Across the Bay

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Iraqi Identity vs. Arab Nationalism

Jim Hoagland has an excellent piece in the WaPo on the post-Saddam Iraqi identity and Arab nationalism. Hoagland quotes Iraqi interim president, Ghazi al-Yawar, who makes a series of very encouraging statements:

"Even if we are Arabs, we cannot have any identity but an Iraqi identity."

There is no overstating the importance of this statement. This is what Kanan Makiya meant that Iraq can no longer be an "Arab" country. Iraq's national identity can only be Iraqi, and a complete divorce from the disastrous ideology of Arab nationalism is imperative for the well-being of the emergent, pluralist Iraqi state.

Hoagland goes on to raise some truly crucial points:

"Winning also means dismantling a deeply ingrained stereotype of Arab nationalism that was formed early in the 20th century, when colonial powers swept into the region and that still holds sway."

It's a terrific point that Hoagland makes here, equating Arab nationalism with a romanticized stereotype. I have made that point several times on this blog when critiquing Cole, Khalidi, Watenpaugh, and LeVine (see my posts "Arabist Revisionism", "pressed for Reality" and "On Romanticism and Fascism (lite)!"). Hoagland details what the stereotype is:

"An instinctual love of revolt and fighting, inflexible clan loyalties and an unquestioning rejection of Western influence were traits emphasized by "Orientalists" (in Edward Said's term) such as T.E. Lawrence and others who sketched the Arabs as ignoble savages who would not and could not adapt to international norms -- and were therefore perversely admirable." (Emphasis added.)

The problem is that the luminaries mentioned above, have helped perpetuate that stereotype attributed to T. E. Lawrence, even as they critiqued the Orientalists! The perverse sense of admiration for the "insurgents" in Fallujah and its long "history" of revolt, and the supposed historical parallels drawn between 1920 Fallujah and today (Khalidi), or the Kaylani revolt (seemingly Watenpaugh's interest), the romanticizing of the Sadr "insurgency" (Cole), the disappointment at the lack of a broader Arab revolt instead of a mere Sunni one (LeVine), and the Third-Worldist element of "resistance" to the West are all ever-present in the writings of these "experts."

The so-called historical parallels drawn by these "experts" (like Khalidi's ill-informed history of Fallujah) seem to fit rather well with this following passage from Hoagland's piece:

"[T]o suggest that Arab character is immutable from one century to the next or that it is somehow impervious to global trends is to engage in a reverse romanticism that denigrates an entire people. It is to adopt a view of human nature that is rooted as deeply in racism as in history. In this view, Arab countries will never be more than "tribes with flags.""

That's precisely what we're being asked to believe by the Khalidis of the world. Only of course they don't label it "tribes with flags." Rather it's "anti-colonialism," "anti-imperialism," "transcendent nationalism," and the like.

Hoagland also makes a point on how all this was used by Saddam in his propaganda:

"Saddam Hussein lived on the other side of the same coin. He placed the brutal imperatives of tribal life at the center of his malignant redefinition of nationalism. "The Arabs" were simply one large tribe that needed to avenge past defeats by destroying Israel and Iran and lining Saddam's pockets in the process. Iraq today is a giant crucible of forces that battle to perpetuate or change this concept."

I already linked to what Ali of "Iraq the Model" and IraqPundit wrote in response to Khalidi's piece on Fallujah. They both pointed out that the image drawn by Khalidi was a Baathist revisionism used by Baathist propaganda! (Cole and LeVine are guilty of the same romanticized revisionism.) I would add that from the very beginning, Arab nationalism conceived of the "Arab umma" as a "super-tribe." Saddam didn't invent this, he was a product of it.

The romanticism and apologetics for the worst kinds of fascism of the Thrid-Worldist, Arabist professors aside, this is an incredibly important matter. Hoagland wrote:

"An Iraqi identity that is not bound up with perpetuating the long progression of wars that Saddam Hussein started, supported or invited will change the face of the region. It will also contribute decisively to redefining the nature of Arab nationalism, which is under enormous historical pressure to adapt or die."

I would add that hopefully Arab nationalism won't "adapt" and just simply die. Fascist Arab nationalism and a liberal, pluralist, democratic Iraq (indeed, M.E.) are incompatible. It would be a death long overdue. The only people to mourn it would be the brilliant luminaries mentioned above.