Resistance or civil war?





Beirut, Sunday, July 19, 2003



What got me worried about the so-called “Iraqi resistance” was its swiftness: as soon as George Bush claimed an end to the war per se, American soldiers were routinely killed on a daily basis by snipers, suicide bombers, or direct confrontations with what is thought as survivors of the old paramilitary units. By June, the “resistance” had already acquired all kinds of denotations: “Iraqi” and “national” to some, “patriotic,” or “Islamic” and/or “Arab” to others, or against the foreign western “infidels,” as Saddam Hussein claimed in his audio-taped messages. The apparent “success” of this multi-labeled “resistance” has become the daily bread and butter of many of the Arab satellite stations and the other national ones run by government agencies, creating a de facto thread of events that would have otherwise looked fragmented and incomprehensible on their own. For their part, opponents of the war in Europe and the U.S. are also portraying the “Iraqi resistance” as a quasi-“national” movement endowed with a “natural” universal right to liberate one’s own country from a foreign occupier. Overall, then, the “Iraqi resistance” is enjoying its moment of “truth” in the media, and no one seems tired yet of the daily count of American soldiers killed in action (or in-action).


Yet, it is precisely the swiftness of such a “resistance” that disturbs. A genuine resistance assumes organization and skill, and more importantly, it assumes the broadening of the social base through which the resistance has to operate. Such a broadening implies at its best a political program for the diverse groups that would come under the umbrella of resistance, one that would be operative as soon as the occupation is over. In the case of France, for example, it took two years for the résistance against the Nazis to come into being, amid internal divisions among the collaborateurs with the occupiers (e.g. the Vichy government), and the patriotes who stood on the other side, who, in turn, where divided between the internal resistance (led by Jean Moulin) and the one in exile (operating mainly under Charles de Gaulle in London). Eventually, Moulin died in 1943 tortured by the Gestapo, and it was left to de Gaulle to heal a nation that was divided by defeat and occupation—a political program that matured only in the late 1950s, and paved the way for the new constitution of the fifth republic.


When the Soviets occupied Afghanistan in the late 1970s, the resistance was immediate and brutal, as is the case in Iraq at present. But as soon as the Soviets left a decade later in the late 1980s, Afghanistan went through a bloody tribal civil war, which in hindsight looks nothing but a continuation to the protracted resistance-cum-civil war. The two decades of Soviet occupation and its aftermath had wrecked Afghani society to such a degree that no tribe, leader, clan or family, could claim superiority over others. The rapid ascension of the Taliban in the 1990s, who originally were sharî‘a students with little interest in politics and under the tutelage of the socially isolated ulama, was mostly due to their weak tribal and familial affiliations. In other words, they came to power in order to “rule justly” precisely because of the weaknesses of their kin alliances. The Afghani case thus shows that in societies where “civil society” is eaten by internal tribal and kin divisions and with no superior authority of control, an alien occupation triggers less of a “resistance” than a protracted civil war: the occupier becomes a common target and assumes the role of an anti-political platform that temporarily brings various groups together.


The Iraqi case is not much different. Since the sudden and bloody end of the Hashimite monarchy in 1958, Iraq went from one brutal regime to the next, with the degree of brutality increasing exponentially over the years. The state governed by playing social divisions against one another and by manipulating them. In a society where clan, family, ethnicity, and religion matter, the state attempted a reordering of the tribal and religious hierarchies, creating further divisions while dislocating older bonds. Since the sudden collapse of the régime last April, “civil society” is attempting a reordering of broken bonds through new or old alliances, as groups profit from the power vacuum to create a place for themselves. The coalition forces thus find themselves less as targets per se than in a situation of a concealed civil war where the fight against the “enemy”—discursively and/or in practice—would guarantee an enhanced status in postwar Iraq. We know for certain, for instance, that neither Kurds nor Shi‘is are participating in the daily operations against Americans, which leaves “resistance” to only the 20% Arab Sunni minority. But even within that minority the consensus is far from complete as it has been subjected to the same tactics of brutalization as the other communities. In short, the so-called resistance does not seem more than the work of the paramilitary groups of the old régime, all of which should do no more than 200,000 men, in addition to Sunni (and possibly Shi‘i) fundamentalists who had been fighting the Baath for its “secularism” and now turned against the coalition forces. Even though their military infrastructure has been dismantled, they’re still there with their light weapons. What is commonly labeled as “Iraqi resistance,” and what Gen. Abizaid (who just succeeded Tommy Franks) described as a protracted “guerilla war” organized by the old regime’s thugs (whom he estimated at 160,000), is nothing but an internal civil war in the first place. To understand why from Afghanistan, to the occupied Palestinian territories and Iraq, every military operation against the occupier is perceived at face value as a work of “national resistance” rather than an internal civil war, requires investigating the modus operandi of the processes of integration of individuals in pre-modern societies. Similarly, it is significant if, on the American side, memories of a Vietnamese inferno have begun to creep in: images of another absurd Apocalypse Now, where those on the ground are caught in a war planned by a corrupt political and military system, but which the soldiers can only perceive as meaningless. When are we going to go back home?, is the question that unsurprisingly is tarnishing the morale of the troops on the ground, which find themselves caught between a cold and bi-partisan leadership, on the one, and paramilitary thugs on the other. Moreover, it’s difficult for the Iraqis to openly embrace a foreign occupation, even if it’s de facto transforming some communities for the better.


