by Hugh Fitzgerald (April 2010)
In 2005 Iraq held the first genuine election in the more than eighty years of its history. Until 1932 the British troops remained in Iraq, creating a country, of sorts, out of three former Ottoman vilayets – Mosul (dominated by Kurds), Baghad (dominated by Sunni Arabs), and Basra (dominated by Shi’a Arabs), under a monarch, King Feisal, a Sunni and, what’s more, a Hashemite, whose imposition led to a revolt by the Shi’a, a revolt put down, expensively, by the British. When they left, they did so only after receiving assurances that nothing bad would happen to the indigenous Christians of Iraq. Within a few months of their departure, one hundred thousand Assyrians were massacred by Muslims. One writer, William Saroyan, a survivor of the Muslim massacres (by Turks and Kurds) of Christian Armenians, even wrote a book about it. He undercounted; the title of his book was “70,000 Assyrians.” The monarchy remained in place, though the real power was always to be found in the hands of some plotter or strongman. There was Rashid Ali, who was pro-Nazi and whom the British, with help from Jewish volunteers from Mandatory Palestine, managed to overthrow. But mostly, beginning in the 1930s, and then all through the 1940s, and into the 1950s, there was the man formulaically described by the Western press as “strong man” Nuri es-Said.
In 1958 there was Colonel Qassem’s coup against the ancien regime. Nasser and Naguib – the “colonels” – had overthrown fat Farouk. Why should not Colonel Qassem, who whatever his faults was famously incorruptible, do the same? Once Nasser became primus inter pares, he had the Egyptain government seize the property of all those non-Muslims who had, along with the Copts, been the mainstay of the Egyptian economy. There were in Egypt Greeks (Cavafy was born in Alexandria), Italians (Ungaretti was born in Alexandria), and Jews (both those who whose families had lived for centuries in Egypt and those who had arrived more recently from Europe). When Nasser seized their property, and booted them all out, or created the conditions that forced them to leave, he did so in a nationalist guise. But that seizure could also be seen as a kind of delayed balloon-payment, after years of no payment, under the British, of the Jizyah that the Shari’a demanded. No Egyptian Muslims found the seizure objectionable, none worried about what would happen when those who were not hampered either by hatred of bid’a (innovation) or inshallah-fatalism were removed from the scene, and though, among a certain tiny class of Egyptians there may be some nostalgia for Yacoubian-Building cosmopolitanism, there has been no understanding of how Islam, unchained, always and everywhere leads to the suppression, and the driving out, of non-Muslims (if they can get out), and has led, all over the Middle East, from Cairo to Beirut to Baghdad, to ever-growing Islamization, and an environment ever more hostile to cultural development and to the kind of “diversity” that is not merely a cover for affirmative action and illegal immigration (as in the United States) but that makes sense. And, though it took a while for the reforms instituted by Lord Cromer, who had arrived in 1882 in order to bring a semblance of honesty and efficiency to the Egyptian Civil Service, were undone, the Egyptian governments, from Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak, apparently had enough time to do so.
In Iraq, the economic activity in Baghdad under the British – when the city was one-third Jewish, the second Jewish city in Asia – slowly came undone once the British left. Great Britian was never a colonial power in Iraq; there were no British colonists, and the British were present, aside from wartime – when they freed the Middle East, including the Arabs and Kurds, from the Turks, and later, during World War II, helped overthrow the pro-Nazi Rashid Ali and keep the oil of Iraq from being used by the Germans – the British were in Iraq for all of a decade, from 1922 to 1932. That was the period of nation-constructing, and Iraq was constructed out of three former Ottoman vilayets: Mosul (chiefly Kurdish), Baghdad (chiefly Sunni Arab, because the vilayet of Baghdad included western Iraq as well), and Basra (chiefly Shi’a Arab). They established a monarchy, and placed on that throne a Sunni Arab, the Hashemiate Feisal, whose older brother was similarly given a kingdom by the British – or rather, an emirate that would later promote itself to being a Kingdom – that is, the Emirate of Transjordan. Those who put their faith in the local Arabs were disappointed; Gertrude Bell, who established a Department of Antiquities, killed herself – a little more dramatic an end than the motorcycle accident that killed T. E. Lawrence, who had also been greatly disappointed, at the end, in the Arabs. This theme of disappointment is a continuing one in the history of Infidel relations with Muslims and Arabs: the stories of vast efforts being made to somehow civilize peoples and lands where Islam dominates, and to delude oneself into thinking there was, or could be, a commonality of long-term interest, and of worldviews, between the advanced West and the world of Islam, a primitive world kept permanently primitive by the effect of Islam on the minds of its adherents. It is a continuing theme in the twentieth century, and now, it seems, the Americans have had the baton of disappointment passed to them, and they are headed, in Iraq and then a little later in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for – one hopes – the finish line, so that after taking a rest, and thinking things over, they will recognize the beside-the-pointness, or rather pointlessness, of their efforts.
