A prominent Arab intellectual has written an important book in English and in Arabic that asks his countrymen to confront a critical question: Who is really responsible for Iraq’s desperate plight?
His answer is already provoking hot debate on Arab social media because he doesn’t blame colonialism or the West. Instead, the noted Iraqi scholar and human rights activist, Kanan Makiya, points the finger squarely at the Iraqi elite.
“The U.S. did everything wrong it could possibly do, but this book is about what the Iraqis did wrong,” he told me. “You can point the finger at the Americans but this is our failure; we own it.” He reserves special blame for the (U.S.-backed) Shiite exiles who returned from abroad.
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Makiya’s novel (he chose this form because he thought it would illuminate deeper truths) is called “The Rope,” a reference to the noose that hanged Saddam Hussein. The novel challenges Iraqis to look inward rather than blaming outsiders (it doesn’t mince words on U.S. mistakes, but offers another explanation for what went wrong).
The author is no stranger to controversy. From a prominent Baghdad family, he studied in the United States, became a U.S. citizen, and taught at Brandeis University. One of the first to expose Saddam’s genocidal brutality toward his own people, Makiya wrote Cruelty and Silence in 1992, taking Arabs to task for not criticizing the abuses of Mideast dictators, even as they decried America and Israel.
He doesn’t apologize for helping the Bush administration shape the case for overthrowing Saddam. Instead, his novel details the failures of those Iraqi opposition leaders who returned from exile, especially the Shiites, whom Washington put in charge of a transition government in Baghdad.
What Makiya does apologize for, in the Arabic version of his book, is his role in legitimizing those leaders, including the Bush administration favorite, Ahmed Chalabi. They threw away their chance to build a new Iraq, he told me. They abandoned the very “idea of Iraq” and an Iraqi nation.
Instead they opted for “the politics of victimhood.” Although the Shiite majority had been repressed by Saddam, its new politicians and militia leaders, once empowered, became sectarian oppressors of Sunnis, often egged on and aided by Iran. They also organized competing militias that are still fighting each other for power.
The novel, based on real events, centers on the murder of a Shiite cleric in the holy Shiite city of Najaf – a forewarning of sectarian struggles to come. The protagonist, a young Shiite from Najaf who comes of age during the Iraq war, stumbles on the body and struggles to learn the truth about the killing. Ultimately, he discovers that the murder was ordered by a rival cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, in whose militia he has been fighting.
I knew the murdered cleric, Abdel-Majid al-Khoei, the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abul Qasim al-Khoei. The young man escaped to London after the first Gulf War in 1991, when Saddam crushed a Shiite uprising. Like his father, he believed in the quietist school of Shiite Islam, which separated mosque and state.
The younger Khoei supported the U.S. invasion as the only means to remove Saddam. He told me in 2002 that he hoped that Iraqi Shiites could show how Islam could co-exist with a democratic constitutional state.
So Sayyid Majid, as he was known, agreed to return to Najaf with the Americans at the beginning of the 2003 invasion. I was in touch with him by satellite phone after he landed and he was optimistic. Days later, he was dragged out of a holy shrine and brutally slashed to death on the orders of Sadr, who espouses a strikingly different activist Islamic philosophy. Sadr’s militia, known as the Mahdi army, warred with U.S. forces repeatedly in the 2000s, and was also famous for slaughtering Sunnis.
What is so important about this book is its demand that Arabs look inward, seeking the social and political reasons for post-war failure in Iraq (and the failure of the Arab Spring). It is insufficient to blame the mess on borders drawn by colonial powers after the collapse of the Ottoman empire nearly a century ago.
As artificial as those external borders once were, says Makiya, they became more real over time, and “we would be completely lost if we tried to change them.” He argues in a powerful “personal note” at the end of the book that the Shiite exiles who took over Iraq needed to cobble together a new, post-authoritarian “Iraqi identity.” Instead they opted for revenge against Sunnis, and squabbled among themselves.
The only major Iraqi figure who tried to rise above the bloodshed, ironically, was the Grand Ayatollah Khoei’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who urged Shiites to avoid violence and tried to stop sectarian bloodshed. But Sistani is 90 years old, and his philosophy is being challenged both by the populist Sadr and by Iran.
Makiya’s book is a desperate challenge to Iraqis – many of whom are fed up with their corrupt leaders – to stop blaming the West and confront the officials who are destroying their country. He believes that only some form of geographical federalism – that rises above a strict Shiite-Sunni divide – can save the country.
The novel couldn’t be more timely. Last week Sadr’s followers invaded the Shiite-led government “green zone” for the second time in a month, allegedly protesting against corruption, but really seeking more power.
As Sayyid Majid’s death makes clear, Iraqi Shiites must first stop killing each other before the country can emerge from chaos. That is the harsh truth The Rope wants Iraqis to face.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.