She was a Sunni Muslim, an attractive, thirty-something writer, one of the few women I met who eschewed a scarf in public. And she was overjoyed at the demise of Saddam. “I am so happy! Freedom at last! The world is open to me now!” she exclaimed during a small social function at an art gallery in Karada. “Can you recommend some American magazines I might send my writing to?”
I promised I’d draw up a list of suitable periodicals, then added–carelessly, for this was my first trip to Iraq–“You must not mind seeing American soldiers on the streets.”
The woman’s smile vanished. Her brow darkened and she shook her head. “Oh, no. I hate the soldiers. I hate them so much I fantasize about taking a gun and shooting one dead.”
Stunned by her vehemence, “But American soldiers are responsible for your freedom!” I replied.
“I know,” the woman snarled. “And you can’t imagine how humiliated that makes me feel.”
Humans are proud beings. And we have a sense of honor, though often you couldn’t tell from looking at us. This chapter details how the struggle against the Americans in Iraq is in some ways far more complicated than it appears on the surface, and at the same time is often driven by the most basic of reasons.
The shame that many Iraqis feel is not enough to compel them to take up arms against the Coalition–if that were the case, the volume of weaponry in Baghdad alone would make the U.S. presence untenable. (The Shia, in particular, must have enormous secret depots of small-arms ordinance just to shoot into the air to celebrate marriages.) Rather, there is another, more combustible aspect in the Iraqi personality, something that seeks healing for the wound of humiliation in violence and bloodletting. To find it, I traveled to the Sunni Triangle itself.
Remember, this was long before the offensive into Fallujah.
In Fallujah one afternoon, I chatted with three guys at a corner tea stand who swore that, just the day before, they saw a U.S. soldier shoot a woman dead in the street. A week earlier, they continued, another GI killed a man and his son who were working as night guards in a garage. My heart sinking, I asked for directions to the scene of the woman’s murder, and within minutes, Dhia and I were at the vacant street corner, where, by good fortune, a policeman was walking by. No, the men in the teahouse were wrong, the cop explained to my relief. The woman’s slayer was a local man whose father had been murdered by her son. “Revenge,” he shrugged.
“She was Kurdish,” he added, as if that explained something.
With his intelligent eyes, ruddy complexion, and barber-shop-quartet moustache, the officer struck me as a decent fellow able to separate fact from rumor when it came to reports of American crimes. I asked him about the father and son killed at the garage.
“Oh, yes,” his jaw clenching, “that was done by an American soldier.”
“What happened to the soldier?”
“Nothing! Nothing ever happens to the soldiers who kill us.”
“Does it happen a lot?”
The policeman’s face turned crimson. “Americans have killed thousands of Iraqis since they came here. Do you hear me? Thousands! They killed my brother’s thirteen-year-old son, his only son!” I had struck a nerve: faster and faster spilled the man’s words, a kind of reverse-image of the pro-American Shia cab driver I had met in Baghdad three months earlier.
“The Americans hate the Sunnis and insha’allah, we hate them. Believe me, this is why the people kill the soldiers! We were kings when Saddam was president–now what? Nothing! Life is so expensive, there are no jobs–especially for Sunnis! This is what George Bush brings us! Nothing! Saddam’s shoes are better than George Bush!” Trembling with rage, he thrust a finger in my face. “In Fallujah, there are 135 mosques! This is a Muslim city. It is forbidden for Americans to be here. The people of Fallujah say, ‘You must leave!’ Especially to the American soldiers, for they are all Zionists! And they are here with fighters from other Arab countries, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia. All here with Zionist America to steal from Iraq!”
Just when I feared the policeman might explode, his feverish anger seemed to break, and he blinked and looked at Dhia and me as if noticing us for the first time. Then he invited us for lunch.
Later, Vincent discusses the terms used to identify those fighting Coalition and new Iraqi forces, and I’ll admit that I’m not at all sure what the answer is.
Barely a week after my last visit to Fallujah, twenty-two policemen died when their station came under a fierce and organized assault by some seventy attackers. I have often wondered if my mustachioed friend with whom I lunched was among the fatalities, but I will never know.
Nor will I ever know the identity of the assailants. Hearing about the attack in Baghdad, I surfed the internet for additional information. I found anti-war websites –among them, the indomitable is Occupation Watch–that called the gunmen the “resistance.” The London-based news service Reuters used the term “guerrillas”; another news source mentioned “insurgents.” Returning to my room, I caught a BBC-TV newscaster who reported that the fighters were “insurgents, anti-Coalition forces, whatever you want to call them.”
Of those three descriptions, the BBC’S was the most accurate–if nothing else, the reporter captured the confusion over what to call the combatants who continue to kill American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. Despite their VC-like stealth, are they really “guerillas”?