When the British left Iraq, having suppressed, for the sake of the old Sunni elite in Baghdad, and for the sake of the Sunni Arab monarchy, a revolt by the Shi’a, they expected that all the money they had spent in this place, called by Winston Churchill an “ungrateful volcano,” would possibly pay off. They asked for, and received, assurances, from the local Arabs that they would not harm the Assyrians in northern Iraq. And indeed, the Muslim Arabs did not harm the Christian Assyrians at first, and waited a good six months before starting to massacre them.
The 1930s passed, and the war came, and the pro-Nazi Rashid Ali staged a coup, a coup then undone by the British, with considerable help – never publicly recognized, from Palestinian Jewish volunteers who, in Iraq as in Syria, and as in Egypt, volunteered for the most suicidal missions. In Iraq, it was Jabotinsky’s deputy and likely successor, David Raziel, who died trying to ensure that the oilfields of Iraq did not fall into German hands. The war ended, and the “strongman” of Iraq, the man who starting in the 1920s, and right up until his death, was the main power in Iraq, an inveterate schemer and plotter, Nuri es-Said, made sure the monarchy survived, and that he himself, and those who collaborated with him, did very well.
In 1958, colonel Qassem overthrew the monarchy. Feisal, the Prince Regent, was killed. And more important, Nuri es-Said, who had tried to escape from Baghdad dressed as a woman, was found, killed, and his naked body dragged through the streets of Baghdad so that the populace could hit it with shoes, or mutlilate it, or simply, if they were feeling lazy, just enjoy the spectacle. Such things have happened many times before during Arab regime changes, and no doubt will happen many times in the future.
The plotter Qassem –an honest man, by Iraqi standards – was, in turn, later killed by other plotters, and his dead body, in his office, put on display on Iraqi television. It was a new technology, but put to a good old use in Baghdad. A few more regimes followed, and the “Ba’athists” finally came to power, and the apotheosis of that Ba’athism was to be found in a Sunni Arab from Tikrit, like “strongman” Niru es-Said an inveterate plotter, and one who, when he didn’t succeed the first time, took heed of the old adage, and tried, and tried again.
Saddam Hussein began his rule by calling a meeting of the faithful, and then reading out, haltingly, reluctantly, the names of those who had apparently all along been traitors to the cause, and one by one, they were taken away, taken out of the hall, never to be seen again. Occasionally he, Saddam Hussein, would wipe a ready tear from his eye. It was a moving spectacle. But, with all the “traitors” – that is, any potential rivals or enemies – proleptically eliminated, Saddam Hussein could at long last bring to Iraq his verison of Il Buon Governo, a Government both wise and just. And apparently he succeeded, because whenever he held an election he would get 99.9% of the vote. But Saddam Hussein never received 100% of the vote, as candidates are said to do, for example, in North Korea, no doubt because he reasoned that such a result would have raised eyebrows, someone in the outside world might have suspected something. And that would never do.
Saddam Hussein has often been described as a “Ba’athist.” This is to take the ideology of Ba’athism too seriously. Ba’athism needs to be understood differently. It was the creation of two members of a minority: a Christian Arab from Damascus named Michel Aflaq, and an associate who was a Shi’a Arab, from Syria. Both wanted to find a political something that would give their own groups the possibility of participating in political life. Michel Aflaq knew that if Islam were to define Arab political life, then there would be no place for Christians such as himself. So he concocted this “Ba’athism” which was to be open to all, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and also to Christians, all of whom would embrace a local cult of Arabism (which in turn would lead to pan-Arabism), and this Ba’athism was “secular” in the sense that women would not be subject to quite as many restraints as, say, the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia insisted upon, and the whole thing was mainly a question of The Party, and Party organization, and Party meetings. The most important part was this, the emulation of the models provided by the Communists in the Soviet Union and the Nazis in Germany.
