Timely examination of how the Ba‘athist state handled communal identity in Iraq

Developing Just Leadership

Khalil Fadl

Muharram 23, 1429 2008-02-01

Book Review

by Khalil Fadl (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 12, Muharram, 1429)

Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq by Eric Davis. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005. Pp: 385. Pbk: $27.50.

From the cacophony of headlines about killings, car bombs and general mayhem coming out of Iraq, there remains little doubt that the fall of Saddam Hussein’s brutal and despotic regime has ushered in an epoch of sectarian and ethnic breakdown of the country. Efforts to fashion a new political order have unleashed sectarianism, communal passions and political struggles. Coming some eight decades after the formation of the modern state of Iraq, this turmoil highlights the failure of the process of nation-building and state-formation to produce a common vision of political community. Communal strife in Iraq has been fuelled, in part, by irreconcilable ideas about what political community, collective identity, national interest, historical memory and desirable frameworks for the country’s future are.

In this book Eric Davis, professor of political science and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, embarks on a beautifully-written and vivid excursus into how the Ba‘athist state tried to “mobilize historical memory to elicit consent” (p. 3). As these efforts unfolded, “two competing models of political community, one Iraqist and one Pan-Arab … struggled to become hegemonic” (p. 2). Insofar as he emphasizes political struggles over the appropriation of historical memory as the main determinants of the modern history of Iraq, the author parts company with traditional historical narratives that explain the country’s troubles in terms of clashes of personalities or political elites. The author maintains that “the inability of Iraqis to construct a viable model of political community explains to a large degree the country’s political and social instability” (p. 2).

An introductory chapter grounds the theoretical framework of the study in scholarly literature on the relationship between state power and historical memory. The author asserts that his analysis “is less concerned with the institutions of overt repression under authoritarian regimes than with the state’s efforts to use culture and mass psychology to elicit consent” (p. 3). The main focus of the study, therefore, shifts from the traditional fixation on the repressive apparatus or on brutal policies of the Ba‘ath Party government in Iraq to an examination of its intellectual tyranny, exemplified by its efforts to interpret the past in such a way as to superimpose narrow ethnic and sectarian frames of reference onto a broader multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian society.

In chapter 2, “The Formation of the Iraqi Intelligentsia and Modern Historical Memory,” Davis provides a schematic overview of the various historical currents at play in the making of the intelligentsia in modern Iraq. He traces a host of transformations engendered by Iraq’s integration into the expanding world economy in the nineteenth century that “radically altered how Iraqis viewed themselves in relation to their surrounding society” (p. 30). Foremost among these changes were the commercialization of agriculture, which involved a move from the traditional subsistence economy, and the sedentization of tribes, which transformed tribal shaykhs into powerful landlords and their tribesmen into mere tenants, encouraging in the process a tide of rural-urban migration. Concomitant with this came the effects of the spread of European ideas of nationalism in the Muslim world in general. “If the Young Turk Revolt spread ideas of republicanism and constitutionalism among Iraqi officers, then reform efforts in neighboring Persia during the 1906 Constitutionalist Revolt had a similar impact on the Shi’i population of the shrine cities of al-Najaf and Karbala’ in south-central Iraq” (p. 31). Another especially significant factor has been the spread of modern education, which gave rise to a new educated class steeped in secularism. “The new intelligentsia promoted nationalism as opposed to loyalty to the Islamic umma (political community), secular education with an emphasis on science and technology, the education of women, and the elimination of the veil and polygamy” (p. 41).

Yet nationalism in Iraq was fractured and polarized, torn between Iraqist and Pan-Arab trends that struggled over the definition of the boundaries of political community. The author maps out the twists and turns in this colossal struggle of ideologies, in which “historical memory assumed greater importance as a political weapon.” Davis argues that it was no mere accident of history that Pan-Arabism gained political currency. “Sensitive to the past, Pan-Arabists were more effective than Iraqist nationalists in mobilizing historical memory” (p. 55). For their part, the two main factions in Iraqist nationalist camp, the Iraqi Communist Party and the Ahali Group, the precursor of the National Democratic Party (al-Hizb al-Watani al-Dimuqrati), demonstrated an abject indifference to and neglect of their country’s Arab and Islamic heritage. Instead, they chose to emphasise cultural traditions, some of them imported from outside Iraq: an ersatz internationalism subordinated to the diktats of the Soviet leadership, and Western intellectual and cultural output, especially Fabian socialism, for instance. The author maintains that this “tendency of Iraqist nationalist parties to ignore indigenous culture suggests that they viewed Iraqi culture as somehow inferior to Western European and Soviet culture” (p. 79).

After the second world war, tensions between the Iraqist and Pan-Arab trends intensified. This deepening rift went hand in hand with a process of sectarianization of the state, fuelled by the gradual domination of the Iraqi body politic by a predominantly Sunni Arab officer corps and the adoption of an educational policy that advanced a vision of the Iraqi political community inspired by “a nostalgic and romanticized understanding of the past based on a historical memory tied to Sunni Arab heritage” (p. 58). Whereas the set of symbols that predominated in the Iraqist discourse on the question of political community emphasized the religious and ethnic diversity of Iraqi society and underscored the importance of cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian solidarity, the dominant metaphors of the Pan-Arab discourse were obsessed with the pursuit of cultural authenticity (asala) and ethnic purity, drifted towards the vilification and demonisation of the Other, and became fixated on conspiracy theories as a catch-all explanation for the turbulence pervading Iraqi political life. Ultimately, Pan-Arabism nurtured a morbid sense of insecurity, a siege mentality and strong xenophobia. “Thus Saddam Husayn and the Ba’th Party were not the progenitors of a conspiratorial and bunker mentality, but rather were the heirs to that tradition who refined it to new heights of paranoia and xenophobia” (p. 107).

