Re-Claiming Babylon: Epistemic Violence and Rhetorical Sovereignty in Iraq Discourse

14th May 2024 by Ruba Ali Al-Hassani

Re-Claiming Babylon: Epistemic Violence and Rhetorical Sovereignty in Iraq Discourse

What people of color quickly come to see…is that they are not seen at all” (Mills, 2017, 54).

For two decades after the U.S.-led invasion, White people have been dominating English-language discourse on Iraq. Despite effort by some Iraqis in the diaspora to guide the conversation, White men and women in government, think-tanks, and academia expect to lead the conversation. They sideline pluralistic Iraqi voices in favour of a West-centric perspective and through the prism of a U.S.-Iran proxy war. This type of conversation externalises and reduces Iraqis to a passive polity if not collateral damage—rhetoric reminiscent of the 2003 invasion.

The author derives this paper from a previous piece on epistemic violence in Iraq discourse (Ali Al-Hassani, 2023). The paper positions rhetorical sovereignty against ‘White Ignorance’ to explain how the latter upholds the epistemic violence plaguing media coverage, academic research, and policy analysis on Iraq. Because White Ignorance as a cognitive phenomenon must be historicised (Mills, 2017, 5), the first section of this paper discusses it after providing a background into how epistemic violence is an extension of the 2003 invasion, dehistoricizing, sectarianizing, and Orientalising Iraq discourse. The second section positions Iraqi rhetorical sovereignty against this epistemic violence. While the 2003 invasion occurred twenty years ago, White Ignorance extends its violence to this day.

Epistemic Violence: An Extension of War

Twenty years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a war against Iraqis continues epistemically, where power imbalances impose a hegemony over how media, academic, and political analysis frame Iraqi stories. A hegemony over the formation of knowledge about Iraq is characterised by a dehistoricisation, sectarianisation, and Orientalisation of Iraq discourse, which White Ignorance upholds.


When the U.S.-led coalition launched the 2003 invasion, it did so with impunity. Installing and maintaining a corrupt system of governance based on ethnosectarian quotas and dominating Iraq discourse were the next natural steps towards preventing future official Iraqi demands for accountability. An invasion built on lies birthed a culture of impunity (Al-Hassani, 2021a) where ethnoconfessional discrimination is unwritten state policy, political corruption is rampant, and a rise in regional terrorism and armed groups would justify continued foreign involvement. Instead of integrity-based state-building and grassroots-centred peacebuilding, a war for power over Iraqis via political ‘allies’ attempts to dehistoricise their path to power. While the agency of Iraqi politicians cannot be denied, it cannot be divorced from foreign intervention. Such intervention has taken the form of a proxy war, where its principal players—the U.S. and Iran—battle for control over Iraqi politics and capital. These interventions have furthered impunity where Iraqi political parties are wildly kleptocratic and must vouch for foreign patronage during electoral cycles. Today, former U.S. officials and their advocates in Western think-tanks justify the 2003 invasion and lay blame on Iraqis for not developing their country. Such analysis conveniently forgets that Iraq lacked a solid infrastructure on which to rebuild because of crippling U.S.-imposed sanctions, regular bombing campaigns since 1990, and terrorism. Discussions about corruption in Iraq today are based on a revolving door that allows the interchange of personnel between governments, think-tanks, and the media, recycling the same narratives and decontextualising corruption to erase a neo-imperialist history. Selective discourse also centres the U.S.-Iran proxy war (Ali Al-Hassani, 2021b), marginalising the voices of Iraqis who took to the streets to protest the status quo. The voices of average Iraqis pale compared to think-tank analysis dominating the Iraq discourse and sectarianising it to foreign convenience.


Literature on sectarianism in Iraq can be divided into two bodies of literature. Middle Eastern and Western news media and think-tank analyses have popularised the viewpoint that identities are intractable, immutable, and that tensions between Sunnis and Shia are a consequence of centuries of animosity. This primordialist approach is rooted in racism, as it paints Iraqis as violent by the sheer nature of their identity against their perceived ‘other’. This rhetoric fuelled terrorism, whether by al-Qaeda or ISIS, ripping societies in Iraq and Syria apart based on ideological identity. While political analysis perpetuates this rhetoric, academics view identity as malleable, prone to manipulation, and subject to the whims of elites, as well as influencing interest and perceptions of reality. Sectarianism is the outcome of a process of sectarianisation (Mabon et al., 2023, 9) whereby political and social institutions condition people to view things from a divisive lens and the manipulation of sectarian tensions is a weapon in the arsenal of those in power. Sectarianisation, I argue, is a significant form of epistemic violence (Townsend and Lupin, 2021) normalised in Iraq media coverage and analysis, perpetuating social and political divisions. Politicians and news media have been equally responsible for sectarianisation, shaping public knowledge and engagement, leading to physical violence throughout the region that includes the genocide of Yazidis (Anon, n.d.) and expulsion of Assyrians and Mandeans from Iraq. Sectarianisation of Iraq discourse thus extends the violence of the 2003 invasion. So do Orientalism and White Ignorance.