Unsurprisingly, Ba’athism took hold only in two places: Syria and Iraq. And in both places this could be explained by the peculiar needs of the two countries. In Syria, 70% of the population was Sunni Arab. But there was a large Christian population (including Arabs and Armenians), and a minority, the Alawites, who had been one of the groups favored by the French, constituting some of the "Troupes Speciales” that the French intelligently employed to watch, and police, the Sunni Arabs (other Troupes Speciales were Druse and Armenians). In the end the Alawites, did so well, as a military caste and class, that they gradually became the officers corps in the Syrian army and air force, and eventually, an Air Force officer named Hafez al-Assad seized power, and ruled over a Syria which was an Alawite despotism, but that despotism was provided with the camouflage of Ba’athism. Theoretically, all who were members of the Ba’ath Party could be among the rulers, but the real power always remained with the Alawite officers. One thing did trouble them, and troubles them still. That is, the Alawites constitute only 12% of the population. And they tend to live apart from others, in Alawite villages. And the Alawites, because of their syncretisim – in Alawite villages you can see pictures of Mary everywhere – are distrusted by the Sunni Arabs, are not regarded as true Muslims. And it was important to the Alawites to be validated, as real Muslims, by means of a declaration, issued by Iranian clerics a few years ago, declaring that the Alawites were indeed real, albeit Shi’a (like the Iranians issuing the fatwa) Muslims. That is unlikely to satisfy the Sunni Arabs of Syria whose most extreme members, the Muslim Brotherhood, conducted attacks against the Alawites – around 1980, they wiped out an entire graduating classs of Alawites at a ceremony – and were then put down by tanks, and by Alawite-officered forces in Hama who told their men to shoot to kill anyone who shouted “Allahu Akbar.”
In Iraq, Ba’athism was used to disguise a different sort of despotism. This was not that of the Alawites, but of the Sunni Arabs who had always held power, but whose percentage of the population kept going steadily down. This happened for several reasons. First, the Shi’a in the south, being poorer, had the consolation of larger families than the Sunnis (the better off always tend to limit family size). And, what is also not recognized, the Shi’a were better at proselytizing among the Sunnis than the Sunnis were among the Shi’a, and some tribes that were split between Sunni and Shi’a members saw the numbers of the latter increase. By the time of Saddam Hussein, the Sunni Arabs constituted 20% of the population. It is true that the Kurds in Iraq are largely Sunni, but their ethnic identity works against any solidarity with Sunni Arabs, especially since Saddam Huseein and his Sunni Arabs massacred 182,000 Kurds.
As stated earlier, Ba’athism should chiefly to be thought of not as a real ideology, but as an organizational structure, a Party with cells down to the local level. It was based on an envious emuliation of the Nazis, of the Communists. Indeed, Saddam Hussein had a fondness for Joseph Stalin, and collected books about him. And all the while a small group of Sunni Arabs, with the odd Kurd or even Christian (Tariq Aziz) as useful window-dressing, ran Iraq, of, by, and for other Sunni Arabs. Shi’a Arabs could join the Ba’ath Party. Iyad Allawi was once a member of the Ba’ath Party, but that had little effect on the distribution of wealth and power – which is what politics is all about in the Arab and Muslim world, as it is in so many other places. – allocated and arrogated to themselves that power, and that money.
When, in the confusion following the attacks 9/11/2001, a mood of “do, do, something” came upon Bush and his Administration, they thought not only of Afghanistan, the immediate haven of Al Qaeda, but of other aggressive regimes. And they thought of Iraq, and Saddam Hussein, and the fact that Saddam Hussein was said to be busily working on weapons of mass destruction – even on a nuclear project. He was not. He had been stopped in his tracks, back in 1980, by the Israeli bombing of the Osirak reactor. While it is now fashionable to claim that there is no point to bombing Natanz or other sites where the Islamic Republic of Iran is racing to complete its own nuclear project, because “they’ll just rebuild it,” the evidence from Iraq suggests that a regime, once attacked by an attacker who gives every sign of being willing to attack, if necessary, again, will not necessarily resume efforts right away.
The Bush Administration made a number of calculations in its Iraq venture. The first was that Saddam Hussein was a “threat to the world” because he was supposedly busy acquiring, or attempting to produce, nuclear weapons and, possibly, biological weapons too. The Americans never understood that for Saddam Hussein, the main threat remained Iran, and Saddam Hussein, like a frog that puffs up in order to frighten off potential predators, Saddam Hussein was denying, as unconvincingly as he could, that he had a nuclear weapons project, not in order to get away with such a project, but to make the Islamic Republic of Iran think that he had such a project, and they’d better not attack him. The American government thought then, and apparently still thinks, that other regimes or states, are chiefly thinking of the Americans. They simply overlooked, did not quite grasp, that Iran was the intended audience, and the efforts to prevent thorough inspections were undertaken not because Saddam Hussein had such weapons and weapons projects, but because he hadn’t, and he did not want Iran -- -- a country with three times the population of Iraq, and with a military that had not suffered, as his had, from the Gulf War defeat – to attempt to get its revenge for the war that he, Saddam Hussein, had started by attacking Iran in 1980.
