Back from Baghdad

When did the Ba'ath Party and Saddam Hussein get into the picture?
The Ba'athists then took over in a number of subsequent coups. In 1963 there was a Ba'athist coup, which was extremely bloody and resulted in all kinds of social dislocations and violence. The first Ba'athist regime only lasted a year. Then you had a coalition government move in, followed by coups and countercoups and just a great deal of instability, until the coup in 1968, which brought a man name Hasan Al Bakr into power and Saddam Hussein was his number-two man. Between 1968 and 1979, Saddam Hussein managed to weed out members of the Ba'ath that either he didn't trust or who weren't his own personal supporters. He basically forced Bakr to resign and assumed the presidency of the Revolutionary Command Council and a variety of other titles. Saddam's list of titles just keeps growing and growing.

Iraq has a tremendously bloody political history. This is reflected in the coups and the countercoups and the bloodshed that accompanied them. The bloodshed that accompanied the 1958 revolution was truly phenomenal. The prime minister at that time, Nurial Said, who had been prime minister on and off for twenty years or so, was hung and then dragged through the streets of Baghdad for days. That kind of frustration and violence is actually a hallmark of Iraqi politics.

That's also the kind of thing that makes Americans throw up their hands and say, "See, all Arabs are crazy!"

I'm very disturbed by people who attribute this violence to the Arab mentality or to cultural traits of the Arabs. It's not a racial trait, it's the result of political circumstances. Iraq is a deeply divided society. Those divisions are not just economic but geographical, sectarian, ethnic - Sunni, Shiite, Kurd and non-Kurd, and so on. Combine this with the fact that on each side Iraq is surrounded by hostile powers - Turkey, with its own Kurdish population (there was a story of murder and gore if ever there was one!), and Iran. There's been hostilities and water disputes with Turkey all along. In the southeast, you have Iran, where particularly after the Iranian revolution there was a real threat to the national integrity of Iraq, because of the strong allegiance of Iraq's Shiite population to post-revolutionary Iran.

And then, of course, you have the persistent problem of the Kurds and the civil war that's persisted in Iraq on and off since its inception. So at some level, a government that could hold these different communities together would almost have to be strong-handed in some ways, unless they wanted to simply allow various parts of the country to section off. As we can see from the Soviet Union, governments are very, very reluctant to let this happen. This process of national integration is extremely painful and brutal and violent, and it always has been. I think to understand this, all Westerners have to do is look at the process of state formation in early modern Europe. France, for instance, was not born as France. It was united from all these different communities that had their own language, their own dialect, and so on. It was a long and bloody process. So at some level you can see what's happening in Iraq in those terms.

Yes, but France actually did turn into a stable nation-state. It doesn't look like Iraq is going to make the transition.

France coalesced after centuries. Iraq's only been at this 30 years or so. And remember, in Europe you had a core government that was expanding outward, conquering territories and then uniting them administratively. In Iraq you had these essentially arbitrarily defined borders given to them by the British, who then said, "Okay, deal with it!" Suddenly there was this huge territory that needed to be controlled. That's very different from the piecemeal way that Europe's nation-states emerged.

So I think it's unfair to cast this situation in terms of the Arabs' "violent nature." Most less-developed countries growing out of a colonial legacy have these sorts of problems that erupt into violence. As Americans, we simply can't understand the scarcity of resources that exists in the Third World, the inequalities that exist there. These conditions can push people into acts of violence that are beyond our understanding. I heard on National Public Radio that since August, 2600 blacks have died in South Africa, 300 people in El Salvador, 711 in Lebanon, 40 Israelis, 150 Palestinians, 7000 Liberians, 7000 people in India, 3000 in Sri Lanka, and 1500 in Somalia, all in political violence. From the perspective of somebody who studies developing countries, President Bush's "new world order" looks much more like the new world disorder to me.

I think your point is well taken, though, about the image that Americans have of Arabs. I'm both fascinated and horrified at this. I think that racial hatred against Arabs is the only remaining socially acceptable racism in the United States today. And I think it comes from what began as a romantic notion of what Arabs were, which was grounded in the tradition of Orientalism, where Arabs were a projection of what we wanted them to be - Lawrence of Arabia kinds of images - and then when it turned out that these quaint colonials controlled the oil, it turned into a real confrontation. Since the OPEC oil crisis in 1973, through 1979 and the Iranian revolution, right up to now, it's not a coincidence that our boogiemen have all been Muslim or Arab. We had the Ayatollah, then we had Gadhafi until we bombed Libya, and now we have Saddam Hussein, and who knows who will be next? The way the media grabs onto these images really alarms me. Have you noticed this film with Sally Field, Not Without My Daughter [about an American woman and her half-Iranian child trying to escape from post-revolutionary Iran]? The timing of these things is really shocking. It's a schlocky, awful television movie, but the fact that it is released now is significant.

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