Civil Society Iraq

(an Oxymoron if ever there was one)1

Jon Gresham and Hub Linssen*

February 2004


This project began in response to a phone call, asking me (Jon) to help lead a reconstruction assessment team in Iraq, in April 2003. I wanted to attempt three other things on my trip:

1) To collect social systems data in the immediate post-conflict environment;

2) To test such data collected for internal validity;

3) To test statistical interpretations of data for application to projects of relief, reconstruction and development in Iraq.

All three points were accomplished. Data was easy to collect, inexpensive to collect (thanks to pre-existing networks of friends), and when tested, had appearance of consistency & validity. When combinations of survey items were tested against each other, certain composite identities reflected either a "pro-change" or "anti-change" attitude. This was exciting! Individual characteristics such as religion, ethnic origin, etc, seemed to have little direct bearing on a respondent's attitude towards change in Iraq. But, certain interacting characteristics did reflect consistent and significant bias towards or against change (and the outsiders who wanted to introduce change).

We surveyed 480 Iraqi people, in five locations, with a single page survey instrument. We asked them to provide basic demographic information, and also opinions as to intra-Iraq and extra-Iraq sources of threat to their future well-being.

An additional innovation was that of publishing data, background information, and the research process onto a web page. But, instead of using a standard "read-only" form of web publishing, I used a "wiki." A wiki is a fully-editable internet forum where users can add, delete or change the content of the web page. This was risky, but I found that visitors to the site contributed pleasantly, with some emailing directly to me very valuable pre-publication research papers. By putting the work on the web, it allowed me to keep scientists, decision-makers, resource agencies, and Iraq fieldworkers informed by brief emails about web site changes.

Follow-up is needed to confirm and deepen the pilot test data and conclusions. We found, for example, that moderate Arabs in Iraq were the most opposed to foreign involvement, and they were the most opposed to expatriate Iraqis returning to Iraq. On the other hand, those respondents with strong religious or ethnic identities expressed far less opposition to change, to foreign involvement, and to the return of Iraqis living abroad. All of this does have relevance to decision-makers and field workers in relief and development and reconstruction in Iraq. I would welcome comments on the web site:


* Jon Gresham is a visiting scholar at the University of Utrecht, Netherlands. His work focuses on the Cyprus-Syria-Iraq-Iran area. Hub Linssen, Assistant Professor at the University of Utrecht, is an experimental psychologist with a specialist interest in cross-national comparative survey methodology.


Inter-group relations research can be conducted in the laboratory of a university; research can also be done in social networks of a multicultural city. In this study, our laboratory was the immediate post-conflict environment of southern Iraq, with supplemental data collected in the refugee-filled environs of Amman, Jordan, and in refugee communities of The Netherlands.

The first phone call, on 20 April, 2003, requested me to help an assessment team in southern Iraq. I declined. The second phone call, prompted a "maybe." The third phone call, 28 April, led me to say, "Yes." But, "Yes" to what? I wasn't sure, but I immediately began scavenging the web for information on the post-war social situation in Iraq. I also contacted several prominent scholars in nationalism and inter-group conflict studies, with the following question:

"I had a phone call asking me to consider leading a rapid assessment team to do surveys in Iraq for two weeks. I'm pondering the opportunity and may need some of your wisdom to integrate this project into larger studies dealing with reintegration of asylum-seekers into their home places. Who would be people that might have advice and experience in addressing repatriation of asylum-seekers and refugees and their re-integration? I expect that many of the '20,000' Iraqis in The Netherlands will be considering returning and this could be an interesting study to connect Netherlands and Iraq fieldwork. How do psycho-social research needs here link with re-integration and re-development of home countries?"

Sometimes good things come together quickly. A survey instrument was developed, translated, tested, and the first data was collected on May 19.

I wanted to accomplish five things in this project:

1. Connect again with contacts from my work in Iraq after the 1991 war;

2. Collect opinions from Iraqis about other ethnic and religious groups, and about other countries that may appear to have inordinate interest in the future of Iraq;

3. Examine the data for evidence of reputable surveying by the field collectors (did they really interview 450 different subjects?);

4. Analyze the answers to the survey questions, looking for interesting details and correlations about what kinds of people were surveyed and what they expressed about themselves and about others;

5. Put the findings quickly into the hands of Iraqis, United Nations and Coalition Forces decision-makers, and non-governmental organization field personnel working in and around Iraq.

All of these five elements were accomplished to my great satisfaction, and I surprised even myself at how quickly I could re-learn how to communicate in Iraqi Arabic. The more extended process was the thinking through the answers to the opinions of the respondents and trying to understand what they said to us, and how to share the news with others. I am still there.


