History Matters: Past as Prologue in Building Democracy in Iraq
by Eric Davis
Eric Davis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor of political science at Rutgers University and former director of Rutgers’ Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is the author of Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (University of California Press, 2005). This article is based on his presentation at FPRI’s October 2004 History Institute, ‘‘A New Middle East?’’ See www.fpri.org for a report on the full conference.
In his Art History After Modernism (Chicago, 2003), the German art historian Hans Belting argues that history is the locus of identity for all societies. Losing a sense of its heritage does great damage to a society and hampers its ability to move into the future. In the Middle East, history—or perhaps more precisely, historical memory—deeply informs the contemporary cultural and political consciousness of its peoples. Without recognizing the significance of the past, who could speak of Zionism, which is linked to the ancient Israelite kingdoms; Pan-Arabism, grounded as it is in the glories of the Meccan, Umayyad, and Abbasid empires; or Saddam Hussein’s efforts to link his rule to the Babylonian kings, Nebuchadnezzar and Hammurabi?
Current Iraqi politics and society cannot be rebuilt without an understanding
of the country’s past. We need to appreciate the ways stereotyping
has affected U.S. views of the country, how our lack of understanding of Iraqi
history has adversely affected our post-Saddam policy; and how restoring
Iraq’s historical memory could be a vital part of building a democratic Iraq.
Many years ago, I arrived in Cairo as a young graduate student from the University of Chicago. Upon telling Egyptians that I lived in Chicago, many, even those who were well educated, reacted in disbelief, asking how I could reside in a city dominated by organized crime and gang violence. Notwithstanding that Al Capone et al. had been dead for many years, Egyptians still envisioned Chicago according to the images they saw in American films and
television programs. This speaks to the problem of stereotyping and the ways in which it can hamper the development of cross-cultural knowledge, obviously a critical issue when we think of the complexities of the Middle East..
Several forms of stereotyping have adversely affected our understandings of Iraq. First, because Iraq is a predominantly Muslim country, there is the notion that there can be no democratic political culture such as that enjoyed bymany Western countries and non-Muslim, non-Western countries, since Islam purportedly does not allow for the separation of church and state. Western analysts also argue that there is no tradition of a democratic political discourse in Islam.
Second, democracy is supposedly impeded in Arab countries because they were not formally constituted as modern nation-states until after the Ottoman Empires collapse in 1918. According to this view, the populaces of many Arab states still have not developed a shared sense of political community, and consequently the people need authoritarian rulers to insure political stability. If we add to this conceptual mix the argument that many Arab countries are still largely tribal in organization, especially in rural areas, then this social structure supposedly promotes regional, rather than national, identities, again undermining political stability and a democratic political culture.
Third, Iraq occupies a special place in the conceptual framework of Middle Eastern and Arab politics. Because its population is divided among three main ethnic groups—the Sunni Arabs (about 20 percent of the population), Shiite Arabs (about 60 percent) and Kurds (between 15 percent and 20 percent), some Western analysts argue that Iraq is an artificial nation-state. Because of the presumed implacable hostility between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, the strong hand of an authoritarian ruler is said to be the only force that can keep Iraq united and politically stable.1
These arguments are not only deeply flawed, but also profoundly ahistorical. A few examples from outside the Iraqi context show how these arguments fail to explain the internal dynamics of modern Iraqi politics. One example would be the fora (manabir) that Muslim, Christian, and Jewish theologians and thinkers established in Muslim Spain and elsewhere in the Islamic world between the tenth and twelfth centuries, where they would meet to share their respective religions’ views on important common theological issues. This tradition continued into the twentieth century, where there are many examples of devout Muslims maintaining close friendships with Christians and Jews. One such example was Muhammad Talat Harb (1867–1941), the founder of the Bank of Egypt and its large industrial conglomerate. Harb, a devout Muslim and a prolific writer who defended Islam against the charge by Western Orientalist scholars that Islam was an inferior religion because it required the veiling of women, counted numerous Egyptian Jews and Christians among his close friends and business associates.2
More recently, one of the strongest impulses for democracy in the Middle East has come from reformers in Iran, inspired by President Mohammed Khatami, who is also a cleric. The Iranian case is significant because many of the pro-democracy reformers who now argue for a form of politics that both closely resembles liberal politics in the West and emphasizes the grounding of Iran in Islamic culture, had earlier supported the 1978–79 Islamic Revolution. These examples indicate the over-simplicity of frequently made assertions about the relationship between religion and authoritarian rule in the Arab and Muslim Middle East.
Understanding Iraqi History
Much of the current Western analysis of Iraq completely ignores Iraqi history prior to the Baath Party, including the first Baathist regime, which seized power in February 1963, and the second, which seized power in July 1968. Both regimes imprisoned, tortured, executed, or expelled intellectuals and political activists who had been working to build a civil society and to promote democratic politics.
