Tuesday, January 31, 2006

What Is Wrong With the Middle East??

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In this post I intend to address disagreements about Iraq from 4 secular Iraqis:

Mohammed vs Salam

Mohammed at Iraq The Model has posted an excellent article questioning whether democracy is possible in the Middle East. I've summarized his arguments below:

  1. Today, religious parties are extremely organized and have been for a long time. The secular organizations, even in countries have been oppressed by Arab Nationalist government s for the last 60 years, but those governments could not stop people from gathering and organizing in mosques. [CMAR II annotates: They didn't care to, either. They didn't care what the mullahs said. As long as they didn't preach revolution, as long as they only preached about morality here on Earth and Paradise in the world beyond what did it matter? It's not like the congregations were going to be offered the chance to vote on what the mullah said, right?]
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  2. Many unreligious Iraqis voted for the 555 and 618 lists. [CMAR II annotates: This is undoubtedly true, they did, after all, do the same in the US as well] The issues were "lack of security and the feeling of being targeted [for their religious or ethnic identity].
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  3. Rather than presuming that good government will arise from compromise, the people of the Middle East are hobbled by a confrontational personality...seeking confrontation without any clear aim.

Salam Pax disagrees. This is his explanation for the result of the election:

  1. Non-sectarian minded Iraqis are a minority. Educated and free-thinking Iraqis fled the country under Saddam, and, skeptical of the US/British plans for Iraq, did not return.
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  2. Accepting Mohammed's historical outline of "how we got here", Salam disagrees with his claim of a "confrontational personality trait":

"I think it is a deep-rooted sectarian trait that goes way back. Something we have not dealt with and never really had to confront for a very long time, and now that the lid has been lifted it shows itself in all its ugliness."

Who is right? They both are. Salam is right, I think, about suppressed sectarian feelings among the Iraqis as opposed to Mohammed's proposed "confrontation personality". But if I were to slightly restate Mohammed's proposition, it would be more solid, I think:

In Middle Eastern society over the last 60 years of military dictatorships, compromise was only dangerous and never fruitful, thus there is no experience among the parties in compromise politics. Thus, an outraged confrontation is preferable to a compromised settlement in which a few very important ideals are achieved and other goals are relinquished.

This is not unique to the Middle East however. It is a dysfunctional political inclination that is endemic today even among many political entities in the US, and it arises naturally whenever people have their right of self-determination via the voting box abrogated over an extensive period of time (or believe strongly that they have). If you aren't going to get anything you want anyway whether or not you present your arguments politely and intellectually, then you might as well say it loudly and refuse to give an inch whatever the other side pretends to offer.

And while Salam's proposition about educated and secular Iraqis fleeing Iraq under Saddam is likely true (to stop them, Saddam made attempts at such emigration increasingly difficult and dangerous), it doesn't address the self-evident fact that non-observant Iraqis and Iraqis in Western countries voted for sectarian lists. In other words, Mohammed is saying --and I have been saying it for some time as well -- that Iraqis had other reasons than mere religiosity and identity politics for choosing the sectarian lists. For the last two months, I've been saying to anyone who would listen that Allawi failed and the UIA won for two reasons:

Before I go on, I have one more observation: The attitude of defeatism and paranoia and moral affrontery among many Iraqi bloggers writing in English (most of whom are educated, non-religious, and strongly backed Allawi) reminds me of the feelings among Anybody But Bush Democrats in the 2004 American Presidential election. Both were convinced that they morally, culturally and intellectually superior to those who voted differently. Both were -- as election day approached-- convinced that they were destined to win (or in the case of the Allawi supporters, destined to win a significant minority). Both were dismayed to discover the number of people all over their country that simply did not agree with their choice.

Get over it. The UIA would not have been my choice for my government either. But they aren't evil (except the Sadrists) and they aren't Iranian agents (except for the Sadrists). They were elected by Iraqis who see themselves as every bit as patriotic as you.