Background: Civil Society research in this post-conflict environment

As the cartographer in this social environment mapping exploration, I draw the boundaries of my worldview in general trends, vignettes, and expressions collected from Iraqis and outsiders, fieldworkers and academics, philosophers and soldiers. I give details where I am able, and leave most of the peer-quoting-peer tradition to those more capable of doing it well. My map of Iraq-social needs the details of where our research has come from, where we are today, and where we have options to explore more.

Perhaps uncivil society is defined best by what it is not, as conflict is defined by what peace is not. If we call a network of multi-lateral relationships "society", then uncivil society is the opposite of what we seek. Perhaps not, though. As someone (Abraham Herschel?) has said, that the opposite of good is not bad, but indifference, then is the opposite of civil society, "apathetic society"? Anti-civility implies consensus of opposition, but apathetic implies….nothing. No hope, no action other than survival, no corporate or personal initiative.

In another analogy, we define color in the graphical terms of RGB (spectrums of light), as an additive combination of three colors, each with 256 or so levels of intensity, in layers or channels. The "color" we see as a social community is also an additive combining of layers or channels of community members. And, the filters of time and distance give us clearer or fuzzier perceptions. And, what about the invisible spectrum? I am not sure what all would fit here, but surely elements the members and viewers have of personal and group history, the spirit-world, ambition, and hatred.

Theoretical Bases

Through the exploration of social systems in Iraq, relevant topics of readings and conversations included:

--Personal and Social Identity, Social Network Analysis

(Henri Tajfel, John Turner, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi): Ethnic compositions of ingroups and outgroups;

how identities of self and group are formed, networked, and acted in and on.

--Ethnicity, Dominance, Nationalism

(Andreas Wimmer, Henk Dekker, Louk Hagendoorn, Hub Linssen): Investigations into group boundaries, group conflict, and ethno-national dominance.

--Appreciative Inquiry, Organizational Development, Cooperative Social Learning

(David Cooperrider, Kenneth Murrell): Affirming successful existing social practices provides the only valid base from which innovation and development can grow.

--Civil Society, Altruism, Social Capital

(Keith Tester, Sudipta Kaviraj, Richard Couto, Francis Fukuyama, Deepa Narayan, Antonius Robben): Personal and group behavior can lead to greater activity by individuals for the common good, and evident growth of peace and stability.

--Iraq Social and Historical Contexts

(Jon Malinowski, Sana Al-Khayyat, Yitzhak Nakash, Helen Chapin Metz, Fuuad Baali, Sandra Mackey)

I will perhaps write up a full documentation of background elements if this initial process description needs to be developed into a longer publication. At this point, it does not seem necessary, since the main point of this article is describing the process of initiating fieldwork in a pilot study approach.

Historical Context of Iraq

Fertile Crescent

Agriculture, domestic animals, wheel, writing

Assyrian, Chaldean, Babylonian empires

Arab conquest -- 600s

Mongol massacres 13th - 14th centuries

16th century Turkish occupation

Stability and peace only after kill opposition.

Britain & France political boundaries in 1916:

Arabia given to tribe of Saud

Palestine & Mesopotamia to a Saudi

1958 pan-Arab Baathists

Modern state of Iraq is the same.

Saddam & near kinsmen were ingroup; everyone else was absolute outgroup.

State-sponsored ethnic cleansing.

Until last May--outgroup members became anonymous or were persecuted.

Or came to places like the Netherlands.

Little capacity to become a socialistic welfare state, or democracy

Oil revenue currently $4 billion per month

Baath- no sphere of life without state control

No civil affairs.

Civil society Iraq represents the hope to regain rights and privileges taken away by the state.


Assumptions and boundaries:

1. We were unsure of how much time and opportunity we would have with any individual respondent due to the post-war instability, so we limited the survey to one page. Survey items included write-in answers as to age, years in residence at the location, education, number of children at home, etc.

2. The survey was designed to be self-answerable for individuals with a low level of literacy.

3. Items were designed to be non-threatening and as non-hostile as possible, since we did not know exactly what would happen when we began asking questions about religion, Saddam, Iran, and other threat concepts. See Appendix 1 for a sample of survey items in English, Appendix 2 for an Arabic version.

4. We had no known surveyors at the beginning, so we planned to find helpers as we went along. I needed to meet a lot of people quickly and look for helpful individuals to train quickly and send quickly. "Simple and quick" was emphasized.

5. The English version of the survey form was given to two different professional translators, with an emphasis on producing in two days a simple format appropriate for marginally-literate respondents. Two translators returned the completed form on paper and disk within two days. Their translations were compared and combined slightly into one final version. The ease and speed of translation was due to their skill, and to the quality of the English original.

6. Research design (an "experimental guided assessment technique") was developed, tested, and validated in research on Russian Federation outgroup perceptions by Hagendoorn, Linssen & Tumanov (2000), then adapted, tested, and validated for Iraq and Europe situations in 2003.

