Robin Yassin-Kassab

The End of the Arabs?

with 5 comments

In 2007 I read Peter W. Galbraith’s “The End of Iraq“, which suggests cutting Iraq into three mini-states, and then responded in two parts. The first part criticises Galbraith’s thesis, and the second part criticises the failures of Arabism. Both are merged below. More recently it has been revealed that Galbraith actually stood to gain financially from the dismantlement of Iraq.

explosion at Baghdad's Mutanabi Street book market

Peter W. Galbraith’s book ‘The End of Iraq’ argues the initially persuasive thesis that Iraqis have already divided themselves into three separate countries roughly corresponding to the Ottoman provinces of Basra (the Shii Arab south), Baghdad (the Sunni Arab centre) and Mosul (the Kurdish north), and that American attempts to keep the country unified are bound to fail. I agree wholeheartedly with Galbraith’s call for America to withdraw from Iraq – America is incapable of stopping the civil war, and is in fact exacerbating it. (update: I stick by this. The civil war has to some extent calmed because of internal Iraqi dynamics, not because of the US ’surge’ – the Sunni forces turned on al-Qaida, and also realised that they had lost the battle for Baghdad and national power. Some groups then allied with the US for a variety of reasons to do with self-preservation). The rest of Galbraith’s argument is much more debatable.

For a start, he minimises the extent to which the US occupation has contributed to the disintegration of Iraq. I do not wish to deny the sectarian and ethnic fractures which exist in Iraq and other Arab countries, but it is reasonable to expect that any country, having suffered dictatorship, war, sanctions, and then the overnight collapse of all its institutions, would enter a period of chaos and division. Galbraith accurately records Western support for Saddam Hussain throughout the Iran-Iraq war, when he was gassing Kurds, and the American refusal to intervene when Republican Guards were slaughtering southern Shia in 1991 (the massacres happened under the eyes of American forces occupying the south at the end of the Kuwait war). He describes the criminal failure in 2003 of the occupying forces to stop the looting and burning of every ministry except the oil ministry, of military arsenals and even yellowcake uranium stocks the Americans claimed to be so concerned about in the run-up to the invasion, and of the national museum and national library. (He doesn’t examine claims made at the time by Robert Fisk and others that masked men with Kuwaiti accents were bussed in to certain ministries to set fires professionally.) The attack on Iraq’s – and the world’s – heritage is of course a cultural crime far greater than the despicable Taliban destruction of the Bamyan Buddha statues. Bombing and looting ravaged what was left of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure. The Iraqi state was destroyed within the first week of occupation, long before the sectarian killing began.

Galbraith charitably calls incompetence what may more realistically be seen as deliberate divide and rule policies. Certainly arrogance, stupidity and corruption have played a large role – the arrogance and stupidity which allowed Americans to park their tanks on the ruins of Sumerian cities; the corruption which allowed Halliburton to profit by the billion from reconstruction which never happened, and which put Americans in their early twenties, and with no knowledge or experience of Iraq, in charge of entire sectors of the Iraqi economy simply because they were members of the right ‘think tank’ or prayer group. At a certain point, however, it seems naïve to put all the mistakes down to incompetence. From the very beginning it was obvious to me and the people I talk to that a violent assault on an Iraq already crippled by war and sanctions would not result in a prosperous, unified democracy. It was obvious that every ‘mistake’ made would further damage national unity. I and my friends are not geniuses, and unlike the neo-conservative and Zionist architects of the invasion, we aren’t paid to study the Middle East.

The immediate and sweeping dissolution of the Ba’ath Party, the army and security forces made it inevitable that people would look to the nearest militia or criminal gang to provide security and material supplies. Before long each area had its dominant gang, and the country was a free competition zone for Shia, Sunni, takfiri, and Kurdish militias, American and British troops, South African and Latin American mercenaries, imported Wahhabi nihilists, kidnappers and drug traffickers, and so on. John Negroponte, who had made a career setting up fascist death squads to destabilise leftist democracies in Latin America, was brought in to organise Kurdish and Shia militia into ‘police’ to pacify militantly Sunni towns. Meanwhile, Bremer at one stroke abolished Iraqi economic independence, opening every sector of Iraq to privatisation and foreign control.

