Dec 12, 2013
Geoffrey Wheatcroft on ‘Muqtada’
Posted on May 9, 2008
Just before the invasion of Iraq five years ago, the British prime minister met the French president. This episode has been described by Sir Stephen Wall, then of the Foreign Office, although not all Americans may have heard about it. Wall says that the meeting was quite cordial in the circumstances, with Tony Blair—the all-American hero of the moment—again voicing his ardent support for the war, and Jacques Chirac—whose very name was a curse to Americans at a time when congressmen were childishly ordering “freedom fries” with their lunch and Thomas Friedman was telling readers of The New York Times that France should be “voted off the island”—reiterating his opposition.
More specifically, Chirac said several things. For one, Blair and his friend George W. Bush knew nothing of the realities of war, but he did: 50 years ago, the young Jacques Chirac was a draftee serving in the French war in Algeria, a horrible conflict which Iraq has turned out to resemble all too closely. The Americans and British seemed to think they would be welcomed in Iraq with open arms, he said, but they shouldn’t count on it. He added very astutely that a mere Shiite majority was not to be confused with what we in the West call democracy. And as a final shot he asked whether Blair realized that, by invading Iraq, he might precipitate a civil war. When the British team left, the prime minister turned to his aides (no doubt with that boyish grin some of us have long since had enough of) and said, “Poor old Jacques, he just doesn’t get it!”
Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq
By Patrick Cockburn
Scribner, 240 pages
As Wall adds, we know now just who got it. The disasters which have come about were not only foreseeable, they were foreseen—although not even the canny Chirac could have guessed quite what terrible form they would take. For that matter, as Patrick Cockburn more than once remarks in “Muqtada,” few Iraqis imagined the violence into which their country would be plunged, and even the Sadrists, whose leader is the subject of this highly informative book, “were surprised by the scale of support for them as Saddam’s regime fell apart.”
Nor did the bitterest critic of the war then imagine that, five years on, American aircraft would still be helping the Iraqi army to hold off attacks by the Mahdi Army. But then astonishment has been greater still on the American side as Moqtada al-Sadr, the astute, harsh, frightening scion of a line of martyred Shiite clerics, became one of the central players in this grim drama. He was first completely underestimated by the Americans, and of all the mistakes they have since made in Iraq, Cockburn writes, one of the gravest (which is saying something) was the attempt to marginalize him and his movement.
But then the war had been embarked on by politicians in Washington and London, encouraged by a claque of media cheerleaders, who began knowing very little about the country they were invading. Cockburn knows a great deal. One of the pre-eminent foreign correspondents of the age, he first visited Iraq 30 years ago and has written earlier books on Saddam Hussein and on the war, besides his reporting for the London Independent. Whether or not even he could have envisaged the Shiite revival, at least he understands its causes, and he offers a helping hand to those of our rulers who to this day can barely explain the difference between Sunni and Shiite (or who, like Sen. John McCain, have not quite grasped the fact that Iran is a Shiite country, which very much does not support the Sunnis of al-Qaida).
As Cockburn recapitulates the story, Islam was sundered by the early schism which followed the killing of Ali, first cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, in the year 661. In the first place those called the “Shi’at Ali” were no more than Muslims who had supported his claim to the caliphate, and it was only with the passage of time that the distinctive nature of Shia sharpened. A couple of centuries later its adherents became known as “Twelvers”: There had been 12 imams in succession up to al-Mahd, who disappeared at Samarra, but Shiites held that he, the Twelfth Imam, would one day return to purify the world. This may seem quaint to sophisticated Westerners, but that belief is scarcely more esoteric than the belief of frum Jews that the Almighty of ineffable name will one day send the moshiach to redeem his people, or of Christians that, as the Nicene Creed says, he “shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead.”
While there was no precise theological difference between Shiite and Sunni to compare, let’s say, with the doctrine of transubstantiation which divides Roman Catholics from Protestants, the memory of Ali’s piety and virtue would come to be contrasted with the wealth and power of the Ummayad dynasty in Baghdad. And so Shia gradually became “the faith of the dispossessed and opponents of the powers-that-be,” much like Catholicism in Ireland under the Protestant Ascendancy. Later still this faith acquired a greater importance when Iran was forcibly converted to Shia by the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century, and the tribes of southern Iraq converted in the 18th. The religious affinity between Iran and southern Iraq is now of the highest significance, even more so thanks to the accident of religious-cum-geological history which has left the Shiites sitting on top of a very large part of the world’s oil supplies.
The story was further complicated by the rise of an independent Shiite clergy, or ulema: The crucial fact that this ulema was separate from the state made Shia a much more potent alternative force to the existing regimes. That was so first under the Ottoman empire and then, after the Great War, when the modern entity of Iraq was created by the British—“in a fit of absence of mind,” if ever that phrase applied—with a one-fifth Sunni minority set in power over a Shiite majority. Such precarious minority rule persisted under the Hashemite monarchy; then when the last king was overthrown in 1958; when the secular Arab Socialist Baath Party took power in 1968 (those were the days when, as an old Middle East hand said to me sardonically not long ago, “we thought the Baathists were the progressive modernizers”); and when Saddam Hussein established his personal dictatorship in 1979.
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