At the start of a new decade in the twenty first century, I felt it is right to address this article to my fellow countrymen and women wherever they happen to be. The urge to write the piece arose from the stream of emails and articles that regularly appear on my computer screen. Most express heartfelt and genuine feelings of despair at the awful state of affairs in Iraq and other Arab countries. The flow of disgruntled comments increased to a new height with two events. The first was the series of attacks on churches in Iraq and Egypt. The second, by contrast, was the opening of the refurbished Savoy hotel in London in which a Saudi prince had invested several hundred million pounds. I wish in this article to present a constructive, and practical, viewpoint that does not simply moan about our fortunes. The article is a call for actions that are not based on logic and rational thinking as opposed to unbridled emotion and little else.
Others have had, and have, their own problems
Iraqis in particular and Arabs in general need to remind themselves of past history of the world. Not the often mentioned ‘golden age’ of the Middle East as the cradle of civilisation but history of European and other countries that are now envied as oases of tranquillity and progress.
Let me start with a brief but telling example from Switzerland. In a 1959 referendum the vote (by all male voters) was 2 to 1 against allowing women to vote in federal elections and to stand for parliament. Women had to wait until 1971 for that situation to be changed. Social and political changes take a long time even in the most ordered societies. In fact in such societies, change almost always takes a long time and happens after a long period of debate and consideration. Yes, it is frustrating but this has been found to be the safest and most sustainable way to evolve. The state of women’s rights in the Arab countries is intolerable but that state is unsustainable and will be reversed. It will happen in small steps and will take a long time. Seeking an overnight transformation (and noisy criticism) is useless at best and counterproductive at worst.
Now let me take a broader example, this time from Austria. This country, as in the case of Switzerland, gives every impression of being a happy and well-organised country. The casual Arab visitor looks on the mountains and lakes and envies Austrians their ‘good luck’. The fact that Austria has had a turbulent, and divisive, history over several centuries might not come as a shock. However, a quick look at its more recent history reveals a story familiar to most Iraqis. The Wehrmarcht entered Austria in 1938 with considerable help from Austrian collaborators. The Anschluss (union of Austria and Germany under Nazi command, of course) was blessed by a majority of voters in the plebiscite of April 1938! Just like the situation in Iraq there were doubts and criticisms about that vote but the occupiers and collaborators claimed the people ‘have spoken’. Inevitably, the minorities were targeted by the new rulers (German and Austrian). Some 150,000 Jews were killed or had to flee but other minorities were not spared either. Ultimately, Austrians accounted for about 14 percent of the feared SS and some 44 percent of Nazis involved in genocide. After the war the Four Powers ruled Austria until 1955. Austria was an occupied country for seventeen years. Invaders do not leave in a hurry; it is what happens after they leave that matters most.
One would think that that page of Austrian history is closed but that is not the case. As late as 1998 a Historic Commission was set up to look into claims for compensation for property stolen during the Nazi era. Yes, more than sixty years after the event! On that basis, one would expect those who appropriated people’s homes and other properties after the 2003 Iraq war to enjoy their ill-begotten gains for decades to come. Nazi collaborators in Austria went on to occupy high office for decades; they were rehabilitated and then assimilated into the new Austrian reality. Leaders who came on the back of the US led invasion of Iraq could be expected to live quite happily for many years to come. A few will be assassinated and others might take their fortunes and go to live abroad. The Austrian experience suggests there is another model: gradual rehabilitation and assimilation.
The situation in Russia after the collapse of the USSR in 1989 provides even more dramatic examples of excess followed by rehabilitation and assimilation. Remember the feared KGB? Putin joined the KGB in 1975 and served that organisation well. After the dissolution of the USSR, Putin was appointed acting president in 1999, elected president in 2000 and remained in that office (after another election in 2004) until 2008 when he became prime minster. Comparison with what was done after 2003 to those who worked in the previous regime in Iraq is striking. Comparison with what was done to those who were in power at the time of the 1958 coup d’état is even more revealing. It would seem that the model in Iraq, and other states that fail to move forward and then blame others for their failure, is to undertake a cull of its decision makers every now and then to replace them with inexperienced people who have yet to reap the fortunes of high office! Incompetence and corruption soar and then the next wave comes along to sweep away the current leaders just when they had begun to gain some experience and just when the need for excessive corruption becomes less pressing. The incoming leaders start all over again.
There is no magic wand
Iraqis, and their Arab ‘brothers and sisters’, have a touching and childlike belief in magic. They have a firm confidence that somebody; typically from a far land, will come along and rid them of their problems. That belief relieves them of any involvement or responsibility for change. Their contribution comes mainly in the form of laments of present agonies and invocations of past glories. Belief in foreign magic also includes reliance on quick change and sudden transformation to a perfect life. Saddam was able to rule Iraq for decades while Iraqis put their faith in magic. When foreign magic arrived it turned out to be no more than foreign interests promoted and enforced by brute force. Iraqi governments that came on the back of the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003 will also enjoy a lengthy, and very prosperous, life despite all the cartoons, jokes, and protestations that fill the internet. Iraqis will continue to hope for magic imported from Iran, Gulf States, al-Qaeda, or wherever. It is the tried and tested easy way of doing nothing while maintaining the impression of fervent patriotism.
