January 26, 2007
"From Iraqi society to societies in Iraq" - Some further thoughts
I just published this article on Niqash, but since the guidelines of that project (it is financed by various European foreign offices & U.N. agencies) mandated a very balanced tone and - rightly so - doesn't allow for us editors to engage in conjecture and speculation (however informed & sound) ... I thought I should use Aqoul to (1) point to the article and (2) expand upon some themes.
(The article in question is also my last work for Niqash as the project has ended and there is no telling if there will be any follow-up. I am thus also looking around for "something new", as they say, so do feel free to contact me if you want to hire me.)
Update: Added a few links for further reading (Twice)
To sum up the Niqash article, my main points are:
- After the foundation of the state of Iraq in the 1920s a process of "nation-development" begun that had its "golden era" in the 1960s/70s
- The Kurds in the North always strove for a Kurdish "national" state, but until the 1970s were willing to accept autonomy within Iraq
- The development of communalism & sectarian identities among Iraq's Arab population occurred before 2003 but it was by no means irreversible
- The US & its allies missed the chance to counteract communalism after the 2003 War because they viewed Iraqi society through a communalist prism
- By now (early 2007) communalism is THE political system in Iraq, "the only game in town" so to speak
- The central gov't, parliament, and state apparatus have degenerated to arenas of communalist politics
- The everyday lives of Iraq's inhabitants are mainly shaped by political decisions and developments on the local and/or regional, NOT national level
To expand on the article, first of all I would suggest that we start using the term "communalism" instead of "sectarianism". The latter always implies that the bones of contention between the various groups (dare I call them "sects"?) are fundamentally religious and unchangeable, as in "Sunnis and Shi'ites differ because they disagree on who the leader of the umma should be". Already in Iraq that matrix doesn't work at all: Kurds in Iraq are 90% Sunni & 10% Shi'ite yet there are no ties of solidarity between, say, Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs or any "sectarian conflict" between Sunni and Shi'ite Kurds. The Kurds in Iraq - Sunni or Shi'ite - think of themselves as a distinct community based on ethnicity and language, not religion.
The same goes for Tajik vs. Turkmen vs. Pashtun in Afghanistan, Azeris vs. Persians vs. Lurs vs. Bakhtiaris in Iran, etc.
Communalism is a better term because it goes at the heart of the issue: the development of primary identification not with a state or nation, but with a community based on a sub-or supra-national ethnicity or religion. In a sense, communalism can be a first stage of nationalism, i.e. the moment the "community" attains a state of its own it becomes a "nation".
So much for a comment on nomenclature and theory. And now to practical matters.
As the Niqash article already suggests, I am not optimistic about the possibility to reach a cessation of communalist violence in Iraq. For one, there are no neutral outside forces. Everyone on the outside is linked to a specific faction (or even a number of them) on the inside. And even IF the outside players - US, Iran, KSA, Syria, Turkey, Arab World, EU, etc. - were to agree to a common strategy and then embark upon its implementation they could NOT stop the communalist violence, the ethno-religious cleansing. The dynamic of Iraq's civil war has already moved past that stage. At this point ... there are enough weapons and motivated fighters in Iraq to sustain the internal conflicts for quite some time to come. A researcher who focuses on international and civil conflicts said last week, "Iraq is going to bleed out" and I am afraid that's precisely what'll happen.
Now, I am not advocating to just let it all run its course. Quite to the contrary, I actually advocate the general ideas of the ISG report, and particularly the notion to try to get an international group together that comprises Iran and Syria as well as "the other guys". Everything should be attempted, and multi-lateral approaches tend to be more useful than unilateral ones. But I am under no illusion as to the chances of success: While foreign interests and interventions certainly play a role, the main problem in Iraq right now is that there are no non-communalist political groups to speak of. The violence isn't just restricted to an insurgency, which could be fought (and ended) by classic or innovative counter-insurgency programs. The violence is perpetrated by anti-occupation insurgents and communalist militias (who quite often overlap). There are no moderates. There is no "national" central government. The very government on whose active policies the success of the ISG recommendations and the various Bush plans rest is part of the problem, not the solution. The Iraqi army is non-functioning and in vast parts not reliably loyal to the Green Zone.
Therefore, even if Gen. Petraeus manages to "pacify" large parts of Baghdad, that doesn't solve anything. First of all, he doesn't have the manpower to extend that "peace zone" to other parts of the country, and absent a political solution that includes a deal negotiated and accepted by all groups any "pacification" will only be temporary.
