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After Saddam, what?

By Steven D. Laib
web posted April 28, 2003

"And so it begins…" The less than immortal words spoken by Ambassador Kosh in J. Michael Straczynski's Babylon 5. Kosh was referring to the Shadow War, a conflict between what passed for good and evil in the context of Straczynski's universe. And so it begins now in Iraq; not the war to liberate the Iraqi people, but the war over whether they will be able to liberate themselves; not what everyone expects, but what must be due to the realities, which exist in that part of the world.

An Iraqi Shiite Muslim from a Hawza, a Shia religious school, displays an anti-American poster as several thousand Shiites chanted slogans against a US-imposed government in the second day of such protests coinciding with a major pilgrimage in the holy city of Kabala
An Iraqi Shiite Muslim from a Hawza, a Shia religious school, displays an anti-American poster as several thousand Shiites chanted slogans against a US-imposed government in the second day of such protests coinciding with a major pilgrimage in the holy city of Kabala

On Friday, April 18, 2003, just over one week after the fall of Baghdad, Muslim elements took to the streets demanding an Islamic state. Suddenly the efforts of coalition forces were forgotten in cries of "No to America; yes to Islamic state." This outburst was apparently at the urging of clerics who were purportedly upset over the closing of the mosques one week before while there was still significant danger of continued hostilities. This danger to the public was real however, another more important danger existed; political rabble rousing like that of April 18. If it had happened one week before it is impossible to determine what the consequences might have been with conditions less settled.

It was reported that at one mosque people chanted "our revolution is Islamic" forgetting, it seems, that there was no revolution and that the Saddam had been in power for over 20 years. The 1991 revolt ended in disaster for the Islamic revolutionaries. One cleric stated that Americans should "get out before we force you out." Other demonstrators chanted "America is God's enemy." Was Saddam God's enemy too, after all, he had closed shrines and killed many Muslim Iraqis, or was his Arabic background an excuse for allowing him to remain in power and for anger at his being deposed? Meanwhile, some other regional governments are also asking, more formally, for a quick exit by American forces. It appears that they will get no such luck, and probably a good thing too.

America has a lot at stake in the post-Saddam Iraq. Not only is the planned effort at nation building on the table, the future of the entire region may well be sitting behind that effort. Consider the "strong horse/weak horse" analogy used by bin Laden when he promoted the war on America. Bin Laden may have been confused about a lot of things, but in this case he was absolutely correct. The West must now prove itself to be the strong horse in more than a military sense. Even better would be to prove that it is an iron horse, capable of, reforming the entire region. The U.S. government has excellent ideas for what Iraq might be capable of if a western style system were present. The Heritage Foundation has also made glowing predictions if an American style federal system could bring stability and economic growth to the entire population. Getting that population to understand what is necessary and then to do it is the challenge. Failure may bring a heavy price for them and for us. Consider the case of Algeria, which attempted a democratic system after the French colonial government pulled out. The results were, and continue to be, very poor. Political violence is rampant. Competitions between the secularists and theocrats, combined with long standing tribal rivalries have made stability and economic progress essentially impossible.

However, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. There is always that concern that this might be the headlight of an oncoming train. Still, the Arab press has recently published a small number of items suggesting that re-evaluation of their present situation is in order. From Arab News 4/20/2003 Dr. Khaled Batarfi writes* "…we have one and only one course of action to take: Reforms." "Solving the Arab-Israeli conflict must be a priority. Rebuilding an Iraqi model of freedom and prosperity is another." He suggests that this will not only benefit the Arab world, but America as well, which he welcomes. At the same time, his angst over the existence of Israel is apparent and his commitment may be less than total. Turki Al-Hamad/Al-Madinah, also in Arab News on 4/19/03 suggests that part of the problem lies with a constant emphasis on violence in Arab culture. "We live in a crisis from within, one of our own making. Instead of facing a problem head-on, we run and bury ourselves in futile discussion. Look at the war in Iraq; the blame is laid on the invading forces while ignoring the fact that it was a repressive regime of our own creation that led to the problem in the first place. We must realize we are part of the world and not its sole representatives." From Saad Al-Dosari/Al-Watan April 20, 2003 "We could learn from Japan, a country twice bombed by nuclear weapons and devastated during WWII. Then it became a major industrial power." Or two statements quoted in The New Republic. Anas Zahid in a Saudi Arabic language daily wrote "If we don't face ourselves and discuss our shortcomings…nobody can do anything for us. We are responsible for all that is happening to us" and in Lebanon's Daily Star Shafeeq Ghabra's telling statement "These fateful days have revealed the degree of cultural degradation in our region."

