Get Over It
The coming years will tell whether the US intervention in Iraq brought the first modern constitutional democracy to the Arab world or instigated protracted civil war and disintegration.
The hope is that, thanks to the US intervention, ethnic and religious tolerance will ultimately be born across the Middle East in reaction to decades of cruelty by Arab regimes, just as it was once born from the brutal Thirty Years War between Christian sects in Europe. The danger is that revenge and a politics of victimhood by the newly empowered will lead to yet another cycle of violence and oppression.
To be sure, the American foray has so far been a debacle for US strategic interests, isolating it from its historic allies just as China is rising rapidly on the world scene. It created a terrorist presence sympathetic to Al Qaeda in Iraq where there was none before. The misplaced focus on Iraq has sapped the US capacity, militarily and diplomatically, to block the radical Iranian regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Through the defense of torture and its own practices at Abu Ghraib prison, the US has forfeited the global moral high ground on human rights.
The US may have learned once again that democracy can’t be exported; that there are no short cuts to the end of history through military intervention. Whatever positive comes out of the episode, it will be a long-time coming.
Even so, any honest assessment must take into account the voices on the ground in the Middle East, such as the Egyptian democratic activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim.
“The most honest and generous answer to whether the US invasion of Iraq instigated the new democratic trend in the region,” he says, “is that George Bush was the midwife of the changes taking place today. But he is not responsible for the pregnancy. I don’t mean to compare Bush to Napoleon, but there is the analogy of the French expedition to Egypt in 1790. It delivered an external jolt. Over the past 200 years, it seems that it is usually such external jolts that enable the seed of change to materialize, for the pregnant to give birth.”
Now that the jolt has been delivered in Iraq, what exactly is being born? Back in 1996, NPQ invited the Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya to the founding meeting of Intellectuels du Monde in New Delhi to discuss his recent book at the time, The Republic of Fear, about the crimes of Saddam.
At that meeting, Makiya called on Arab intellectuals to discard the prevalent view that human rights and liberal democracy were Western ideas that didn’t fit an Arab world victimized by colonialism. As Arabs struggled without rights for their tribal, ethnic or religious identity, Lebanon was ripped apart by civil war, millions died in the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam tortured and gassed his own people. Blood and cruelty rained down across the sands of Arabia.
It was time, Makiya argued, for the Arab world to learn the lesson of tolerance that Europe had learned in the 16th and 17th century. “Voltaire put it beautifully,” said Makiya, “Toleration arises as a necessary consequence of our being human. We are all products of frailty, fallible and prone to error. So let us mutually pardon each other’s follies. This is the first principle of all human rights.”
By 2003, these views led Makiya, a secular Shiite, to advise then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney as they prepared to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam.
Now Makiya is disillusioned. He penned a long essay for the New York Times on the eve of the December parliamentary election in Iraq entitled “Present at the Disintegration.” In this NPQ, he is more direct. Speaking of the Shiite dominance brought by democratic elections to Iraq, Makiya says “The Shiite leadeship has acted irresponsibly precisely by not rising above their own sense of victimhood. This failure of imagination means they will lose more than anyone in Iraq because they will be unable to reap the rewards of their own democratic majority status. Instead of consolidating their position, they risk provoking civil war. Iraq is on the precipice.”
“The threat to Iraqi life and well-being now does not come from the Arab nationalism of the Baath, which subordinated Iraq to the mythology of a single supposedly yet-to-be united Arab nation. It comes from the legacy of that totalizing ideology: the irrational and self-destructive politics of all groups shrinking down their concerns to the mere fact of their own victimhood.”
The Sunni insurgency cannot be quelled, according to Makiya, without a central, if federal, unified state that guarantees the rights of all citizens equally. His fear is that the loose, undefined Iraqi constitution gives power to the Shiite majority to do as they will without adequate protection for the Sunnis and others. “Given political power, a leadership that elevates victimhood to the be-all and end-all of politics will in turn victimize, bringing untold suffering and misery upon its own people.”
Tolerance arrived after the Thirty Years War in Europe because the sovereign nation state was established in exchange for tolerating religious minorities in its midst. For this reason, a strong, not a weak state in Iraq is as critical to a peaceful future as it is unlikely.
One may further ask whether a religious framework that emphasizes justice, as Islam does, will be as adept at creating tolerance as the Christian faith that emphasizes forgiveness. This is particularly a worry with the Shia, who have made their persecution and victimhood an article of faith since Ali, their founding martyr, was assassinated in 661ad.
Perhaps the Shiite leaders in Iraq today would do well to listen to Tariq Ramadan, the Islamic scholar at the center of the conflict over Muslims and integration in Europe.
Ramadan, like Makiya, argues that the politics of victimhood is a dead end. He advises Muslims around the world today to “educate themselves spiritually.” Taking a page from American history, he writes that “The American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., following the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, understood that it was all too easy to see one’s own community or cause as the universal value. He constantly warned his followers not to use the excuse of injustice done to them to abdicate responsibility for their lives and obligations to others, calling for ‘spiritual discipline’ against resentment or self-righteousness.”
In the end, more than guns or tanks, improvised explosive devices or elections, this spiritual discipline is what the Middle East needs most today.
Nathan Gardels, editor