Right now, the central gov't and the Iraqi parliament simply don't matter anymore. (These two NYT articles highlight the issue quite nicely: #1 & #2) The main Shi'ite parties (SCIRI and Da'wa; and I'm deliberately using the term "Shi'ite party" since their party programs are distinctly Shi'ite Islamist) are playing the US administration by publicly stating to have the same goals yet on the ground not doing anything to, for instance, curb the activities of their own militias or to transform the ministries from party fiefdoms into national institutions. The Kurdistan Region is de facto independent and the Kurdish politicians in Baghdad are only interested in safeguarding that situation and extending the region's boundaries to include Kirkuk and other areas claimed by the KRG. (More on the Kurdistan Region in an upcoming article on Aqoul). The same goes for the other (community-based) political groups and parties: each seeks to protect and then advance the interests of its group, because they all are deeply distrustful of each other.
The Iraqi parliament and government have drafted and passed a whole number of federal laws, but since the employees in the state apparatus (ministries, security apparatus, educational institutions, judiciary, etc.) are not capable - and in many instances also not willing - to implement them, those laws and regulations are nothing but stacks of paper. For instance, the new Citizenship Law decrees that no holder of high office can have dual citizenship but who is going to enforce that on ministers? The constitution states that all Iraqi citizens have the right to freely move around the country but who is going to force the guards at the border between the Kurdistan Region and the rest of the country to let every Arab Iraqi enter? Etc.
For all those reasons, I think that the current focus on the national level, on what's going on in the Green Zone, is misleading and ultimately gives a completely distorted picture of today's Iraq. The observers miss out on the developments in the towns and regions. Everyone is so busy in trying to determine whether Nuri al-Maliki will stay PM or if the Sadrists rejoin Parliament that they don't look at how the Islamists of the Fadhila Party have taken over Basra and are trying to implement their own cultural revolution, or that the Iraqi agriculture in the South is close to collapse, or that the Kurdistan Region is pretty much run like a double one-party state.
I wish I could end this article with at least a ray of hope, but quite frankly I don't see it. Iraq is now in a situation similar to the one Lebanon was in during the late 1970s. And look where Lebanon is now.
It is always reassuring when one sees that the "experts" have come to the same conclusions:
NYT's Sabrina Tavernise "It Has Unraveled So Quickly"
Robert Malley Testimony to Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Al-Sharq al-Awsat (via IraqSlogger) "Arab League Ambassador Resigns in Protest - Says Fabric of Iraqi Society Being Torn Apart"
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Good point on communalism. Not communism, that one is taken. It gets me thinking about the cartoon crisis, and the 'racism or blasphemy' question, like the difference the Catholic Church made between Jews and Judaism. Were the cartoons racist or blasphemous? Depends on whether one perceives Muslims to be a community or not. And so forth.
On a side note, what does Hizb mean?
(1) Muslim could be used in terms of purely religious, or even purely ethnic (like in Bosnia). Since it is absolutely rare for Muslims to convert out of Islam, you oftentimes get the situation where one is born into Islam and is a Muslim by pure family ties. Thus, a religious identity becomes a quasi-ethnic one. (Remember the basis of how Croats & Serbs differentiated from each other: everyone who's Catholic is Croat, and everyone who's Orthodox is Serb. Now they're even two nations with their own countries.)
In Egypt, you have Muslims and Christians. It doesn't really matter that the former are Hanafi Sunnis and the latter Copts.
In Lebanon, you have Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims and a plethora of Christian communities.
In Iraq you have (Sunni & Shi'ite) Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Shi'ite Arabs, and some other communities (Assyrians, Yazidis, Turkmen) who aren't seen as being either Arab or Kurdish.
So ... long story short: it depends on the specific situation.
My point was (and is) that the term "sectarianism" always has a religious connotation, which doesn't do the reality of community identities a good service.
(2) Hizb means "party/partisans", in terms of "group of people belonging to ...". The quranic reference is 5:56 (Pickthal: And whoso taketh Allah and His messenger and those who believe for guardian [will know that], lo! the party of Allah, they are the victorious.) That's where Hizballah takes its name from. The Shi'ites take their label from the phrase shi'at Ali (the followers, adherents of Ali). In modern Arabic, the term hizb has taken the meaning of a political party in the Western sense and is used when translating the English term "party" into Arabic, like Democratic Party or Labour Party or Communist Party etc.
Posted by: MSK at January 26, 2007 06:48 PM
While I tend to agree that the rise of communalism could have been prevented in Iraq and elsewhere, I'm not so sure it could have been done so realisitically.
First, the cause of communalism: it takes place when the leaders/policy entrepreneurs/demagogues/whoever could successfully define some bond binding a gruop of people, while secondarily defining some "other," i.e. the group that the members of the former are not. The success of this process depends on what the reailty holds--i.e. whether the claim of the bond holding the former is credible and "the other" really are somehow different. Now, figuring out what common bond that the Iraqis realistically share, as a matter of fact-finding, is itself a difficult task for outsiders, but even more difficult is how could a bunch of foreigners credibly define what an "Iraqi" is? (and against whom might this "Iraqi" be defined? Who's "the other" here?) This is the reason I think "nation-building" by outsiders (with "nation" being defined in the traditional sense) is usually doomed to failure, regardless of the locale or culture. The best we could have done in Iraq is to mitigate the damage somewhat, but creating anything resembling an "Iraqi nation" out of the mess, I'm increasingly convinced, was a pipedream from the beginning.