The second miscalculation, or misunderstanding, was the reliance on those who were described, and thought of, wrongly I’m afraid, as “Iraqi exiles.” Such people as Ahmad Chalabi, Rend al-Rahim, Kanan Makiya, had been out of Iraq for a long time, and thus their assurances that “the Iraqi people” (who do not exist) would greet the American soldiers as liberators or, as Bernard Lewis, to his eternal embarrassment, predicted, the celebration of the American liberation of Iraq “would make Kabul [where delirious crowds had welcomed the American overthrow of the Taliban] seem like a Sunday-School picnic.” But that was not the main problem. The main problem was that all of these “Iraqi esxiles” were Shi’a. There were no Sunnis in exile, and – more tellingly – three were no Iraqi Chrsistians, among those attempting to persuade Bush and Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz – that an invasion of Iraq and an overthrow of Saddam Hussein would be easy, would be a good thing. Impliedly, all Iraqis – “the Iraqi people” – would be “liberated,” and that Iraqi people would then willingly have “freedom” brought to “moms and dads” and, what’s more, turn out to be a natural ally, a loyal ally of the United States, for all that it had done for them in removing, as no one else in the world could or would, the monstrous regime of Saddam Hussein. The inveiglement, by such plausible people as Chalabi, was not hard. Bush, for example, was quoted in one book as asking, after the invasion, with some puzzlement, about what this business of “Sunnis and Shi’a” was all about since he, Bush, thought that “they are all Muslims, arent’ they?” And Wolfowitz, who had been a weapons systems analyst, and had been severely criticized by Richard Pipes, who had served with Wolfowitz on Team Be (appointed to review estimates of Soviet military strength), in an interview in The Boston Sunday Globe, revealed himself as someone lacking in a knowledge of, and appreciation for, the influence of culture, of history, on men. For Wolfowitz, as for Bush, and as for Obama too, People Are The Same The Whole World Over and Want The Same Things. This naïve notion relieved them of the responsibility of studying Islam, and of how well or ill Islam fit with the requirements of advanced Western democracies, and of figuring out what pre-existing fissures might be found in Islam, not to be deplored but to be intelligently exploited. And no one at the top thought to ask Iraqi Christians what they thought of replacing Saddam Hussein. It was assumed that since Saddam Hussein was a monster – he was that – then he must have been equally antipathetic to all decent Iraqis. But some decent Iraqis, including the Assyrians and Chaldeans, knowing just how indecent most of the other Iraqis were, and being among those who, in general, were protected by Saddam Hussein or, more exactly, knew that he, Saddam Hussein, would hold in check the Shi’a Arabs who most threatened them, and that because the center of the political opposition to Saddam Hussein was to be found in Shi’a mosques, Saddam Hussein could be, and was described -- wrongly but understandably, as “secular." What this meant in practice was that he was fine with the notion of Sunni Arab women going off to Great Britain to study chemistry and biology, and come back to serve their country, that is his regime, as one of them did, promoting biological warfare, and earning the sobriquet “Dr. Germ.”
The Bush Administration assumed that the election of 2005 brought genuine democracy into existence in Iraq, that is an election in which voters – including women -- could not only vote but find that their votes would be counted. The purple thumbs many proudly held up were taken to mean that the Bush Administration’s effort to “bring freedom” to “ordinary moms and dads” in the Middle East had been validated. True, there was violence, from both Al Qaeda in Iraq, headed by Al-Zarqawi, a “Palestinian” from Al-Zarqa in Jordan, who despised the Shi’a as “Rafidite dogs” and was determined to make sure that they, and their American supporters, were brought low, and there was violence, too, from Shi’a, some working for Al-Sadr and some for the Iranians, and some for other Shi’a groups, and some on their own, to make life unpleasant and dangerous for Sunni Arabs so that they would leave Baghdad, and that is exactly what many Sunni did. But at least there were elections.
At no time did any commentators in the United States suggest that elections were only one part of advanced Western democracies, that mere balloting was not enough, that the enshrinement of individual rights,– essentially, what is in the American constitutional system guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, but especially iin the First Amendment (the Establishment Clause, the Free Exercise Clause, the Freedom of Speech) and, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (which applies to the states) and has been, through the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, applied to the Federal government as well, was the most important thing. At no time, nowhere in the press, on the radio, on television, did any commentator, any reporter, any columnist, point out that in Islam, political legitimacy is located not in the expressed will of the People, but in the will expressed by Allah and written down in the Qur’an. Political theory was ignored. Islam, a Total Belief-System, was ignored, even though nothing matters, in Muslim countries, as much as what Islam inculcates, what are in the texts,and what the tenets, and what attitudes and atmospherics are the natural result of those texts and those tenets.
