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Understanding Iraqis

Mara Redlich Revkin '02 is a leading expert on the Islamic State and has spent years in the Middle East researching legal systems in war-torn countries. 

A fellow at Yale Law School’s Center for Global Legal Challenges, Mara is currently based in Erbil, where she’s leading a groundbreaking study of Iraqi community policing that aims to improve trust between civilians and state institutions in 13 communities, some of which were captured by the Islamic State. 

Mara says no single moment set her on this path, but she clearly remembers watching the 9/11 attacks with classmates on her second day of high school orientation and the emotions that followed. 

“It wasn’t just sadness and fear but also recognition of how privileged and sheltered my life had been. Suddenly we were at war in two different countries and I found myself wanting to understand how all of this violence started and what could be done to end it.” 

At Swarthmore College, Mara studied Arabic and had opportunities to study in Egypt, then in Jordan and Oman as a Fulbright Fellow. She earned a J.D. and a Ph.D. in political science, both from Yale. Her dissertation on the Islamic State’s system of governance took her to Turkey and Iraq to interview and survey more than 1,500 Syrians and Iraqis about their experiences living under the Islamic State’s rule. While there, she collected primary-source data that included documents issued by ISIS itself. 

She moved to Iraq in January 2019 to start a new research project in partnership with the International Organization for Migration that is evaluating the effects of the new community policing program. 

While many researchers have studied elite thinkers and propagandists of groups like ISIS, Mara is more interested in understanding the experiences of average Iraqis and Syrians who face the difficult choice of fleeing or staying and cooperating with armed groups. 

“Cooperating often has less to do with ideology and more to do with basic needs for physical and economic survival,” she notes. 

Mara will return to the U.S. in January 2020 to become a National Security Fellow at the Georgetown University Law Center and is already thinking about her next project. “Some of the same questions I study in Iraq could be asked in the American context. Why do so many Americans feel they need to own weapons to protect themselves? I’m increasingly concerned about violence in my own country and am eager to start applying what I’ve learned abroad to study problems closer to home.”

This article originally appeared in the fall 2019 issue of Foote Prints magazine.

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