We Can Do Very Little With Them:  British Discourse and British Policy on Shi'is in Iraq

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Virginia Tech


This thesis explores the role of metropolitan religious values and discourses in influencing British officials' discourse on Sunni and Shi'i Islam in early mandate Iraq. It also explores the role that this discourse played in informing the policy decisions of British officials. I argue that British officials thought about and described Sunni and Shi'i Islam through a lens of religious values and experiences that led British officials to describe Shi'i Islam as prone to theocracy and religious and intellectual intolerance, traits that British officials saw as detrimental to their efforts to create a modern state in Iraq. These descriptions ultimately led British officials to take active steps to remove Shi'i religions leaders from the civic discourse of Iraq and to support an indigenous government where Sunnis were given most government positions in spite of making up a minority of the overall population of Iraq. This study draws on documents created by British officials serving in Iraq from 1919-1922, including official reports and correspondence, published government reports, personal correspondence and memoirs. It also draws on biographies of British officials, the secondary literature on religion and civil society in Great Britain, and the secondary literature on Shi'i Islam in Iraq. I engage in the historiography surrounding European Imperial perceptions of Islam and argue that historians should pay greater attention to the role that metropolitan religious experiences and values played in informing the way that imperial officials differentiated between different groups within Islam. I also engage in the historiography of British policy in mandate Iraq, offering a deeper view of how British discourse on Shi'i Islam developed and how this discourse influenced the policy decisions of British official.



Iraq, Imperialism, Religion, Christianity, Islam