Azmi Bishara: A Selective Memory

By Azmi Bishara

David Brooks, one of the most ardent advocates of the war against Iraq, has turned into a history buff. In a recent column in The New York Times (2 November 2006) he argues that if American policies in Iraq fail, Iraq will not hold together as a state. Iraq just has too many old and endemic demons. He has at hand a recently republished essay (originally appeared in 2004) by his currently favourite historian, Elie Kadourie, whom he proudly introduces as "an Iraqi Jew who was born and grew up in Baghdad", and he advises decision-makers in Washington to read it before taking any radical actions on Iraq.

Kadourie, and the author of the essay’s preface, David Percy, happen to believe that Arab and Islamic culture are inimical to democracy. But it is pointless to tell Brooks that such studies are a dime a dozen and that Kadourie is not alone in his views. In fact, this historian’s tedious and all-too-familiar theories regarding British colonial policies in Iraq, which Brooks considers such a new and miraculous find, began appearing long ago in periodicals only to be collated into book form in 1970. Brooks, though, is set in his contempt for Arab societies.

Beleaguered neo-conservatives are undoubtedly going to start accusing Bush of having been naïve and simple-minded in applying their theories — interesting, when it was qualities like these that inspired them to sing Ronald Reagan’s praises, because were it not for these qualities Reagan might have heeded his advisors and not have "done the right thing against Communism". Some of these neo-cons might even admit that the aim of invading Iraq was not originally to spread democracy but to occupy the country, after which it was just "rollback", as Israel referred to its shifting aims in its war on Lebanon. As for the aim behind dragging out and dusting off Kadourie’s essay, it is not difficult to sniff out. British efforts, in the first half of the last century, to forge an Iraqi state and identity were, he argues, that doomed from the outset because the British were trying to piece together something out of diverse and antagonistic groups — the Shia, Sunnis, Kurds and Arabs. He further points to the Shia and tribal uprisings under the British as evidence that tribal and sectarian affiliations are the only ones feasible in Iraq and as evidence of these groups endemic hostility towards statehood due to "what they imagined to be their interests".

Everyone calling for the dissolution of the Iraqi state, as though it were some philanthropic society or political party or joint-stock company, dredges up this study on Iraqi history. Needless to say, Israeli scholars hit upon it well before American journalists. Asher Susser referred to it in substantiation of his prediction that the Iraqi state would disintegrate after the war and that its people would revert to pre-state allegiances. He also expects the same of other Arab states. ( Middle East Quarterly, Autumn 2003)

The identity crisis in the eastern Arab world is a modern phenomenon, not the extension of a condition with deep historical roots. Nor are nationalism and state- and nation-building concepts that conflict with the existence of tribal and sectarian affiliations; they are answers to the challenges of building a modern society. The problem in Iraq, today, is that the country’s tribal and sectarian structure is being forced on Iraqis as a mold for political affiliation. People aren’t born as a nation; nations are built. And in order to build a nation you don’t go delving into history, when there was no state or nation and when all that existed were tribes and sects, as some Orientalists do.

Proponents of the modern Arab nationalist project, by contrast, hoped to forge a sense of Arab nationalist identity as a basis for a political entity and citizenship and, perhaps, democratic government at a later stage.

In Iraq, as they and other colonial powers did elsewhere in the Levant, the British set about constructing a regional state, not as a means for superseding tribal and sectarian affiliations but as a structure that deliberately entrenched these divisions and aimed them against Arab nationalism. Colonial authorities, we recall, depended primarily on minorities — or those they classified as minorities — to build the "national" army. Now, nearly a century after the Sykes-Picot agreement, people are wringing their hands over the failure of that state, while throughout the colonial powers and their successors fought the only serious and feasible alternative, Arab nationalism. And now they are scrambling for solutions, such as a loose federation or increasing the number of troops in Iraq, as a last ditch attempt to preserve the unity of the country before "bringing Iraq to an end". This is how Brooks put it, and he was not speaking figuratively, like former US presidential candidate John Kerry who called for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in order to end that chapter in American history; he was being literal.

The remedies that Brooks, who supported the war, has to offer in his 2 November article are to get rid of Rumsfeld, to increase troop numbers in Baghdad alone to 30,000 and to do whatever it takes to restore security. How curious. Contrary to what we had thought, Rumsfeld’s resignation or dismissal may herald a greater military involvement and a tightening of the American grip in Iraq. Nor is this regarded at odds with the appeal to talk to Syria and Iran over Iraq. But then, the intelligent reader will recall that one of the most common criticisms levied against Rumsfeld in the first week of the war was that he had not committed enough ground forces to Iraq and that he was too slapdash and overconfident, overly dependent on America’s powerful state-of-the art, high-tech military equipment, and the belief that with this equipment America could intervene in several places in the world at once at the press of a couple of buttons. Now the theory on Iraq is do whatever it takes to win and impose a federal solution or let the country fall apart.

Arab nationalists came under attack in the West, and in conservative and neo-conservative circles in particular, because they believed that the sub- regional states into which the colonial powers had carved up the eastern Arab world would not fill the identity vacuum and serve to build a nation in the proper sense. The result of this onslaught was that the Arab nationalist movement was marginalised and increasingly radicalised the more the Arab world fell into disunity and fragmentation, especially following the 1967 war. By the time that the Saddam regime had renamed its official gazette Babylon and begun to stress a discrete Iraq identity and distinct Iraqi history, the sub-regional state had come under the crosshairs of the very groups that had formerly attacked Arab nationalism. Now, they proclaim, the state has to be turned into a sectarian and denominationally based federation, ie the state has to be deconstructed, or terminated. The idea that Arab identity can serve as an overarching bond for the people and simultaneously accommodate non-Arab minorities simply does not occur to them.