And the Bush Administration, and its loyalists, caught up in a messianic sentimentalism about “people,” who all want “freedom” (no, they don’t – many people hate mental and other kinds of freedom, and yearn to be told what to do, especially if at every step they are told they must be mentally submissive, must be “slaves of Allah”) ignored both the nature of Islam, and the tendentious parti-pris of those “Iraqi exiles” who turned out to be “Shi’a exiles” who had so misled them and, in some cases mislead themselves about what Iraq was like. Indeed, Kanan Makiya has in recent years been sounding a note of disappointed puzzlement, as if he could not have foreseen what Iraq would turn out to be like. That, I suspect, is because although he describes himself as secular, or even a freethinker, he remains defensive about Islam when he thinks it is being subject to criticism by non-Muslims (mentioning how fond he was of his pious grandmother, for example), and in his writing on the Arab silence about the massacre of the Kurds, something he finds both shameful (true) and inexplicable (untrue), he can’t quite relate this indifference to the fact that Islam is, and remains, a natural vehicle for Arab supremacism.
In any case, the 2005 voting in Iraq was cause for satisfaction in Washington. Iraqis had bravely defied Al Qaeda, bravely gone out to have their thumbs empurpled, and to cast their votes. It didn’t matter that most Sunni Arabs abstained. Nor did it matter that this was not an election with a proud and independent citizenry casting its votes, as depicted in one of those stirring City-Hall murals (“Democracy”) that were painted with such passion by WPA artists, all over America. No, these were not citizens but members of groups, being told by their clerics, or their tribal chiefs, how to vote either for one of their own, or for someone who was most likely to imitate or sympathize with one of their own.
After that election, the increase in violence in Iraq led some to worry that “the mission” would not be accomplished. Exactly what that mission was, and whether its goals made any sense, were never clearly elucidated, indeed not discussed at all, so that one had to simply figure out more or less what might be meant. What was clear, however, was the reason that the goals of the two-trillion dollar effort in Iraq were not discussed. Had they been, had the attempt been made, their doubtfulness, their confusion, even their idiocy, would have then been apparent. For a year, for two, there were two related developments that suppressed Al Qaeda in Iraq. The first was the overreaching by Al Qaeda in Iraq, often but not always by non-Iraqi Arabs, in which they attacked Sunni tribesmen for being insufficiently loyal and fanatic in their faith. And this, in turn, led a number of leaders of Sunni Arab tribes to recognize that they did not want to the authority of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and if they wished to resist, they would need weapons, and money, from the Americans. And the Americans, recognizing that they had the possibillty of enrolling “the Anbar tribes,” in the war against Al Qaeda, lavished money, lavished arms, and congratulated themselves on their cleverness. It was an obvious strategy to employ, if the goal was limited to effacing Al Qaeda in Iraq.
And this aid to the tribesmen who belonged to the “Awakening” was not accompanied by much thought as to what would then happen later on, what – once Al Qaeda in Iraq had been dealt with -- those Sunni Arabs would want, or demand, as their payoff, from the Shi’a-dominated government of Iraq, or from the Americans. It’s true, the Awakening did damage Al Qaeda in Iraq, though it was not put out of commission altogether. And “the surge” as claimed, “worked” – but only insofar as “the surge” was meant to tamp down inter-communal violence in Baghdad. But what else did this mean? What kind of “success” was achieved? What constituted “success” beyond that diminishment in violence, sufficient to have allowed elections to be held? The Americans had trained, and armed, hundreds of thousands of “Iraqi” troops. But how many of those troops thought of themselves as “Iraqi” and how many would, in a minute, side with the Shi’a, or the Sunni Arabs, or with the Kurds, against the Sunni Arabs, the Shi’a Arabs, or the Kurds, respectively? The Americans had no special sympathy for one group or another, and yet had been in various parts of Iraq inveigled, by one locally-dominant group or another, to do its bidding. What would happen when the Americans left? Would those well-armed lions now lie down with the lambs? And who were those lambs?
If any group of people in Iraq deserved the title of “lambs” it was the Christians, the Assyrians and the Chaldeans. They constituted less than 5% of the population of Iraq in 2003, but one-third of its professional, educated classes. And now half of them have left Iraq, and for good. That means that a great many engineers, teachers, and others in the middle classes have gone, not to be replaced. In the south, they left because those they contemptuously describe as “the turbans” were killing Christians, not merely those who sold liquor but others too. And in Baghdad, and in the north, their Muslim enemies are Sunni Arabs and Kurds. In the south and in Baghdad, they are now subject to “the Turbans” as they call the Shi’a. They cannot feel secure anywhere. As one of them desperately begged, “we don’t want our rights, we only want to stay alive.” It doesn’t seem like much to ask, but for non-Muslims in a Muslim sea, it can feel like quite a bold demand. It does not appear that either the Bush, or the Obama Administrations, have felt keenly the imperilment of the Christians, and what will happen to the half-million who are still in Iraq, and what might happen to them, as happened to the Assyrians in 1932 when the British pulled out.
