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“The entrance to Karemlash, a small village in northern Iraq, is marked by a sign featuring Jesus Christ, hands beckoning, next to the words ‘Wellcome Back’ [sic]. His beaming smile has taken on an ironic cast for the residents of this minority enclave. Since the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group destroyed Karemlash in 2014, at least 20 to 30 per cent of the Christian families in the village have left Iraq altogether, according to a local priest. In Iraq as a whole, other sources put the figure as high as 80 per cent. When Karemlash was freed from ISIS in 2016, those who did come back found their homes burnt down and looted, with graffiti sprayed on their walls and militants’ tunnels dug beneath their floors. When I visited in May 2018, most of the village remained empty. Tangles of exposed wire, glass and rubble lined the streets. Electricity and water worked only sporadically; ISIS polluted the pipes with oil; there was no formal schooling, and little opportunity for work.
Almost a year after the Iraqi city of Mosul and its surrounding areas were officially liberated from ISIS, few of the minority ethnic and religious groups had returned. A debate now rages about how to protect those minority populations remaining in Iraq – especially Christians, who tend to garner extra attention in the West. This contemporary question ties into a longstanding dialogue among scholars and policymakers about nation-building and nationalism: can countries maintain long-term stability and cohesion while possessing a wide range of ethnic and religious identities?
One popular argument in Iraq’s case might be called separation as protection. ISIS was only the latest of a long chain of genocidal events directed against minorities in Iraq, the argument goes; this violence will continue as long as fundamentalist forces dominate the region; so the best way to resolve such ‘ethnic conflicts’ is to give each group its own autonomous region, instead of drawing arbitrary borders and forcing them to live together.”
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