The US/Allies could've (1) supported Iraqi non-communalist political groups before and after the 2003 War and (2) engaged the communalist groups in a public debate on the pros and cons of communalism.
Obviously I don't claim to know if that would've been successful. My point is that the US/Allies themselves saw Iraq through the prism of "Iraq is made up of Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi'ites."
Personally, I have no emotional stake in whether there is an "Iraq" or whether there are a number of states on its territory.
As my own experience and that of others show, among then non-Kurdish inhabitants of the country there is still quite a significant residue of a sense of Iraqi-ness.
In the end, the US/Allies screwed up everything they possibly could.
Posted by: MSK at January 27, 2007 07:05 AM
"Personally, I have no emotional stake in whether there is an "Iraq" or whether there are a number of states on its territory."
A more relevant question, though, would be whether one or several states would be more likely to reduce or exacerbate "communalism." Any thoughts on that?
Posted by: mas at January 28, 2007 03:47 AM
It will exacerbate communalism in th short and medium terms. There is no way to achieve communitarianly correct borders, so as in the instance of Europe after the creation of states pretending to nation-state status, there will be irredentinism, and further excuse for conflict and ethnic cleansing.
As to the question of whether the communitarian fighting could have been aborted, having been involved in the Iraq fiasco from a private sector standpoint in the earliest stage - 2002-2003 and even early 2004 - I feel confident in saying that yes, it could have been aborted.
Some degree of tension was inevitable. It need not have cross the tipping point, however.
And I agree with MSK, ex-the Kurds, most Iraqis then (and even now) have a strong sense of Iraqiness even if operationally that is trumped by communitarianrism within the Iraqi envelope.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at January 28, 2007 04:11 AM
But even if there was and is a high degree of national identity, civil society couldn't have been that strong? Not after years of a government that didn't follow its own laws. So it wouldn't have taken much of a fuck-up to push people, as L puts it, operationally over to reliance on more local, communal, comparatively reliable structures, be they recent innovations (as I gather a lot of the sectarian-based stuff is) or more traditional ones (like, er, I was feeding that troll about in the other thread *thumps head on computer desk*).
Posted by: Antiquated Tory at January 28, 2007 05:20 AM
good question, and one that should be thought of when looking at the future of other states in the region. Regarding Iraq, however, I think that in terms of communalism it is irrelevant whether the country stays within its current boundaries, whether it is re-organized into a number of federal regions under a however weak or strong central gov't, or whether it breaks up into independent states.
While I am always careful about drawing parallels between different areas it really does seem like Iraq is now in a situation similar to the one Lebanon was in during the late 70s early-mid 80s. The population may think of themselves as Iraq to a certain extent, but the (significant) political forces are all communalist.
Look at the video on Blake's FP post & you see what I mean. Pachachi is completely irrelevant, and Abd al-Mahdi represents the kind of politicians running the show.
In the end, communalist identity isn't the problem. Europe is made up of quite a lot of "communalist" states for whatelse is France but the state of the French community? Ditto for Germany, Portugal, Poland, etc. Some states are multiple-community states - the UK is a perfect example - but seem to have been quite successful in avoiding communalist violence in general. Although one would also have to point out that there are some communalist conflicts (Northern Ireland, the Basque region, etc.).
But the main root of communalist violence isn't communalist identity but the perception that the "other" communities are "out there to get you", or that "one cannot trust them" and thus has to kick them out of one's own area, or that they "defile" one's own area, etc.
Also, it seems to be connected to personal (i.e. economic, social, security) well-being. Prosperous societies tend not to engage in communalist violence (but there are counter-examples, like the above-mentioned ones in Europe).
Long comment short: Iraq seems, for the time being, beyond the point where communalist violence can be curbed.
Posted by: MSK at January 28, 2007 08:05 AM
The nations that have been, might have been and might be in EU. I think this is a nice way of putting a big fat line under the notion of social constructivism in identity and commutarianism. Article is superficial and a little daft. But brings to light the question why, for example, the idea of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland survived 300 years of British rule, whereas the idea of Prussia is gone.
Posted by: Klaus at January 28, 2007 11:19 PM
thanks for the link. The article is VERY daft and shows a bit of ignorance for cultural "national" identities on the ground. For ex., the only group in Germany that has an identity strong enough to think about independence are the Bavarians. Germany's state boundaries have little to do with ethno-cultural groups or historical borders, as opposed to, say, the situation in the UK, Belgium, or Spain.