7. Our research process led us from seemingly valid assumptions to data collection to a number of surprises where the data did not fit our assumptions! This is not exactly a "grounded theory" approach, but was more exploratory data collection to test what could be done in an immediate post-war situation.


Surveying Process:

To find surveyors I looked for groups of young Iraqi men, in both Jordan and in Basrah. In the groups, I found a few in each place that would complete for me a survey on the "Social Community of Iraqis after the war." After we went through the survey together, I then asked them if they would like to help interview others in the same way. They asked if I could pay. I agreed, negotiated a reasonable price, gave them an advance of half of the agreed price, and sent them out with a pile of survey forms, a number of pens, and large envelopes in which to carry the forms.

In Baghdad, I followed a similar process, except there I joined a food distribution project to meet a larger number of people. Through them I found two eager respondents and asked them to collect surveys for me. That worked very well.

Surveys were completed and returned to me quickly, with precision and accuracy in most cases. There were no complaints about the content of the surveys, nor the process.

Data was collected, translated as necessary, entered, and analysis begun .




The 480 respondents were from:

- Baghdad:

- Basrah City:

- Basrah Area: (Al Samarrah, Al Qurnah, and smaller places in southern Iraq)

- Jordan

-The Netherlands


Descriptive Summaries of Results


Our handling of the data followed our chosen analytical progression of seeking:

a. Frequencies. How many people provided which answers

b. Other descriptive statistics. Such as averages and ranges of responses

c. Factor analysis. Which answers interact with which other answers with significance

d. 1-Way ANOVA. To test specific question answers for the degree of interaction

e. n-Way ANOVA and ANCOVA.

Sample of Demographic Items

--Ethnic Origins of respondents were Arab 70% , Kurd 7%, and Other 22%

(write-in answers included Christian, Asshuri, Suriani, and Egyptian).

--"How important is it to be of your ethnic origin?" was answered as

Not important 14%, Important 44%, Very important: 31%, and Most important 11%.

--Religious Backgrounds were given as Shi'a 56%, Sunni 26%, and Other 16%.

--"How important is it to be of your religious community?" was answered as

Not important: 20%; Important: 28%, Very important: 27% and Most important: 25%

It was very interesting that 35% of respondents declined to answer this question.

In an "Islamic state", why would so many not want to give their religious affiliation?

Also, this was not a perfect normal (bell-shaped) curve, but it showed a "fat tail" characteristic.

--Income Levels were given as Low: 47%, Average: 50%, and High: 3%


Sample of Opinions of Iraqis on internal affairs

--Probability of future regime similar to that of Saddam's:

Never: 32%, Not likely: 30%, Very likely: 23%, Absolutely: 15%

--Division of the country will be:

Very Good: 25%, Good: 16%, Bad: 34%, Very Bad: 25%

--Return of expatriate Iraqis:

It should be encouraged: 29%, It should be allowed: 27%,

They should ask permission first: 21%, and No access should be given: 23%

--The new government will be able to give peace and safety :

Absolutely: 27%, Very likely: 30%, Not likely: 26%, Absolutely not: 7%

--All Iraqis will support the new government:

Absolutely: 17%. Very likely: 38%. Have some doubt: 36%. No Iraqi support: 9%

--Do all Iraqis have duty to defend Iraq?

Absolutely: 47%, To some extent: 18%, Not necessarily: 13%, Absolutely not: 22%

--Will Iraqi people profit from return of expatriate Iraqis?

Absolutely: 34%, To some extent: 23%, Not necessarily: 21%, Absolutely not: 21%


Sample of Questions about external relations and threats

--How strongly will the USA protect Iraq's natural resources (oil) against foreigners?

They will: Battle for it: 52%, Mildly encourage protection: 10%, Mildly discourage protection: 7%, Do nothing: 31%

--How strongly will the USA dominate the Iraqi people? They will:

Battle for it: 46%, Mildly encourage: 13%, Mildly discourage: 17%, Do nothing: 24%

--How strongly will the USA promote and support an Islamic Republic? They will:

Battle for it: 14%, Mildly encourage: 22%, Mildly discourage: 39%, Do nothing: 25%

--How strongly will Iran promote and support an Islamic Republic? They will:

Battle for it: 19%, Mildly encourage: 48%, Mildly discourage: 27%, Do nothing: 6%



Cross-tabulations, correlations, and regressions showed the strong relationships between respondent opinions, that is, respondents showed significant interactions in their reactions to multiple questions. We used a p<.01 at 479 df as our filtering level. In order to find out what caused interactions (what the nature of the interaction was), simple main effect analyses were performed.

--Religion and Ethnicity

Religion, importance of religion, showed correlation with ethnicity (.632 and .177, respectively),

but now with importance of ethnicity. But, religious identification did not correlate significantly with strength of religious identification.

