Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Iraq and the Reality of Moral Fatalism

What's the hardest thing to capture in writing history? The way people were feeling back in the time before some big event, when they didn't know the big event was coming up. It's hard enough for us to remember it ourselves. I have to remind myself how I felt in the 1980s, or the 1990s, or in the days after 2001.

I just finished a book on the causes of the English civil war, by Conrad Russel. What he emphasizes is that in 1639, no one would have predicted that the tensions between the Laud's party and the party of godly Reformation would have lead to a civil war. No one wanted it, no one could have conceived it happening, no one could look at how the small minority of Laudians, the rather larger but still minority of hotter Protestants, and the neutral majority all got along in their daily lives and say, "This is a country on the brink of civil war." And yet it happened, due to political decision and lacks of decisions, most of the really important ones being those in regard to Scottish and Irish affairs, not English at all.

I'm reminded of this by a few recent pieces on Iraq. One was a week in review piece in the New York Times by Sabrina Tavernise "It Has Unraveled So Quickly" (I'm including the author and title so that if the link goes dead you can google it):

Never having covered a civil war before, I learned about it together with my Iraqi friends. It is a bit like watching a slow-motion train wreck. Broken bodies fly past. Faces freeze in one's memory in the moments before impact. Passengers grab handles and doorframes that simply tear off or uselessly collapse.

I learned how much violence changes people, and how trust is chipped away, leaving society a thin layer of moth-eaten fabric that tears easily. It has unraveled so quickly. A year ago, my interviews were peppered with phrases like "Iraqis are all brothers." The subjects would get angry when you asked their sect. Now some of them introduce themselves that way.

I met Raad Jassim, a 38-year-old Shiite refugee, in a largely empty house, recently owned by Sunnis, where he now lives in western Baghdad. He moved there in the fall, after Sunni militants killed his brother and his nephew and confiscated his large chicken farm north of Baghdad. He had lived with Sunnis his whole life, but after what happened, a hatred spread through him like a disease.

"The word Sunni, it hurts me," he said, sitting on the floor in a bare room, his 7-year-old boy on his lap. "All that I have lost came from this word. I try to avoid mixing with them."

"A volcano of revenge" has built up inside him, he said. "I want to rip them up with my teeth."

In another measure of just how much things have changed, Mr. Jassim's Shiite neighborhood is relatively safe. The area is now largely free of Sunnis, after Shiite militias swept it last year, and it runs smoothly on a complex network of relationships among the local militias, the police and a powerful local council. His street is dotted with fruit stands. Boys in uniforms roughhouse. Men sit in teahouses sipping from tiny glass cups.

Just to the south, the Sunni neighborhood of Dawoodi is ghostly at almost any time of day. Wide boulevards trimmed with palm trees used to connect luxury homes. Now giant piles of trash go uncollected in the median.

And yet, as Amir Taheri points out, ethno-national mobilization is still in its infancy in Iraq. He compares it to Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe where he did reporting in the 1990s. And in Eastern Europe, as one Hungarianist once said in a seminar, every issue, if you dig down deep enough, turns into a ethnonational issue.

Unlike the unraveling Yugoslavia of the '90s, sectarianism hasn't consumed Iraq at the grass-root level. Grandmothers don't say special prayers, asking God to destroy the rival sect. Poets don't write sectarian verse. Artists don't portray members of other sects as devils incarnate. Not one of the gangsters who destroyed the golden-domed shrine in Samarra was Iraqi.

Anyone closely familiar with the situation, rather than making judgments from thousands of miles away, would know of countless cases where Sunnis and Shiites protected one another against the violence of sectarian terrorist groups. In Anbar province, where Arab Sunnis are more than 95 percent of the population, several Shiite pockets owe their survival to the protection of local tribes. In some cases, Sunni tribes have fought al Qaeda terrorists to prevent the massacre of Shiites.

Indeed, most Iraqi tribes include both Sunni and Shiite members. There are also tens of thousands of mixed families of Sunnis and Shiites, especially in Baghdad and Basra.

In many cases, the fight is between rival militias belonging to the same religious sect. Sadr's Mahdi Army, a hodgepodge of armed groups often controlled by Iran, has clashed with Abdul-Aziz Hakim's Badr Brigade, another Shiite militia partly under Iranian control.