Upholding Orientalism

         For two decades, English-language analysis has been Orientalist (Ali Al-Hassani, 2022), painting Iraqis as an aggressive lot that needs to be left to its violent ways, a passive people who need to be saved from themselves, or a mystifying society. West-centred discourse in media coverage and analysis speaks over Iraqi agency manifested in the Tishreen Movement—the country’s largest protest movement in modern history, which vocally protested systemic corruption, impunity, and ethnoconfessional consociationalism (Al-Hassani, 2020). While tens of thousands of Iraqis chanted in the streets, their voices were sidelined in favour of Western interpretations. An implicit Orientalising consensus treats Eurocentric and Western subjectivity as ‘superior’ global objectivity in Iraq discourse. A conscious, willful intention to understand, control, manipulate, and incorporate a world through the perceived centre of the world manifests in the over-representation of White people in Iraq discourse. This was evident as Western institutions loyally invited White professionals, who developed their expertise off Iraqis’ work and knowledge, to discuss the Tishreen Movement.

When protesting this over-representation, one receives a response rooted in White Ignorance (Mills, 2017)—a resistance against enlightenment about racial injustice which explains the embedding of racial domination in modern thought alongside the denial of racism’s centrality. It exposes both false belief and racial privilege, maintaining a conscious ‘way of knowing’ (Al-Attar, 2022) that refuses to acknowledge the presence and prevalence of racial domination. This carefully cultivated ignorance about racial domination over Iraq discourse is unmistakable. It tokenizes Iraqi experts and treats them as a monolith. Protecting a system of epistemic hegemony, White ignorance demands a politesse and graciousness from Iraqi experts who must be ‘diplomatic’ and silent about the racist status quo to be included. This competition for opportunity disaffects Iraqi experts who refuse to be seduced into upholding White Ignorance. Epistemic violence thus imposes an internalisation of White Ignorance and hinders the decolonization of Iraq discourse. White Ignorance is rooted in seduction: to be included in the conversation and rings of power, and to have insider information, knowledge workers must comply with the status quo, overlooking racial privilege.

By universalizing a single epistemology, Western institutions cultivate a hegemonic dynamic. The result is an education for subordination and exploitation, prolonging the negative impacts of colonialism and neo-imperialism (Al Attar and Quintero, 2023). Iraq discourse in media, political analysis, and policy is therefore shaped by these hegemonic ways of being and epistemology, with new generations of knowledge workers learning to further the epistemic violence and rhetorical imperialism. The following section positions rhetorical sovereignty against rhetorical imperialism and White Ignorance.

Rhetorical Sovereignty

Rhetorical imperialism is ‘the ability of dominant powers to assert control of others by setting the terms of debate. These terms are definitional—that is, they identify the parties discussed by describing them in certain ways’ (Lyons, 2000, 453), as done when those dominating Iraq discourse demonise their critics. In contrast, rhetorical sovereignty is an ‘ideal principle’, the ‘beacon’ by which peoples seek the paths to agency, power, and community (ibid, 449). It is ‘the inherent right and ability of peoples to determine their own communicative needs and desires…to decide for themselves the goals, modes, styles, and languages of public discourse’ (ibid). This type of sovereignty is about the story told, its analysis/interpretation, the language and tone used, and the parties involved. Therefore, any attacks or restrictions on Iraqis’ sovereignty over their stories are attacks on Iraqis’ abilities to commemorate the past, pursue possibilities, and actualise potential futures. Rhetorical sovereignty includes and goes beyond ‘survivance’, which is a combination of survival and resistance—both deliberate and otherwise (Vizenor, 2008; Powell, 2002). Rhetorical sovereignty also goes beyond individual acts of ‘survivance’ toward an ambitious communal endeavour, which means having and exerting a deliberative ‘say’ over their representation, action, and behaviour. A new wave of Iraqi scholars—particularly Iraqi women scholars—are trying to both survive epistemic violence and dominate stories of their community to contribute to an aspired, radical restructuring of Iraq epistemology. Indeed, rhetorical sovereignty requires ‘of writing more than a renewed commitment to listening and learning; it also requires a radical rethinking of how and what we teach as the written word’ (Lyons, 2000, 450). Networks of emerging Iraqi scholars in Iraq and the diaspora aim to expand discourse, reconceptualise norms, reconfigure hegemonies (Al-Hassani, 2022), and include more scholars minoritized in academia and public discourse (Donabed, 2022). Rhetorical sovereignty is the counterfactual to a resilient epistemic violence.


‘White ignorance... 


Imagine an ignorance militant, aggressive, […] that refuses to go quietly […] indeed presenting itself unblushingly as knowledge...’ (Mills, 2017, 49).

Neither Iraqi nor White voices are a monolith. However, when guided by a system of epistemic violence, the latter is likelier to uphold the status quo. This paper discussed how epistemic violence extends the 2003 invasion’s violence by dehistoricising, sectarianising, and Orientalising Iraq discourse, then upholding it with White Ignorance. Excluded Iraqi voices practice rhetorical sovereignty as resistance and to claim ownership of their stories. Rhetorical sovereignty is the counterfactual to a resilient system of epistemic violence upheld by White Ignorance.


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