The coup on July 14, 1958, that overthrew the monarchy was a momentary triumph for the Iraqist nationalist project. But it did not take long for the new republican regime fall into a political snake-pit because of internal squabbles and dissension that spilled over into the populace at large. Staff Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim, the new military ruler of Iraq, promoted and galvanised cultural production in order to reconstitute political identity and reshape the people’s understanding of their national heritage. The drive initiated by Qasim to engage the state in efforts designed to restructure and control historical memory “dramatically increased the influence of the left on cultural matters because a large percentage of the Iraqi intelligentsia were … leftist or even communist in orientation” (p. 110). These efforts were intended to counter the growing influence of Pan-Arabist understanding of political community and historical memory by emphasizing Iraq’s diverse national heritage, as well as its pre-Arab and pre-Islamic history. “The twin motifs of folklore and ancient Mesopotamian heritage served as counterweights to Pan-Arabist designs by underlining Iraq’s position as the ‘cradle of civilization,’ which obviously preceded Arab Semitic civilization” (p. 111).

But the triumph of Iraqi nationalism was fleeting. The coup d’etat in 1963 that overthrew Qasim brought back to power a Pan-Arabist regime that set the stage for the brutal repression set into motion by the Ba‘ath Party, which took over power in a military putsch in 1968. The Ba‘ath Party’s efforts to appropriate historical memory and reconstitute political identity by inculcating Iraqi youth with a new understanding of the past was somehow syncretic. It attempted to reconcile opposed visions and symbols of the past. The Ba‘ath Party’s efforts to rewrite history posited a notion of political community that wedded a historical memory tied to the Arab-Islamic civilization, especially during the ‘Abbasid period, to an anti-religious orientation that emphasized the Mesopotamian heritage. “To further undermine Iraqist nationalism, which drew upon Iraq’s ancient civilizations for many of its political cultural symbols, the Ba’th created its own ‘Mesopotamian’ memory as a complement to the party’s Pan-Arabism.” The Ba‘ath Party’s appropriation of Mesopotamian symbols served a dual purpose because it also “underscored Iraq’s cultural superiority over its main rivals, Egypt and Syria, for Pan-Arab leadership” (p. 158).

The indoctrination efforts of the Ba‘ath Party infused Pan-Arabism with a personality cult of enormous proportions revolving around the creation of a larger-than-life image of Saddam, and also privileged tribalism and pre-Islamic Arab (jahiliyya) literature, especially poetry. This involved a grotesque degradation of the original ethos of Ba‘athist ideology itself, because when the Ba‘ath first captured power in 1968, it “vowed to eradicate tribalism, which it condemned as a reactionary vestige of imperialism” (p. 238). Davis insightfully observes that the privileging of tribalism “paralleled the transformation of the Ba’th Party in the 1970s and 1980s from an organization dominated by army officers, veteran party members, and intellectuals into one dominated, at the top, by Saddam’s family and, in the ranks, by the rural and tribally based lower middle class” (p. 239).

A pernicious sectarian element lies at the heart of the Ba’athist efforts to privilege Mesopotamian history and pre-Islamic Arab literature in cultural discourse and production. Davis points out that an “anti-religious orientation (directed especially against the Shi’i marja’iya) had been evident in the privileging of al-Jahiliya, or pre-Islamic, poetry, the focus on ancient Iraq, and on artistic representation, such as that of al-Wasiti, which stressed human imagery [which is] prohibited by Islam” (pp. 183-184).

Yet nothing in the Ba‘ath party’s cultural policies, and the Pan-Arab reading of history in general, promoted the differentiation of primary societal units in Iraq, which in turn nourished sectarian and racial hatred, more than its xenophobic and paranoid historical narrative of the Shu‘ubiya movement. “Extending back at least to the 1930s, this controversy was originally directed against the ancient al-’Ajam or Arabised Persian courtly class of scribes, clerks, and belletrists under the ‘Abbasid Empire.” The logical structure of this narrative, which was at best based on a one-sided, inaccurate and facile reading of Islamic history, is a conspiracy theory that originally attempted to explain the declining fortunes of Arab-Islamic civilization in terms of a posited non-Arab (especially Persian) hostility towards the Arabs. However, in the discourse of radical Pan-Arab historians and ideologues, the use of the al-Shu’ubiya framework of analysis assumed delusional and morally bankrupt proportions. For them, “the al-Shu’ubiyun represent a metaphor for the real enemy, the Iraqi communists and their leftist and Iraqi nationalist supporters, whose cultural pluralism and emphasis on social class cleavages downplayed Iraq’s Arab character and threatened Iraqi unity” (p. 184). These formulations facilitated modes of exclusion, as non-Arabs and non-Sunnis were presumed to be unpatriotic. Ultimately, the Ba‘ath Party’s efforts to impose its hegemonic view of culture, history and politics on Iraq undermined the country’s cultural pluralism and obviated the possibilities of social cohesion. The net result was a society that was increasingly fractured along ethnic and sectarian lines, and held together mostly or only by the tyranny of a police state. When the carapace of tyranny was shattered with the fall of Saddam, there was little that Iraqi ethnic and sectarian communities shared by way of a common vision for the future of the country, and communal hatreds were let loose.

Davis has written a timely and scholarly study based on thorough, painstaking, wide-ranging and detailed research. In spite of the author’s long forays into the abstract realm of social science theory, the book is well-written, nuanced and enjoyable to read. He does an outstanding job at treating his topic, especially as he peppers his study with speculations on the prospects for promoting civil society, participatory politics and democratic rule in post-Saddam Iraq. It is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the current predicament of Iraq and its people.

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