Even though they appear to be rising up against a foreign “occupation” do they deserve the term “insurgents?” Although they, and others, claim they are “resisting” the Coalition, does that make them a “Resistance?”
This is not mere semantics. The terms the media use to report on Iraq profoundly affect how Americans perceive this conflict and,
by extension, how much blood and treasure they are willing to sacrifice on behalf of the Iraqi people. To put it another way, the degree to which America’s conception of this war remains unclear and misleading constitute victories to those who would rob the Iraqis of their future. Moral clarity is crucial in this conflict.
Unfortunately, America lost this clarity within weeks of the war’s beginning. As soon as Saddam’s statue fell in Firdousi Square, both pro- and anti-war camps accepted the notion that the U.S.-led Coalition was an “occupying” power. The term is accurate in a legal sense, of course, enshrined in international conventions and recognized by the UN, but supporters of the war should have avoided and, when confronted with it, vigorously contested its use. For there is another way of viewing the situation. Once, in a Baghdad restaurant, I overhead some Westerners and Iraqis discussing the conflict–when the Westerners asked what they thought of the “occupation” one Iraqi retorted, “What ‘occupation’? This is a liberation.”
Words matter. By not sufficiently challenging the term “occupation” Coalition supporters ceded crucial rhetorical ground to opponents of the war, and in the process fell into a dialectical trap. Simply put, the epithet “occupation” has a negative connotation–for example, “occupied France.” Conversely, anyone who objects to being occupied and chooses to “resist” has our sympathies. (How many movies have you seen where the resistance fighters are the villains?) On an emotional level, skillfully manipulated by the Coalition’s enemies, the situation in Iraq quickly boiled down to an easily grasped, if erroneous, equation: the occupation is bad; the resistance is good.
I’ve been one to refer to the Coalition presence in Iraq as an ‘occupation’, though I’ve always tried to make sure that my position was that this occupation was much like the occupation of post-WW2 Germany. (And that it was likely to last as long.) As much as being the “occupier” drums up negative feelings, I simply don’t know how else to address it and maintain honesty. As the woman noted earlier said, it is shameful to learn that you cannot do for yourself what needs to be done, and I’ve pointed out to my children many times that no one really likes to see soldiers patrolling the streets of their neighborhood, even if the soldiers mean well.
But Vincent has a great point on the use of terminology in this matter, and he’s right that it has cost us and will continue to do so. In that sense, I guess, I’m a bit unpatriotic when held up to my own standards, as I considered Newsweek magazine to be unpatriotic when it chose to run the Koran-flushing story. Both the Koran-flushing story and the use of the term “occupation” will strengthen those that oppose us and will probably bring harm to American soldiers and the innocent Iraqis they mean to protect.
It wasn’t an accident that the anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan were referred to as “freedom fighters” by Ronald Reagan when we were aiding them. But would the heirs of Reagan refer to those same men as “freedom fighters” if they opposed US forces today? We know the answer. Popular sentiment is almost always with the resistance and with the underdog. At heart, most people are happy to see the little guy strike back against big bully. And throughout nearly all of history it has been that way.
But apply these concepts to Iraq and you misrepresent the situation. The conflict there is not a mid-twentieth century colonial uprising. The anti-government fedayeen are not Fanon’s “wretched of the earth.” The gunmen are not “indigenous peoples” fighting an anti-imperialistic conflict. To view them through a Marxist-Chomskyite-anti-capitalist-Hollywood template is an exercise in false moral clarity. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in October, 2003: “The great irony is that the Baathists and Arab dictators are opposing the U.S. in Iraq because–unlike many leftists–they understand exactly what this war is about. They understand that U.S. power is not being used in Iraq for oil, or imperialism, or to shore up a corrupt status quo, as it was in Vietnam and elsewhere in the Arab world during the cold war. They understand that this is the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the US has ever launched–a war of choice to install some democracy in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world.”
Say that to an American “leftist” and I can virtually guarantee the first response you’ll get, and it consists of three capital letters. What’s interesting, though I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it brought up by anyone, is that I haven’t heard one single insurgent, terrorist, or freedom fighter in Iraq ever claim that the American invasion of Iraq is unjust because Saddam didn’t possess any WMD. That doesn’t excuse any lack of judgment or poor intel, of course, but it demonstrates that our enemies are far clearer on what’s happening than your typical anti-war American critic.
While embedded reporters accompanied US troops through the Karbala gap in 2003, Steven Vincent accompanied an Iraqi citizen to the festival of Ashura in Karbala in 2004. This was a Major Event, as the festival was strictly controlled by the Baathists and pilgrims were not allowed to make the journey during the last decade of Saddam’s rule. In short, Ashura is the Shiite commemoration of the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD and the martyrdom of Hussain. This Alamo-like last stand of The Prophet’s grandson and his people signified the split of the Party of Ali (to become the Shiites) from mainstream Islam (the Sunnis). In my ignorance, I will explain no more of this history, though it is clear that this event forms the spiritual basis of Shiite life, the bedrock upon which their faith is built.
