Power and Principles in Iraq

Juan Cole is the closest thing Middle East Studies in the United States has to a star. At least since John Esposito of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim and Christian Understanding started penning popular tomes attempting to demystify Islam some years ago.

And arguably since Bernard Lewis, a dour, dried-up man and, I’m sorry to say, the dean of Islamic and Arab studies in this country. While also the author of many books (more than I will ever write, that’s fairly certain), Lewis unfortunately made his name by dispensing bad advice to presidents and their administrations over the last five decades like laetrile at a Tijuana cancer clinic.

Cole is an unlikely star. A small man, he is also an awkward speaker at first, though after he gets warmed up, he’s thoughtful and quick-witted. He has to be. He has a lot of detractors. Most of whom know little about the Middle East, its people, it history, and its religions, and have even less respect for them.

The path Cole, who teaches at the University of Michigan, took to “stardom” is relatively unknown and fairly new for academics. He bypassed institutions of power completely, started a blog, branded himself as JuanCole.com (I try to read his site every day) and by being incessant and insightful, got himself noticed outside academia without having to prostrate before government or the media, without trying to curry favor of influence policy (though he’s been teaching and writing on the Middle East and Islam for 20 years, what Cole did before he pitched his tent on the high plains of Blogistan I do not know). Now the media, and even government, come to him, to hear what he has to say.

Cole spoke Thursday at Georgetown University’s Intercultural Center as part of an annual lecture series sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (Full disclosure: I earned an MA in Arab Studies from the center in 1999). The Intercultural Center, which houses Georgetown’s infamous (at least in my view) School of Foreign Service, is what you get when Jesuits discover that Department of Energy grants can be got to build whole buildings, so long as the nebulous concepts of “conservation” and “efficiency” are somehow addressed, even in the most abstract of ways. So they built a giant, prism-shaped brick building with a south-facing roof completely covered with solar panels. (Yes, in case you are wondering, the power has, at times, failed completely in this building, leaving a building partly powered by solar cells completely without electricity. Completely in the dark.)

(And an aside, I discovered during my two years at Georgetown that the best place to escape from people at a Jesuit university was … the chapel. Any chapel. Because they were almost always empty.)

Anyway, Cole spoke to an auditorium full of graduate students, Iraqi exiles, a few professors from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, a collection of assorted gummint types and probably a few journalists too. Most of the Iraqis appeared to be vocal supporters of the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, and did not appear inclined to support Cole’s criticisms of the Bush administration. (One young Iraqi, who said he was attending a college in New Hampshire but had come to Washington to vote in the election, even thanked Americans and their government for invading his country.)

Also not inclined to support Cole was a sneering, hissing, self-righteous Christopher Hitchens, every Republican’s favorite Commie, who was ready to criticize Cole for almost everything, from how he “deliberately ignored” the connection between the Revolutionary Islam of al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s government to citing al-Jazeera’s crawler as a source.

And when heckling Cole, Hitchens would slur the word “professor” as if he were a drunken New Zealander who’d had his head stomped on a time too many during a muddy rugby match in the pouring rain.

(I know what Hitchens ought to do with all his self-righteous rage. He ought to enlist in something, and not as a staff weenie ensconced safely in one of the many wings or wedges of the Pentagon writing pretty speeches for CENTCOM four-stars, nor penning clever dialogue for vehicle maintenance comics, but as an Army cavalry scout or a Marine Corps sniper. If he thinks this cause is such a good one, one worth killing for, then he ought to go kill for it himself. He may find he likes it. He may find that he’s good at it. On the other hand, he may find that humping a ruck, carrying a rifle and getting dirty and staying that way for days on end are hard work and not all that fun, no matter how noble the cause.)

Cole’s main point — something that bears emphasizing and something I was thinking of writing about on my own last week — is that a Shia-run government is truly a revolutionary state of affairs in the mashreq (the eastern part of the Arab world). Shia Arabs have never ever run anything, not in the 500 some-odd year of official Twelver Shiism following its adoption as the official religion of Safavid Persia. (Hitchens, of course, felt the need to point out that this would not be happening without the invasion, that there would be “no elections without the occupation.”) This is something all of the Sunni Arab regimes of the region (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait) and militantly secular regimes (Syria, though the ruling elite there is drawn heavily from a splinter Shia sect called the Allawis that many Shia do not view as even properly Muslim) are not going to like but are going to have to adjust to.

“A Shia government is truly an upheaval,” he said.

My thoughts on the matter are that while this new Iraqi government is not going to be particularly pro-American (and will probably ask for a withdrawal timetable), it is going to be heavily dependent on the United States because it will have so few friends in the region and so much instability at home. And no other regime like it anywhere else in the world. (As far as I know, there has not been a Shia Arab regime outside the mountains of Yemen since the Fatimids ruled Egypt between the 10th and 12th centuries.) And so, overall, if it isn’t Jeffersonian democracy or even very pretty and stable and gives us a government that will eventually opt for some form of Islamic law, the Bush administration is probably not all that unhappy with the emerging outcome in Iraq.