Frankly, of all the Iraqi bloggers in English, I think Hammorabi's posts are more likely to be those of the Iraqi Shi'a "common man". All my other favorite Iraqi bloggers are Iraqi "intellectuals" with all the advantages and disadvantages implied by that term.

The discussion about sectarian choices leads me inexorably to a dispute between IraqPundit and Riverbend.



IraqPundit vs Riverbend

IraqPundit took Riverbend to task for a post in which she laments the killing of a Sunni tribal leader and his sons by assassins in Iraqi army uniforms. She said:

I hate suicide bombers. But I completely understand how people get there...Who needs Al-Qaeda to recruit 'terrorists' when you have Da'awa, SCIRI and an American occupation?

Naturally, Riverbend doesn't claim any empathy as to how murder-suicides and simple murders in Shi'a mosques and at police stations in Shi'a neighborhoods (abetted primarily by people in Sunni-dominated regions) might lead to assassinations of Sunni leaders. I mean, empathy only goes so far.

IraqPundit, however, (with more self-controlled than I've ever had) ignores her despicable apology for the anti-Iraq murder gangs, and chastises her for spreading rumors and for stirring "ethnic and religious divisions in the country".

Why point out what sect the victims of killings are? It gives the impression that she is more upset when the dead are Sunnis killed by Shiite thugs. I know that she is a good Iraqi and is equally upset when the victims are Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Kurds and so on, no matter who the killers are. But why would she fall into that pattern that the Westerners insist upon? I don't understand. Our country is known for its rich mix of peoples who respect each other. Why ignore our traditions now? Riverbend knows that Iraqis consider it impolite to discuss who is Sunni and who is Shiite.

I do agree that some Iraqi exiles who returned in 2003 brought some of these destructive ideas with them. But why adopt their ideas instead of sticking with the Iraqi way of life, which for decades respected all the different ethnic and religious groups? Think about all the times, dear Riverbend, you asked your parents: "Is Ammou whoever Sunni or Shia?" And how many times they answered: "I don't know."

In the comments, Fayrouz of Iraqi In America confirmed IraqPundit's statement.

Okay. I've heard this angle from other Iraqi bloggers: that prior to the overthrow of Saddam, it was unacceptable to distinguish another person's religion. All these sectarian parties are backed by outsiders, immigrants from racist Iran and (less emphasized) Jordan/Syria.

This is so similar to the new myth that the people behind the murder-suicide bombings and car bombings are foreigners: jihadists of al-Qaeda and other groups. Iraqis would never do something like that. Hmm. If you say so.

While I have no doubt that it is true that acknowledging one's religious sect was unacceptable prior to Saddam's deposing, I do doubt that those who say it always understand why that was. For example, I lived for a time in North East Texas where there is a tremendous amount of intermingling between the Baptist and Charismatic Christians. The differences in their theologies would no doubt be as insignificant to most people as the Sunni and Shi'a Muslim sects are to me. But the differences are not insignificant to them. While each considers the other truly "Christian" (in most circumstances anyway), each considers the other profoundly in error. Yet, there is that friendly intermingling: attending church with one another on occasion, going to one another's private schools, intermarrying, etc. But there is no perceived need to pretend their differences don't exist. Why was it like that in Iraq?

This is what I commented to IraqPundit:

Please mind the roof coming down as I defend Riverbend: About the Iraqis not noting Shia-Sunni before Saddam fell, I just don't believe it. It strikes me as a kind of Iraqi P.C....

I propose that it was "rude" in the Old Iraq to ask whether one was Sunni or Shi'ite, not because it didn't matter, but because it did.

To be Shi'ite (I propose) was to be a potential agent of Iran (where it is best not to make much of the fact that one is Sunni).

[Here is where 24 Steps To Liberty gets upset with me for thinking I know more about Iraq than Iraqis.]

I propose it is not only the immigrants to Iraq that are making much of their distinct religions and nationalities...it is the native Iraqis themselves who were taught to by Saddam. Strong religious and ethnic identity in Iraq (I propose) is not something that arose since Saddam fell, it is in fact something Saddam engendered and used to retain power. As George Packer said "Fanaticism is the legacy of Saddam's Arabization policy."