On another occasion, Samir and I ran across a parade of about two hundred Iraqi women–their entire bodies, down to their faces and hands, covered in black–many of them bearing Arabic signs. DEATH TO AMERICA, read one, translated by Samir; AMERICA IS THE GREAT SATAN, read another.
Then there was an incident involving Samir himself. Leaving Karbala that afternoon, we stopped to eat at his friend’s restaurant just outside of town, where, during most of the meal, I had to endure waiters and customers offering me their opinions about the U.S.–America was “no good,” Bush a “bad man,” the invasion “only for oiU’ or to “help Israel” and so on. I looked to Samir for help, thinking he might admonish his pals to back off, but he avoided my eyes, eating and smoking in silence. His detachment concerned me. Did he agree with his friends? Did he, too, harbor animosities toward the U.S. And if so, how far could I trust him?
When we returned to Karbala on March 2, the climactic day of Ashura, I found my mood had darkened. Part of it was Samir:
I wondered if his gruff taciturnity was in fact disguising hostility toward me. The flood of sensory input didn’t help any either–the ear-splitting eulogies, chest-thumping worshippers, banners, flags, crowds grown so dense in Karbala’s main square they now stood practically immobile. Something else felt immobile, too: the spirit of whole festival.
All this devotion doesn’t lead anywhere, I realized. It seemed circular, repetitious. For all its religiosity, Ashura lacked symbols that lift the spiritual imagination beyond the Battle of Karbala. What it needed, I thought heretically, was an image of resurrection: Hussain rising, Christ-like, from the ashes of his failure and defeat. But the Iman is a man, not a man-god. The story of Ashura must end with his death–anything else in Islam would be shirk, blasphemy.
At the same time, though, I began to wonder if the Christian motifs in Shia iconography weren’t exactly what they seemed: a desire to emulate Christianity and–in a case of flagrant shirk–deify Hussam and Ali, transform them into Christ-like incarnations of God. Ashura could use such a myth. Lacking a sense of transcendence, the festival offered the Shia no catharsis, no symbolic redemption. And so, like trauma victims, the pilgrims obsessively repeated scenes of the Karbala massacre, reliving the agonies, the suffering, their religiosity growing increasingly overwrought.
I began to see the festival with different eyes. Mirrored replicas of Hussain’s bier, decorated with ornate vases and artificial flowers. Black bunting descending from the facades of the two mosques. One-hundred-foot-long banners spelling out Hussain’s name in bleeding red letters. Eight-foot-long white silk flags depicting crossed swords, the blades oozing blood…pictures of severed hands, severed heads…a fountain in front of Meshed Ali spraying geysers of blood-red liquid…bloody swords flashing over the heads of milling crowds…men with blood-soaked bandages wrapped around their heads to stanch the bleeding from self-inflicted wounds…endless posters of the slaughtered innocents …
This an orgy of death imagery, I thought.
Meanwhile, tromping through the crowd, processions of men wearing headbands and black t-shirts marched in heavy lockstep to the beat of two bass drums, groaning in unison as each struck his back with a metal flogger. Ya, Hussain–UH! Ya, Hussain–UH!
I saw children flagellate themselves with smaller versions of the adults’ metal floggers. I met a group of men sharpening on whetstones the swords they planned to use to slash their foreheads. “Come back at five this afternoon,” they told me, as if advertising a performance.
I think I need to point out that Vincent isn’t at all claiming that Islam is trying to imitate Christianity. He’s saying that the people are looking for answers, and that their search sometimes will lead them in directions not totally at odds with the same search that Christians are on.
The basic beliefs of people are not to be trifled with. Come to my office some day and tell me how the people in the World Trade Center deserved their fate because of America’s policies and I’ll throw you out. Tell me I’m raising my children wrong and I’m certain to go on the defensive–and if you read my site enough you’ll have realized that I subscribe to the doctrine of “the best defense is a good offense”. People hold core beliefs and it is simply disastrous to attack those beliefs directly. Doing so is translated into an attack on the very fiber of the person himself, an assault upon the base essence of what makes him who he is. And, right or wrong, he will fight you as if he’s fighting for his very soul–which he is.
As we all know, religion is one of these core beliefs for a great many people, and for Muslims probably more strongly than for most others in this world. Woe unto us if we meddle too much in the affairs of Believers of any sort. Religious leader/politician Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is the physical embodiment of this dilemma in Iraq.