Anyway, Cole went on to explain that the Shia politics emerging in Iraq — and that will likely run the country after Sunday’s elections — really came into being in the 1990s, when the ideology of secular nationalism was completely discredited and Shia religious parties were the only political entities left standing inside Saddam’s Iraq.

Iraq was a “smoldering, sullen place of failed revolutions waiting to happen in the 1990s” — Shia Islamic revolutions, largely — Cole explained.

The country’s religiously motivated Shia political parties were created in the late 1950s — about the time Hashemites were deposed and slaughtered — as an alternative to the inroads Iraq’s Communist and Ba’ath parties were making among the urban Shia, mainly in Baghdad. According to Cole, the Communists, with their class-based organization, saw a unified Iraq of workers where ethnicity or religion did not matter, while the Ba’ath saw an Iraq made up entirely of Arabs, Shia and Sunni.

In response, al-Da’wa (The Call) was founded as an explicitly Shia political party with a “quietist” ideology calling for Islamic law but no clerical rule (veleyat-e-faqih, rule of the jurists, an idea foreign to Twelver Shiism until Ayat’allah Ruhollah Khomeini invented it in the 1960s and 70s).

The Communists and the Shia-dominated military wing of the Ba’ath would go on to kill each other with giddy abandon during the short-lived Ba’ath government of 1963. Leaving the largely Sunni Arab civilian wing of the Iraqi Ba’ath Regional Command in charge when they seized power in 1968. (Saddam tried mightily after invading Iran in 1979 to craft an Iraqi national identity of Kurd, Arab and Shia, reaching back to the Assyrians, Sumerians and the Babylonians to help create that shared identity. But as Cole noted, the Sunni-dominated Ba’ath of Saddam Hussein was brutally anti-Shia and anti-Kurd for nearly the entire period of its rule.)

On the other hand, most Shia (and at least a few Kurds, as you will soon see) were loyal Iraqis when the country was bogged down in its long and nasty war with Iran. During this time, Saddam banned al-Da’wa, killed as many of its leaders as he could find, and made it a capital crime to belong to the party. In response, al-Da’wa relocated to Tehran. Other Iraqi Shia in exile in Iran created the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an umbrella group of Khomeinists — Iraqis who accepted Khomeini’s innovation of direct clerical rule. During the war, SCIRI accepted military assistance from Iran and staged attacks inside Iraq. And while SCIRI has a significant following in Iraq, Cole said many Iraqis also remember those attacks and that alliance with Tehran to this day. And hold it against SCIRI.

The Shia and Kurdish uprisings following the expulsion in early 1991 lead to the deaths of possibly 60,000 Iraqis and at least 200 senior and mid-level Shia clerics, and is the reason, according to Cole, all of the country’s current Shia ayat’allahs and hojatalislams are either elderly or very young. Anyone who would be in their 40s and 50s today was killed in 1991.

Cole also pointed out that while American forces are not, so far as we know, firing missiles from helicopters directly into crowds of non-combatants, the methods used by the US armed forces and Saddam’s army to bring the rebellious provinces under control are the same. And many of the results are the same too.

Now, I’m going to take a little editorial license and rearrange the events of Cole’s speech to say at this point a number of the Iraqis started speaking up. They actually spoke up much later in the lecture, during the question and answer period, when another young Iraqi got angry with Cole. But speak up they did.

“Saddam Hussein killed millions,” at least one of the Iraqis in the audience said. “Five thousand people in one day at Halabja.”

I don’t need inflated numbers, phony baby-incubator stories or tall tales of Uday’s rape rooms to know that Ba’ath Iraq was governed brutally and miserably. When I was an aspiring young Muslim revolutionary and attending the Muslim Student Association masjid in Columbus, Ohio, in the early and mid-1990s, our community resettled a number of Iraqi refugees who refused to go home after the war. Most of them were Kurds in their thirties who had spent their entire adult lives in the Iraqi Army. I got to know a few of them.

There was Ibrahim, a Kurd from Khanaqin, in the southern reaches of Kurdistan near the Iranian border. He had been drafted at the age of 16 in 1979, and had spent nearly the entire 1980s in a trench in southern Iraq trying not to get killed. Demobilized in 1989, he was called up again in 1990 and spent that war in a trench in Kuwait trying not get killed. I helped him some with his English, he helped me some with my Arabic, and he taught me how to make yogurt and a new way to make coffee (brew it slowly in milk on the stove). He had been illiterate when he surrendered to the US Army in Kuwait, and only learned how to read Arabic while interred in Saudi Arabia after the war. And was grateful to the Saudis for that. He gave me a 25 dinar Iraqi bill when we first met. “You take. I don’t need,” he said.