--Division of the Country

In Baghdad and Jordan, division of the country was seen as bad,

but in the South, division of the country was seen as positive.


--Confidence in a new government to provide security and peace:

Those who expressed religion as more important expressed less trust in the government;

Those in southern Iraq did not express confidence in the government;

Those in Baghdad and Jordan did express confidence in the new government.

--Duty to defend Iraq:

Those who expressed greater expectation of a future Saddam-type regime, expressed a greater duty to defend Iraq;

Those who expressed less expectation of a Saddam-type regime expressed less duty to defend Iraq;

Those in southern Iraq did not express a strong duty to defend Iraq;

Those in Baghdad and Jordan did express a strong duty to defend Iraq.

--Return of Expatriate Iraqis:

There were differences between those respondents in small towns and villages and those in large cities in the perceived threat from the return of expatriates.

Those in Basrah city did not want expatriates to return;

Those in Baghdad and the rural south were neutral on the return of migrants; those in Jordan (expatriate Iraqis) were positive about the return of migrants.

--External Threats

-Those who expressed that Russia was expected to help protect Iraq's natural resources, expressed less support for division of Iraq;

-Those who expressed that Turkey was expected to help protect Iraq's natural resources, expressed greater support for division of Iraq;

-Those who expressed that the USA was expected to support creation of an Islamic Republic, expressed greater support for division of Iraq.

-Russia was not seen as seeking to dominate Iraqi people or to promote an Islamic Republic, and, in the southern Iraq, Russia was not expected to protect Iraqi oil from being exploited by others.

-Turkey was seen, in urban Basrah city, as being more dominating of the Iraqi people and the natural resources.

-Iran was seen to promote an Islamic Republic, and those who expected Iran to promote an Islamic republic also expected Iran to seek to dominate the Iraqi people.

-The USA was expected to dominate Iraqi people, but also to protect Iraqi oil from being exploited by other states.

-Among Iraqis in Jordan, the USA was expected to be the most involved, including supporting an Islamic republic.

-In southern Iraq, the USA was expected to dominate the Iraqi people, but NOT to support an Islamic republic.


Further analysis and data collection:

1. We need to specifically look for correlations connected in any way to foreign domination and exploitation, especially with respect to USA as a "high-exploiter" and Russia as a "low exploiter." If we can affirm the reputation of Russia as a strong "non-exploiter" then we may suggest that Russian personnel be used for peace-making and for in-depth social impact projects compared with western fieldworkers. It also appears that there may be strong correlations between years of residence and age, and factors of exploitation/domination. Perhaps we could emphasize certain age & residence-length people as agents of peace and change and moderation for the Russians to build relationships with. This needs integration with analyses of social capital and social networks analyses.

2. Respondents who expressed greater confidence in the new government also expressed a greater duty of Iraqis to defend Iraq. And this appears to be "mediated" or influenced by the degree of expectation of a future government "like Saddam's." This appears to mean that those with confidence in the government would likely be more involved in civic action, reconstruction, and anti-disruptive activities to promote peace. This needs validation by further investigation of social capital and social networks.

3. We need comparisons with samples of known community leaders (merchant/middle class), and with prisoners and known enemies of the current government.

4. We need to collect information on education background.

5. We need information on the social networks to assess degrees of separation between families, clans, tribes, and communities, among the merchant class. We need to map the social networks to include estimations of hub person connectedness in the merchant class.

The merchant class has been singled out for attention as it may be a social group with the most to lose by radical change in the marketplace and governance systems of Iraq. Since we did not find strong evidence of anti-foreign and anti-change opinion among those Iraqis expressing either strong religious attachment or poverty, we have adequate justification to focus future research on those social participants with less attachment to religious identity.

I estimate that the merchant class suffered severe economic loss during the post-war riots in 2003. The merchants lost buildings to squatters, property to thieves and vandals, and then they lost income because of the massive distributions of aid that bypassed the marketplace system to distribute food, clothing, and shelter.

6. The "fat tail" effect on the answers to the religious identification questions indicates a higher level of attachment to those with a strong importance of religious identity.




We have useful data that exhibits integrity and reliability. We have a network of surveyors ready for Phase II. We learned how to use a wiki, a web page where viewers can look at the information, add comments, and add links to other sites. We found that putting the theory, background information, and results on a wiki gave us connections to the international academic and field decisionmaker communities and yielded great quantities of new co-thinkers, as well as publications related to various aspects of our explorations. The topic is very hot for researchers and we were there first, asking questions about intergroup relations long before _anyone_ else. Our web wiki became the connecting point for many new friends.

End Note

1 I, Jon, wish to thank Hub Linssen, Lead Statistition and Research Methods Consultant in the Faculty of Social Sciences at University of Utrecht for his patient remedial tutoring in quantitative research, without which this project would never have come about. Success in this work is due to Hub (and to his Alena), but faults are due only to myself.



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