Ghabra's statement is probably the most significant. He seems to realize that the problem is a cultural one, which needs addressing at its source, and learning from Japan would be a good start. Japan's culture was isolationist until relations were opened with the United States leading to the realization that the forces of civilization and technology had left them behind. The realization was tough to swallow and the transition period of the Bakumatsu even tougher. In the end, Japan emerged a better, stronger and more western nation. Unfortunately, it went too far in emulating the militarist style of government that had come into vogue. By 1945 what Japan learned, in most respects, is that a blended culture, combining the best parts of its own traditions with the best that the rest of the world has to offer has many benefits and few detriments. This is what the Arab world has to learn. Today, in many respects, they still live in a closed culture.

As Abdulhamid Al-Ansary wrote in Arab News, the Arab media did not consider for a moment the role of Iraq's ruler in the destruction and ruin of the country; how he had destroyed the environment, education, health and legal systems. What Al-Ansary has shown anyone who will listen is that the Arab media played the attack on Saddam Hussein as an attack on all Arabs; that Saddam may be a bloody tyrant, but he is an Arab so we must support him. But Dr. Al-Ansary goes further. "There are still those who justify and philosophize about media partiality. They claim that it is partiality for the honor and dignity of the community. Has not honor and dignity been rendered miserable if the dignity of man has not been preserved?"

The "dignity of man" is an exceptional concept, in that it requires the recognition of individualism, freedom of action, and of freedom of thought. It requires an understanding that the human mind must be free. Over one thousand years ago the majority of the Arab population wedded itself to a culture, which denied all of this. As Elan Journo of the Ayn Rand Institute puts it, the Arab people surrendered their reason, their ability to make rational judgments, as part of that social order. According to Journo, since the 9th century the Arab world has translated only about one hundred thousand books from other languages into Arabic. This, he says is somewhat less than are translated from other languages into Spanish in a single year. It is no wonder, then, that the levels of intellectual development, technological sophistication and cross-cultural understanding are so low in Arab dominated nations.

The key to a new Iraq will very likely lie within the capacity of their new government to recognize the worth of the individual and to allow him or her to reach that personal potential not only by freeing their bodies, but their minds as well. Freeing the individual is a risky business in a part of the world where conformity is the rule, more often than not. Rocking the cultural boat is considered very bad form and diversity is not well accepted. Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, in short, everyone must learn to look beyond their group identities and see their places in the world as individuals. They must reject the isolationist aspects of tradition and cultural "groupthink" in order to open the gates of the world's knowledge. It will be a very unsettling experience. Of course, opening these gates will also require that the religious hierarchy take a back seat. Christianity must be available in Iraq, even as it became available in Japan. In the end it didn't hurt the Japanese a bit.

When the Arab people truly begin the process of self-examination it will require them to learn how Christianity has changed over the years in ways Islam has not; how the Christianity accepted and then outgrew extremism, and became a major part of the reason for the success of Western society. This process will allow them the freedom to embrace reason and religious faith at the same time. This is something the West has enjoyed for over a thousand years. Faith and devotion to faith should not be denied, but they must not overwhelm reason. After all, why did God give us the ability to think in the first place?

* Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English language daily. It may be accessed on line at www.arabnews.com

Steven D. Laib grew up a conservative in Berkeley California, during the 1960s. He holds a law degree from University of San Francisco and an MS (tax) from California State University at Hayward. He splits his time between a small law practice, a small manufacturing company and political research and writing.

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