I Memory 622—1900
America’s war in Iraq, from its start, did not go as President Bush’s administration had predicted. Though the U.S. army captured Baghdad and Iraq’s other major cities easily enough, and encountered little resistance in abolishing the detested regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis did not greet America’s forces with the gratitude that they had been told to expect. Far from treating America’s soldiers as liberators, which is how they looked upon themselves, Iraqis regarded them as conquerors. It was a characterization for which most Americans were shockingly unprepared.
Frustrated, the American invaders believed they were being misunderstood. The leadership in Washington had proclaimed repeatedly that its quarrel was not with the Iraqi people but with Saddam’s regime. It had assured its soldiers of the nobility of their mission, not just to end a dangerous military threat but to wipe out tyranny and create the conditions for democracy. Wasn’t that why the armies of their fathers and grandfathers had disembarked in 1944 in France, to a delirious welcome by the local population? In 1945, moreover, the defeated Germans and Japanese, taking for granted the victors’ benevolence, willingly established free and democratic regimes. So why were the Iraqis so hostile?
Notwithstanding the political and cultural diversity among them, most Iraqis took the position that the American army was their enemy and placed serious obstacles in the way of its efforts to stabilize the country. This was the response of Sunnis and Shi’ites, Baghdadis and provincials, extremists and moderates, students, tribesmen, professionals, peasants, Saddam’s followers and his foes. By the third year of the war, many Shi’ites, perceiving an opportunity to shift political domination to themselves, had adopted with some wariness a strategy of cooperating with the occupiers. Iraq’s Kurdish community, to whom the occupation presented an opening to long-sought independence, did the same. But the once-powerful Sunnis, with nothing to gain, waged a fierce insurgency against the occupiers. United in mistrust of the Americans, however, Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds were all impatient for them to go home.
Why were Iraqis so much more hostile than America’s defeated enemies had been after World War II? Why, unlike the Germans and the Japanese, did they impugn America’s ideals and objectives? Why, after President Bush declared “mission accomplished,” did Americans keep dying on the battlefield? Clearly, the leadership in Washington had initiated the war on the basis of a grievous miscalculation of Iraq and of the Arabs.
What the American leadership had failed to calculate, or simply dismissed, was Arab nationalism. Much as Iraqis were driven by sectarianism—Sunnis versus Shi’ites, Arabs versus Kurds—a long history of hostility to foreign occupation served as a bond among them. Yet American leaders, in deciding to invade Iraq, chose not to take this bond, and the deep emotions of Arab nationalism, into account.
Back in mid-2003, a few months after the invasion, when it looked to Washington as if its war had been won, President Bush was cautioned by French president Jacques Chirac about Arab nationalism, the power of which he had experienced as a young army officer in Algeria forty years before. Chirac told Bush that Arab nationalism was a rising danger to allied forces. “I cannot disagree with you more, Jacques,” Bush replied. “Iraqis love us. We liberated them from a bloody dictator. The very few who fight against us are either remnants of the old regime, who are responsible for massive massacres and the use of torture chambers, or foreign terrorists, who hate life itself.” The bloodshed of the years since then has confirmed how poorly informed the American president was.
To be sure, Germany and Japan, America’s enemies in World War II, were driven by their own nationalism. But intrinsic to German and Japanese nationalism was a different conception of the United States, which imparted to both defeated peoples some confidence that the victor’s presence, if not painless, might be benign. That was not true of Arab nationalism, which had embedded in it significant suspicion of, if not outright hostility to, the United States. America represented the Christian West, which had been the enemy of the Arabs for fourteen hundred years. The twentieth century had been particularly catastrophic for relations between them. Then, on September 11, 2001, in the embers of the World Trade Center, the gap drastically widened. History had not been kind to the feelings between Arab and American cultures.
It is fair to say that America, in initiating the war, had a duty to foresee—or, at least, to make a serious effort to foresee—what it would encounter among the Arabs. Arab nationalism was not a hidden phenomenon. Grasping its essence did not demand sophisticated minds, much less sophisticated secret services. The intelligence establishment’s failures in bringing on the war have been amply documented. The blame for miscalculating what ensued after the American army rolled over Iraq must start with the president and be distributed among all those who advised him that Iraq’s conquest would be, in the words of the CIA’s director, a cakewalk.
