a question of sovereignty?
Aleppo, 28 June 2004
We’ve been constantly reminded that Iraq needs to be sovereign all over again. Today (June 28) nominal sovereignty is back to all Iraqis, with full legislative elections promised prior to January 30 2005. Will that solve Iraq’s problems? And is the whole issue of sovereignty more of an ideological issue rather than a real one, that is, one that is concerned with real issues of production, freedom, and democracy? The issue of sovereignty does, indeed, seem strange if tackled from logical and historical perspectives. After all, and thanks to the US-led coalition, the Iraqis have more sovereignty over their lives and properties—not less. Since last April, Iraqis have been flooded by utilities and freedoms that were banned for decades: newspapers, satellite dishes, political parties, commodities, contacts with the rest of the world, and an unrestrained freedom to travel, trade, publish, and move around. Under the Hashimites Iraq was mostly sovereign, but under British tutelage. After the bloody 1958 coup, which brought General Qasim to power, and for five successive decades, all symbols of a sovereign Iraqi state and institutions have been gradually dismantled, and emptied of any democratic substance. The little democracy that the British and their Hashimite protégés had brought in the aftermath of the dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire have been rapidly replaced by Baathists and pan-Arabs alike by a monolithic and violent state, one that valorized tribal and clan violence and values. The question then is, considering that sovereign Iraq was a complete failure, why everyone—from the neighboring Arab states, to the Europeans, and up to many Americans, has been so adamant about restoring sovereignty? Why do most Iraqis, which have enjoyed more freedoms under the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), give that impression that their real problem is sovereignty? What if the whole issue of sovereignty is one of those big ideological gambits that does not address at all any of the real problems of the Iraqi state and society?
In countries where both the social and the political have hardly existed in their modern connotations, the state fully monopolizes the legitimate use of violence in a most rudimentary way. Besides the daily brutalities of the numerous security apparatuses, the state and intelligentsia at large promote political representations of a united and indivisible social body. But images of political might and brutality do not simply come from “above” and handed in to subservient people. There are complex imageries and representations of political power, which are worked out at several levels, beginning with the normative values on the ground, and which are essentially cultural symbols that are deeply rooted in society. Only when, under specific historical circumstances, the state is controlled by groups that do not share such cultural values, do we encounter a situation where the state attempts to impose values that are abstract, remote, and coercive to the populations at large. Such was the case, for instance, of Russia and its neighboring republics, and eastern Europe, under Stalinism and the communists. The communists had portrayed a state that was godless and secular, in spite of the deep roots that the Greek Orthodox church has historically maintained in such societies. Moreover, the communist’s state ideology was deeply oriented towards mass production, the abolition of private property, beating up world capitalism, the proletarian revolution, all of which can hardly be considered as popular values. The sudden collapse of communism, and the reemergence of the older political and religious symbolisms are only indications of how much communistic values were shallow superstructures that did not translate much of the common beliefs. Communistic values were therefore shallow disciplinary strategies imposed from above, and which ultimately failed. Now the eastern bloc is attempting to cope with the world at large with more realistic values based on western liberalism—and it’s probably more an authoritarian liberalism, the Putin way, which brought back Russian czarism and the old heritage of the Greek Orthodox church.