These supposed ‘mistakes’ give us a much clearer picture of the real purposes of the invasion than all the journalistic psychoanalysis of a traumatised post-September 11th America or of its ignorant president. The war was designed as corporate rape of a resource-rich country and as a further hammer blow to the possibility of any secular Arab state taking on apartheid Israel. Having the Iraqis split into tiny units, each fighting the other and looking for an external sponsor, guarantees that there will be no unified Iraqi force to pose a serious threat to the corporations or their imperial and Zionist facilitators.

Despite the hatreds unleashed by the sectarian war, the number of Arab Iraqis I’ve met who want the disintegration of their country to be formalised is precisely zero. The neat picture ‘The End of Iraq’ presents of three clearcut post-Iraq zones is not realistic. Iraq has splintered into smaller pieces than the three zones Galbraith describes. In the south, the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army battle for supremacy. In al-Anbar, the battle is between the tribes, the Ba’ath, and al-Qa’ida. Baghdad, supposedly part of the Sunni zone, has a Shii majority. Mosul is a largely Sunni Arab city with a largely Kurdish hinterland. For these cities and other mixed areas such as Diyala and Babil a formalised partition would lead to greatly intensified ethnic cleansing. The horrific bomb attacks which recently killed 500 Yezidi Kurds happened within the context of a forthcoming referendum on which northern areas will join the Kurdish zone.

And if Iraq is allowed to formally splinter, where does the break-up stop? The Arabs of the Jezira in eastern Syria have more in common ethnically, culturally and tribally with the Arabs of al-Anbar than they do with the urban Levantine Arabs of western Syria. There are almost two million Iraqi refugees in Syria, most in Damascus, very many of them Sunnis who have nowhere to return to if Iraq is not put back together. An ethnic-sectarian Sunni state would also pull at the fabric of Jordan, as artificial a state as they come with its three populations of urban Iraqi Sunnis, Jordanian Beduin, and Palestinian refugees. And in Syria, if the Sunnis were to give their allegiance to a sectarian identity, what would stop the Alawis demanding a state in the north west, or the Druze in the Hauran? Which would bring us back to an early French imperial plan for Syria. I could go on, ad infinitum, to prospects for the division of Saudi Arabia, and Iran, and further afield.

Division is a disaster for all but imperialists and for Israel, the region’s key sectarian state. If the map must be changed, we should aim for fewer state units, not more. Yet Arabism as manifested so far has clearly failed. I’ll examine why in part two.

Part Two

Peter W. Galbraith writes that Iraq is an artificial creation made up of different ethnic groups. This is true, but Iraq is not alone in its artificiality. All states are artificial in that they have been created by historical process and human machination, not by God or nature, and all contain different ethnic groups. More specifically, the centralised nation state in the Middle East (and Africa and much of Asia) is always artificial because the very concept of the nation state is an import from 19th Century Europe. The borders of every Arab state were determined, suddenly, by imperialism, and not by the long processes of war, negotiation and ideological mythmaking that drew borders in Europe. It is this imperialist division of the Arabs which has led to various forms of pan-Arab nationalism.

The definition of ‘Arab’ has expanded over the last hundred and fifty years from describing tribal nomads as opposed to townsmen, to describing the people of the Arabian peninsula, and then to describe all from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf who share the heritage of the Arabic language.

The Ba’ath Party went so far as to find religious significance in ‘Arab,’ as is evident from the slogan ‘One Arab Nation bearing an Eternal Message.’ The ‘risala’ or message is what Arabs would previously have assumed to be the revelation of the Prophet (more often called Messenger in Arabic) Muhammad. The word used for ‘nation’ is ‘umma’ – a word previously used to denote the international Muslim community. In fact, Ba’athism should be seen as one of the twentieth century’s many attempts to compensate for the collapse of traditional religion (Nazism, Zionism, Stalinism, contemporary Wahhabism and hedonist consumerism are others).

In its effort to spiritualise and mythologise Arabism Ba’athism surely takes nationalism to absurd extremes, but it is significant that the Ba’ath Party was founded by a Damascene Christian, and that it appealed in the main to minority communities. Arab nationalism’s potential strength was its inclusive nature, the possibility that Sunni and Shia, Christians and Muslims, urban and rural populations would all identify together as members of the Arab nation. Sadly, it is precisely this inclusiveness that has failed.

If nationalism’s definition of ‘Arab’ had been the widest possible – to engage all those who share the common heritage of the Arabic language in a cooperative enterprise – the Arabs could perhaps have overcome their underdevelopment and imposed borders more easily. They would have had increased political weight for a start, and would not have wasted so much blood and treasure on intra-Arab fighting (or rather, fighting on behalf of the little ruling classes of each state). Given that some Arab countries are blessed with fertile land but not with oil, others with educated people but not with sea ports, an intelligent sharing of resources would have been mutually beneficial.