My point was that under Saddam, to make to much of one's non-Sunni, non-Arab identity was to potentially single oneself for Saddam's attention. So Iraqis made a deal not to talk about it. But that didn't mean they didn't feel it and resent the requirement that they keep it "on the down-low". To the contrary. The requirement that Shi'as and Kurds pretend to be no different than Sunni Arabs, led to an ever-increasing, unspoken identification with their heritage.

Well, IraqPundit was not persuaded. However, doesn't Salam Pax's second point sound an awful lot like he's coming around to my point-of-view?

And considering the diversity of opinion among these four intelligent, liberal, secular Arab Iraqis, is there any real disputing Mohammed's claim that secular intellectual Arabs are scattered and disorganized?



What Is Going Wrong With Democracy in the Middle East

This is the comment I posted at Iraq the Model to Mohammed's post:

A lot of pundits in the US right now are saying silly things like "Elections aren't democracy"...well, even if that is true, how do you ever get to democracy without elections?

The Muslim Brotherhood did well in Egypt because the government suppressed all the other secular parties but they couldn't stop people from going to the mosque. The MB did not succeed because of "democracy". Just the opposite.

Hamas succeeded in the West Bank because Fatah and Hamas have been killing and driving out every reasonable voice there for 35 years. It has nothing to do with democracy.Give Iraq time and reasonable parties will emerge.

Time (through the Coalition soldiers being there to prevent a coup) is the most important and expensive thing that the reconstruction moneys are paying for.

And this is what I posted sometime ago at 24 Steps To Liberty:

[What is] the difference between the [Iraqi] Arabs and Kurds:
12 years.

12 years without Saddam. 12 years of Saddam being unable to kill off or drive out every effective leader that came to prominence. A lot of people don't know that the Kurds fought a civil war under the no-fly zone. Saddam totally cut off the electricity in the northern NFZ, so the Kurds had to figure out how to provide it without the Iraqi grid. A dozen years is the difference, and I believe the Iraqi Arabs can do better with their advantages.

But they also have disadvantages. Electricity is a problem, but this time (it is said) it is not because the government is shutting it down or letting the infrastructure deteriorate. It is because the Iraqi economy is growing by 30% annually and because Iraqis have been taught to believe that they have a right to burn as much electricity as they can afford because "Iraq is sitting on a sea of oil" and they have been given virtually free electricity by a series of socialist oligarchies. Also, the Kurds dreamed for 70 years of a nation they could be the owners of. So despite the difficulties, they viewed the northern NFZ as "their own".

But Iraq is not a single people. And in the Arab areas, there is no patriotism...because their government has been their kidnapper and jailer for 50 years and longer [ANNOTATION: and because Arab Nationalism said people weren't supposed to see themselves as Iraqis or Jordanians or Libyans. They were all Arabs after all.]. It is going to take time (and economic reform) for the people to view themselves as the invested owners of the country and care for it with pride... [However] Iraq is in a tough neighborhood, and although the US cannot afford for Iraq to fail, it is going to be hard.

The US military caught Saddam in his spiderhole. But the US military cannot catch the Saddam that is still hiding in the heart of every Iraqi that he brutalized physically and mentally for 30 years. Nor can it merely push over the Middle East that accepted Saddam as a viable leader of regional power.

It is a very hard road, but I believe the Iraqis can overcome. I believe it, in part, because as an American I believe there is little alternative. 9-11 showed that it is no longer possible for the world to be half-slave and half-free. One way has to win. And I'm glad for that, because I believe my side WILL win. I believe the other side will lose: the Assads and Mubaraks and Ahmadinejads and Sauds, as well as the Sadrs, the Zarqawis, the Zawahiris, Mullah Omars, the Hizballas, and the al-Qaedas....they will all lose. They will lose big, they will lose famously, they will lose self-evidently. Because the societies they envision are unworkable and miserable: the World will put them aside like a child putting away clothes that have become too small for him to wear.

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