Response to Gelvin & Tamimi

by Kanan Makiya

The field of modern Middle Eastern Studies in the US today is, alas, afflicted by deep ideological non-scholarly divisions, which reflect the divisions being played out today in the region. However that which is tragic and real about what is actually going on in the Middle East, is farcical and pure theatre in the hands of these academic zealots. Among the consequences of this sad state of affairs is that we have in the US today not one but two professional associations in the field (ASMEA and MESA), one excessively pro- and the other excessively anti-everything and anything the US does or does not do in the region. The two camps engage in fierce polemical exchanges, characterized by the use of epithet, insult and ad hominem attacks, to the point of publishing blacklists of faculty disliked by the one side or the other, and they do all this under the facade of a search for the truth and true scholarship. The field of modern ME Studies is, as a consequence, rightly held in contempt by academics in more traditional departments and disciplines, and by a US government that pays no attention whatsoever to ME ‘experts' when it comes to making important decisions about the region.

Mr. Gelvin's response to my essay is a perfect example of this disease afflicting our joint profession. In place of argument he deploys wild accusation and personal insult of the “he just does not know or care much about the Arab world” variety. His response is full of such statements in spite of the fact that we do not know and have never met one another. More importantly, he does not deal in any way with the substance of my argument, quibbling instead about typographical errors and the like. I may or may not know or care about the Arab world, but you will not find evidence for that in his angry rant. I wonder where he was when I spent eight wasted years in various organizations of the PLO in the 1960s and 70s? Such people cannot and should not be taken seriously.

Mr Azzam Tamimi, on the other hand, has made a real and important argument, one with which I disagree, but in which, through the prism of that disagreement, are played out some of the most fundamental problems afflicting Iraq today. That, needless to say, is what civilized intellectual discourse should be about.

To summarize the two main points of disagreement I have with Mr. Tamimi's contribution:

First, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein did not contribute to the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2003, Tamimi writes, as much as the latter influenced the recent uprising of the Sunni Arab tribes of the Anbar against the Maliki regime. I would respond to Mr. Tamimi by noting that I agree with him that the originally peaceful demonstrations in the Anbar protesting the discriminatory policies of the current Iraqi government, which turned violent only because of the brutality of the Maliki regime, are most certainly an extension of the Arab Spring into Iraq. But why can it not also be true that the toppling in 2003 of one great Arab dictator, Saddam Hussein, followed as it was by historic genuine elections throughout the region, and the booting of a different Ba'thist regime out of Lebanon, have something to do with the creation of a whole new constellation of hopes and perceived possibilities in the region that ultimately made the Arab Spring of 2011 possible? The two are not mutually incompatible. Moreover, admitting to the possibility of a connection between 2003 and 2011—if there is one–carries no value judgment in and of itself on the merits, or otherwise, of the 2003 war. The war may still have been a bad idea, or it may have been a good one, irrespective of whether or not it contributed to the Arab Spring (after all the Arab Spring is not really doing so well these days with over 90,000 dead in Syria alone, a number likely to grow to the hundreds of thousands by the Fall).

Second, Mr Tamimi claims that there “was not an uprising anywhere in Iraq that expedited the end of [Saddam Hussein's] tyrannical reign.” He goes on to belittle the intifada of 1991, which I wrote at length about, calling it an uprising of the “Marsh Arabs” alone, and “an Iranian-instigated, U.S.-backed, riot aimed at exploiting the exhaustion of the regime in the aftermath of the defeat of its troops and their expulsion from Kuwait in 1991.”

I spent a year and a half largely in Jordan and northern Iraq studying that uprising beginning in the summer of 1991, the results of which I published in Cruelty and Silence (W.W. Norton, 1993). There simply is not an infinitesimal particle of doubt that the intifada began inside the Iraqi army, by a column of tank units fleeing the Kuwaiti theatre, which stopped off in Sahat Saad, (Saad Square) in downtown Basra and unleashed a volley of shells at a huge wall mural of Saddam Hussein hanging outside the Ba'th Party HQ building fronting that square. That was the spark that lit the fuse of an uprising, which though it had begun in the south, leapfrogged to the north and within a week or two had resulted in two-thirds of the eighteen Iraqi Governorates of Iraq falling into rebel hands.

This is hardly a “riot,” even though the Iraqi regime tried to call it that, demeaning the insurgents by calling them ghawghaiyeen, (a complex Iraqi term that denotes something along the line of primitive anarchist, barbarian hordes). To be sure the Iranians jumped in and tried to take advantage of what the Iraqi army had started, pumping posters of Khomeini into the south and facilitating the entry of thousands of Iraqi members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (an Iranian based Iraqi opposition group that modeled itself on the example of the Iranian Revolution). The behavior of the insurgents was often outrageous, and politically stupid, as they took to massacring regime officials and members of the Iraqi army randomly and often savagely (the same sort of thing that is going on in Syria today). The result was that the Iraqi army recoiled from its process of falling apart, and rallied around the regime in its own self-defense. Thus was the uprising defeated, which is when the real killing started (by Saddam Hussein of any young Arab Shi'ite male the mukhabarat and Presidential Guard could get their hands on).

I agree with Mr. Tamimi that the “model of governance the United States helped establish in post-Saddam Iraq was far from impressive.” In fact I went much further in my article and said it was downright sectarian. In the nature of sectarian politics is a deeply felt need to rewrite history, to fit sectarian agendas. That is what is going on all over Iraq today. That is what Saddam Hussein did in 1991 when he called the rebels ghawghaiyeen, and when he had his tanks roll into Najaf with the words “No More Shia After Today,” painted on their sides. It is what the Maliki regime is doing when it conflates Sunni with Ba'thi, and when it describes the Saddam regime as a Sunni regime. I would urge Mr. Tamimi not to make the same mistake himself. Modern Iraqi history was forever changed by what Iraqis did in 1991, however badly they did it. The 2003 war is a direct consequence and intimately connected to those 1990-91 events. We must start from here in trying to see a way forward through the morass of problems that Iraq and the whole region faces today.

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Kanan Makiya is the Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University. He was a prominent member of the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein and an influential proponent of the 2003 Iraq War. His books include Republic of Fear (1989), The Monument (1991), Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World (1993), and The Rock: A Seventh Century Tale of Jerusalem (2001).

To leave a comment, please go to the introduction to the DAG-3QD Peace and Justice Symposia, of which this essay is a part, here.