As we say in the Middle East, ‘governments have a long breath’. That is a fact of life. Where Iraqis go wrong is in their conviction that each ruler has to be replaced by force, preferably provided by a benevolent foreign power. That is nonsense. Yes rulers can be got rid of by force but they are invariably replaced by equally repulsive rulers and the cycle starts again. Iraqis, one would have thought, would have learnt that lesson after the 1958 coup d’état. In practice, countries, nations, and rulers evolve over long periods of time. The people in power imported by the US after the 2003 invasion of Iraq will be there a long time in one form or another. There is nothing special or unusual about them. They are the product of the environment that we recognise as ‘Iraq’. Get rid of them and you will have replicas in place soon after. The task must be to reform, rehabilitate and then assimilate. But assimilate in what? I will come to that later.
Enemies will do their worst to their opponents
Christians are killed as they pray, academics are murdered on their way to their universities, and doctors are assassinated at their clinics. Iraqis explanation: this is all the work of extremists nurtured and guided by Israel’s Mossad agents. Rocket science? Not really; it is what Mossad was set up to do. As its own website states: “The Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, otherwise known as the Mossad, has been appointed by the State of Israel to collect information, analyze intelligence, and perform special covert operations beyond its borders.” Can Iraqi intellectuals please stop congratulating themselves on their cleverness in working out that all too obvious puzzle. They did the same when they discovered that the US spent over $3 trillion on a war that caused nothing but harm to Iraq. Even more tragic than the Israel puzzle, they concluded that all the devastation was the unintentional result of American incompetence. Books that took that silly line became best sellers amongst Iraqis. Powers do not spend so much effort and money to help others. In a vast operation such as the occupation of another country for many years mistakes are made, but the basic incentives are focused on self interest that have little or nothing to do with the interests of the occupied country. It is the interests of the occupying forces, stupid. That, by the way, might or might not have anything to do with the interests of ordinary Americans.
So why are these invading forces so successful in a country such as Iraq. Thousands of leading academics and intellectuals are killed and nothing is done about it. Hundreds of thousands of intellectuals and members of minority groups (who are also mainly highly educated) pack their cases and leave the country to become refugees abroad and again nothing is done to stop the process. Everyone is agreed this is the work of ‘the enemy’. That seems to be enough action. Again why is that so effective in Iraq and why is nothing done to stop it? It is simple: Iraq and its people are an easy target. Nations get the leaders they deserve it is said. Put cruelly, they also deserve what they get. Certainly their competitors think so. There is a ‘nicer’ explanation. The world stage is a battle ground between competing nations according to the Realist school of international relations. Some are more suited to the fitness landscape that exists at any moment and they occupy the higher ground. Others, less fit, are left at the lower slopes and become easy prey to the fitter nations.
Enemies will do their worst, but it is up to a nation to equip itself to survive better on the world’s fitness landscape. It is useless to rail against the enemies. Lazy nations prefer to complain about their fortunes. It is less arduous than seeking to alter the terms the equation. A well known international tennis player once said “the more I practice the luckier I get.” The same applies to nations. If a nation is content to sit on its collective hands then nothing will happen. In that case the best thing to happen is for that nation to stop complaining and take the medicine its opponents dish out. Who are Iraq’s opponents? Take your pick. If Israel and the USA were to lose interest then others (from a long list) will step in; Iran, Syria, Turkey, and further afield China, Russia, etc.
What could Iraqis do?
Now we come to the main point. The affairs of nations take a very long time to unfold. Moreover, they do not unfold in a tidy fashion. They follow what is sometimes called punctuated equilibrium: long periods of apparent inactivity punctuated by brief periods of radical change. Setbacks must be expected and accepted and patience must be exercised: characteristics that are in short supply throughout the Middle East. Equally important, the political situation of a nation is an outcome not an input. For those interested in mathematics, the political situation is a dependent (rather than an independent) element in the equation. That element in the life of a nation is moulded by numerous factors. If Iraqis were to understand these few facts of life then their course of action to get out of their present malaise become evident.
Most Iraqis assume they can effect change by working in the political arena. To a limited extent that is not unreasonable. However, more enduring progress can be achieved through other channels. In present day Iraq there is no such thing that could be recognised as ‘politics’. Working in the political field, therefore, to promote the national interest (as opposed to undoubted personal gains) is difficult to understand. More progress could be made taking an indirect route to national revival. Sport is a good example. It is a good training ground to learn competition, resilience, and acceptance of defeat to fight another day. Culture, including art and appreciation of heritage, is another piece in the jigsaw. However, health and education (in their widest sense) are two powerful engines for progress. To work as a primary school teacher with a mission is infinitely more powerful and to become a political activist. The plus side of such an approach is all to obvious: those in power could not complain about such activities. Unfortunately, throughout the Middle East the only such indirect step has involved the adoption of extreme religious beliefs. As seen in Egypt, there is now little of no difference between politics and religion which defeats the object of following alternatives to politics to seek progress.
Intellectuals have a critical role to play. Sport, art, education and so on are of little use unless those involved believe these activities are part of a longer-term evolutionary transformation. They need to be framed within an overarching philosophy: not one founded on one of the hackneyed isms of socialism, or capitalism and certainly not based on now shaky religious foundations. The philosophy has to be planted within an all-embracing social renewal that recognises equality of all, diversity of beliefs, and the sanctity of human rights and the rule of law.
Some readers may scoff at the naivety of this article. However, I would like to remind them of a few historic characters in my defence. Christ preached a naive philosophy that has endured for over 2000 years. Muhammad also presented a wise philosophy that has endured for many centuries. It might be said with good reason that their philosophies have been abused by later generations. There are, however, more recent examples that demonstrate the effectiveness of the ‘alternative route’. I do not need to do more than to mention Ghandi and Mandela.