Will Iraq ever be fixed?
By: Jamal Doumani
Is Iraq headed for national fracture? Will it, after the current vacuum created by its sectarian divide is filled, find a way around its social contradictions? Will it, in other words, stumble upon a kind of deux ex machina that will enter the picture at one point, and resolve these irreconcilable differences among its people?
Or will it, in the worst case scenario, go from crisis to disaster, and then from disaster to total meltdown? After all, Murphy’s law — anything that can go wrong, will — applies to the fate of nations as it does to one’s fate in everyday life.
These questions would’ve appeared provocative not long ago, say after the withdrawal of American troops in 2011, but today they appear like the right ones to ask. And what, in the name of mercy, are Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis doing, offering up their country, as they appear to be doing, for the chopping block?
In March 1921, when Britain was still in its colonial heyday, the country’s Secretary of the State for the Colonies, Winston Churchill, met at a hotel in Cairo with a team of advisers, that included T.E. Lawrence and the peripatetic Gertrude Bell, to redraw the map of the Levant (to Arabs, the Mashrek) in order to make the region more responsive to the perceived geopolitical interests of imperial Britain. Among the entities they drew on that map — and some today erroneously say “created out of thin air” — was the modern state of Iraq. Since that time, Britain has shrunk to the status of a little island nation off the coast of France, and Iraq went on, after the end of the Mandate, to confront, without much success, its sectarian demons.
It should not have been like that. Iraq had an abundance of resources, mostly oil, to go around, to spread the wealth and share the amity, as it were, but the British were dreadful at nation-building. And why would they not have been. Set aside the ethnocentric, not to mention absurd, notion that colonial overlords are eminently qualified to build nations with the impressive ease of a chess player moving pawns around on the board, nations are built organically from the effusions of their peoples “assabiya” — as Ibn Khaldoun called national elan — not mechanically from some cartographer’s pen.
You hear these days that Iraq is an “artificial” state carved up by outsiders. That is nonsense. The land that Iraqis inhabit today has a continuous history that stretches from the irrigation specialists in Sumer to the astronomers of Babylon, from the Abbasid inventors of Algebra to the multiculturalism the country enjoyed under Ottoman rule. Iraq was there then. Transformed here, reconstituted there, in response to the ebb and flow of its people’s historical experience, but it was there all along.
Today’s power struggle between Sunnis and Shiites is principally not about religion but power. Sunnis will tell you their country has consistently been ruled since the 7th century by their sect as an integral as well as an integrated part of the Sunni world in the Mashrek, and they are not likely to cede that right now. The Shiites, conversely, will tell you that numerically they represent the majority and thus, as Shiites, are entitled to look east to Iran, where their fellow Shiites rule,
And the Kurds, as is now abundantly clear, have set their sights on an independent state in their enclave. Thus with each group aiming to grab as big a piece of the pie as they could, after all is said and done, there will be nothing left of Iraq, or no Iraq left — which is the most disastrous outcome possible, telling of a narrative where Iraqis, refusing to transcend or override their differences, will opt to see their nation fly apart, thrown away like a broken toy. And of course we all know from precedent what happens — inevitably and predictably — after a nation splits into ethnic, sectarian and tribal parts. Consider, in this instant, the case of the splintering of Yugoslavia that followed the death of President Tito: Hundreds of thousands of people died in Bosnia and Kosovo before the situation stabilized in the wake of Nato’s intervention.
Sadly, that is the national mood, dark and sinister, in Iraq today, with Iraqis seeing their parochial loyalties as being more relevant to their identity than those that derive from their national collectivity. Equally sadly, that mood began to percolate in Iraq quite recently in their history, under Baathist rule, most notably Saddam’s, when the Baathist ruling elite abolished civil society, doing away with laws and institutions, and a social contract between ruler and ruled, thus preventing the diffusion of pluralism and tolerance for diversity in society. The end result was an inward, almost nihilistic turn by Iraqis to their sect or tribe for self-definition — truly a regressive shift in the social formation of any state.
There has been talk in the public debate in the US recently — and, yes, the fate of Iraq remains important to Americans — that Shiites have done enough harm to Sunnis, and Sunnis to Shiites, to keep the two sects suspicious of each other for decades to come. And though Washington is asking the current Shiite government in Baghdad to be “inclusive,” which is diplomatic lingo for “less brazenly sectarian,” the die is cast already. It’s a case of too little, too late, even in the unlikely event that that government is inclined to be responsive, which clearly it is not.
So, the solution? According to those in the vanguard of that debate, allow the creation of majority population “states” within Iraq that would accommodate the economic and social needs of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, states with regional governments that have state rights, responsible for day-to-day laws, much in the manner that the 50 states in the US operate. Here you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. What one does know is that the people of Iraq, common, everyday folks, deserve the future that in 1921 Winston Churchill and his cohorts, pompous colonialists one and all, denied them.