Iraqi and U.S. troops killed hundreds of militiamen this week in a battle near Najaf. Most of those killed were Shiite followers of a charlatan who claimed to be the Last Imam. But, according to Iraqi authorities, those killed or captured also included Sunni terrorists, some from Sudan and Algeria.

Sectarian violence has displaced many Iraqis, perhaps more than a million. There have also been instances of ethnic cleansing, through the forcible expulsion of families and clans. But even such cases cannot be imputed to religious sectarianism.

Consider the Sunni families forced out of their homes in Basra and Baghdad by Shiite death-squads: In almost all cases, the death squads belong to a single group: the Sadrists, who seek to pose as the most effective defenders of Shiism against a mythical Sunni threat.

In Kirkuk, the Kurds are forcing out Shiite and Sunni Arabs - but the motives are not religious, but ethnic. In the same city, the Turkmen, both Sunnis and Shiites, act together on the basis not of religious affiliations but of ethnic origin.

There is no doubt that there is a war in Iraq. It is important to know what kind of a war this is.

If it is a civil war, we should identify the two camps and decide which to support. If it is a sectarian war, the only way to end it is either by geographical separation (as was the case with Croatia and Serbia) or through massive foreign occupation, as in Bosnia.

What is happening in Iraq, however, is neither a civil nor a sectarian war (although elements of both exist within the broader context). This war is a political one . . . .

He's right, far righter than the smug and arrogant outsiders who say "We gave them freedom and look what they've done with it." Nothing drives me up the wall like the assumption that "we" are rational and "they" are irrational. Viewed in the mass: all people are rational; all of them have common sense. What is the purpose of pretending otherwise? To maintain the delusion that we are in charge of our own destinies morally, to avoid the truth that we don't have control over whether we are good people or bad.

Mencius said, "In good years the children of the people are most of them good, while in bad years the most of them abandon themselves to evil. It is not owing to any difference of their natural powers conferred by Heaven that they are thus different. The abandonment is owing to the circumstance through which they allow their minds to be ensnared and drowned in evil (VI.A.7) .

This is the truth! Imagine a Muslim historian of the seventeenth century who wrote: "The English Civil War broke out because the English were childish and irrational." What an idiot he would be. To say the Iraqis are fighting now because they are childish and irrational is to be a similar sort of idiot.

Remember 2003? Remember reading how when Iraqis interviewed would get angry if the foreign reporter asked "Sunni or Shiite?" I remember reading that -- Sabrina Tavernise did not make that up. The civil war in Iraq didn't just spring up -- it was being delicately and carefully nursed for over three years by ambitious political forces. Three years is a long time -- as Amir Taheri pointed out, the civil war planners had to overcome tremendous resistance to the taboo on using violence against your neighbors who worship a bit differently, just as happened in England in 1640.

All so true, but I can't get much hope from it. Political civil wars have ways of consuming the political center and creating politically defined sects, just as much as any other civil war. And unfortunately, it seems Amir Taheri is suffering under the delusion that somehow "religious wars" are different from "ethnic" or "political" wars (probably because religious wars are "irrational" and political wars are "rational" -- there's that meaningless distinction again!) Walker Connor in Ethnonationalism shows how saying that Northern Ireland is a religious conflict, South Africa a racial one, and Malaysia a language one, and then trying to decide which type of conflict is more fundamental because "race is more fundamental" or "religion generates more conflict," etc., is profoundly misleading. No -- all of them are struggles of teams, and the teams simply happened to be marked by different characteristics. A small minority of Sunni Arabs and a small minority of Shiites may be motivated by specifically religious concerns, but for most it is the imperative of group membership and group hurt. And those hurts are being inflicted by the seeing men in this struggle, as they strive to make the blind see things their way. But do these seeing men know that they are digging their own graves?

So what am I saying? I guess it comes down to this: I don't care what you think about the invasion/ situation/ war/ whatever of Iraq. I don't care which group of political leaders you hate the most for it. Call it a criminal act. Call it a liberation that went sour. Hate Bush and Blair for it. Hate the Baathists and al Qaeda in Iraq for it. Hate Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army for it. But please don't blame the tormented people of Iraq for the fact that they will, if they have to, fight for survival. Don't put that fight into some little box where irrational people do irrational things. Don't stroke your own delusional sense of moral superiority by saying that "Well if a car bomb killed my kids one week and then another car bomb killed some neighbors of mine a week, I would never sink so low as to support a sectarian militia merely to get some kind of security." Don't even think that if you did say that, you would be superior.

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