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Contested Archives: The Reopening of the Kanan Makiya Papers

Panel IX-12, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
The reopening of the Kanan Makiya Papers at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives, along with the opening of the Iraq Memory Foundation Administrative Papers there for the first time in early 2023, were welcome developments for scholars working on modern Iraq. The timing was additionally opportune considering the twentieth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Makiya was a prominent scholar, political dissident, and opposition activist who published several academic works, documented the atrocities of the regime of Saddam Hussein’s Baʿth Party between the 1991 and 2003 wars, and advocated for its overthrow. In the prelude to the 2003 War, he was one of the most prominent Iraqi exiles who supported the administration of President George W. Bush as it made the case for invading Iraq. The Iraq Memory Foundation (IMF), which Makiya co-founded with future Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, was a non-governmental organization that entered Iraq in the wake of the invasion as a Pentagon-funded contractor. The IMF sought to preserve Iraq’s Baʿthist past and conduct oral history interviews in the spirit of fostering truth and reconciliation efforts modeled on prior transitions from dictatorship to democracy. However, the organization quickly fell victim to the forces of political instability and violence unleashed by the 2003 War. It largely left Iraq and with the help of the U.S. Department of Defense, removed the archive of the Baʿth Party’s Regional Command, commonly referred to as the Baʿth Party Archive, which Kadhimi and Makiya had found by chance, resulting in years of controversy among archivists and academics. Papers on this panel draw on the Makiya Papers and IMF Administrative Files, along with the digital copies of Baʿth Regional Command documents in the possession of the IMF. They do so for writing the history of the IMF and the Baʿth Party Archive, studying the evolution of the Iraqi political opposition prior to the 2003 War, and engaging with questions about the representations, meanings, and legacies of the 1991 uprising against the Baʿth Party following the expulsion of the Iraqi military from Kuwait. Additionally, after initially being open then being closed to researchers over the previous several years, another paper compares the Kanan Makiya Papers in their present state to how they were prior to closure. Collectively, the papers on this panel utilize valuable new sources for writing about the modern history of Iraq and the 2003 Iraq War.
  • Amid the chaos and lawlessness that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, Iraqi dissident intellectual and political activist Kanan Makiya heard that looters were headed to ransack the mausoleum of Baʿth Party founder Michel ‘Aflaq. Together with Mustafa al-Kadhimi, his Iraq Memory Foundation co-founder and future Iraqi prime minister, Makiya raced to the scene to prevent the destruction of a highly symbolic artifact of the former regime. Upon arrival, the two men quickly realized the report of looting had only been a rumor. However, in the basement of the mausoleum and museum for ‘Aflaq, they discovered the archive of the adjacent Baʿth Party Regional Command headquarters building. Along with a collection of video tapes from ‘Aflaq’s museum, the collection of documents they found, which would commonly be known as the Baʿth Party Archive, included some 6.5 million pages. Later, as the security situation in Baghdad deteriorated and Iraq plunged into civil war, the Iraq Memory Foundation enlisted the help of the U.S. Department of Defense in airlifting the archive out of Iraq for digitization and safekeeping. This move precipitated years of controversy and drew the condemnation of archivists and academics who supported Iraqi National Library and Archives Director Saad Eskander’s claim on the documents and call to repatriate them to Iraq. These details and more are known thanks to contemporary news coverage and interviews with the participants. The recent reopening of the Kanan Makiya Papers, combined with the opening of the Iraq Memory Foundation Administrative Files for the first time at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives, will permit the writing of this history based on documentary sources, which should afford even greater detail. Combined with documents from the Baʿth Regional Command Collection itself, included among the Iraq Memory Foundation’s digital collections at the Hoover Institution, it is possible to trace the origins of the archive within the Baʿth Party’s administration, along with the construction of ‘Aflaq’s mausoleum and museum following his death in 1989. In his book Republic of Fear, Makiya engaged with ‘Aflaq’s writings, arguing that they provided ideological justification for the violence of Saddam’s regime. The convergence of Makiya, the leading intellectual of the Iraqi opposition, on the final resting spot of ‘Aflaq, the leading intellectual and nominal leader of the Iraqi Baʿth, has proven consequential for debates about cultural patrimony and scholarship on modern Iraq.
