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Three things Western analysts get wrong about the Middle East

In 1870, that great Victorian, John Henry Newman, published his “Grammar of Assent.” It was — and is — a justification for religious faith in a skeptical world.

My aim is less noble: To provide the outlines of a “Grammar of Dissent” — a justification for skepticism about many of the non-religious claims commonly made by Western commentators about the recent history of the Middle East and North Africa.

It has become almost standard for anyone who wants to criticize US policy on Iraq or Iran, or the actions of some regional states, to create “straw men.” In other words, they attribute positions or beliefs to Western states or individual commentators that they then proceed to discredit and so — as if producing a rabbit from a conjuror’s hat — win an argument rigged in their favor. This is disreputable. Here are some examples.

1. “Many of the problems we see in Iraq today lie in the US decision in 2010 to withdraw its troops from the country.”

This is the classic straw man argument. It is used to criticize presidents Obama and Trump together — but for entirely the wrong reasons.

The US would have liked to keep troops in Iraq for training and support. The problem was that they could not because prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki would not allow any further extension of the Iraq/US Status of Forces Agreement, which provided legal cover for the continued presence of US troops.

It was well known that the Iranians wanted Al-Maliki to ensure the removal of all Western troops in return for their support in his bid to overturn the election victory of Dr Iyad Al-Allawi’s Iraqiyya list. He had already made it clear that the British would not get an extension to their agreement.

In any case, it is not obvious what Britain or the US could have done even with troops on the ground, given Al-Maliki’s increasing authoritarianism and his decision to replace virtually all divisional military commanders with incompetent loyalists (a large part of the reason for the collapse of the Iraqi military five years later).

The real problem was political; letting Al-Maliki get away with the theft of the elections, which left in charge of Iraq a man driven not by concern for the national interest but a vindictive sectarianism, benefiting himself and Iran above all.

And behind it sits a deeper cause; the sheer inability of the Obama administration to take Middle Eastern politics seriously enough or to understand what you should do with political — not military — power when you have it. After all, it was the Obama administration that launched a thousand drone strikes against its enemies in Al-Qaeda and Daesh. It simply failed to see the bigger political threat: Iran and its allies.

2. “Hawks in Washington and elsewhere think Hezbollah, the Houthis and the Shiite militias in Iraq are no more than puppets of Iran.”

This is a corollary to the above. Those who use this trope also often argue that Al-Maliki was not simply a puppet of Iran either, and that treating him and them as if they were, and are, betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the region and simply fans the flames of conflict.

The problem is that no one serious has ever argued that these groups or individuals are simply puppets of Iran. We all know the truth is much more complex. But Hezbollah, Badr, Asa’ib Ahl al Haq, Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba’, Liwa Abu al Fadl al Abbas, Kata’ib Hezbollah and so forth all share an underlying ideological orientation; they are committed Shiite Islamists who ultimately want to overthrow what they consider an unjust and illegitimate colonial order in the Middle East to usher in the reign of the saints, or more precisely the reign of the qualified Shiite jurisprudent who will act as the regent of the Imam on earth during his occultation. This was Khomeini’s position.

So if you are a Hezbollahi — as all these groups are in one way or another — you follow the line of the imam, which in practice means Khomeini or his successors, who claim uniquely to be able to interpret the divine will, save the oppressed and dispense righteous justice in this world.

This interpretation serves the interests of Iran because that is the state where the doctrine arose, which adopted it as its governing principle and which claims to be the protector of Shiites everywhere, providing national Shiite movements (as we know from exhaustive studies) with extensive funding, military support and political cover.

This is a highly unorthodox claim in the context of Shiite tradition. It has powerful opponents, including Ayatollah Sistani and some prominent clerics in Qom. And there is, of course, such a thing as Iraqi, Lebanese or Yemeni Shiite nationalism (though it is not much like classic 19th-century French or German nationalism).

But Khamenei has woven this doctrine into the fabric of the Iranian state using massive state funding and the power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij. And everything that Hezbollah, for example, has done since its foundation in the early 1980s suggests that it is determined to harness this particular form of “asabiyya,” or social solidarity, for its own purposes and to undermine any potential rivals (such as Amal or more secular Shiites) to continue to benefit exclusively from Iranian support.

In return, if Iran were attacked (which I very much hope does not happen; though Tehran continues to provoke, as we saw again last week), do I think Hezbollah would attack Israel? You bet I do. Do I think this serves Hezbollah’s interests or those of the Lebanese Shiites as a whole? You bet I do not. Do I think they would do it because Iran wanted them to do so? You bet I do.

Equally, do I think the Da’wah party in Iraq is an Iranian tool? No. It grew out of clerical circles in Najaf in the late 1950s, well before Khomeini became prominent, and was analogous to the religio-political movement seen among its predecessors in the early 1920s.

But the politics of the anti-British and Hashemite movements in Najaf and Karbala in 1922 are not the same as the politics of the post-revolutionary, significantly leftist Iraq of 1958, the hijacked revolution in Iran in 1979, or the collapsed Iraqi state after 2003. Da’wah has itself changed over the years and Iran’s patronage has become much more significant.

The same goes for the Houthis. Zaidi political theology is historically closer to Sunni practice in its preference for a ruler to be selected by the community, not simply imposed by clerics. We know that. But the Houthi relationship with Iran, too, has evolved over the years. The current conflict in Yemen gives them an opportunity to cause trouble for everyone. Iran likes that, Iran helps them, and that helps Iran.

This particular straw man is, of course, designed to discredit anyone who claims that Iran-aligned Shiite militias are a problem, by suggesting that they are better understood on their own terms in a national, rather than an international, context. But what can “on their own terms” mean when most of them openly admit to their close connections with Iran and their loyalty to the Rahbar-e-Moazzam, or supreme leader? Puppetry is, after all, a highly skilled art, designed to remain invisible.

3. “The Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate and democratic movement, forced into extremes by oppression.”

And this brings me on to my third straw man argument, and the last for this week. I have lost count of the times this argument has been made to justify support for Islamists in Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Kuwait, Turkey and in exile. Imprisoning, torturing and killing people for their political beliefs is wrong. Period. But you cannot have it both ways. You cannot, that is, say Egypt’s political system (or Jordan’s or Kuwait’s or Morocco’s) has been rigged for years and is therefore a fake democracy and then say that the Muslim Brotherhood, which has played those systems since the 1970s, is a democratic party. It has simply learned to pretend very well.

That does not make it Abraham Lincoln. It makes it a clever player of a game deliberately designed to exclude liberals, secularists, leftists and, indeed, Copts, which gave it in return the ability to impose highly conservative social and increasingly political norms as the precursor to what it hoped would be political hegemony. Ask Farag Foda — only you cannot; he’s dead.

What happened between 2011 and 2013 is that the Brotherhood thought its moment had come. It had not, any more than it had in 1953. That does not tell us they are martyrs for freedom. It tells us that while they are good at playing games, when reality hits, they do not know what they are doing.

In the end all of these straw men arguments are meant to discredit those who believe that what is happening in the region is a struggle for its future; not between freedom and oppression but between the sort of sociopolitical oppression in the name of God or sect that Europe last experienced in the 17th century — or perhaps in a secular form under the revolutionary regime in France in the 1790s — and a gradual recapturing of what Ibn Khaldun or Al-Mawardi would have recognized as a form of government dealing with the problems of this world with due respect for the divine but a profound understanding that human problems are for human ingenuity to solve.

It is going to be messy. But to adapt the Brotherhood’s slogan, al ‘aql – huwa al hall.