Now it is April 2010. Last month the long-awaited elections in Iraq took place. The Americans are pulling back, the Americans are leaving, Iraq will now be completely in the hands of Iraqis. But which Iraqis? The Shi’a who now control the government, and the most important ministries? The Shi’a Arabs in alliance with the Kurds? The Sunnis in alliance with the Kurds? The Sunnis in alliance with Shi’a who are “secular” and therefore more alarmed about sectarian Sunni parties? Who, what, where?
Iyad Allawi is said to be the “victor.” What this means is that in a Parliament with several hundred seats, the party of Allawi has won 81 seats, while the runner-up, the Party of Law the party of Nuri Al-Maliki, won 79 seats. What do we know about Allawi? That he is Shi’a in origin, but that he won the support of Sunni Arabs because he is not as narrowly sectarian as the Party of Law or the party of those who follow Al-Hakim, or Moqtada Al-Sadr, or any of the other strictly Shi’a parties based in the region south of Baghdad. What helps Iyad Allawi with the Sunni voters is that he was once a member of the Ba’ath Party, though he then had a falling out with Saddam Hussein, whose agents tried to kill him. This is good fro him in two ways. One, it suggests that he was willing before to join a regime that was favorable to the Sunnis. And it is in his favor that he is regarded as a tough guy, a “strongman,” for Iraq has known only such people, is used to them, and those hungry for stability find the perception, the reputation, of being tough desirable. This reputation depends on two things. One is his his ability to fight back against his attackers, sent to London by Saddam Hussein, and to survive the severe wounds he endured, and re-enter the political fray. And, furthermore, when he was briefly Prime Minister, so it is rumored, Iyad Allawi is said to have personally killed several people. In Iraq, among the masses, that sort of thing goes over well.
So will he be able to win, and to rule? It is hard to see how. No matter what one thinks of him, he is still the “Sunni candidate” even if not Sunni, and the Shi’a, even those who are least interested in Islam and therefore least concerned with the power of the Shi’a qua Shi’a, outcome, it is said, was “inconclusive." Iyad Allawi, the leader of a party that pitched its appeal to the non-sectarian, in fact was preferred by Sunni Arabs, who saw the “secular” Allawi, of Shi’a origin, as their best hope to stand up for Sunni interests. In Iraq, the long-awaited “real” election of 2010 took place. Iyad Allawi’s group has a narrow lead – two seats – over one of the Shi’a groups, that led by the current leader, Al-Maliki. Iyad Allawi is Shi’a, but he is the candidate who has attracted the most support from Sunni Arabs, because he is perceived by them to be the least “sectarian” – meaning, the one who is least inclined to promote the interests of the Shi’a, to make sure that the Shi’a do not have to yield any of the power they have acquired since the American military upended the previous regime.
Even if Allawi were somehow to win the support of more Shi’a who are willing to give the Sunnis a role in the government, which means a role in the distribution of wealth and power, it is hard to see how he will be able to change the makeup of ministries, to allocate more money to Sunnis, more power to Sunnis, and not infuriate most of the Shi’a Arabs who can point, indignantly, to the entire past history of modern Iraq, when they were kept down, their growth – literally and figuratively –was stunted, they constituted the perennially poor and the wretched. The oil of Iraq is under Shi’a-populated lands, and under Kurdish-populated lands. The Sunnis have no oil, no resrouces, of their own. They can be spoilers. They can appeal to Sunni Arabs elsewhere to boycott Iraq diplomatically and economically. They can make it harder for the Shi’a to govern. But if you were Shi’a, and you were aware of what the Shi’a had endured at the hands of the Sunnis, would you care that much to be accepted by the Sunni Arabs? If the price of that acceptance is to yield to the Sunni Arabs who will never acquiesce in their loss of power, isn’t that a price too high? And how much damage can the Sunni Arabs of Iraq do to the Shi’a, now that so many of them have been, over the past seven years, forced out of Baghdad? How much damage can they do if the oil revenues are controlled by a Shi’a-run government? Would Allawi dare to re-allocate resources so as to seem to be rewarding, with the wealth generated by “Shi’a oil,” the Sunnis, rewarding them for their intransigence, their aggression, their assumption that, no matter what their numbers, they have a divine right to rule over the Shi’a who, in their view, are not orthodox, not full-fledged, Muslims.