There was Ahmed, whom I nicknamed “Abu Sayarah” (“father of the car,” because he was always willing to give me a ride or let me use his car if I needed it). Ahmed had picked up passable Russian working with Soviet engineers and military advisors working in and around Basrah in the early 1980s (we’d make small talk in Russian, just so I could keep up). He had been shot five separate times during the war with Iran, and had massive scars on his abdomen, face, and legs to prove it. “This is where the bullet went in,” he said matter-of-factly, groping for the big, rough dimple on his back as he lifted up his shirt. And turning around, pointing to a mess on his stomach that looked more like the surface of a distant, windswept moon than human skin, he said, “This is where it went out.”

There was Salem, a cheerful Kurd and another life-long veteran of Saddam’s army who I remember winning our masjid’s hadith memorizing contest and was busy trying to organize a trip to the Anglo-American protected safe-haven of Zakho in northern Iraq to meet his parents and let them know he’d found a good Kurdish Muslim girl in America and was going to marry her.

There were others whose names I no longer remember. One well-educated Iraqi who’d lived his entire life in Kuwait and whose father, an employee of Kuwait’s state oil company, probably died during the early hours of the Iraqi invasion, killed by his own countrymen. He’d never served in the Iraqi army and yet was swept up into a prisoner of war camp because … he was an Iraqi national and Kuwait, the only home he’d ever really known, would not let him back in.

And there was the man with the stoop, the shuffle and a hollow look in his eye, a haunted look I remembered seeing on men I met at a Bosnian refugee center in Vienna, Austria. I only met him once or twice. He was reluctant to talk about Halabja, saying only that it was his home, he was there the day the gas came, and that he would never forget it. His hollow look said most of the rest.

So I won’t criticize the Iraqis, their passion and their rage, even if it is impossible for Saddam’s regime to have killed millions (unless you count the dead Iranians from the war, maybe). Nor do I doubt the honesty of their rage against Saddam, the Ba’ath, and the Sunnis who until two years ago ran the country. Most of my Kurdish acquaintances making new lives in Ohio said there was no way they were going back home until Saddam was gone (and most of them are probably settled here now, with families and property, so I suspect few are going home anyway).

But aside from the young man who survived the gas attack on Halabja, the worst that any could say about their former government was that it had stolen their young lives by drafting them as teenagers, put them at constant risk in two wars none of them wanted to fight, and never left them alone to live whatever lives they wanted to live. You will forgive me the comparison, but we can acknowledge the vast differences between the authoritarian Ba’ath Party of Saddam’s Iraq and our own society — or an ideal society — while appreciating that stealing, putting life and liberty at risk and meddling are what all governments do best, including our own. In the pursuit of noble ends or base.

As the conversation in the auditorium threatened to become an argument over who had killed more Iraqis — Saddam or the Anglo-American occupiers — Cole asked everyone to remember that “we do not need to get into a numbers game” because that while there is a lot to be outraged about, outrage alone is not worth much and won’t settle much either.

In careful language (and addressing Hitchens by name; I sensed the two have argued before), Cole reminded war supporters that “there is no unalloyed good thing on earth.” In heaven, maybe, but not down here. And the invasion and occupation or Iraq “has some very bad aspects.”

“Is the US military doing more harm than good?” as it bombs civilian neighborhoods, Cole asked. Yes, much of the targeting is careful and done “in good faith,” he said, but as American jets bomb civilian neighborhoods, “innocent Iraqis are dying.” If the only way the United States military can keep a lid on Iraq is to bomb cities, is that “really an optimal situation?”

“These are very serious questions,” he said.

I believe they are. I doubt Cole shares my libertarian hostility to state power, whatever its motivations, though I do not know. Whether he shares my fairly absolutist belief that no ends, however noble, justifies wandering across the world to kill and injure people who never threatened or attacked you, I do not know either. His questions were couched in the greatest-good utilitarianism typical of the kinds of blithely ridiculous policy discussions people have in this town on matters diverse as cotton subsidies and nuclear war. Whatever Cole may have meant about discussing numbers, he reminded me a quote from Kierkegaard:

[I]t is a false deduction that one thousand human beings are worth more than one; that would be tantamount to regarding men as animals. The central point about being human is that the unit “1” is the highest; “1000” counts for less.

For the humanitarian interventionist, the question is always how many Ibrahims, Ahmeds and Salems will we let die before we do something? It is a view that many good people hold passionately and honestly. I once looked at the world that way myself.

But is it also equally important to ask: how many Ibrahims will we kill to save the Salems and the Ahmeds? Because that is what we will be doing — killing human beings no different from the ones we want to save. Having known all three, I could not make that choice. I do not believe any human being, no matter how rightly guided or divinely inspired, has that kind of wisdom.

And none should have that kind of power.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.