Re-imagining Babylon: Epistemic violence and Iraqi discourse

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This article is featured in Orient III/2023.

For two decades, White people have been dominating English-language literature and discourse on Iraq, Orientalising, dehistoricising and sectarianising it. White men in government, non-government think-tanks and academia expect to lead the conversation instead of humbling themselves to pluralistic Iraqi voices. Despite effort by some Iraqis in the diaspora to guide the conversation, it is geared back to a dominating West-centric perspective. Iraqis are marginalised and Iraqi women are tokenised. Iraqi women academics are especially excluded from the conversation. So much so that a nascent Iraqi Women Academics Network now draws attention to the pluralistic voices and experiences of Iraqi women scholars. When Iraq’s October Spring emerged in 2019, I was part of a small network of Iraqi bloggers who shared instant, verified news of the protests to foreign journalists to ensure Iraqis’ voices and stories reached a global audience. Western media covered the protest movement and focused on Iraqi voices. Within a year, those journalists became Iraq experts, invited to speak on think tank panels discussing Iraq. The only Iraqi women invited to speak were presumed to represent a monolithic idea of what Iraqi women think. Iraqi women experts of minoritised ethnoconfessional backgrounds continue to be overlooked. While European and Western subjectivities are often interpreted as global objectivity, this has become more obvious in the Iraqi context. Two decades after the invasion, Western journalists and analysts continue to discuss Iraqis’ stories on their behalf, and their experiences are deemed objective reflections on Iraqis’ lived experiences. In my paper, I discuss my experience and analyse what went wrong by discussing how White Ignorance has been useful in upholding the epistemic violence that sits at the core of media coverage and policy analysis of Iraq. I also borrow from the counterfactual method to expose “blind spots” and contingencies in Iraq epistemology that extend the Iraq invasion’s violence. This paper invites the reader to imagine how different things could have been and how much richer Iraq discourse would have been had it included Iraqi women academics’ pluralistic voices and scholarly contributions.

Ruba Ali Al-Hassani is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at lancaster University’s Department of Politics, Philosophy & Religion, and a Research Consultant with King’s College london. An interdisciplinary sociologist, she focuses on state-society relations & social movements in Iraq, law & social control, and transitional justice & collective trauma. She co-founded the Canadian Association for Muslim Women in law and the Iraqi Women Academics Network, and has taught at York University and Trent University, Canada. Ruba holds a B.Sc. in Psychology & Sociology, a M.A. in Criminology, an ll.M. in transitional justice, and a forthcoming PhD in law.

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