The Rise of Iraqi Civil Society
In my twenty-five years of studying Iraqi politics and society, I have been continually struck by the resilience of Iraqis and their unwillingness to submit to Baathist authoritarianism. Indeed, the Iraqi nationalist movement that developed following the Ottoman collapse in World War I exhibited an ecumenical tradition, advocating cultural pluralism, political participation, and social justice. This Iraqi nationalist vision was most evident in the 1920 revolt against British rule in Iraq. Sunni and Shiite Arabs joined forces, praying in
each others’ mosques and celebrating together their respective holidays. Iraqi Muslims went to the houses of Christians and Jews—the largest single ethnic group in Baghdad at the time of the uprising—and insisted that they join protest marches and demonstrations because they were Iraqi citizens like everyone else.
The Hashemite monarchy installed by the British during a rigged national referendum in 1921 undermined the Iraqi nationalist vision as a Iraq ‘‘big tent’’ which, while recognizing Iraq’s predominantly Arab character, would offer cultural and political space to all Iraq’s ethnic groups. The dominant Iraqist, or domestically oriented, wing of the nationalists stood in opposition to a smaller, state-supported Pan-Arabist political tendency, which sought to make Iraq part of a larger Pan-Arab state. One of the goals of the Pan-Arabists was to change Iraq’s Sunni Arabs’ status as a minority in Iraq to a majority once Iraq was only a region (qutr) of a larger Pan-Arab state.
The Pan-Arabist tendency rejected pluralist notions of Iraqi political community, instead emphasizing a xenophobic and chauvinist interpretation of Arabism that promoted Sunni Arab domination of Iraqi politics and society. Under the Hashemite monarchy, the Iraqi government attempted to inculcate a Pan-Arabist consciousness among Iraqi schoolchildren. The Hashemite monarchy, which carried the stigma of having been installed by the British, sought to use Pan-Arabism to bolster its legitimacy by stressing its ties to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, of which the Hashemites were the guardians, and its blood ties to the Quraysh, the tribe of the Prophet Mohammed.
During the 1930s, Pan-Arabists developed proto-fascist organizations such as the al-Muthanna Club and its al-Futuwwa movement, and in June 1941 they participated in an attack on Baghdad’s Jewish community. In contrast, the Iraqi nationalist movement developed a broad political coalition encompassing members of all Iraq’s ethnic groups, including Sunni and Shiite Arabs, Kurds, Jews, Christians, Armenians, and other minority groups. Iraqi civil society began to flourish with the formation of numerous student and professional associations, including a highly respected legal profession, a vibrant press, artist ateliers, writers’ associations, labor unions, and an extensive coffeehouse culture. Political parties such as the National Party, Jamiyat al-Ahali, and the Iraqi Communist Party promoted political participation by all Iraqis and emphasized the need to develop an inclusive sense
of political community. Iraqis from all the country’s ethnic groups cooperated in opposing the British-imposed Constitution in 1924, organizing the 1931 General Strike against the British, and maintaining solidarity during numerous labor strikes from the 1930s through the 1950s which called for better working conditions. They also organized broad-based uprisings against the monarchy and the British in 1948 (known as the Wathba) and 1953(the Intifada).
This nascent civil society expanded greatly after the end of World War II, as large numbers of Iraqis participated in Iraqi politics through the many new political parties, such as the National Democratic and Independence parties formed after the war. With the temporary relaxation of state control, a coalition of Iraqi nationalists and moderate Pan-Arabists competed in the June 1954 elections, running a highly professional campaign and scoring impressive victories in the country’s most important electoral districts, including Baghdad and Mosul. Efforts by sectarian elements during the electoral campaign—particularly those from the Baath Party, which was first formed in Iraq in 1952—to separate Arab nationalists from Iraqi nationalists were unsuccessful, and the electoral coalition retained its cohesion.
