The Politicization of Culture in Iraq
On a recent visit to Baghdad, I passed by the Iraqi Academy of Sciences (majma' al-ilmi in Arabic), a wonderful research library which once had a magnificent collection of primary and secondary sources in Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and other Middle Eastern languages. Zain Al-Naqshbandi, historian, archivist and bookseller, was holding court in the chief librarian's office. Wearing a plum red jacket and black trousers, he was regaling us with stories of the new Iraq. Zain is highly voluble, and reminds me of a human steamroller. Once he’s launched, the best thing is to duck.
But on that morning, I sensed a real change in his personality. Was it my imagination, or was he speaking with more authority? In June, when our group first met him, he had seemed like the perennial outsider, the prototype of an Iraqi Cassandra who had all the evidence but to whom no one paid attention. Talking up a storm, he criticized those who had stolen books from the Iraqi National Library and were now selling them in the Maydan area, the historic quarter now referred to as “Old Baghdad” by Western tourists. He had even published articles denouncing them by name; all, it seemed to no avail. Months later, Zain was featured in a hugely violent documentary on Iraq called “Sixteen Hours”; characteristically, he was seen berating the passersby on Baghdad’s booksellers street for allowing an open drain to threaten the books laid out for sale on the pavement.
But on that day, Zain was in charge. He chortled that he had been approached by an aspiring politician to join a new party, formed around the Naqshbandi tariqa or mystic brotherhood, to which he owed his surname. In fact, the politico was intending to draft him to lead the new faction. We all roared with laughter. Originally based in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Naqshbandi “way” was a widespread, centuries-old religious and cultural movement which in the past had been instrumental, not only in disseminating a populist interpretation of Islam, but in areas where it came into contact with expanding Western influence, in formulating an anti-colonialist rhetoric of great power. The idea that this religiously-inspired mass movement, with all of its anti-Western and emotive baggage, could be turned into a platform for enterprising, secular politicians was too hilarious to countenance. What would they think of next? I remembered that a French colleague on the earlier trip to Baghdad had told me of a similar phenomenon in the last years of Baathist rule, where government apparatchiks had approached a venerable family of famous intellectuals, and demanded that they become a tribe!
In fact, the “new” Iraq is rapidly metamorphosing into the old. For Iraqi returnees, the most glaring feature of the year-old occupation is the realization that Iraqi society, not yet fully empowered or in control, is being forced to revert to traditional strategies to meet the demands of a confused present. This phenomenon is prevalent everywhere; in the way that people are inducted into political parties through the promise of jobs or a university scholarship; in the sponsorship of “pet” intellectuals ready to sing the praises of a particular warlord, and in the use, or abuse of great cultural movements for political gain. And as in the Iranian revolution twenty-five years before, when religion became the main field of contestation, the symbols of Iraqi heritage and culture are now being redefined to advance a welter of political agendas.
Jonathan Dresner - 5/11/2004
You're right, it wasn't clear to me that this was a really strong present tradition. And you're right: purely practical and political redefinition of living traditions is often the death of them. Pete Seeger said that the worst thing you can do to a song is to make it official, and it applies to religion, as well.
As much as I am a secularist in the US, I'm not sure that the religious movements don't have a place in Iraq, much as the Christian parties in Europe have had a place.
Hala Fattah - 5/11/2004
I agree with you that "charmingly outdated traditions" can be reconceptualized to fit modern developments. However, I don't think this is completely true for the example I discussed in my article (or is the correct form, entry?). Maybe I didn't point that out very well in my article, but the Naqshbandiya Sufi network is still very strong, especially, believe it or not, in Europe and certainly in some Arab countries like Syria, I think. So its not an outdated tradition, but very much a live one. In Baghdad, I think the focus is on how the Naqshbandiya most correlates with Kurdish nationalism and as a secondary aim, how it ties Kurdish nationalism to Arab and Islamic nationalism. The founder of the movement (beginning of the nineteenth century) was himself a Kurd but he taught not only in Kurdistan but in Baghdad and Aleppo (Syria). So maybe the Naqshbandiya is seen by its supporters as a vehicle to promote an Islam-wide solidarity, tying Arab and Kurd together. But maybe I'm extrapolating too much from a development that has yet to occur.
My problem is this: if you reduce all spiritual, religious mass movements to a dreary political reality, then do you not risk undercutting the very elan of the movement, just as its redeveloping and refashioning its religious core in its original homeland, for the first time in complete freedom? Do you not risk reducing it to a shell, just a name and a symbol for political expediency, and leave out the enormously complex heritage that it embodied for two hundred years?
Jonathan Dresner - 5/10/2004
The case I know best, 19th century Japan, was a fascinating example of transformed traditional values and institutions. The revivification of the Emperor, a truly creaky institution, alone qualified as a brilliant stroke, particularly since he was used as leverage to wipe out the daimyo lord class. The elimination of the samurai class was followed closely by the enshrinement of samurai values as "Japanese" both through law (the new family law, for example, followed Samurai traditions rather than any peasant model) and in ideology (military training, and its civilian counterparts, used samurai texts and tropes). Confucianism was also invoked, particularly in the concept of the family-state. The short term results were rapid modernization and international prestige; the medium-term results were expansionistic fascist chauvinism.
I guess what I'm suggesting is that the revival of traditional, even charmingly outdated, concepts does not necessarily indicate a retreat, if they are directed towards substantial progress.