Recently, there have been a few statements about pre-war Iraqi society that would appear to flatly contradict each other.  One comes from Ali Allawi’s new book The Occupation of Iraq (via Fouad Ajami’s review in The New Republic and a helpful reader of this blog):

Essentially, it was based on the recognition by the Shi’a elite that they might have some share of central power, within limits that would satisfy the more ambitious of their leaders. But they should not aspire to control or run the state, even though their numbers might warrant this. At the same time, the state, dominated by the Sunni Arabs, would recognize and acknowledge the props of Shi’a identity, and would not move to alter or shrink them in any significant way. Essentially, the Sunni Arabs controlled the state, while the Shi’a were allowed to keep their civil, mercantile and religious traditions. It was a precarious balance, but it held the potential for improvement and progress towards a common sense of citizenship, duties and entitlements. Successive governments in the 1960s and 1970s, however, foolishly destroyed this. The state removed the elements that kept a vigorous Shi’a identity alive in parallel to a Sunni- dominated state. Nationalizations, emigration and expulsions destroyed the Shi’a mercantilist class; the state monopoly on education, publishing and the media removed the cultural underpinnings of Shi’a life; and the attack on Najaf and the religious hierarchy came close to completely eliminating the hawzas of Iraq. When the state embarked on the mass killings after the 1991 uprisings, Iraq became hopelessly compromised in the minds of most Shi’a.

Christopher Hitchens, in full jingo-exculpation mode, has latched on to Allawi’s book as proof that Iraq would have collapsed (presumably complete with mosque-bombings and massacres) whether or not there had been an invasion.  This might well be true, just as it was probably true of Yugoslavia that artificial, post-WWI entities that no longer commanded the loyalty of most of the inhabitants over and above their more immediate identities could survive in a world of resurgent ethnic, religious and national politics.  This in no way makes it any more justifiable that Western powers helped to speed up the process of dissolution in both cases.  Besides being flatly the opposite of everything the jingoes said before the invasion (in their telling, Sunni would lie down with Shia and usher in an age of harmony), the strange thing about this argument is that it seems to say that just because a man is already dying from cancer it is acceptable to slip polonium into his tea (he was going to die anyway!) or that it is appropriate to inflame the grievances between estranged friends until one of them kills the other because they were already on pretty bad terms.  Perhaps Hitchens would justify murder in this way by saying, “Well, we’ve all got to go sometime,” as if the act of murder didn’t have some direct impact on the timing and nature of the departure! 

About this “inevitable collapse” argument, I have two things to say: 1) deep cultural and religious loyalties never preclude the exercise of agency, though they will constrain and shape it; 2) the active politicisation of sectarianism and ethnicity in the vaunted democratic elections (the “purple finger” that Hanson et al. want to see so much more of in news coverage) was a direct cause of the violent contestation for supremacy between the sects in Iraq.  Once sect and ethnicity were confirmed as legitimate political dividing lines and those identities were invested with significance as markers of political status, rather than being deemphasised as much as possible, violence was unavoidable.  The nightmare that Iraq has become undoubtedly owes much to its fragmented society and brutal history, but it owes a great deal to the inflammation and mobilisation of rival religious and ethnic identities in the “democratic” present as well.  The nationalist expulsions and massacres of the late 19th and early 20th century across central and eastern Europe and Anatolia did not just “happen” as if by some chemical reaction–they were actively fomented by those ‘progressive’ nationalist elements who sought to build their identity and their nation on the blood of others.  If a given country is a powerful mix of explosive and conflicting identities that could erupt into a hellish mess, it would seem that the people who come into that country by way of setting off a lot of explosions and introducing a lot of instability, both physical and figurative, bear a whole lot of responsibility for starting the chain reaction.  Hitchens would very much like to deny this now, since he was and remains a proponent of lighting the fuse.

Against the “inevitable collapse” argument, we have the final post of Riverbend, who has opted to leave the country:

I always hear the Iraqi pro-war crowd interviewed on television from foreign capitals (they can only appear on television from the safety of foreign capitals because I defy anyone to be publicly pro-war in Iraq). They refuse to believe that their religiously inclined, sectarian political parties fueled this whole Sunni/Shia conflict. [bold mine-DL] They refuse to acknowledge that this situation is a direct result of the war and occupation. They go on and on about Iraq’s history and how Sunnis and Shia were always in conflict and I hate that. I hate that a handful of expats who haven’t been to the country in decades pretend to know more about it than people actually living there.

I remember Baghdad before the war- one could live anywhere. We didn’t know what our neighbors were- we didn’t care. No one asked about religion or sect. No one bothered with what was considered a trivial topic: are you Sunni or Shia? You only asked something like that if you were uncouth and backward. Our lives revolve around it now. Our existence depends on hiding it or highlighting it- depending on the group of masked men who stop you or raid your home in the middle of the night.

Not only does Riverbend tend to carry more authority in my eyes than the dreadful Christopher Hitchens and the self-justifying Iraqi exile (we didn’t ruin Iraq–it was already too far gone!), but her statement about pre-war Iraqi society makes a lot of sense. 

A crucial thing about these sorts of identities is that they do not often become points of contention unless power, status and wealth are directly associated with belonging to this group rather than that.  Even when belonging to a certain group entails relative marginalisation, this does not necessarily create inevitable enmity between the ruling and the marginalised groups. 

Some will object that I am being too reductionist here.  I don’t mean to say that these identities do not have any meaning independent of these other factors, when they clearly have very powerful meaning in and of themselves and only exist because they give people meaning, but the causes for actual conflict between different groups are closely tied to contestation for power.  Some may object that this absolutely obvious, but it is surprising how few people appreciate this.  In the rather limited thinking of some, religious fratricide is possible only if the two sides have had a blood-feud dating back to medieval times and ethnic cleansing and genocide can only be explained by “centuries” of hatred, when the causes are almost always much more immediate and proximate.  There are those who insist on an essentialist understanding of identity, according to which being X must have always entailed being against those who are Y (abstract nationalists tend to be the worst essentialists, because they are always defining themselves by their perpetual opposition to some other people), while others believe that a constructivist account renders identity, especially a religious or ethnic identity, to be ultimately nothing more than the product of other socioeconomic factors.  The former have a hard time believing that coexistence has ever been possible in the past (in nationalist histories, these periods are always periods of national decadence and foreign pollution), while the latter have a hard time believing that anyone can actually care about something so supposedly meaningless.  Both are wrong and obviously so. 

In societies in which less immediate or more universal identities take precedence, more immediate loyalties and identities tend to get deemphasised or they are actively suppressed by the enforcers of the broader identity.  It is when those broader identities break down or lose their significance that some form of the more immediate loyalties rushes to fill the cultural space they abandoned.  Thus party loyalty and “Yugoslav” solidarity gave way to more immediate ethnic and religious attachments; once the fragile shell of Iraqi nationalism and the lid of Baathism were removed and public authority broke down, a return to tribal and sectarian loyalties was bound to happen, if only as a means of self-preservation amid chaos.  However, the outsiders who actively helped subvert and destroy every basis for unity and common identity in the name of “liberation” have a bloody cheek to talk about how the fratricidal horror unfolding before us was “inevitable.”