The propensity to kill and sabotage that some Iraqis have manifested in the aftermath of the war ought to be perceived in relation to the relationships that individuals and groups relate to state and society in that part of the world. When the group “precedes” so to speak individuals, state and society, individuals incorporate rather than integrate (or subjectivize) the values of their groups. The process of incorporation is different from subjectivation in that it assures to the group a sense of “mechanical solidarity” (Durkheim). This does not obviously imply that all individuals look the same and that they’re unable to assume a personal sense of responsibility. The implication is rather that the incorporation-cum-integration within the system does not proceed on the basis of abstract values promoted by the state and its institutions (the judiciary in particular). The values of the group (family, clan, tribe) are always assumed beforehand and left unquestioned. When the state comes, as an outcome to colonial rule, and poses itself as the agency to integrate society based on statist norms, it can only do so coercively and in the most brutal manner (the level of brutality is in relation to historic and geographic variations). In effect, the presence of the modern nation-state assumes above all a “society of individuals” who interiorize and subjectivize the abstract norms of society through the agency of the state. A quintessential aspect of modernity is that supremacy of the individual over everything else: even the state in order to coerce, integrate, and rule has to promote the legal fiction of the individual as the most valuable entity in society, and that the raison d’être behind the political and judicial institutions is precisely the protection of such values.


What happens when the nation-state comes from the outside as an external historical necessity to societies that have yet to witness that modernist evolution towards individualism? Can the state, in order to integrate the various regional, ethnic, tribal and kin individualities, create that fiction of a common cultural heritage? Or will it simply sit over such individualities by force and attempt a coercive process of subservience through a reorganization of the traditional hierarchies? The paradigmatic nature of modernity consists precisely in that shift from a society integrated through mechanical solidarity, to one that integrates through atomized individuals endowed with civil and legal rights, and finally to one where such an integration turns against itself—what Marcel Gauchet has persuasively described as “democracy against itself” (la démocracie contre elle-même): individuals develop their individuality by questioning the foundations that associate them to those particular state and societal institutions. Quite often that only happens through a depersonalization where the individual feels estranged from the world around. Manic depressions could follow, with all kinds of related symptoms: alcoholism, drug and/or sexual disorders, criminality, depressive anxiety, general loss of interest, etc.