History, and demographics, and Islam itself, are the three factors that will determine the future of Iraq.
By history I mean the history of Iraq in Arab and Muslim history. Baghdad, is one of the most important cities in the history of Islam, one of the two centers, with Cairo, of Muslim Arab civilization. It is the place where much of Muslim history, of the kind Muslims like to exaggerate and like to recall, was made. They are history-haunted, which is not surprising since for them there is no movement, no real history, outside of Islam, and the glory days of Islamic history lie in the past, and in large part on the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, destroyed when Hulegu Khan invaded in 1258. The Mongol invasion is still discussed.
By demographics I mean that the Sunni Arabs, who were put in position to rule by the British, with an old Sunni elite dominating in Baghdad from the 1920s on, though they remain convinced that they constitute over 40% of the Iraqi population (they like to use, one military man told me, the figure “42%”), the Shi’a have in recent decades had larger families, and what’s more, have even managed to successfully proselytize, so that now the Sunni Arabs constitute 19% of the population, less than 1/3 that of the Shi’a Arabs. They have owed their power to their control of the military, their dominance of the officer corps; their position is akin to that of the Alawite military caste that controls Syria, despite the fact that Alwaites constitute 12% of the Syrian population.
But what about the Kurds? Aren’t they mostly Sunni? And doesn’t that mean that they would identify with the Sunni Arabs. No. In his excellent book “The Multiple Identities of the Middle East,” Bernard Lewis notes the tug of various identities – in the main, those of religion or sect within religion, and those of ethnic identity, as opposed to the tug, or claim to loyalty, of the nation-state that is a product of the non-Muslim, and therefore alien, West. For the Kurds, so mistreated by the Arabs, their Kurdish identity – not always, but mostly – is likely to take precedence over the sectarian tug of Shi’a or Sunni Islam. And since the latest mass-murdering of Kurds was ordered by the Sunni Arab Saddam Hussein, and carried out by his military, under the direction of Sunni Arab generals, it is unlikely that the Kurds – they too being history-haunted – are likely to support the Sunni Arabs in any contest over power with the Shi’a Arabs. The forced arabization of lands the Kurds consider their own was based not only on destroying whole Kurdish villages, but in moving into those villages, as a replacement population, Arabs – and these Arabs tended to be Sunni, not Shi’a. In Mosul and Kirkuk, both of which the Kurds consider their cities, the chief rivalry is with Sunni Arabs. That is one more reason why Kurds are most likely to side with the Shi’a. Finally, the Shi’a themselves do not need the oil under the Kurdish-ruled regions. They might not care very much if the Sunni Arabs, their historic tormentors, were to lose Mosul and Kirkuk. They don’t need that oil, for in the south they have their own oil. Given the way that the Middle Eastern kaleidoscope can be shaken to give entirely new alliances – think of Lebanon, where the Shi’a were once on the bottom, and now they threaten not only the Christians but the Sunni merchant class as well, and what’s even stranger, though they are dangerous to the wellbeing of the Lebanese Christians, the Alwaite regime in Syria, which within Syria protects the Christians out of reasons of self-interest, in Lebanon supports the current worst enemy of the Christians, the Shi’a Hezbollah.
Finally, however, there is Islam itself. By Islam itself I do not mean only what is in the texts. I don’t mean what the tenets – the rules – of Islam are. I mean as well the set of attitudes that arise naturally in a Muslim, even if he has not necessarily gone to mosque, or read the Qur’an closely. I mean the atmospherics of Muslim states, of societies, even of communities and families living in the West but adhering to Islam. The attitudes that Islam engenders are those of deep and permanent hostility to non-Muslims, and a belief that Islam itself must be defended at all costs, and that includes lying about the faith in order to protect it from criticism. Since Islam is a politics and a geopolitics, indeed was probably fashioned, beginning about 1400 years ago, out of stories and personages appropriated from both Christianity and Judaism, with an admixture of pre-Islamic pagan Arab lore, as a fighting faith a faith that could both justify, and promote, conquest by the Arabs, who already had over many years been filtering out of the Arabian Peninsula, and living, in their own colonies, among the much more advanced Christians and Jews of the Middle East. This was not a “new, and improved” faith, consisting of unfamiilar doctrines. It included comfortable hints of the faiths of those it conquered, and presented itself not as something new, but as the original faith, the one that those practicing Judaism and Christianity had fallen away from, had misunderstood, had received wrongly, had been too ungrateful – “kufr” meaning ingratitude – to receive as Muhammad had received the Message from God, and as Muslims had received, in turn, the Message brought by Muhammad, the Messenger of God.
