Who gets to tell Iraq’s history?

Avi Asher-Schapiro

When Islamic State moved into Mosul in 2014, Omar Mohammed observed and documented everything he could, from public executions to the inner workings of the hospitals. And even though it put his life in danger, he posted many of his observations online using the handle ‘Mosul Eye’.

He is now concerned that the history of the city under IS could be compromised. After the 2016 operation to drive out the caliphate, the New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi took nearly 16,000 documents produced during IS rule – everything from birth certificates to judicial rulings – stuffed them into bin bags, and flew them back to New York.

In Mohammed’s view, the history of Iraq, and of Mosul in particular, has too often been told and controlled by outsiders. He is still working to finish his PhD on the 19th-century history of the city but can’t access records key to his research, because they were removed from Iraq in 2007 by Dominican priests and are now housed in the US. The removal of the IS files, he says, fits into a larger pattern of pillaging that dates back centuries.

‘We as Iraqi citizens of Mosul need those papers,’ Mohammed told me recently. ‘We have to prepare ourselves for this future by using what IS left to tell the people what really happened.’ The New York Times has maintained that it saved the documents from being burned, that it had permission from the Iraqi armed forces to collect them, and that it will eventually make them available to the wider public. The Times has published small excerpts and used the documents to inform its series Caliphate, one of the 20 most downloaded podcasts in the US.

‘There's a very fine line between very high quality journalism and trespassing – and they trespassed,’ Rasha Al Aqeedi told me. She left Mosul six months before IS took over. Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi-American novelist who was among the first to raise concerns about the documents, spoke more bluntly: ‘This is epistemic violence,’ he said. ‘Iraq and Iraqis being exploited for profit by a foreign newspaper and the result is we are not being able to narrate and understand our own history.’

Trudy Peterson, the former acting archivist at the US National Archive, told me that the guiding principle for dealing with documents after a conflict is to ‘avoid doing more damage to people who have already been damaged.’ In April, Peterson was asked by the Middle East Studies Association to examine the ethics of the New York Times decision. MESA wrote to the Times, emphasising that the documents ‘belong to the Iraqi people, and they need to be returned immediately to the appropriate Iraqi authorities.’ MESA was also concerned that the Times had published documents without redacting the names of Iraqi citizens, perhaps exposing them to reprisals or stigma without due process.

The letter came on the heels of a petition, initiated by Sara Farhan, an Iraqi doctoral student at York University in Toronto, which accused the Times of violating international laws designed to protect ‘cultural heritage’.

The New York Times international editor, Michael Slackman, has explained that the documents are helping the paper tell 'the real story' of how IS 'was able to control such a large area for as long as it did'. But it seems that the imperatives of reporting are colliding with the imperatives of Iraqi scholars who wanted a first crack at understanding their own history. It isn't an unexpected tension. Still, Iraqis are perhaps more sensitive than most to the sensation that their history is being told for a narrow purpose – and more finely attuned to the consequences.

Throughout the 1990s, and in the years after the American invasion of 2003, a series of important archives were removed from Iraq and relocated to a number of university and military institutions in the United States. Wisam Alshaibi, an Iraqi-American graduate student at UCLA, is writing a book about a tranche of those archives now housed at the Hoover Institute.

A close group of Iraqi expats, Alshaibi told me, used their access to the documents to create a portrait of Iraqi society that would be amenable to an American invasion, and would welcome these exiled Iraqis as their new leaders. The archives were later read to justify the disastrous American policy of ‘de-ba‘athification’, removing anyone associated with Saddam Hussein’s party from public life. The policy was a major contributor to Iraq’s civil war. ‘What I get worried about for these IS documents,’ Alshaibi told me, ‘is what kind of policy implications, what kind of story do they tell about what happened in Mosul?’

That’s of concern to Omar Mohammad, too. So far, he says, the New York Times reporting has emphasised that IS was able to win public support because of its supposedly efficient bureaucracy – an angle that downplays the resistance the group faced in the city. The historiography of the IS occupation, and the degree to which people in Mosul are understood to have welcomed it, could have grave consequences for their political future.

The New York Times has been sensitive to the wave of criticism. After the MESA letter, it issued an open call for questions on its handling of the IS files. Calamachi told Public Radio International that ‘the goal of the Times is to make these documents available to all.’ In late May, the paper announced it would eventually return the originals to the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, DC, and work with a university to digitise the documents for public consumption. But as the first anniversary of Mosul’s liberation approaches in July – and as the Caliphate podcast rounds out its first season – the documents are still available only to the New York Times and its staff.


  • 19 June 2018 at 5:19pm
    Dectora says:
    This is a very important issue. Some years ago my husband, then teaching at the University of London, was asked to sit on a committee to decide whether or not access to a Phd thesis could be subjected to an embargo, to protect those who had given help to the writer. Although the candidate had used pseudonyms, the content of the statements made ,could identify the witnesses. It was made clear that this could be a matter of life of death. He strongly supported an embargo and this was accepted.

  • 21 June 2018 at 12:08pm
    adriennec says:
    Another note, not only did the NY Times benefit from the content, it formed the basis for special marleting offers - readers who subscribe got “early access” to preview this content.