This cooperation has failed, and there is no Arab state, but the Arab nation exists. The nation, not the state. The nation exists despite the tens of states, and now the attempt to splinter the Arabs further, into yet more mini-states squabbling over sect and ethnic variation, all of them dependent on a corporate-imperial sponsor for survival. It exists in shared language and cultural reference points. Any Arab who travels the great distances of the Arab world will find each corner foreign and also familiar. He will recognise the classic and contemporary music on the radio. He’ll see the same Egyptian films in the cinemas, the same Syrian comedies and historical dramas on the television. He’ll understand the newspaper. He’ll feel welcomed and understood, more than he would, for instance, in a non-Arab Muslim country. Wherever you go in the Arab world the ordinary people want closer economic cooperation between Arab countries, an end to foreign military bases, and justice for the Palestinians. In these times of rising sectarian conflict, it’s important to realise and remember that the Arab nation exists.

So why then is Galbraith’s thesis – that even a single unit of Arabism like Iraq needs to disintegrate – to some extent persuasive? Because the same homogenising impulse that animates both contemporary Islamism and late capitalism has perverted Arabism. I’ll repeat it: Arabism only had a chance if it recognised the diversity of the Arab world’s peoples. The inheritors of Arab history, culture and language include blue-eyed Syrians and black Africans in the Sudan. Many of the heroes of the Arabist narrative were not ethnically Arab at all. Salahuddeen al-Ayubbi (Saladin) was a Kurd, Ibn Rushd a Spaniard, Ibn Batuta a Berber. In Iraq, where Arabism has failed most spectacularly, ‘Arab’ even began to morph into ‘ethnically-Arab Sunni Muslim,’ but many of the great Arabic-language writers and scientists have been Christians and Jews, Berbers and Persians.

The moral degeneration of Arabism is painfully evident on Layla Anwar’s blog. We must make allowances for the fact that Mrs. Anwar lives, it seems, in Baghdad, in the midst of a savage occupation and civil war. Many of the Iraqis I meet who have recently left Iraq are traumatised in some way or other, and Mrs. Anwar probably is too. But then, she doesn’t make any allowances for the Kurds or Shia who suffered so much under the previous regime. She calls the Kurds turds (ha ha), and denies that any were massacred by Saddam Hussain. I must say here that by now, although I don’t believe that new states can set anybody free, I understand the Kurdish desire for an independent state, at least in Iraqi Kurdistan. Perhaps Iraqi Arabs could have persuaded the Kurds to be part of an Arab state if, from the start, they had treated them as full citizens with full rights to cultural expression. What happened was that they were seen as a non-Arab security problem, and that thousands of their villages were razed, hundreds of thousands of their people subjected to poison gas attacks. True, it was a dictatorship, backed at the time by the West, that committed these crimes, and relations between ordinary Kurds and Arabs often remained good. But if people like Layla Anwar can’t accept that the oppression even happened, we have an insurmountable obstacle to coexistence. Mrs. Anwar declares in one of her postings that the Kurds are guests in Arab Iraq. How shameful that this supposed nationalist is unaware of her own country’s history. Kurds have been present in Mesopotamia for as long as Semites, and for far longer than Sunni Muslims.

Mrs. Anwar regards ALL Shia forces in her country as Persian, and therefore inauthentic. Again, exclusive national-chauvinist extremism has blinded her to her country’s reality. The Shia are of course a majority of Iraq’s people. It is both true and unsurprising that many Shia escaped Saddam’s persecution by crossing the border to Iran, where some founded organisations with Iranian help. Some of these organisations, like al-Hakim’s Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, returned to Iraq after the regime’s fall, made themselves available to the Americans as death squads, and are now in powerful positions. But other organisations, like Moqtada Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi, are Arab nationalist as well as Shia, and resent the Iranian-supported organisations. Mrs. Anwar rightly complains about the persecution of Sunnis by Shia militias, but is silent on both the sectarian repression practised by the Ba’ath regime which provoked the Shia revival, and the horrific Wahhabi terrorism to which Shia militia crimes have been retaliation.