In the texts of Islam – Qur’an, Hadith, Sira – aggression and violence and deceit are everywhere. Muhammd is not a gentle Jesus, meek and mild, He was a warrior. He took part in 78 battle campaigns, 77 of them offensive. He believed in, he urged his followers to participate in, slaying the Unbelievers, telling them only to do so during certain months and not during others. It is not possible to be raised in a world suffused with Islam and not be affected by these atmospherics of violence and aggression. And we have confirmation from many articulate apostates – Magdi Allam, Ibn Warraq, Wafa Sultan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ali Sina, Nonie Darwish, and many others – that this is so.
The whole Iraq folly has been punctuated by solemn discussions about this or that strategy. In Baghdad, would “the surge" work? What were, according to the lawgivers of Fort Leavenworth, the Five Basic Facts to Lean about Every Insurgency? Were Ahmad Chalabi, Moqtada Al-Sadr, Ayatollah Al-Sistani potentially agents of influence for Iran, or were they Iraqi nationalists, or did they despise the Islamic Republic of Iran for other reasons? What would Talebani do to Barzani, or vice-versa, in Kurdistan? Would the Turks intervene on behalf of the Turcomans, or just to teach the Kurds a lesson? What would happen to the Christians in Basra? In Baghdad? In Mosul? Would the Sunnis participate in this election? Would the Shi’a? Which Shi’a were likely to come out on top? Would Al-Jaafari make a comeback? What about Al-Hakim? Could Moqtada Al-Sadr be a kingmaker? And why did anyone listen to Juan Cole, when real Iraqis knew how little he knew about Iraq. And who cared what Noah Feldman claimed he did in poractically writing the Iraqi Constitution? Hey, and whatever happened to that intelligent bastard, Adnan Pachachi, who five years ago was constantly being quoted as some kind of Grand Old Man of Iraqi politics, since no one else could play that role?
But never was the outcome in Iraq, and the way it would somehow make the whole hideous expense worth it, discussed. It was not discussed by those who opposed the Iraq venture, and regretted the American presence. Their opposition was that of appeasers, who thought we were “making ourselves hated around the world.” Nor was it discussed by those enthusiasts for the war who could only discuss this or that tactic –the American outreach to, and financing of, the Sons of Iraq and the Awakening, the surge that was said to have worked and put everything “back on track.”
All that is the fog of war, or rather the smog of war-commentary. The only things one need to keep firmly in mind are these: the Sunnis will never acquiesce in the loss of their power, and their wealth, and their status. The Shi’a will never give up the power, and wealth, and status, that the American invasion made inevitable. The Kurds will never give up, having tasted autonomy, their dream of an autonomous region amounting almost to, or possibly becoming, an independent Kurdistan. And the possibility of political compromise in Iraq, which to outside Infidels appears the sensible and obvious course, is small, because those who have been followers of Islam recognize a world of Victor and Vanquished, not a world where differences are split, and enemies make permanent peace, instead of making hudnas with those enemies so as to bide, and buy, one's time.
It is not necessary to know the name, or even the sect, or the ethnicity, of those who will in the next few months take control of Iraq. All one needs to know is that the Sunnis cannot ever regain their position, that the Shi'a and Kurds have control of all of the oil and do not need the Sunnis to remain in the same nation-state with them, and can do quite well without those oil-less Sunnis attempting again to arrogate power and wealth to themselves. And one knows that the co-religioinists of the Sunni Arabs in Iraq will view with dismay, and even horror, the rise and dominance of the Shi'a, and are unlikely to refrain from trying to undo all of the unforeseen consequences of the American invasion.
It is possible, now that American forces will be pulling out, that at long last other developments may yet allow a kind of victory in Iraq to be achieved, not through American actions but through American inaction, not through the American presence but through the American absence. Let the Muslims in Iraq behave as I am sure they will behave, and let Muslims in the immediate neighborhood behave as I am sure they will behave, and let the Shi'a and Sunnis outside of the immediate neighborhood also be affected, and that will help the Camp of Islam will divide and demoralize itself. And the expensive lesson -- a two-trillion dollar lesson - in the wisdom of Kutuzovshchina will, one hopes, be learned by those who have rushed about polypragmonically, when they might have done as well, or rather done far better, by leaving Iraq (if they had felt the need, based on incorrect information and inadequate analysis, to enter it at all)-as of February 2004, when everything that was to come was set inexorably in motion, by the killing or capture of Saddam Hussein, of his two sons, and of fifty or so (of the fifty-two sought) main figures in his regime.
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