Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for December 2007

Very Guarded Optimism

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The level of violence in Iraq is still remarkably high, and still nothing works. Compared with the situation a year ago, however, when there were hundreds of killings daily, Iraq today seems like a brave new world. In this very relative oasis of peace it has become possible to glimpse the kind of democracy which could conceivably work in Iraq. A successful democratic system would involve cooperation between local communities (not between sects), with the government a council of councils rather than a powerful centralised state apparatus holding the country together by force

Whenever they have had a chance, local communities have proved their mettle. Remember the role of the early Mahdi Army in stopping the looting triggered by the 2003 invasion, and in establishing basic services for the people. It was mosque committees, Sunni and Shia, which collected money in their neighbourhoods and paid teachers to return to the classrooms, and which organised work teams to repair local infrastructure. This was reminiscent of Hizbullah at its best: people in extremis relying on themselves, and doing what no external authority was willing or capable of doing.

But as we know, it all went horribly wrong. Society fragmented and the logic of violence took over. Local communities were silenced and then splintered by sectarian militias. In my post http://qunfuz.blogspot.com/2007/08/end-of-arabs-part-one.html I wrote about how the American destruction of the state was the major factor catalysing the civil war. Specific American actions led directly to the disaster: the initial unwillingness to countenance Iraqi rule followed by a sectarian approach to ‘representation’, the use of central-American style death squads to fight the Sunni resistance (the expert John Negroponte was imported for this), the dissolution of the army and the police so that criminal and sectarian gangs filled the void.

There was also of course an internal Iraqi dynamic motivating the conflict. Sunni-Shia tensions have bubbled for centuries, which is not to say that they are as essential and timeless as some orientalists would have us believe. The ostentatious Shia revival that followed the invasion, bursting forth like steam from a pressure cooker when the lid is suddenly removed, came as a result of the years of Ba’athist persecution. A frightened and dispossessed Sunni community made the fatal mistake of allowing al-Qa’ida and other Wahhabi nihilists to penetrate the resistance. If Shias preferred to wait to see what the new dispensation would bring them in terms of political power, most of them sympathised with the anti-American resistance. Al-Qa’ida’s bomb attacks, however, targetted first the new police, and then Shia civilians, in mosques and marketplaces, in their tens of thousands. After the April 2006 destruction of the dome of the Askari shrine in Samarra’, sacred to Shias as the burial place of the 11th Imam and as the place where the Imam al-Mahdi went into occultation, Shia militias responded with brute force. A mutual orgy of ethnic cleansing wrecked the country’s ancient fabric. Iraq became a kind of Lebanon, not only in the ferocity of its communal hatreds but also in its transformation into a battleground for regional rivals: Saudi Arabia versus Iran, and America in the paradoxical position of fearing Shia power more than the Sunnis, who were attached by their Saudi ties to the illusory ‘arc of moderation’ even if they housed al-Qa’ida.

In the summer of 2007 things started to improve. It would be unfair not to recognise that new American tactics have had a measure of success in calming Iraq. By putting thousands more American soldiers on the streets, the ‘surge’ concedes the idiocy of Donald Rumsfield’s military theories. But much more important than the surge has been the Sahwa or the ‘Awakening’ movement of Sunni tribes and resistance fighters reclaiming their towns from nihilist thugs. Just as the American invasion was the greatest gift to al-Qa’ida, the clear demonstration of al-Qaida’s brutality and sectarianism in areas where it took control demolished the illusion of its revolutionary purity in the eyes of Iraqis and the wider Muslim world. Sunni communities turned on those they’d previously sheltered and, with al-Qa’ida on the defensive, it became possible for the Shia to reach out to the Sunnis. Simultaneously, popular revulsion with the Mahdi Army’s excesses led Moqtada Sadr to declare a six-month suspension of activities, and to purge his organisation of the more criminal, more Sunni-murdering elements. There are signs too, especially since the farcical Annapolis ‘peace’ summit, of the Arab client states realising that America won’t rescue them from their crises of domestic credibility and regional destabilisation. Only a good working relationship with Iran can do that. Regional peacemaking may be reflected in internal Iraqi peacemaking.

It’s still far too early to be optimistic. Many of the Sunni ‘sahwa’ militias may have calculated that a period of peace, and of getting into the Americans’ good books, will provide them with training opportunities and weapons so that they succeed in round two of the civil war. Hating the excesses of al-Qa’ida does not mean loving the new Shia power structure. The government, consisting mainly of politicians sponsored by Shia and Kurdish militias, has so far agreed to employ only 6% of Sunni volunteers in the state security forces. So it may be that the worst is still to come. Beyond the Sunni-Shia conflict, the battle between Muqtada Sadr’s Iraqi-nativist Mahdi Army and the currently pro-American, traditionally Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council seems to be on temporary hold. And militia forces are only conducive to peace and order to the extent that they represent local people, not the politics of a local strong man.

But I’ve been reading reports not only of cooperation between Sunni and Shia militias in neighbouring areas, but of mixed militias, and even of mixed militias negotiating the reversal of ethnic cleansing. In some areas of Baghdad, families are actually returning to their homes in areas where the other sect dominates.

This is something to thank God for. If against the odds the trend towards peace continues, a large number of the educated professionals that Iraq has lost may return home. Iraqis will then face two huge challenges: to expel the American occupation, which is digging in for the coming decades, and to either remove the corrupt and failed political elite which arrived with the American tanks or to impress upon it the necessity of non-sectarian national politics and real economic and political sovereignty. These challenges can only be met by a unified Iraqi people. A democracy based on community action could lead to unity. Is good news possible in Iraq?

