Thursday, August 24th, 2006
Converging Interests: Iraq War as a Catalyst for Change
By A. E. SOUAIAIA* (08/2006)
Many meaningful milestones in the human history were in the form of existentialist struggles marked by violence and wars. Civilizations are built with the blood of warriors and the sweat of the laborers. History shows us that before stability is attained, countless innocent lives are lost and personal and public properties are destroyed. Arguably, war is the most dangerous of all catalysts for rapid change; it ignites civil conflicts and breaks communities. Nonetheless, even war could provide an opportunity for improvement, as long as such a community survives the catastrophic effects of violence. Iraq War is such an event that may determine the future, not only of Iraq, but of the entire Muslim world. When all is said and done, Iraq will be either broken down or will emerge as a model for progress.
It is not due to genius design nor is it due to reckless planning that Iraq succeeds or fails in rebuilding. Although the initial decision to go to war can be judged as right or wrong, the outcome of a war is difficult to predetermine. It is certain however that war produces an environment that is radically and fundamentally different from the one that was before the war. The difference manifests itself concretely and abstractly.
War, being the violent event that it generally is, can cause a country to break down into smaller communities. Many wars of the modern times have produced such an outcome. The European wars produced East and West Germany. American interventions in Asia produced North and South Korea. Western colonialism created North and South Yemen. More recently, the Balkan war fragmented the former Yugoslavia into tiny states demarcated by ethnic, religious, and cultural differences. The so-called World Wars (Western and European initiated wars) divided the globe between the emerging superpowers (the Soviet Union and the United States) and launched the Cold War that strangled developing nations for nearly three quarters of a century.
The same way military interventions can cause countries to breakdown, foreign occupation is also capable of solidifying national unity and creating stronger solidarities within the occupied countries. The American Revolutionary and Civil wars established the US as a Superpower. The Western colonial endeavors in Africa created strong nationalistic political movements in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Sudan and Iraq; countries whose populations are mosaics of disparate ethnic, religious, and linguistic origins. In Algeria, Berbers and Arabs united to create the Algerian Popular Republic with a strong sense of nationalism that transcended ethnicity and religion. In Egypt, Syria, and Iraq; the Arabs, Copts, Christians, Kurds, Assyrians, Sunnis, and Shi`ites united under the banner of Arab nationalism to liberate their lands from the French and British occupation. Military control over what used to be known as Eastern Pakistan frustrated the natives and galvanized the population to free themselves and establish their Bangladeshi homeland and identity.
Although it is difficult to predict exactly the outcome of violent interventions, it is fairly easy to assume that once a violent intervention is identified as a colonial or occupying force; such an entity will be eventually defeated and expelled. Should an occupying force persist, it becomes very likely that occupied territories are broken into two or more regions. One region would represent the rejecters of occupation; the other would serve as an occupier-friendly entity.
Iraq, as part of the Muslim world, is faced with a complex set of circumstances. On the one hand, the justification for the US and British invasion of the country was discredited and that enflamed domestic and world public opposition to the war. Although the invading countries tried to re-justify their military intervention as an act of liberation, their presence is still seen by a large segment of the Iraqi population as occupation. The political maneuvering and the results of numerous elections in Iraq produced a second set of circumstances.
The December 2005 election was portrayed as the process that would transfer sovereignty back to the Iraqis. Although the political sovereignty may have been indeed regained, the weakness of the emerging government, the sectarian strife, and the failure of the executive branch to establish law and order over the entire country made it impossible for the US and the UK to withdraw. As a result, these countries are still seen as occupiers and the new Iraqi regime is transformed into an accomplice to occupation.
Should this situation continue for a year or two, Iraq will undoubtedly split into three countries. The Kurds will solidify their autonomy in the Northeastern portion of the country, the Shi`ites will establish a similar autonomous region in the south, and the rest of the country (the western and central portion) will fall in the hands of Sunni Arabs. This scenario is likely but it is not the only one. Another scenario hinges on Muslims’ willingness to and success in undertaking religious, legal, and political reform. The Sunni and Shi`ite divide is the driving force behind the Iraqi discord and only by addressing these issues can the unity of Iraq be preserved. Additionally, political and military events outside Iraq seem to contribute to the volatility of the Sunni-Shi`ite relations.