In a bizarre way, many third-world societies are juxtaposing the three modes of integration alluded to earlier: the traditional, modern, and postmodern. The tragedy about the present postwar situation in Iraq is that the American soldiers and their commanders are caught in a kind of individualism that not only renders an understanding of the traditional other more difficult, but even one’s own history looks something of a remote past. On the Iraqi side, there’s neither a matured “nationalism” per se nor a “national resistance” for that matter. But if it’s so easy to haphazardly patch together the daily deadly attacks, acts of sabotage and looting, and the general difficulty for the civil institutions to become normalized, as a totality indicating, among others, that Iraqis ought to be self-governed and that the Americans should go home as soon as possible, it’s because Iraqi “society” is granted a cohesiveness that it obviously lacks. Such a cohesiveness is assumed both among neighboring countries and the Euro-American leadership. But if a cohesiveness, social stratification, and a strong state are absent, “society” would then lack all its modern civil elements and be on the verge of a never-ending protracted civil war. When, for instance, the Baath came to power in Iraq and Syria in the mid-1960s, there was no concern at the time for the strong regional and kin ties that such societies need to maintain their cohesiveness. The assumption was that the ideology of the Baath, which focused on a broad pan-Arabism that somehow assumes Islam while ignoring it, would “absorb” ethnicities, religious, tribal, and regional differentiations. But the Baath’s success in lasting that long resides precisely in manipulating all such differentiations and creating a political power that plays them over. By the 1980s, when the Shi‘i threat was felt in Iraq, and Syria went through its worst period of Islamic fundamentalism, the Baath party’s manipulation of all tribal and religious groups became even more blatant, as if an awareness of the importance of such formations—always officially denied and censored—became an official state policy. In Iraq, the Shi‘is (like the Kurds) have been denied key administrative and military positions. But that did not prevent many Shi‘is from enrolling in the Baath party, fighting against the Iranians in the 1980s, and declaring themselves as genuine Iraqi patriots. With the gross political failure, however, of the First Gulf War in 1991, and the massacres that followed in the southern cities in the wake of the urban revolts following the U.S. deployment in the south and its sudden withdrawal, the régime’s harmful manipulation of both Shi‘is and Kurds has reached an unprecedented level.


By the 1990s there was an open state policy to (literally) buy tribal titles in a concerted effort of a reorganization of tribal hierarchies. The domination of the tribes, which everyone from the Ottomans to the British (and their Hashimite protégés) and the postcolonial state have all unsuccessfully attempted, became a concerted target of Saddam Hussein’s Takriti clan. To begin, the majority of the southern tribes was Shi‘i (a conversion that apparently took place by the end of the eighteenth century), and with the régime’s inability to contain the Iranian revolution, and fears of more Shi‘i uprisings, the state finally acknowledged the importance of tribal factions and their impact even on urban policies. The classical tribal hierarchy of head, belly, and thigh, on the one, and the inter-tribal hierarchies, on the other, whose historical evolution is generally slow, have been manipulated to bring them closer to the state’s interests. That policy aimed at securing the subservience of those tribal elements through a bi-level adjustment, or a re-ordering of the internal hierarchies that went in conjunction with the status of those tribes in relation to one another. Thus, the structural tribal components known as heads, bellies, and thighs had to be reordered through direct favoritism and the purchase of titles by creating fictitious alliances between Takritis and some of those tribal elements. A photograph by Yuri Kozyrev on the ninth day of the war (published in Time magazine) shows an eye-glassed tribal chief sitting at the back of his car with the door open, and brandishing a pistol at the sight of the camera: “Tribal chiefs and sheikhs from villages throughout Iraq came to Baghdad for instructions on carrying out guerrilla warfare in their provinces against invaders,” explains the magazine to its readers. Yet, those tribal chiefs are not only present in villages, as they also populate the cities’ suburbs, and they do not seem to be conducting any guerrilla warfare right now.


Consider the case of Baghdad’s largest suburb, just renamed in the aftermath of the war as Sadr city. The suburb was originally designed by ‘Abdul-Karim Qasim, the young and charismatic officer who in 1958 toppled and slaughtered the Hashimite monarchy. Qasim, who apparently was under various western influences, from Machiavelli’s Prince to Marxism-Leninism, decided to build a new suburb around the capital for those Shi‘is who were emigrating in large numbers from the south and were sleeping in poorly designed homes around Baghdad. Qasim named the project “the revolution city” (madinat al-thawra), and even though he had “his” 1958 revolution in mind, his real inspiration was Manhattan and its symmetric grid of horizontal and vertical streets. The visitor today will notice that kind of layout in the unusually large boulevards of the thawra city, which was renamed twice, first as Saddam and then as Sadr city, and which now inhabits one-third of Baghdad, mostly Shi‘is. When the Baath came to power in July 1968 (which the old régime’s thugs have just celebrated by killing American soldiers and few of their Iraqi supporters), neither Shi‘ism nor tribalism were perceived as major threats. In effect, most of the ideologies that flourished in the Fertile Crescent since the 1950s, and whose major claim was various brands of pan-Arabism without any religious coloring, understood the nature of “Arab societies” as multi-ethnic and religious, divisions that ought to be transcended through a radical departure from the religious past. Thus, while both colonialism and Zionism were perceived as having successfully tampered with religious and ethnic feelings to divide and conquer, Baathism intended to bypass such divisions through a unified party ideology and state apparatus (the two go hand-in-hand, and were officially separated in Syria only a couple of weeks ago). The truth of the matter is that Baathism, and other so-called “secular” ideologies (including those of liberal and Marxist intellectuals and academics), never understood the complexities of such entities as “tribe,” “religion,” “state” and “society.” There was, for instance, right from the beginning, an underestimation of the historical power of Shi‘ism, its affiliation with tribalism, and the influence of sayyids and mullahs on the latter.


