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Book Review


Visser, Reidar. Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2005). 238 pp, $39.95.

      Why isn't an Basra a sovereign state? Dominated by Shi'a Arabs, Basra was one of three Ottoman provinces before, under British occupation, it was sutured to Baghdad and Mosul, creating modern Iraq. Yet other portions of the broken Ottoman Empire – some far less distinctive – became independent after World War I. Why did Basra become part of Iraq? This is no merely local or narrow question. Much world history teaching and scholarship simply assumes the territorial state. Yet there is nothing "normal" about sovereignty. Of the one or two thousand peoples and regions which might have a state of their own, just under two hundred actually do. The causes of unevenly distributed sovereignty are central to any discussion of the modern world. 1
     Exactly because struggles over sovereignty are so important, it is easy to read the present into the past. Visser began his work for Basra in the 1990s, just as Yugoslavia was breaking up. While Basra can be understood as another book for the 'Balkanization' shelf, Visser argues that "the Middle East, for all of its own problems, contrasted sharply with the Balkans in its approach to multi-ethnic realities." 2
    The lines dividing Iraqis, Visser says, have shifted considerably in the last century. Those divisions are not necessarily rooted in the artificial state constructed at the end of the First World War. In fact, Visser points out, it is debatable just how much Iraq is an invention of post-Versailles Great Power politics. Visser, who offers evidence from both camps, ultimately contends that this is not the point. Iraqi nationalism won out for reasons internal to Iraq itself. There was indeed a strong separatist movement in Basra at the beginning of the 1920s, culminating in a 1921 petition to British authorities demanding Basran independence. Visser examines the movement's leadership, a leadership drawn from across the region's economic and political elites. The movement's failure, Visser tells us, resulted from the inability of these elites to mobilize wide popular support; it "failed because a potential that existed was not exploited." This, however, raises a further question: "why," Visser asks, would the "oppressed population of oil-rich southern Iraq refrain from separatist activities for most of the twentieth century?" Once the separatist movement imploded, its memory was all but erased. Successive Baghdad governments and Iraqi scholars rewrote Basra's history in order to consolidate Iraqi state power and identity – as well as ensure that Iraq continue to benefit from Basra's oil and port. As a result, Basra's separatist episode is all but forgotten in today's Iraq. 3
     Visser does not pass up the opportunity to offer his own advice for to Iraqis for developing a stable political structure in the current atmosphere of international and internal conflict:

both camps should seriously consider the possibilities for a mixed-breed variety of federalism – a system which could open up opportunities to Islamists in certain geographical regions which at the same tie guarding against human rights violations of the kind an immature federal system may be particularly vulnerable to.

This activist historian voice is limited, however, and centers on the evidence he has offered, revolving around Basra's incorporation into the Iraqi national identity.
     More than three hundred years after the Treaty of Westphalia supposedly birthed the contemporary concept of the sovereign state, disputes over sovereignty fester within and between states throughout the world. Basra offers a necessary reminder that the understanding such disputes requires close historical reading of local as well as world histories. 5
Maryanne Rhett
Washington State University

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