One of these events that happed outside Iraq is the 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel. As a Shi`ite movement, Hezbollah’s success in dealing with Israel has focused Muslims’ attention on its place as an “Islamic” group. Some Saudi scholars issued fatwas prohibiting public support for Hezbollah since they see it as “deviant” sect. Other Sunni scholars, including the influential Yousef al-Qaradawi, decreed that supporting Hezbollah is a “religious obligation” (wājib). This divergence of opinions is indicative of an emerging intellectual and political discussions of the differences between and the legacies of the Shi`ites and the Sunnis.
Meanwhile, the warm relationship between Hezbollah and Hamas, the latter being a Sunni group, and the probable role of Hezbollah in freeing Arab and Sunni prisoners would have a considerable impact on the Sunni-Shi`ite divide in Iraq. It is likely that Seyed Hussein Nasrullah will be asked to intervene. Should he do so successfully, the civil war in Iraq will become less likely, and more importantly, a serious discussion of the place and role of Shi`ite Islam will be underway.
For too long, many Sunni scholars treated Shi`ites as second class citizens. Some conservative Sunni scholars from Saudi Arabia have considered them deviant individuals. The debate about the status of the Shi`ites that may take place because of the sectarian tension in Iraq could rectify that position. Similarly, some Shi`ites consider Sunnis accomplices in the historical atrocities and murder of ahl al-bayt and the ongoing cover-ups. It is likely that this debate would lead to a substantive examination of the status and future of civil society and citizenship in Muslim countries. So far, the Arab nationalistic model has oppressed the religious conservatives and the religious conservatives have oppressed nationalists. In other words, it seems that all Muslim regimes see the rights of a citizen in a Muslim country as contingent on one’s identification with the dominant political platform of the ruling regime. For example, the rights of Iranian Sunni citizens are not equal to that of an Iranian Shi`ite citizen according to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Similarly, Shi`ite citizens in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and many other Arab and Muslim countries are marginalized and oppressed. In general, the Muslim world is yet to recognize fundamental rights of citizens irrespective of one’s religious, ethnic, and linguistic identity.
The aftermath of the invasion of Iraq should underscore the need for establishing civil society and for guaranteeing the rights of citizens without qualifications. For Iraq to retain its territorial and political integrity, the Sunnis and the Shi`ites of the Muslim world must resolve centuries old grievances and differences. When that happens, they would have achieved the first condition of peaceful coexistence. The breakup of Iraq will, however, signals the chronic nature of the problem and the incompetence of Muslim scholars and leaders. Should this be the end result, the military invasion of Iraq would be added to the West’s list of miscalculations and deadly interventions in the Muslim world. If the Iraqis and Muslims survive these challenges, their accomplishment will undoubtedly signal a new political and intellectual maturity worthy of its demographic, historical, and civilizational heritage.
There are emerging indications that many Muslim leaders are aware of this historical time and the responsibilities that come with it. Recently, the influential International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS) has called for an international gathering of “religious authorities of different Muslim sects to probe means of closing the Muslim ranks and uprooting sectarianism.” Soon after the announcement, the Iranian religious supreme leader threw his weight behind the proposal. The IUMS was pleased and released a statement that said in part: “”Khamenei extolled the call by the Dublin-based IUMS and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to organize a conference bringing together religious authorities of the different Muslim sects with the aim of clarifying the religious stance on such practices and ending such malicious crimes.”
These developments offer Muslims and the West (especially the USA) a way out. The US needs to avert a total civil war in Iraq. Muslims want to pacify a region that is sliding towards extremism. These converging interests may be the only formula that will bring about stability to Iraq, offer a way out for the US from an ill-conceived and ill-executed unnecessary war, and initiate fundamental political transformation in the wider Muslim world. For that to happen, the US administration must drop its simplistic approach of looking at the world through a lens that reflects only black and white characterization of the reality. It must start meaningful and serious conversations with all parties involved. Dealing only with the so-called “moderate” regimes is seen by Muslim masses as a continued support for tyranny, corruption, and authoritarianism. It is more productive to respect the will of the people even if that may seem to bring about unfriendly regimes to power than to support non-representative figures. It is natural that people whose choices were respected will be more respectful of the choices of others. The West needs to adopt long-term policies and diplomacy that transcend friendly (moderate) personalities who are undoubtedly outlasted, one way or another, by the people.
A. E. SOUAIAIA is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Iowa.