Hi Inna. Please could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your work with XCEPT?
I’m Dr Inna Rudolf, a Research Fellow on the XCEPT project, as well as a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Divided Societies at King’s College London (KCL). On the XCEPT project, I mainly cover topics such as identity politics, mobilisation, and post-conflict reconstruction – with a particular focus on social healing and post-conflict recovery.
My current work for XCEPT focuses on Iraq. Along with my colleagues, I’ve been examining an array of issues in the country, including looking at grievances that are currently affecting populations in some of the liberated provinces – with most of our recent research focusing on the province of Nineveh. Our main goal is to understand people’s attitudes towards peacebuilding and recovery, as well as their attitudes towards rebuilding their urban spaces in the post-conflict context.
Could you tell us a bit about more about this research?
My colleague, Dr Craig Larkin, and I have been researching the role of competing memory narratives in post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq. This has been an extremely interesting adventure – intellectually, academically, but also socially, as the province is so diverse.
I had the opportunity to conduct interviews with representatives of different Christian denominations, with Shabaks, Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, Kurds, Yezidis, and Turkmen. We spoke to people about what life was like under the Ba’ath party regime, after the regime fell following the US invasion, and under the Islamic State (IS), as well as following the liberation of Mosul. We are getting a better understanding of the province because of these different perspectives which are, at times, conflicting and contradictory.
It is clear from our research that doubts and prejudices have come to shape people’s perspectives in Iraq. Perceptions of the ethnic or sectarian ‘other’, or of the international community and the role of the federal government, have really helped us understand why certain narratives surrounding peacebuilding and belonging resonate with the local population and others don’t.
In keeping with these doubts surrounding the federal government, we learned that a lot of people perceived the post-2003 Iraqi state as a construct, captured by different self-serving elites who they accuse of corruption and negligence. We learned that feelings of resentment have been building up towards various formal and informal security forces who are perceived as being politicised by ruling elites.
Your work has focused a lot on Mosul. What was it you were looking at in particular?
Yes, a lot of our research has been centred specifically on Mosul. One of the important topics we looked at was the issue of rebuilding the city and how this ties into feelings of belonging. The city fell to IS in 2014, and was liberated in 2017, so it’s going through a complex rebuilding and reconstruction process. Our research showed that even before 2014, there were different priorities in terms of what should be rebuilt, how, and when. It also showed us that if you want to “build back better”, you have to first understand what was systematically going wrong before IS captured the city in 2014.
Our research in Mosul also touched on the psychology of spaces and how certain urban sites – even historical, cultural, and religious landmarks – are being reimagined and what kind of reaction this triggers from local populations. For example, some of the initial designs that came from the UNESCO-sponsored architectural competition for designing and rebuilding the famous al-Nuri Mosque triggered backlash because they were seen as too alien and removed from the well-known pre-war designs.
One of the ideas discussed for the mosque was a courtyard designed specifically for people from different communities to sit together and “engage in coexistence”. However, if you were a native Moslawi, you would argue that you don’t need a space artificially designed to encourage you to practice coexistence because, historically speaking, Moslawis are the “Godfathers of coexistence”. What people said was that they wanted instead to see the rebuilding of their mosque in the same way that was familiar to them – as it used to be before all the violence.
This corresponds to the character of society in Mosul – a conservative one, but in a cultural sense, with strong commitment to traditions. Something that needs to be acknowledged is that when people push for rebuilding or reimagining pre-existing structures, different segments of society have to be consulted and engaged in the process. Acknowledging this interaction between separate social groups within Iraq as a necessity, we’ve been focusing our research on understanding the different ways in which both competing and overlapping narratives of the traumatic past impact attitudes towards the reconstruction process.
What did you learn about life in Mosul under IS, and how does this relate to your research?
When speaking about life under IS, interviewees often spoke about what being confined to the city felt like. We heard stories of women who were not able to escape, or who decided to stay because they had elderly family members they needed to care for, so for them it wasn’t really an option to flee.
Many who remained boycotted IS’ ideology in their own ways but feel that they are still being labelled as IS supporters – just because they ended up staying in the city – and this is causing feelings of disillusionment and anger. These are just some of the aspects of our research findings which I think very much contribute to our more granular understanding of Iraqi society, as it’s extremely important to trace both what happened with IS but also the challenges that are still present in the face of rebuilding.
What do you like about working on the XCEPT project?
What I really love about the XCEPT approach is the fact that we’re not just looking at violent behavioural patterns and we’re not just looking at the ‘popular heroes’ or practitioners that are driving peacebuilding efforts. We are also looking at the grey mass – the people that did not engage in violence, but that were also not necessarily involved in peacebuilding efforts.
If the overall aim of our research is to understand how trauma can affect the character of a city, hearing how the local population lived and resisted during those years of IS’ capture of Mosul is very important. We learned about underground initiatives that were taking place to preserve Moslawi culture, history, and identity, and the mechanisms that were developed in order to counter IS’ propaganda machinery. This helps us, as researchers, to better understand the context of the city as it is today and tells us about the experiences of those now either engaging in, or indirectly shaping, the trajectory of the rebuilding process.
I also love that within XCEPT we can identify a lot of under-researched, understudied grey areas, and we can conduct field work that allows us to communicate the perspectives of local actors. In one of our latest publications on the controversies of peacebuilding, we covered a lot of criticism by local peacebuilding practitioners in and around Mosul. They were, of course, grateful for any support they were receiving from international donor organisations, but they also shared with us their frustration because of the lack of strategic, forward-looking planning in the way funding is being provided.
What we also heard a lot from local participants is the idea that you can’t expect people to come and discuss very emotionally and psychologically traumatic experiences of violence when they’re not able to provide for their kids. Peacebuilding initiatives need to foster reconciliation and tackle past injustices, but they should also aim to provide broader socio-economic support to improve the livelihoods of Iraqis.
What are your hopes for XCEPT in the future?
One of the things I sincerely hope that the XCEPT project can contribute is to really understand feelings of longing and belonging in Iraq, but also feelings of alienation and disillusionment towards the state. I think one of the most important tasks of the international community, but also of Iraq’s international partners, is not just to engage in piecemeal projects that help certain local communities, but also to find a more sustainable mode of engagement with ruling elites, like with Iraqi government officials. This could allow them to exert more influence through conditional financial support, thereby improving the management oversight of how funds are being distributed and how donations are being used to actually achieve real good.
International actors should also learn when it makes more sense to step back while pushing the Iraqi national authorities into the driver’s seat. When you provide funding in a way that creates incentives for national authorities to do it right, it can grant you more leverage to hold them to account in terms of how funds are being spent.