As for why England/Wales/Scotland (I would exempt Northern Ireland as it clearly isn't uncontested) but not Prussia ... the answer is easy: historical contingency. Some things happen, others don't. If Prussias "military-aristocratic complex" hadn't taken over the process of German unification, pushed Germany into WW1, and then strongly participated in the Nazi regime and pushed for WW2 ... well, then Prussia as a political entity might still exist.
What I think is more interesting in this context (and what brings us back to Iraq & the MidEast) is the development of people's identities and their concept of what does & what doesn't belong to "the nation".
Thus, while the Germans look at Silesia with dreamy eyes, the vast majority thinks of it as non-German territory. On the other hand, many Austrians regard South Tyrol as "occupied by Italy" (and so do many southern Tyroleans).
Similarly, few people in Syria think of Jordan or Palestine as "actually belonging to Syria" yet most Syrians think that both Lebanon and the Turkish province of Hatay (formerly the Sanjak of Alexandretta) "naturally" being part of Syria (and thus having been "unnaturally" separated from it) and should "come home".
Of course, that's the product of gov't propaganda and education. All official Syrian maps have Hatay inside Syria, including those in school text books. And for decades the official Syrian line towards Lebanon was "Two countries, one people." No Syrian official ever talked about the Syria-Jordan relationship as "baladayn, sha'b waahid" ...
Posted by: MSK at January 29, 2007 06:08 AM
Posted by: Tom Scudder at January 30, 2007 06:50 AM
Ugh. That second link should have led here. Or you can just scroll up from the first one.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at January 30, 2007 06:51 AM
Wow, it's almost funny--if the whole situation weren't so tragic--how pessimistic Zeyad has become. A long time ago, he used to be so upbeat about the occupation's potential for transforming Iraq for the better!
Fine post MSK. I used to be more careful about using the term "communalism" instead of sectarianism, but lexical viruses are persistent when you consume so much information. After a while, such imprecise yet increasingly ubiquitous language sort of takes over without you realizing it. Thanks for the medicine.
Couple of thoughts:
While I am always careful about drawing parallels between different areas it really does seem like Iraq is now in a situation similar to the one Lebanon was in during the late 70s early-mid 80s.
I think one of the key differences and potential complicators is the presence of oil in concentrations that are not evenly distributed between the big three groups and, relatedly, the many sub-groups that you highlight in this post.
That can provide extra motivation to fight with or without partition.
The population may think of themselves as Iraq to a certain extent, but the (significant) political forces are all communalist.
On top of that, many observers have noted that even though many may consider themselves to be "Iraqi," there is a bit of transposing of the definitions going on. Meaning that, at least for those not residing in Kurdistan, each group may view themselves as the natural representatives of "Iraqi-ness."
So a Sunni may say that he/she is Iraqi, but for them, the very definition of "Iraqi" may have Sunni connotations. A Shiite may do the same. And so on down to the smaller sub-categories to the extent its applicable.
Posted by: Eric Martin at January 30, 2007 05:47 PM
Crikey, that made my head hurt. I'd hate to be--I was about to say I'd hate to be a G2 in Iraq but it occured to me what a stupid thing to say that was, given the wide range of shitty situations to find oneself in there.
I've always liked Healing Iraq. Zeyad always struck me as a very level headed and mature fellow, more so than most of the other Iraqi blogs I've looked at. I'd call his original stance 'cautiously optimistic'; now of course he's in full 'oh, f**k' mode. I do have to remember not to click on his comments, though...
Posted by: Antiquated Tory at January 30, 2007 07:32 PM
No contest re: oil in Iraq (& the fields not evenly distributed throughout the country) vs. no oil in Lebanon.
As some of my fellow Aqoulites and most of the people with whom I have discussions know I am one of those people who keep pointing out the importance of local specificities.
My comparison of Iraq with Lebanon is related to the communalist character of the civil wars in both countries.
In many civil wars, except in those casese where a political movement is openly separatist, each of the warring factions portrays itself as "national" and calls the other ones as "divisive" etc.
In Iraq however, apart from the Kurds, there are other groups who clearly state that they see the country as made up of disctinct and separate ethno-religious communities. The main Shi'ite parties are among them. Their vision of Iraq is quasi-federal, and SCIRI clearly advocates the establishment of one or two Shi'ite federal regions (South & Center).
My impression is that the main division of "feeling Iraqi or not" is not vertical but horizontal: people on the ground do feel "Iraqi" but leaders (except among the Sunni Arabs) less so.
Posted by: MSK at January 31, 2007 07:22 AM
Mukhtar Limani quit, interview and resignation letter at www.iraqslogger.com. He says (paraphrase)that currently, committment to sect and/or ethnicity is stronger than a sense of Iraqness, although he seems to think that a sense of national identity is the only hope, if there's any left.
Posted by: jr786 at February 2, 2007 08:10 AM