On the other hand, the Kemalist experience in post-Ottoman Turkey is another example of new values imposed from above, but which willy-nilly have successfully survived. It did so, however, only because Atatürkism was a broad trend within the army and Turkish intelligentsia, which was aware of the irreconcilable essence of Islam with modernity. It thus imposed sweeping reforms that might have been unpopular at the time, but managed to survive only because the state did not touch upon some of the basic premises of capitalist modernity, namely, private property and free enterprise. Moreover, by challenging some of the basic premises of Islamic culture, primarily regarding the interference of Islamic practices with the state, the law, and the economy, it paved the way for more democratic reforms. People tend to forget that Baathism, and other dominant ideologies such Naserism and pan-Arabism, might have been bloody in their implementation of a state dominated by secret services and bureaucratic control of the economy and education, their core ideologies remain, however, pretty much conservative, and in line with dominant values in the Arab and Islamic cultures. The Baathists in both Syria and Iraq, for instance, weakened the bourgeois classes in their societies through their nationalizations of key industrial and financial sectors, but that was more of a piecemeal strategy that never paid off very well on the long run, and, in hindsight, was not much of an outcome of an ideology that did not favor private property. Even though claiming to be secular, the Baathists kept flirting with Islam, bringing further confusion to the relationship between state and religion, and constantly delaying the possibility of sweeping reforms in the domains of the judiciary, personal status laws, and the economy. At no time did the state propose badly needed civil laws of personal status (only Qasim did promote quasi-civil laws in 1958 during his brief interim governorship), nor did they go all along and adopt communism, or liberalism, or a Kemalist “third way”: it was rather an ideology botched from all over the place, a kind of fuzzy fascism that managed Islam with down to earth populism. In short, the Baathists and Nasserites did neither defy the core values of the societies over which they had full control, nor did they shake them well enough in any sustainable way. All along it was a poor man show—the Hegelianism of the poor, as the late French sociologist Michel Seurat labeled it—which lacked the courage that was needed to manage the affairs of the post-Ottoman and post-colonial states of west Asia. In sum, the state’s monopoly of violence, which is no more than a gross management of micro-techniques of power common to societies organized along strong tribal and kin affiliations, has often been misinterpreted in the name of disciplinary strategies of a different scope and nature.
When the US-led coalition reached Baghdad last April, it realized to its grand dismay that the régime and its armed forces and militias had suddenly vanished without much fight—and without officially surrendering—or an apology towards the Iraqis. And it wrongly concluded that now that the oppressing régime was no more in place, people would be free to do whatever they had been forbidden to do for decades—and that they would be thankful to the coalition for the great deed they had achieved in few weeks of careful military planning. But that was wishful thinking, however, only because everyone had underestimated the degree of violence in society, on the one, and the misconceptions that was nurtured over political power on the other. The Baathist state only managed modes of violence already present in society: once the régime was done with, society recuperated its own strategies of violence, which were always present underneath. What is now grossly mis-represented as a “resistance” or “insurgency” against foreign occupation is therefore no more than “society”—or what is left of it—reclaiming its own legitimate use of violence against itself. We see this clearly unfolding in a city like Falluja, which has become the prototype of a dangerously self-governed city, a sort of Taliban like rule, with prohibitions against women, alcohol, music, the internet, the mass-media, and all kinds of values deemed as westernized; scenes that in effect are a reminder of the Hanbalis’ “commanding right and forbidding wrong” morality in early tenth-century Baghdad, at a time when the caliphate had already become a puppet show, and shortly before the Shii Buyids’ takeover of the Abbasid capital in 945. In the absence of a legitimate caliph/imam, the Hanbalis thought that the legitimate use of violence against fellow Muslim wrongdoers was now in their hands: since then, we’ve been there many times—almost endlessly, and with no end in sight.
What does it therefore mean to “hand-in” sovereignty to the Iraqis? Hadn’t the Iraqis been sovereign all along? Hadn’t the occupation been caused precisely by the Iraqis’ misuse of their own sovereignty? The confusion that reigns these days over the new grand role of American imperialism—which even the hawkish Bush administration fears to acknowledge—is that many of the countries of the Third World are unable to become prosperous on their own, and that foreign humanitarian aid, occasional sanctions and pressures, and U.N. programs, have for the most part failed, in the last half century, to deliver anything palpable. But what contributes even more to the current ideological mess is the common perception that the first imperialism, led by the British and French, had utterly failed. Imperialism, therefore, is altogether of a bygone era, and its revival, under a revamped US outfit, will once more lead to more terrible world imbalances. Maybe we ought to begin by reexamining such schoolboy assumptions, prior to revisiting the belated issue of sovereignty and that of nation building.
copyright © 2004 zouhair ghazzal