The Baathist ancien régime begun to its dismay realize the crucial role played by the Shi‘i ulama only in the 1980s in the wake of the deadly Iran-Iraq war. At that time the leading Shi‘i ‘alim (scholar of Islam) was Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr who, having understood the tribal underpinnings of the southern cities and that of the Revolution City, begun an ambitious process of the “legalization” of tribal relations, both urban and rural. In a series of fatwas that were later grouped in a single work ambitiously called “the laws of the tribes” (fiqh al-‘ashayir), Sadr proposed that the tribes be subjected at the general juristic level to the authority of the mullahs, while positive law (al-fiqh al-wad‘i) would remain within the jurisdiction of their own tribal chiefs. Sadr thus proposed all kinds of rules that would reorganize tribal relations for such things as property and contract, theft, honor crimes, and blood money (diya). The strategy here was to foster stronger links between tribes and clergy, urban and rural areas, and to create a semi-legal apparatus, which can be monitored from the urban centers, to tribes that traditionally are known for their oral customary laws. There was, in short, a subtle process of subservience of tribal elements who historically are known to be stateless and not to fit within the norms of rigid state institutions. The importance of mullahs probably resides in their conviction that something in between ought to be worked out, or that between state and tribalism there might be a third way, one where the norms of the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) would come at the rescue of and foster tribal relations for the modern era.


Having realized the importance of both tribal chiefs and mullahs, Saddam Hussein had no better solution but to attempt to subjugate both either by force, briberies, promotions, or assassinations, or a combination thereof. Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr was assassinated in 1989 and succeeded by his nephew, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (“the great Sadr”), who in turn was assassinated with two of his sons in 1999. His third son and only survivor, Muqtada al-Sadr (“the third Sadr”), has now complete authority over Revolution City, renamed Sadr City in the wake of the U.S. occupation. Hussein’s policies in the 1980s and 1990s, however, were not only littered with assassinations. He successfully managed in creating categories of mullahs and tribal chiefs that would be loyal to his régime, and thus attempted a de facto, if not a de jure, reorganization of the power relations among such communities. Tribal factions were thus brought ahead of one another, their hierarchies and loyalties reorganized, and mullahs loyal to the régime were granted key positions. In hindsight, one can see the evolution of the post-Ottoman Iraqi state, from its early days under the British and Hashimites, when subservience to the monarch was supposed to be out of loyalty to his persona, status, and prestige; to the “utopian” and “egalitarian” visions of the likes of Qasim and ‘Arif; and finally to the ruthless Baathists, who managed a system of pure terror—or a protracted civil war.


The real issue here—and which it is at the heart of the U.S. occupation’s “civilizing mission”—is whether the foundations of the new Iraqi state and civil society could be laid out on different universalistic principles. If for decades the state has managed to survive by feeding upon the internal divisions of society, its feuds and civil wars, and by buttressing the latter and making them an integral part of the relationship of state and society, would it be possible, thanks to the existence of a large occupational force, to move to something else, something that prepares for an Iraq of the twenty-first century? If the so-called “resistance” is genuinely “national,” then there would be no problem at all, and the American presence would be altogether superfluous. It’s more a symptom of the survival of the fittest in a society ruined and divided by decades of brutal rule and with no “national” character at all. It’s each community, each individual, and each neighborhood attempting to cling to something, to create a semblance of an order, of a future.


