The current insurrection in Iraq was discernable a year ago, as I already noted in April 2003:
“Thousands of Iraqi Shiites chanted “‘No to America, No to Saddam, Yes to Islam” a few days ago, during pilgrimage rites at the holy city of Karbala. Increasing numbers of Iraqis appear to agree with these sentiments. They have ominous implications for the coalition forces.”
The recent wave of violence makes those implications fully apparent.
Cartoon by Cox and Forkum
Two factors in particular made me expect Iraqi resistance. First, the quick war of 2003 focused on overturning a hated tyrant so that, when it was over, Iraqis felt liberated, not defeated. Accordingly, the common assumption that Iraq resembled the Germany and Japan of 1945 was wrong. Those two countries had been destroyed through years of all-out carnage, leading them to acquiesce to the post-war overhaul of their societies and cultures. Iraq, in contrast, emerged almost without damage from brief hostilities and Iraqis do not feel they must accept guidance from the occupation forces. Rather, they immediately showed a determination to shape their country’s future.
Second, as a predominantly Muslim people, Iraqis share in the powerful Muslim reluctance to being ruled by non-Muslims. This reluctance results from the very nature of Islam, the most public and political of religions.
To live a fully Muslim life requires living in accord with the many laws of Islam, called the Sharia. The Sharia includes difficult-to-implement precepts pertaining to taxation, the judicial system, and warfare. Its complete implementation can occur only when the ruler himself is a pious Muslim (though an impious Muslim is much preferable to a non-Muslim ). For Muslims, rule by non-Muslims is an abomination, a blasphemous inversion of God’s dispensation.
This explains why one finds a consistently strong resistance to rule by non-Muslims through 14 centuries of Muslim history. Europeans recognized this resistance and in their post-crusades global expansion stayed largely away from majority-Muslim territories, knowing these would awesomely resist their control.
The pattern is striking: For over four centuries, from 1400 to 1830, Europeans expanded around the world, trading, ruling, and settling — but distinctly in places where Muslims were not, such as the Western Hemisphere, sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, and Australia. In a clear pattern of avoidance, the imperial powers –Britain, France, Holland, and Russia especially — took control of far-away territories, while carefully avoiding their Muslim neighbors in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
Only in 1830 did a European power (France) find the confidence frontally to confront a Muslim state (Algeria). Even then, the French needed 17 years just to control the coastal region.
As European rulers conquered Muslim lands, they found they could not crush the Islamic religion, nor win the population over culturally, nor stamp out political resistance. However suppressed, some embers of resistance remained; these often sparked a flame of anti-imperialism that finally drove the Europeans out. In Algeria, a successful eight-year effort, 1954-62, expelled the French colonial authority.
Nor was the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq the first Western undertaking to unburden Muslims of tyrannical rule. Already in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte appeared in Egypt with an army and declared himself a friend of Islam who had come to relieve the oppressed Egyptians of their Mamluk rulers. His successor as commander in Egypt, J.F. Menou, actually converted to Islam. But these efforts to win Egyptian goodwill failed, as Egyptians rejected the invaders’ proclaimed good intentions, and remained hostile to French rule. The European-run “mandates” set up in the Middle East after World War I included similar lofty intentions and also found few Muslim takers.
This history suggests that the coalition’s grand aspirations for Iraq will not succeed. However constructive its intentions to build democracy, the coalition cannot win the confidence of Muslim Iraq nor win acceptance as its overlord. Even spending $18 billion in one year on economic development does not improve matters.
I therefore counsel the occupying forces quickly to leave Iraqi cities and then, when feasible, to leave Iraq as a whole. They should seek out what I have been calling for since a year ago: a democratically-minded Iraqi strongman, someone who will work with the coalition forces, provide decent government, and move eventually toward a more open political system.
This sounds slow, dull, and unsatisfactory. But at least it will work — in contrast to the ambitious but failing current project.