Yes, They Still Exist, But not for Long
“Iraq’s current political and social state is a product of the imperialist powers that occupy the territory under the guise of aid and guidance.”
The United Nations has marked 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages and August 9th as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The Middle East is often thought of as a monolithic population largely by the West, and even by the people of the Middle East itself. However, its rich history and diverse culture consists not only of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, but of indigenous groups who have existed for thousands of years before the establishment of the Abrahamic faiths. The Sabean-Mandaeans are only one of these many groups. As one of the last remaining Gnostics, they are currently threatened by genocide and persecution.
Sabean-Mandaeans are an ethno-religious group originating from ancient Mesopotamia. The community comes from what is modern day Iraq and southwestern Iran, habituating along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They are generally a secluded people who prefer to live withdrawn within their own community. Historically, they have maintained their existence in Islamic countries by gaining acknowledgement as “People of the Book.” This title gives the group, alongside other recognized minorities, official recognition in Islam and grants them legal protection in the Iraqi constitution. However, such legal promises only operate de jure; the community struggles to openly practice their religion without the threat of harm.
The population of Sabaean-Mandaeans in Iraq has greatly diminished over the past few decades, as actions from foreign and national governments continue to cultivate an environment in Iraq in which the community is unable to survive. Saddam Hussein’s efforts to drain the southern marshes (where a majority of the group resided) in the 1990s resulted in the murder of a significant portion of the population and a mass exodus of the survivors. What used to be a population of 60,000-70,000 in Iraq is now estimated to be a mere 5,000. There are around 40,000 Mandaeans left in the world total, with over 80 percent of the members of the diaspora in Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
Following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country's Mandaean community completely collapsed. The invasion planted the seeds for extremism to grow in Iraq, leading to a rise in Shi’a and Sunni Islamic militants who actively targeted non-Muslim minorities, including Sabaean-Mandaeans. Hundreds of murders, kidnappings, and episodes of torture were justified by discourse accusing the group of impurity, witchcraft, and black magic. Sabaean-Mandaean women were particularly targetted, because they do not wear head coverings. Members were also often victims of theft and murder, as this community is known for its trade in gold, silver, and jewelry. The dangerous livelihood that resulted from these frequent attacks left the group defenseless. Such helplessness is amplified by the fact that the Sabean-Mandaean religion prohibits members from forming a militant defense or from engaging in armed self-defense. Faced with the systematic pressure to convert, leave, or die, many Sabaean-Mandaeans have chosen to leave the land in which their people have resided for thousands of years. The diaspora of this people is one of the greatest factors of their extinction. They are no longer able to retain their rituals or pass down their ancient language, history, or culture. Adding to the issue is the fact that it is impossible for someone to convert to Mandaeanism; members must be born into the religion. This makes the decrease in the group’s population even more severe, for their birth rate is not high enough to compensate for every permanent loss.
Iraq’s current political and social state is a product of the imperialist powers that occupy the territory under the guise of aid and guidance. As long as the country remains a battleground stuck in the middle of power-hungry actors, it will never catch its breath long enough to return to a state of stability and diversity. This current state of havoc is precisely what such imperialist powers want: a country where rampant extremism threatens the well-being of innocent civilians while its people are too divided or too frightened to combat such threats. Imperialists are able to take advantage of the country through the intentional placement of corrupt officials who prioritize their own greedy agendas over the livelihood of their citizens. Sabean-Mandaeans are victims of these harmful efforts.
However, internal forces within Iraq are just as responsible for the current fate of this community. Responsible for the birth of civilization, Mesopotamia pioneered constitutions and law, science and math, and society as we know it. The loss of this Mesopotamian culture erases one of the greatest contributors to our planet and sets a precedent for other endangered indigenous groups in the region. This pattern is already apparent with the targeting of other indigenous minorities in Iraq, such as the Chaldeans and Assyrians. Further, the community has always struggled to maintain its presence against the aggressive push of Arabization in the Middle East. The noble push to unite the Middle Eastern region through one common identity simultaneously erases any pre-existing identities that seem incompatible, and, in the case of the Sabean-Mandaeans, forces upon them an identity and culture that was never theirs, but one instead that they had to adapt and assimilate to.
Their disappearance is a travesty for the country and for humankind. What is left for a group whose people are struggling to practice their language, pass on their customs, and share their stories? The current exodus is not only historic because it expedites their disappearance, but this is also the first time in the community’s thousands of years of existence that they have emigrated from their land and experienced a diaspora. This disappearance is a product of many things: the inability to convert to the religion, their strict pacifistic practices, the oppression and genocide of the group, as well as the international imperialist agendas that keep Iraq in a state where it is unable to either heal from its wounds of war, or mitigate the extremist ideologies which prevent various groups from living in harmony.