When cautioned during World War II not to anger the Vatican, Stalin famously retorted, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Sistani has no military power either, yet he keeps the Coalition at bay by controlling the invisible power of popular appeal: the Ayatollah is, quite simply, beloved of millions of Shia. In large part because he has advised his followers to tolerate the Anglo-American presence–and has refrained from issuing fatwas, or religious rulings against their armies–the Shia have not engaged in a Sunni-style insurrection. Mindful of the failed uprising of 1920, after which Britain turned to Iraq’s more compliant Sunnis to run the country, Sistani has instead counseled patience. “The circumstances are not right to call for jihad” one of his representatives told an AP reporter in June, 2003. “At present we are using peaceful means to demand a constitution and a representative government. But,” he added as a caveat, “it will be a different story if those demands aren’t met.”
We can’t see exactly what it is that Sistani is trying for, and part of the reason we can’t see it is that we wouldn’t understand it if we could. But that makes it no less real, and no less important to watch.
In all of this, along with the understanding that the Shiites could really make a mess out of things if they rose up en masse is the fact that we, as comfortable, basically secular, Americans, just plain don’t get what our enemies are thinking most of the time. We watch what they do and we just don’t understand.
As I’ve noted, Shia imagery extols mutilation and gore, while the commemoration of Ashura is fixated on death. Not, however, death as a spiritual passage to redemption, but death as a cruel and sensual spectacle. Rather than internalize the spirit of Hussain, Shia rituals, traditions, and imagery tend to externalize the event, degrading its message of spiritual submission into empty displays of piety and grief. They exhibit overzealous, theatrical signs of worship, while offering few symbols to effect an inward transformation of the soul. What results is a peculiar attitude that views martyrdom not as the sacrifice of the self to God, but as the glorification of the self by God. If early Christians believed that the blood of martyrs nourished the Church, the Shia hold that martyr’s blood embellishes their own holiness, and that of their families, for untold generations.
This idea that God venerates those who “witness” themselves supplies, of course, the theological justification for suicide bombing. And though the Shia organization Hezbollah pioneered this modern use of shohada, an important distinction exists between the Sunni and Shia varieties. The Sunni terrorist seeks honor and exaltation in a kind of suicidal sadism, killing as many of his civilian enemies as possible. The Shia shaheed, on the other hand, pursues his spiritual apotheosis by getting his enemies to kill him–a lethal exhibitionism first seen in the Iraq-Iran War, when Tehran sent waves of teenage boys, adorned with red headbands and plastic keys to Paradise, into battle zones to trigger land mines. So far, Iraqi Shia radicals have not resorted to terrorism against civilians. In addition, rather than use clandestine IEDS or car bombs against U.S. troops, Sadr’s al-Mahdi militia opposed Marines in irregular combat–and paid the price. Re-enacting the fate of Hussain and his followers at Karbala, many Shias, it seems, would rather be killed than kill.
Different than Sistani among the Shiite leadership, of course, is Moqtada al-Sadr, or Darth Sadr as I tend to refer to him. Far less patient and tolerant, at least on the surface, there have obviously been more than a few run-ins with Sadr’s people over the past couple of years, some of them not insignificant. And there will be more to come, both in the halls of government and on the battlefield.
Moqtada is suspected of wanting to overturn Sistani’s authority and establish a messianic religious order of his own. Indicted in the murder of Ayatollah Khoei, in the spring of 2004 Moqtada forestalled arrest by launching his al-Mahdi militia in a brief uprising. He had hoped that Coalition overreaction would destroy shrines in Karbala and Najaf, enflaming the masses and expanding his power base, but his gambit achieved only limited success. American troops decimated his militiamen, while causing minimal damage to holy sites; meanwhile, the Shia rejected his grab for leadership, maintaining their loyalty to Sistani. Moqtada went to ground in Najaf, where, surrounded by armed followers, he evoked the mythic image of Karbala–denouncing the U.S., for example, as “Yazid” and declaring that “martyrdom gives us dignity from God.”
Before his uprising, Iraqis repeatedly told me not to concern myself with Moqtada–that he was a “punk,” “too young and inexperienced” to command a large following. But of course, I spoke to reasonable people. It is the unreasonable Iraqis–over two million of them, for example, in Baghdad’s Sadr City, a wretched Shia slum–who support Moqtada. Their support is possibly strong enough to force the new government to create a role for the cleric, despite his murder indictment and his responsibility for the deaths of numerous GIs.
It is possible, however, that Moqtada is a remnant of the Shia past–that under Sistani’s guidance, the Party of Ali can transcend its fascination with alienation and death and assume the responsibilities of temporal power.
We need to understand the conflict within Islam if we are to understand the conflict within the Middle East. I don’t pretend to understand any but a smallest fraction, but it seems clear that many in positions of power and authority understand less than that. And we will continue to suffer for it.