America had available the wisdom not only of distinguished scholars but also of experienced diplomats and journalists. The literature was copious. Library shelves were crowded with basic information in books of history, religion, and sociology, even poetry and fiction. The books did not always agree—nationalism by its nature is elusive—but America’s leaders cannot be forgiven for dismissing the admonition to know thine enemy. They were derelict in their duty to consult the experts, crack the books.
In an article in The New York Times Magazine, a revealing statement suggested that what was involved was more than neglect. It quoted a senior White House official who derided the “reality-based community,” men and women who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discern- ible reality.” In the Bush administration, the official told the writer, “we create our own reality . . . we’re history’s actors . . . and all of you will be left to just study what we do.”1 The assertion, corresponding with what is publicly known of the process that led to the war, has the ring of accuracy. Its disdain for data expressed a worldview that diverges from centuries of Western intellectual tradition. In precluding the need for information, it conveyed a reliance on what can at best be called ideology permeated by elements of the supernatural. It produced a war plan that left U.S. forces vulnerable to Arab fury, which they were not prepared to handle.
Let us admit that Arab culture is, in so many ways, distant from Western experience. American education pays scant attention to the ideas and events that produced the Arab mind. Even at their most diligent, Westerners have a problem getting beneath the surface of Arab society. But that does not absolve the leaders who chose to initiate an invasion of Iraq of the duty to take account of the culture and grasp what the impact of an invasion was likely to be. Arab nationalism, the “discernible reality” that America’s soldiers encountered, proved a powerful force for which they were in no way prepared.
Nationalism, let us repeat, is not easy to define. Arab or other, it is not a doctrine. Nowhere is it rooted in critical thought, intellectual calculation, rationalism. Rather, it is an awareness, a consciousness, a frame of mind. Nationalism can be rash, even passionate, particularly in extreme forms. But at its core nationalism is mystical. A nationalist need not be mystic, since even among the most cerebral a space in the mind exists for mystical bonds. Love is an expression of these bonds; so is nationalism, a kind of love. But what other than nationalism explains one’s choking up over a symbol, a rectangle of often tattered or faded cloth whose design identifies it as a national flag?
All nationalism emerges out of a community’s shared memory. The memory is not necessarily accurate, and it is rarely verifiable. It often embraces collective pride—or shame. It may reach back beyond recorded history, but historical uncertainty does not weaken its hold. Nationalism is a mystical attachment to historical roots that guides a common destiny.
For the Arabs, historical memory is the experience of a community whose members, with rare exceptions, are Muslim and speak the Arabic language. Though they are currently divided into many sovereign states and many more sects, they share an attachment to the Quran, the basic Muslim scripture. Almost all speak the language in which the Quran is written. For reasons of history, the Arab world is geo- graphically and politically divided. But their religion and language unite the Arabs. So do the lessons, correct or not, they have learned from their history.
Ibn Khaldun, the Arabs’ greatest secular thinker, understood the tie between history and mysticism as long ago as the fourteenth century. He identified the Arab people with asabiyya, a term rendered as “group feeling” in the standard translation of his classic, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Other scholars have translated asabiyya as “tribal bonding,” “zealous partisanship,” “the collective will to power,” and “the sentiment of group solidarity that results from kinship, blood ties and common descent.” Each of these translations implies the presence of a mystical tie among Arabs. Ibn Khaldun attributes this tie to Islam. Writing in an age of Arab weakness, he laments that the Arabs, after Muhammad had transformed them from hostile tribes to a religious community, were not able to make better use of their asabiyya.2
Religion cemented their leadership with the religious laws and its ordinances, which explicitly and implicitly, are concerned with what is good for [Arab] civilization. . . . As a result, the royal authority and government of the Arabs became great and strong. Later on, . . . they neglected religion. They were ignorant of the connection of their asabiyya. . . . They became as savage as they had been before. . . . They returned to their desert origins.3
The experience of bonding that is at the core of Ibn Khaldun’s theories took place in the mashreq, the Arabic word for the area encompassing present-day Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. Geographers sometimes call it the “fertile crescent.” Though Islam was born in Arabia, the Arabs soon spread their faith and their power to the mashreq, which became the heartland of Arabic culture. Though the links remain strong, the mashreq stands apart from Egypt and Arabia. It stands even further apart from the maghreb—Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Libya; the very name, which means “the west,” affirms its distance. It was in the mashreq that the Arabs’ collective memory and nationalism were formed. With deference to the contributions of the maghreb states to Arab culture, it must be acknowledged that the mashreq remains the Arab core. And so it will be the essential focus of this book.
Copyright © 2006 by Milton Viorst. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.