a century later, Iraqis are still trying to come to terms with the difficult history and politics born out of their struggle to establish a new state and a new national identity following the “Great Revolution.”
While the government is not planning to commemorate the event at a national level, Iraqis remain divided over the consequences of that fateful year, with different versions of the revolution being narrated, some contrasting markedly with the usual glowing tributes to national history.
Britain seized Iraq from the Ottomans during World War I. British forces composed of largely Indian soldiers landed in the southern port city of Basra in November 1914, and after capturing most of southern Iraq they finally succeeded in taking Baghdad from the retreating Ottoman Turks in March 1917.
Subsequent military operations in Iraq spawned an aggressive array of political measures that culminated in early 1920 with the placing of Iraq under a British mandate established by the League of Nations for the territories of powers defeated in the war.
The move was widely resented, as were efforts by the British occupation to create a new administration composed of mainly British officials to govern the country. Peaceful protests and petitioning failed to convince the British authorities to abandon plans to make Iraq part of the British Empire.
Widespread discontent with British rule grew in May 1920 with the outbreak of mass meetings and demonstrations in Baghdad and some other cities and a fatwa, or religious edict, from a leading Shia cleric declaring that service in the British administration was “unlawful.”
An armed uprising broke out in late June 1920 following the British authorities’ rejection of the Iraqis’ demands and another fatwa from Ayatollah Mohamed Taqi Al-Shirazi that seemed to encourage jihad, or the fight against the enemies of Islam.
For months, Iraq’s Shia-dominated middle Euphrates River region was in rebellion against British rule, and the insurrection then moved north around the River Valley. The uprising sought to foster a greater sense of national unity against a common foreign enemy.
Although the insurrection was finally and brutally suppressed, it forced the British government to abandon any idea of direct colonial control on the Indian model in Iraq.
Instead, the British decided on a new policy to control Iraq through more indirect means, mainly by installing a friendly regime. They installed prince Faisal of the Hashemite family in Mecca as king of Iraq as a reward for his support in fighting the Ottoman Turks during World War I, though he had no family ties or historical roots in Iraq.
Despite its failure, the uprising was established in Iraqi collective memory as a Great Revolution for independence and a formative event in Iraqi nationalism, symbolising the unity of the Iraqi people and their sense of patriotism.
A century later, and with the US-led invasion in 2003 unleashing political turmoil, bloody insurgency, large-scale sectarian reprisals and unbridled foreign intervention, the country has been plagued by communal divisions and foreign hegemony that make the meaning of the 1920 Revolution highly contested.
Since the fall of the Sunni-dominated regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein, each Iraqi community has reclaimed selected historical narratives to suit the politics of the moment, and it is unclear where the revolution fits into this repertoire.
The story of the Great Revolution of 1920 is no longer the foundation story that legitimises the new Iraq, which has come full circle from the Sunni-dominated era to turn into a reinvented nation of ethnic and religious diversity.
In this new Iraq and after decades of marginalisation, the leaders of the country’s Shia community have begun publicly and proudly recalibrating the narrative of the uprising and giving their tale more and more ground.
What they had kept hidden for decades in their communal consciousness has suddenly become a new public discourse about the revolution, claiming that it was mostly and primarily a Shia uprising against the British colonialists led by Shia clerics and fought by Shia tribes.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who had always taken pride in their view that they were the founding fathers of the modern Iraqi state, have watched themselves helplessly losing the legitimacy they acquired as a result of this narrative and going overnight from being the rulers to the ruled.
The Sunnis have been neither prepared nor willing to accept a minority role, and many of them have denied the new realities and rejected seeing their community losing power and privileges.
Some Sunnis have even resisted the changeover by force of arms, trying to ward off what they perceive as a historic defeat, while others have resorted to political means to reduce their marginalisation and exclusion.
But even with that dramatic shift and feelings of frustration, the Sunnis have not managed to recalibrate their narrative that it was their political elites who built Iraq’s modern state.
The dilemma has given their narrative more and more ground, while highlighting the dysfunction and abysmal failure of the country’s Shia leaders in rebuilding the post-Saddam state.
The Iraqi Kurds, who live in a semi-autonomous federal enclave in the north of the country, are indifferent not only to the 1920 Revolution as a political event worthy of commemoration and also as a topic of national interest.
The Kurds have their own version of the history of modern Iraq, with their perception that as a non-Arab ethnicity they were forced to be part of the Arab-dominated nation that emerged after a series of international treaties re-mapping the Middle East following World War I.
Following the defeat of the Ottomans, the Kurds in the northern Mosul province exploited the chaos in the region and revolted against the League of Nations mandate and the British-backed establishment it created.
That opened the first chapter of the Kurdish conflict in Iraq, as the Kurds continued to rebel against all the governments in Baghdad. But they ultimately failed to break away from the rest of Iraq, including in an attempt to hold an independence referendum in 2017.
Yet, with a self-ruled region and a politics that has been promoting separation rather than integration, the Kurds’ connection to the rest of Iraq is being reshaped in a fluid national context that transcends Iraqi national identity.
The US-led invasion changed Iraq as much as the British colonial project did, with the latter originally setting the foundations for the modern state and putting the minority Sunnis in the leadership seat.
Not only did political power structures fundamentally shift on a radical scale following the Shias’ empowerment, but it also set the stage for a wholly different Iraq in which Kurds, Arabs, Sunnis, Shias and other minorities constantly confront each other.
Not long after the Americans began their occupation of Iraq, one of the radical changes that swept Iraqi society was the increased identification of Iraqis with their own different sects.
One of the main reasons behind the Iraqis’ withdrawal into smaller tribal, religious and sectarian identities was the dismantling of the state in Iraq and its key institutions by the US occupation authorities.
Indeed, the changes that were wrought by the invasion were pushed on by Shia and Kurdish political groups that did not hide their resentment of the former state that they perceived as having been controlled by Sunni Arabs.
Beyond colonial reasons and the incompetence of its ruling elites, the failure of the post-independence state in Iraq has been largely due to its failure to forge a collective identity or to promote national integration.
Over the past 80 years, the modern nation-state has failed to resolve the tensions between sectarian identities and equal citizenship, while trying hard to synchronise competing communal identities with perceived nationalism and the political structures it created.
The leaders of the country’s Sunni community who took prominent positions in the modern state were not alone responsible for forging the imagined national formation. Shia religious, tribal, political and community leaders also participated in moulding a national formation that diluted their own cultural identity.
In many ways, and like in the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the US occupation of Iraq in 2003 lighted up the all-too-hidden reality of an Iraq that was far from being truly and solidly homogenised.
What the US-led invasion and the collapse of the state in 2003 exposed was not only the myth of a shared collective identity imposed by the post-colonial political reality, but also the banality of the identity politics that the post-Saddam Shia elite and its US backers imposed in trying to make good of the Shia failure in 1920.
This is why outside the confines of groups that may be trying to commemorate the 1920 Great Revolution for vested sectarian or political interests, there are few celebrations taking place to mark its centenary across Iraq.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly