SOURCE: Special to HNN ()
Religion and Nationalism in Iraq: A Comparative Perspective (Harvard University, 2007) Eds. David Little and Donald K. Swearer
Tavares’s 1975 tune “It Only Takes a Minute” rings true for those political (cum–historical) pundits hankering to elucidate parallels and symmetries between British–landed 1920s Mesopotamia and present–day American–seized Iraq. In the face of such analogy–thinking (four years on from its original outburst) we ultimately have to ask “What’s New Pussycat?” The title of Woody Allen’s film debut ten years earlier ought to be projected onto the writings still pouring out from computer screens where printer cartridges now run on empty. Krisitian Ulrichsen’s article featured in this month’s History Today (“Coming as Liberators”) is just the latest incarnation–where one can identify with the title of William Shakespeare’s 1600 play, “Much Ado about Nothing”? Similarly textured, the current edition of the London Review of Books runs a piece highlighting “the similarities between Iraq and Darfur”.
However, what these two articles do offer is an introductory reading ahead of two recently released books: Gareth Stansfield’s Iraq: People, History, Politics and David Little and Donald K. Swearer’s (eds.). Religion and Nationalism in Iraq: A Comparative Perspective. Despite treading a similar path relaying by what is now a common history (from British colonialism and Gertrude Bell to the empowerment of the Sunnis up to ostensible American neo–imperialism) these contributions buttress the past of the present more than competently–as well as comprehensively examining Iraqi voting patterns. Stansfield scholarly spans: the artificiality debate synonymous with the identity debate; before tackling the dictator debate and concludes with the state–building and democratization debate. Little and Swearer illuminate four essential themes for understanding nationalist contests with a religious cast: the salience of religious and ethnic identity; the significance of history; the perils of self–government; and the place of international involvement.
The latter author(s) may appear recognizable but what about the former? Well, Gareth Stansfield is Associate Professor of Middle East Politics (Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, UK. To those unfamiliar, this department rivals Oxford/Cambridge). Stansfield writes pragmatically scratching beneath the surface to reveal how Iraq then became now; for the author endeavours to “identify how decisions made nearly 100 years ago may or may not be impacting upon events today”. What we have before us is an exhaustive inventory of Iraqi history–though, such a “history” is overshadowed by the personal–cum–authoritative prose of William R. Polk and his Understanding Iraq: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History from Genghis Khan’s Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation.
When read together there is a high degree of repetition. Saying that, read Stansfield’s before unfurling the duo’s compilation for a greater understanding. Despite the texts being penned and then typed up on opposing sides of the Atlantic they actually compliment one another rather well (Amazon would do well to sell these as a “perfect partner”). Stansfield’s chronology of Arab and Iraqi nationalism is a worthy precursor to Little and Swearer’s compartmentalized “ethnoreligious” analysis that arose out of a conference (Harvard Divinity School: April 2005) that brought together 25 experts from different fields who are authorities on Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sri Lanka, and Sudan. At their base is the thinking that, “In postcolonial discourse the nation–state as an imagined community is viewed in negative ways, as an imperialistic imposition of a western form”. Since that, “The imposition… of a European model of a centralized state upon the three former Ottoman vilayets” revolutionized the earlier model of administrative organization. Consequently, the “western model of governance created significant stresses… particularly with regard to identities and nationalism”. What is more, the conference catalogue reinforces the notion that the violent intensity of ethno– nationalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Iraq lay in the “fear and domination by an Other who threatens” their integrity.
This leads Stansfield to argue that, “The predisposition of Iraq to succumb to authoritarian methods of government is a product of the bringing together of disparate communities following the downfall of the Ottoman Empire”.
The reviewer does concede that even the name reflects this artificiality: Iraq was a medieval province, with borders very different from those of the modern republic, excluding Mesopotamia in the north and including a slice of western Iran; Syria, Palestine and Libya too are names from classical antiquity that had not been used in the region for a thousand years or more before they were revived and imposed. Algeria and Tunisia do not even exist as words in Arabic–of which the same name serves for both the city and country alike. However, this whole–hearted reasoning of imperialist nation–state “artificiality” undergirding and engulfing future aggression ought to be put to one side. A 1960s United Nations General Assembly Resolution (UNGAR) comprised a collective and affirming statement on behalf of the leaders from the Middle Eastern/North African expanse agreeing to abide by the borders drawn from under British and French tutelage.
In fact, insofar as the Middle East is the victim of anything other than its own failures, it is not Western imperialism but Western post–imperialism. Unlike Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Americas, Arabia has never come under direct European colonial rule. Instead, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the Great War, the victors carved up the Arabian Peninsula not into colonies but “spheres of influence”–a system that continues to this day. Rather than making Arabia a Crown colony within the Empire, sending out the “Marquess of Whatnot” as governor, issuing banknotes bearing the likeness of King George V, setting up courts presided over by judges in full–bottomed wigs and introducing a professional civil service, the British instead mulled over which sheikh was likely to prove more pliable, installed him in the capital and suggested he have his sons educated at Eton and Oxbridge. The French did the same, and so, later, (to a greater extent) did the Americans. This was cheaper than colonialism and less politically prickly, but it did a great disservice to the populations of those countries! But this would be too contentious for the authors on show here to even contemplate.
Now we must attend to some (minor) blemishes contained within Stansfield’s text. Firstly, the latter stages are punctuated by a stench of “conspiranoia” (an amalgamation of conspiracy and paranoia) displaying overtly conspiratorial language when writing of the “Manichean simplicity of George W. Bush” and his “neo–con council”. Ironically, if there is any theological tradition that neo–conservative politics embodies it is that of another ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism–but with a twist. Secondly, on the run–up to war in Iraq there is a far superior account (not cited) to be found in Rick Fawn and Raymond A. Hinnebusch’s (eds.). The Iraq War: Causes and Consequences. Thirdly, there is an error (maybe on the part of the publishers) concerning the date as to the death of Uday and Qusay Hussein and the capture of Saddam (that reads 22 June and their father’s apprehension coming six months later as opposed to facts on the ground that read 22 July and five months later). When all is said and done, this ought not to deflect one from purchasing a copy.
Onto the second text and Ann Mayer (University of Pennsylvania) provides a little gem for the conference supplement illuminating the Sudanese precedent. She authoritatively states that, “Iraqi leaders must be cognizant of the calamities that befell Sudan after a hasty Islamization program was launched… (This rethinking is embodied in the text of Sudan’s 1998 Draft Constitution). In the wake of the escalating inter–communal violence in Iraq in 2006, lessons from Sudan should be taken seriously…”.
Both texts are solid. The first text is a bold effort covering the whole sweep of Iraqi history in 200 pages. No stone is left unturned. The second text provides a comparative consideration of attempts to manage and resolve nationalist conflicts in four regions while examining how lessons from those situations might inform similar efforts in Iraq. With a repertoire of expert opinion and appendices coupled with maps to boot this is recommended reading.