As for more general Iranian influence in Iraq, which many Sunni Arabs are unable to accept, this is natural. The word itself, Iraq, comes from the Persian ‘Eraagh’, meaning ‘lowlands.’ The Arabs of southern Iraq have been as influenced by the cooking and religious and philosophical ideas of Persia as much as the Arabs of Syria have been influenced by the Turks and Mediterranean cultures. This doesn’t stop them being Arabs.

Nations (as opposed to states) are imaginary structures. Their borders are porous and membership in them is not exclusive. You can feel allegiance to the Arabs and also to Islam, or Africa, or Christianity, or Shi’ism. Variety and diversity should be the strength and richness of the Arabs, but many Arabs are ill with the centralised state disease, the rage for conformity which made Saddam Hussain brutalise the majority of Iraq’s people. When we replace humane, inclusive nationalism with exclusive totalitarian police states, we have lost nationalism as a positive force.

There are still glimmers of light. Important sections of Sunni Iraqi opinion have turned decisively against both Wahhabism and Ba’athism. The vast majority of Shia feel both Iraqi and Arab. But the Iraqis and other Arabs will be unable to work cooperatively until they honestly confront sectarianism and the class oppression which it usually masks, until they are able to sympathise with the history of the other, until they can think beyond the imported nation state.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 27, 2009 at 7:59 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Antoun (http://lebanesechess.blogspot.com/) left this excellent comment here.

    Interesting post.

    I agree and disagree on certain points.

    Firstly, the West’s policy towards the Middle East and Arab world post-WWI until today has been one of divide and conquer.

    I agree there. Artificial boundaries drawn all over the region, and the empowerment of tribal clans/families (such as beit Saud in Saudi Arabia, the Hashemites in Jordan, Kuwait and Gulf royalties etc) and dictators (Mubarak, Morocco, Tunisia).

    Placing Israel in the heart of the Arab world was the final Western stab that has ensured the Arabs remain weak.

    The will of the people in all Arab countries has been suppressed for much of the 20th century and today.

    I disagree, however, in the notion of a single Arab nation that spans from the Zagros mountains to the Atlantic sea, and as far south as Somalia and south Sudan.

    I would argue that there exists an Arab world, much as there exists a Western world, whereby a region shares similar broad qualities, be it religion, linguistics etc.

    The US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand share a common language, a common Christian heritage, even a common British colonial ancestry. Yet, these “broad” bonds only ensure that these countries co-operate and form alliances as part of an Anglophone sphere, but they do not consider each other part of the same nation.

    A nation requires stronger bonds than the broad links of language and religion.

    Attributes such as ethnicity, socio-economics, geography and history play crucial roles in distinguishing one nation from another. This is in addition to the language and religion aspects.

    Within the Arab world, all the above factors vary substantially. The Levant, Fertile Crescent or Greater Syria (whatever you want to name it) has a clearly distinctive history to that of al Maghreb, or Somalia, or even the Gulf.

    Each nation within the Arab world has followed different historical paths that have crossed over at some point or another. For example, pre-Arab conquest of Syria, the Levant was considered part of the Hellenistic world and Greek was a prominent, aristocratic language. This cannot be said of al Maghreb, or even the Gulf.

    Therefore, in my opinion, a nation requires more than simply language and/or religion as common links, but indeed, a common history, ethnicity and defined geographical boundaries that throughout history has facilitated socio-economic interaction.

    So, the Arab world indeed has artificial states, but the respective nations have yet to be determined. We’ve heard of the 4 nations of the Arab world theory, i.e. the Fertile Crescent (Syria/Iraq), the Gulf (Arabia), Egypt (inc. Sudan), and North Africa.

    Scholars can come up with all sorts of theories, but at the end of the day, it’s what the people on the ground decide.


    November 27, 2009 at 8:05 pm

  2. […] The End of the Arabs? […]

  3. Lorena – your comment st first made a point which I was ready to respond to, but then it degenerated into racist generalisations and oversimplifications. I’m afraid I don’t post comments which do that, whether they target Arabs, Muslims, Jews, or anyone else.


    January 26, 2010 at 1:25 pm

  4. […] civil war was a tragedy for the region, the Arabs and the entire Muslim world. The fact that it was partly engineered by the occupier does not excuse the Arabs. Imperialists will exploit any weaknesses they find. This is in the […]

    What Comes Next « Qunfuz

    February 2, 2010 at 1:00 am

  5. […] is one of the blogs I enjoy reading regularly. In one of the most recent posts (entitled: “The end of the Arabs?“), the author speaks about the different visions behind (pan-) Arabism and why almost all of […]

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