Consider, once more, the fate of the Revolution-cum-Sadr city. The young Muqtada al-Sadr (whose age remains unknown: 25 to his foes, and 35 to supporters—the older the “authority,” the better), in spite of his belonging to the illustrious heritage of the Sadrs, seems only remotely related to the two. First, Muqtada has managed at creating his own marja‘iyya, a line of authoritative thinking based on the fiqh and theology, while distancing himself from the more traditional and prestigious pro-Iranian authorities of Sistani and Hakim, both based in the holy city of Najaf. Second, such a self-managed autonomy enables him to issue fatwas very rapidly (juridical consultations) and gain supporters within the “city.” His style seems even remote from his illustrious ancestor and father: less theoretical and doctrinal, and closer to the concerns of the youth (he ordered the destruction of all foreign music and video CDs, and banned movies). Third, Muqtada’s base remains loose at best, and its survival will be in conjunction to the successes and/or failures of the newly formed pro-American provisional council. For instance, when the council began recruiting this past week young men that would serve in the new Iraqi army, Muqtada Sadr proclaimed that same week the formation of an “Islamic army.” Criticized for his weakness outside Sadr City, thousands of Muqtada’s supporters have staged demonstrations this past weekend in his neighborhood’s home in Najaf (the home has been in close watch by the Americans). The point here is that even though the Shi‘is in all their various factions and numerous authorities have not for the most part participated yet in any struggle against the coalition forces, they’re still potentially a big challenge to the Americans and their provisional council. Even the Kurds, who appear to be the least problematic at the moment, could pose problems in the future, once their political autonomy is threatened. In effect, even if Gen. Abizaid’s rough estimate of the 160,000 or so ex-supporters of the régime proves correct, and that guerrilla “resistance” is limited to the latter, the situation of the other groups (including Sunnis hostile to the old defunct régime) might not be in much better shape. What we’re witnessing is a rapid process of disintegration—a general civil war—among communities that always looked upon the state as your worst enemy, who are historically suspicious of one another, and whose internal formations are based on a mixture of kin relations and badly digested notions of individualism and social stratification.


Paul Bremer’s provisional council has been criticized for officially “acknowledging” the religious and ethnic divisions of Iraq. More to the point, however, is that a semblance of a semi-secular thought has developed among some Arab literati since the demise of the Ottomans, whose inherent motto consists less in bypassing such divisions than in ignoring them. Practices that bring religious and ethnic groups together are thus ignored, perceived as evil and divisive, and thus ought to be bypassed through the state/party apparatus, the one leader/ideology, and pan-Arabism. But then the state and its paramilitary institutions ended up de facto in the hands of an ethnic or religious minority, while the diversity of society was left unacknowledged and the freedoms of its groups suppressed. Bremer’s idea to render such divisions “visible” and operate from the premise that the diversity of Iraqi society cannot be ignored, represents a positive step. It would obviously all depend on how the council will effectively act, the logic of its decisions, and how it intends to practice that religious and ethnic diversity.



POST-SCRIPTUM (07/23/03)

The slaying of ‘Uday and Qusay Hussein yesterday (07/22/03) in the mostly Kurdish controlled city of Mosul comes as a nice surprise. First, it seems that the owner of the house, Nawwaf al-Zaydan, was the informer, and he will probably be the one to receive the $30 million award ($15 each) (minus VAT taxes). Apparently, Zaydan had videotaped the two men exiting a car and rushing into the house, and then passed the tape to U.S. authorities. Neighbors then found Zaydan and his son in American vehicles, who claimed they had gone to bring breakfast for their guests, when the Americans arrested them. More interestingly, both Nawwaf and his brother, Salah al-Zaydan, had been prosecuted by the old régime under a law promulgated several years ago making it illegal to claim kinship with the president’s family. They both claimed they were part of the Abu Nasir tribe and were jailed for it.


Second, the three- to six-hour resistance that the two “guests” had manifested in front of two-hundred better equipped soldiers shows the kind of ruthless characters they were. Third, the fact that the two Hussein brothers sought refuge in a city dominated mostly by Kurdish militias and outside the “Sunni triangle,” and whose “host”-cum-“informer” had been jailed by their own régime few years earlier, shows how hopeless they were. The good news is that Saddam might not be far ahead, but the bad news is that all this episode does not show a well-coordinated “resistance” with a head or tail. Finally, the occupational forces must now be facing a crucial dilemma. If they show the bodies to photographers, they might look as brutal as the ancien régime that they’ve deposed and whose symbols they’re trying to dismantle.





copyright © 2003 zouhair ghazzal