SIXTH COLUMN

"History is philosophy teaching by example." (Lord Bolingbroke)

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Friday, September 30, 2005

Iraq - An American Edifice Built In A 'Culture of Shame'

"From Zarqawi to the man on the street, Sunni Arabs fear Shiite emancipation."

Is the United States spinning its wheels in Iraq? Will the Iraqi Defense Forces ever be read to defend Iraq against...themselves? For Muslim on Muslim war is a centuries-old internecine war that has political, religious, and cultural elements. The presence of America in the Middle East won't change the sad fact that factions have fought among themselves to gain supremacy in the Muslim world based on Arab cultural imperialism. The culture is spread by the sword and maintained through shame.

There is a cliché that distinguishes between cultures of shame and cultures of guilt, and by that crude distinction, it has always been said that the Arab world is a "shame culture." But in truth there is precious little shame in Arab life about the role of the Arabs in the great struggle for and within Iraq. What is one to make of the Damascus-based Union of Arab Writers that has refused to grant membership in its ranks to Iraqi authors? The pretext that Iraqi writers can't be "accredited" because their country is under American occupation is as good an illustration as it gets of the sordid condition of Arab culture. For more than three decades, Iraq's life was sheer and limitless terror, and the Union of Arab Writers never uttered a word. Through these terrible decades, Iraqis suffered alone, and still their poetry and literature adorn Arabic letters. They need no acknowledgment of their pain, or of their genius, from a literary union based in a city in the grip of a deadening autocracy.

A culture of shame would surely see into the shame of an Arab official class with no tradition of accountability granting itself the right to hack away at Iraq's constitution, dismissing it as the handiwork of the American regency. Unreason, an indifference to the most basic of facts, and a spirit of belligerence have settled upon the Arab world. Those who, in Arab lands beyond Iraq, have taken to describing the Iraqi constitution as an "American-Iranian constitution," give voice to a debilitating incoherence. At the heart of this incoherence lies an adamant determination to deny the Shiites of Iraq a claim to their rightful place in their country's political order.


What will Americans and their Iraqi partners achieve in Iraq?

It was the luck of the imperial draw that the American project in Iraq came to the rescue of the Shiites--and of the Kurds. We may not fully appreciate the historical change we unleashed on the Arab world, but we have given liberty to the stepchildren of the Arab world. We have overturned an edifice of material and moral power that dates back centuries. The Arabs railing against U.S. imperialism and arrogance in Iraq will never let us in on the real sources of their resentments. In the way of "modern" men and women with some familiarity with the doctrines of political correctness, they can't tell us that they are aggrieved that we have given a measure of self-worth to the seminarians of Najaf and the highlanders of Kurdistan. But that is precisely what gnaws at them.

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An edifice of Arab nationalism built by strange bedfellows--the Sunni political and bureaucratic elites, and the Christian Arab pundits who abetted them in the idle hope that they would be spared the wrath of the street and of the mob--was overturned in Iraq. And America, at times ambivalent about its mission, brought along with its military gear a suspicion of the Shiites, a belief that the Iraqi Shiites were an extension of Iran, a community destined to build a sister-republic of the Iranian theocracy. Washington has its cadre of Arabists reared on Arab nationalist historiography. This camp had a seat at the table, but the very scale of what was at play in Iraq, and the redemptionism at the heart of George Bush's ideology, dwarfed them.

For the Arab enemies of this project of rescue, this new war in Iraq was a replay of an old drama: the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258. In the received history, the great city of learning, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, had fallen to savages, and an age of greatness had drawn to a close. In the legend of that tale, the Mongols sacked the metropolis, put its people to the sword, dumped the books of its libraries in the Tigris. That river, chroniclers insist, flowed, alternately, with the blood of the victims and the ink of the books. It is a tale of betrayal, the selective history maintains. A minister of the caliph, a Shiite by the name of Ibn Alqami, opened the gates of Baghdad to the Mongols. History never rests here, and telescopes easily: In his call for a new holy war against the Shiites, Zarqawi dredges up that history, dismisses the Shiite-led government as "the government of Ibn Alqami's descendants." Zarqawi knows the power of this symbolism, and its dark appeal to Sunni Arabs within Iraq.

Zarqawi's jihadists have sown ruin in Iraq, but they are strangers to that country, and they have needed the harbor given them in the Sunni triangle and the indulgence of the old Baathists. For the diehards, Iraq is now a "stolen country" delivered into the hands of subject communities unfit to rule. Though a decided minority, the Sunni Arabs have a majoritarian mindset and a conviction that political dominion is their birthright. Instead of encouraging a break with the old Manichaean ideologies, the Arab world beyond Iraq feeds this deep-seated sense of historical entitlement. No one is under any illusions as to what the Sunni Arabs would have done had oil been located in their provinces. They would have disowned both north and south and opted for a smaller world of their own and defended it with the sword. But this was not to be, and their war is the panic of a community that fears that it could be left with a realm of "gravel and sand."


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