During the 1950s, Iraqi poets developed the Free Verse Movement, one of the most important innovations in modern Arabic poetry. Similar developments occurred in other areas of literature, such as the short story, and in the plastic arts, particularly in sculpture. Iraqi poets (Muhammad Mahdial-Jawahiri, Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati, Nazik al-Malaika, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, and Buland al-Haydari), short story writers (Abd al-Malik Nuri, Mahdi al-Saqr), artists (Jawad Salim and Ismail al-Shaikhly), and historians (Abd al-Razzaq al- Hasani and Faysal al-Samir) became famous throughout the Arab world. Iraqi nationalism received a strong impetus from the regime of Staff Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim (1958–1963), which took power after the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy in July 1958. While sympathetic to Pan-Arab concerns, Qasim believed that Iraq needed to address its internal development problems first. Instead of a unitary Arab state, he favored a federated entity, much along the lines of the European Union. Under Qasim, sectarianism disappeared as a key element in recruiting for positions within the state bureaucracy, the military, and other official walks of life. Indeed, Qasim is the only ruler of modern Iraq who eschewed sectarian criteria in ruling the country. His refusal to exploit sectarian divisions for political ends; his focus on social justice, such as the need for land reform; and his own ascetic lifestyle made Qasim the only truly popular leader since the founding of the modern state. After he was overthrown and executed by the first Baathist regime in February 1963, it was discovered that he had no personal wealth, having donated to the poor his military pension and his two government salaries as prime minister and defense minister.3
Qasim’s fate offers many lessons for the current situation in Iraq. Immediately after the July 1958 Revolution, Qasim assembled a cabinet of distinguished opposition leaders from the monarchist era, including Kamil al-Chadirji, head of the National Democratic Party, and Muhammad Mahdi al-Kubba, head of the Independence Party. Unfortunately, after consolidating his power, Qasim felt he could dispense with the cabinet, thereby foregoing the opportunity to institutionalize a moderate, non-sectarian government committed to political pluralism and social reform. While others have argued thatQasimfeared a democratic political systembecause itwould allow in either the Pan-Arabists, who had many followers within the Sunni Arab-dominated officer corps, or the powerful Iraqi Communist Party, the fact remains that power corrupts.4 No matter how well intentioned Qasim was in trying to bring Iraq about better living conditions for the Iraqi populace and in eliminating sectarianism in politics, his authoritarian rule, however non-violent, gradually isolated him from the citizenry, facilitating his overthrow in 1963.
The Rise of the Baath and the End of Civil Society
The Baathist regime that came to power in February 1963 and its brutal National Guard militia foreshadowed the extensive human rights abuses that
would characterize the Baathist regime that seized power in a July 1968 putsch.
Counting petty criminals among its members, the February 1963 regime
quickly tried to undo many of the social reforms enacted by Qasim, such
as equal rights for women. Shocked by the excesses of its National Guard, a
publish, and the Iraqis read.’’ Iraq has the capability to become one of the
most advanced countries of the Middle East. It has a large and highly educated
middle class, a tradition of a flourishing civil society, an agricultural sector
whose potential is greatly underutilized, one of the world’s great civilizational
heritages, and a rich base of oil wealth. Once no longer at odds with its
neighbors in the Gulf region, it will be able to cooperate with them to produce
serious economic development. The demonstration effect of a functioning
Iraqi democracy can have a salutary impact on neighboring authoritarian
What would an Iraqi democracy look like? Because Iraq is a multiethnic
society, it would undoubtedly have a rough-and-tumble quality. With its
wide variety of political parties and strong inter-elite competition, Iraqi
democracy will most likely resemble Italian democracy. Rather than viewing
this as a negative comparison, I would offer the argument of many Italian
political scientists, that Italy’s frequent rotation of governments signifies less
political instability than much greater opportunity for political participation by
a wide variety of political actors than is possible in countries like the United
States, where two major parties dominate the political landscape. Numerous
Iraqi political parties will no doubt vie for power. However, a federated
country in which the Sunni and Shiite Arabs and the Kurds, as well as other
minorities, can feel that their traditions are respected and not subject to state
repression, and in which economic development assures every citizen a
decent standard of living, will work to offset the political strife that facilitated
the rise of the Baath Party and its authoritarian policies.
Creative uses of historical memory will not provide a panacea for Iraq’s
political problems. However, effective mobilization of the past, if done in a
straightforward and non-romanticized fashion, can help to inspire Iraqis to
regain a sense of civic pride and trust in their ability to forge ahead with
democratization. Historical memory can help deprive those who seek to return
Iraq to an authoritarian past of the ability to exploit elements of fear,
suspicion, and distrust that are so corrosive to attempts to bring about
1 Examples of such thinking can be found in many texts on Iraq, e.g., Uriel Dann, Iraq Under Qassem (New York: Praeger, 1969); Elie Kedourie, The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies (New York: Praeger, 1970) and Democracy and Arab Political Culture (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1992); and more recently, ‘‘Ramazani Says ‘Unrealistic Assumptions’ Hindered Iraq Plan,’’ report on Oct. 3, 2004, lecture given by Middle East politics expert Ruhollah Ramazani at the University of Virginia Law School, at www.law.virginia.edu. See also Charles Glass, Tribes with Flags (London: Secker and Warburg, 1990).
2 See Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 43, 47, 186–7; Eric Davis, Challenging Colonialism: Bank Misr and Egyptian Industrialization, 1920–1941 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 53, 93–96, 100–02, 116.
3 Eric Davis, Eric Davis, Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 116–17.
4 For a discussion of these trends, see ibid., pp. 109–47; and Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978),esp. p. 764 et passim.