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 26, 2007 at 1:01 pm

Posted in Iraq

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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I’ve now read three September 11th novels, by which I mean novelistic responses to the issues raised by the attacks. The first was ‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan. I usually feel somewhat cheated by McEwan’s novels, and this was no exception. He goes to such trouble to develop characters, setting and plot, raising your expectations to such a pitch that you feel you’re about to learn something unforgettable about life and human beings, and then it all fizzles out. ‘Saturday’ covers a day in the life of a London doctor called Henry Perowne. The day begins with Perowne worrying over a mysterious plane in the sky, wondering if it’s going to fly into a London landmark. Later he avoids the huge demonstration against the approaching invasion of Iraq. Perowne wonders how he feels about it all, comes to no conclusion, goes to play squash. He has an altercation with a thuggish person who scratches the paint from his car, and in the evening the same thug breaks into his house like a symbol of the intrusive messy world. I’ve forgotten how it ends. McEwan has been attacked for being a neo-conservative, or a liberal interventionist, or just as hopelessly complacent and bourgeois as his protagonist, but he has defended himself by pointing out that McEwan is not Perowne – an obvious truth. If we start blaming authors for what their characters say we end up like the fools in Egypt who demonstrated against Haider Haider’s novel ‘A Banquet of Seaweed’ (waleema li-‘ashaab al-bahr) because one of Haider’s characters – who later commits suicide – expresses atheistic beliefs. Nevertheless, it’s a shame that McEwan’s treatment of the post-September 11th world focusses only on Western self-absorption. What the events require is a new engagement with the darknesses and resentments of the world beyond our narrow conception of it, a new sense of the interconnections of the West and elsewhere, for better and for worse.

Then I read John Updike’s ‘Terrorist’, which I’ve previously discussed on this blog (http://qunfuz.blogspot.com/2006/11/updikes-terrorist.html ). My great respect for Updike as a writer perhaps made me too charitable in that evaluation. If anybody hasn’t read his series of ‘Rabbit’ novels, I strongly recommend them, for their wonderful style, their tragi-comedy, and for their vast scale which encompasses key moments in American history as well as in Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s life. In these books Updike is clearly writing about what he knows and understands. In “Terrorist”, he clearly isn’t. His main protagonist, despite being mixed-race and mixed-up, is a stereotype, and so are all the Arabs and Muslims in the book – either dirty and threatening, or ‘good niggers’ who ardently support the attack on Iraq and report to the CIA. Nothing new is said about the motivations of anti-American terrorism or about the effect of the American empire on the world. Updike’s analysis goes no further than Martin Amis’s. He sees the causes of conflict to be sexual, not political, and believes that America is targetted as a result of its supposed moral degeneracy. But Muslims haven’t attacked the bikini beaches of Brazil, and such ‘analysis’ is as self-congratulatory as Henry Perowne’s bourgeois complacency.

Last night I finished ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid. This is a simpler novel than the two described above, and is stylistically unremarkable. It is, however, a genuine consideration of real issues raised by September 11th. In its organisation and the cumulative metaphorical power of its subplots it is much more than competent. It is a confessional narrative, told by a Pakistani to an American in a restaurant in Lahore. The anguished first-person self-revelation is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s ‘Notes From Underground’, but Hamid’s Changez is a fundamentally balanced character. It’s the times, and the empire, that are out of joint, and Changez’s story is of righting himself by retreating from America. Educated at Princeton and working for a company which values businesses due to be sold off and stripped, Changez finds himself smiling when he sees TV reportage of the twin towers falling. This prompts a deepening examination of his identity, his allegiances, and his relationship with America. Parallels are implied between Muslim countries and the doomed employees of the companies Changez evaluates. The key here is not religion, but corporate capitalism and traumatic economic change. Changez’s boss Jim says, “We came from places that were wasting away.” He means, on the one hand, Pakistan, and on the other, old industrial America. ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is a catchy but not very apt title. There is very little theology in the book. By the end of the story Changez is not at all an Islamist, but discovers he has to oppose the corporate American empire in order to remain mentally and morally healthy.

There’s plenty of on-target comment about American reaction to September 11th. Like this: “I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back. Living in New York was suddenly like living in a film about the Second World War; I, a foreigner, found myself staring out at a set that ought to be viewed not in Technicolour but in grainy black and white. What your fellow countrymen longed for was unclear to me – a time of unquestioned dominance? of safety? of moral certainty? I did not know – but that they were scrambling to don the costumes of another era was apparent. I felt treacherous for wondering whether that era was fictitious, and whether – if it could indeed be animated – it contained a part written for someone like me.”

The attack on the empire makes Changez aware of America as an empire. The final straw for him is when he hears someone describing the Janissaries, the Christian slaves taken as boys from their parents by the Ottoman empire and turned into an elite warrior class to defend the sultan. Is Changez a latter-day reversed Janissary?

In an effective subplot, Changez has an almost-girlfriend who is obsessed by the memory of her dead boyfriend. In her depression, “She glowed with something not unlike the fervour of the devout.” Themes of nostalgia and commingled, confused identities seep into other parts of the novel, where they are relevant to Changez, Pakistan, and America. These are the correspondences and suggested patterns that novel writing is all about. ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ deals profoundly with politics without needing to limit itself to political discourse, and so succeeds as a novel. The novel is the most holistic form there is, in that it treats spirituality, identity, sex, politics, and so on, without drawing ideological lines between them. In that respect, the novel is a specimen of life.

Mohsin Hamid is a Pakistani who studied and worked in America and now lives in London. He has the cross-cultural experience to write a novel like this. But is it ridiculous to expect a more monocultural Anglo-Saxon writer to approach similar themes – of empire and resistance, of defensive nostalgia and confident self-reinvention – without resorting to stereotype and media cliché? Is a broader perspective really so difficult?

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 1, 2007 at 8:14 pm

Posted in book review