  • In recent years much ink has been spilled to explain the ascendancy of sectarian divisions in post-2003 Iraqi state and society. Currently, explanations primarily focus on the legacy of Ba‘thist rule, the effects of the sanctions era, the failures of US policy in post-invasion Iraq, and the actions of Iraqi opposition movement. Regarding the latter, several opposition groups that returned to Iraq and rose to power following the Ba‘th’s ouster are charged with engaging in a “Shi‘i-centric state-building project.” Undergirded by feelings of collective Shi‘i persecution and social and political disenfranchisement, this form of state-craft led to the forceful mapping of Shi‘i myths and symbols onto Iraq’s post-2003 national identity and facilitated the exclusion of Iraqi Sunnis from the central levers of state power. Over time, the former exiles’ actions fostered sentiments of alienation, loss, and victimhood among Iraqi Sunnis, a development that contributed to the outbreak of sectarian violence and later, the rise of the so called “Islamic State.” While this form of statecraft was only implemented following Saddam Hussein’s ouster, its ideological roots can be found in the immediate post-Cold War era. By way of a historical analysis of the publications, statements, and actions of several key Iraqi opposition figures, chief among them being Kanan Makiya and Hassan ‘Alawi, this study traces a critical shift in the wider Iraqi opposition movement’s conceptualization of Iraqi Shi‘i identities that enabled the imagining and implementation of Iraq’s post-2003 Shi‘i-centric political order. Specifically, it will outline the process through which Iraq’s Shi‘i communities, once understood and complex and ideologically diverse, were reduced and repackaged by the Iraqi opposition movement as a monolithic socio-political unit defined by collective victimhood and feelings of political entitlement over the course of the 1990s. Beyond demonstrating the historical roots of one of the core drivers of sectarian politics and violence witnessed in post-2003 Iraq, this paper also makes inroads into larger debates surrounding the ways in which sectarian identities acquire socio-political salience. At a time when sub-national forms of identification are rapidly gaining traction the world over, perhaps such a study is not only long overdue, but urgently needed.
  • On March 1991 one of the largest mass uprisings against an Arab government took place. Thousands of Arab, Kurd, Turkmen and Assyrian Iraqis from cities to villages, revolted against incumbent president Saddam Hussein. By April 1, the suppression of this uprising resulted in the flight of one million refugees and over 100,000 deaths. Attempts to label the events of 1991 have been manifold. This uprising has been called a revolution, a riot, a rebellion, an uprising, a robbery, a people’s uprising, a religious revolution, a communist, nationalist or Islamist revolt, an intifada, a primordial frustration, a conspiracy, treachery, mutiny, a Shia uprising, or a Kurdish uprising. Many of these labels are attempts to give an explanatory guideline to what by many was perceived as a puzzling and unexpected uprising whose causes, meaning, trajectory and repression remain unsettled. I argue that the 1991 uprising was a transformative and meaning making event. In specific the 1991 uprising created new meanings of political legitimacy in Iraq and abroad. The uprising was a key event that kept being reproduced both domestically but also abroad in a varied way across the political spectrum and time both in writing, symbolism and speech. In these reproductions questions of political legitimacy, power and history were explored and contextualized. This is still the case today in Iraq. The 1991 uprising plays a prominent role in political mobilizations such as the popular mobilization forces, the 2019 protest or the elections, moreover the 1991 uprising remains a contested and hotly debated topic among the public as its legacy is intertwined with many political concerns, personal trauma and victim hood. Especially the history of imperialism and Neo-imperialism in Iraq is a recurring theme that descriptions of the uprising tries to account for. By reading the Kanan Makiya papers and the Baath party archives against the grain in combination with data collected through interviews conducted in Iraq, a multifaceted exploration of the knowledge production and ethics surrounding the political meanings of the 1991 uprising is presented.
  • My paper reflects on the experiences I had working with the Kanan Makiya Papers before the collection was closed in 2017 and after its reopening in February 2023. I consider the context in which I first came across the collection and describe the treasure trove of documents I found related to the Iraqi opposition, lobbying for the Iraq War, and creating an Iraqi archive at the Hoover Institution. Now that the files have been vetted for “sensitive” material—what has been removed and why? The reopening of the Kanan Makiya Papers will be an important case study in the curation of history and the social basis of knowledge production. At the same time, I use the reopening of the collection and the attention it has received as an intellectual opportunity not only to think about the Kanan Makiya Papers but also to think with them. Archives are practical social institutions carrying collections of documents. But they are also symbolic objects, which for both American political officials and American Middle East Studies, have achieved a level of theoretical abstraction and moral significance. In this respect, archives—and particularly the Iraqi archives—express a kind of metaconflict or a conflict about a conflict. They are used as the basis of making political and moral claims which transcend their real world status as mere accumulations of papers.