After having identified Arab nationalism as enemy number one, they co-opted Arab nationalist criticisms of the sub-regional state and its dependence on tribal and sectarian groupings and then distorted and turned these criticisms against both the state and Arab nationalism. Now the Arabs are required to recognise tribal and sectarian divisions as the only structural basis for a pluralistic society and to stop thinking of these pre- modern allegiances as possible impediments to statehood and nationalism, as Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries concluded.

Today’s Iraqi occupation ideologues have concocted three super-simplistic myths to which they have reduced contemporary Iraq history: a Sunni- based Baathist regime ruled over the Shia, the oppressed Shia appealed to the US and Britain for help, and the resistance to the occupation is really a sectarian war between the Sunni and Shia. Their need to invent a fiction in order to cover up their failure and to suggest that Iraq either has to go the way they say or else, is not all that different from the fiction of weapons of mass destruction, the major difference being that they are now producing a real weapon of mass destruction aimed at Iraq and the eastern Arab world.

The Arab nationalist and leftist parties were not sectarian or ethnic allegiances. Iraq, together with its political elites and general public, passed through periods in which non-sectarian ideas and affiliations prevailed. Nor were previous Iraqi governments sectarian in nature: they didn’t even allow religious affiliations to appear on identity papers and other official documents, and the use or exploitation of sectarian allegiances was regarded as shameful, perhaps criminal and certainly politically incorrect. If anything, it is the suppression of sectarianism that is contributing to the vehemence of today’s sectarian chauvinists who are avenging past ills perpetrated by the Saddam regime. But this regime was not "Sunni"; it was a monolithic state apparatus shored up by a single party and state police and intelligence agencies, all of which consisted of both Sunnis and Shias. The same applied to the various opposition movements, which did not begin with the Shaaban uprising following the war to liberate Kuwait. Certainly, during the Iraq-Iran war, the regime concentrated its oppressive practices more heavily on predominantly Shia areas and Shia religious figures, operating on the assumption that any emphasis of Shia identity was an expression of disloyalty to the state. However, apart from some well-known exceptions, it was not discriminatory pressure that made hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shia soldiers fight in the ranks of their national army against Iran.

Under previous Iraqi governments, officials did not like to have sectarian tags affixed to them. Only now has this become the rule, which is applied retroactively even to those who lived and died without an ounce of sectarianism in their blood. Abdel Karim Qasem is now labelled "Shia", Abdel-Salam Aref "Sunni"; the "Shia" Naji Taleb was prime minister under Aref; the founder of the Baath Party was originally "Christian", as was one of its most prominent members, Tareq Aziz, while Fouad Al-Rukabi, the first national chief of the Baath Party, was Shia. In 1963, in fact, all the civilian members of the Regional Command were Shia. Over the period of Baath Party rule there were three prime ministers: Ahmed Hussein Khudeir "Sunni", Saadoun Hamadi "Shia" and Mohamed Hamza Al-Zubeidi "Shia" and of the two speakers of the National Assembly, one — Naim Haddad — was Sunni and the other — Saadoun Hamadi — was Shia.

It is no coincidence that people are now overlooking the fact that former foreign minister and the last minister of information under Saddam, Mohamed Said Al-Sahhaf, was Shia. Nor do those who are talking of the Sunni-Shia political divide today care to be reminded of the names of the many Shia political, intellectual and religious leaders who dedicated their lives to realising Arab unity, such as the Independence Party leader Sheikh Mohamed Mahdi Kubba, Taleb Shubeib, Shamseddin Kazem, Hazem Jawwad, Muaz Abdul-Rahim, Ahmed Hububi, Ali Abdul-Hussein, Amir Al-Halw, Rasem Al-Awadi, Mahmoud Al-Sheikh Radi, Fadel Al-Ansari, Moussa Al-Husseini and Abdulillah Al-Nasrawi. But it is pointless to cite this long list of names, not only because it will do nothing to alter the current poisonous sectarian mood, nor because it falls into the trap of imposing sectarian divisions on history, but also because sectarian partisans, these days, will simply discard the information on the grounds that the government official or political leader of his sect did not have real authority.

It is probably also futile to point out that things weren’t always as monolithic and centralised as they were under Saddam Hussein, either in the government or the Baath Party, and that even under Saddam the monopoly on power was not a Sunni one wielded against the Shia but rather a monopoly by a military junta whose sway in the party and the state intersected with the regional and kinship ties of its constituents.

Iraqi governments have clamped down brutally on all opposition and everyone whose allegiance was suspect. The victims of repression are legion, and of all sects. Mohamed Ayish, Adnan Hussein, General Mohamed Mazloum Al-Dulaimi, Shaker Faza and Raji Al-Takriti were all Sunni.

The first religious figure to have died as the result of torture was Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al-Badri Al-Samaraai, a Sunni. Mohamed Baqir Al-Sadr was executed ten years later. Moreover, for those who care to remember, the Sunni and Shia fundamentalist offensive was directed against the "secularist regime" in Iraq and the Iranian media constantly reminded its public that the two assassinations were connected and proof of the Baathist regime’s war against Islam, both Sunni and Shia. But does anybody in the Iranian media mention Al-Badri today? Similarly forgotten are the armed confrontations against the government in Falluja in the 1970s (The so-called "Dervish Uprising") and the Ramadi uprising during the funeral of Mohamed Mazloum.

Evidently, the rule of political sectarianism and the preparation of the Arab world for the latest colonialist weapon, requires partial collective memory alongside partial collective amnesia.

-Member of the Israeli Knesset from Nazareth. He is heading the National Democratic Coalition "Balad".

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