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Saying the Unsayable

Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising, and the Arab World

by Kanan Makiya
Norton, 367 pp., $22.95

As he has been a target for the Iraqi police, he will now be the target for Arab and pro-Arab intellectuals. The book will drive them crazy.”

—A.M. Rosenthal,
The New York Times,
April 13, 1993

Personally I should fear the Iraqi police much more than the Arab intellectuals—though the audacity of Kanan Makiya’s argument lies precisely in the connection he draws between the two. But I think if I were an Arab intellectual (and Makiya clearly sees himself as one) the praise of A. M. Rosenthal is what I should fear most.

Rosenthal enlists Makiya in support of his argument that “no matter how much land Israelis surrender for peace, the next day they will wake up still surrounded by regimes that survive by hate and sword,” and he recommends Cruelty and Silence “to Israelis or friends of Israel who persuade themselves to forget that until the Arab world is guided toward freedom by men like Kanan Makiya, Israel will be dancing with rulers who slaughter their very own.” In other words, because an Arab writer has had the courage to attack head-on the perversions that have grown up in his own culture, Israel is exempt from any obligation, whether moral or prudential, to negotiate a peace settlement based on withdrawal from occupied Arab territory.

Makiya was probably well aware when writing his book that it would be exploited in this way. But he did not allow that thought to deter him from writing it, because it is precisely that kind of inhibition that he is attacking. It is all too easy to foresee how the Arab intellectuals he criticized will belabor him with Rosenthal’s column and others like it. “Makiya must be well pleased with himself,” they will sneer. “Look who his friends are now. Look whose cause his self-hating diatribe has served!”

I think of that argument as Stalinist. It was extensively used by Stalin himself and by his myriad acolytes and imitators, some of whom even succeeded in foisting it on well-meaning liberal peaceniks in the West. (“Do you really think publishing this sort of thing in a Western newspaper serves any purpose, other than to fortify the cold war establishment?” a Czech dissident friend of mine was asked in the early 1970s by a prominent British journalist to whom he had submitted an account of the Husák regime’s latest human rights violations.)

But of course this style of argument was not invented by Stalin. It has probably been used by every side in every conflict since human beings first acquired the ability to criticize and ask awkward questions. “How dare you wash the family’s dirty linen in public?” it says. “Don’t you realize you are serving the interests of the enemy? In fact, if you persist in doing it there will be only one word for you: traitor.” It is working overtime right now in both Serbia and Croatia, and no doubt in many parts of the former Soviet Union. It has been used extensively over the years by “Israelis and friends of Israel,” such as Rosenthal himself. The phrase “self-hating Jew” has even been used from time to time. How predictable, therefore, that Makiya should have been called a “self-hating Arab,” as he tells us he was by “non-Iraqi Arab Americans” in 1991.

Kanan Makiya, it should be explained, is already familiar to readers of The New York Review as “Samir al-Khalil,” author of Republic of Fear and The Monument, and of articles in these pages during the Gulf War. He incurred the wrath of those non-Iraqi Arab-Americans when he appealed to the US in March 1991 to finish the war by pressing on to Baghdad, and to undertake the reconstruction of Iraq as a democracy, as it had done with Germany and Japan after defeating them in 1945.1 I myself—and if anyone wants to call me a “pro-Arab intellectual” I shall take it as a compliment—thought at the time that he went too far. I argued (in The New York Review of May 16, 1991) that “by driving straight on to Baghdad, the US and its allies would have confirmed the widely held view in the region that their real objective was the destruction and domination of Iraq rather than the liberation of Kuwait.” I felt that President Bush was right to wait for civil war to break out in Iraq, so that the world could see “it was the Iraqi people as much as or more than the Western powers, who wanted Saddam out”; but that once it did break out he should have helped Saddam’s opponents to win by supplying them with food, weapons, and air cover.

In his new book “al-Khalil,” now writing under his real name, pieces together as much as can be known about what actually happened in southern Iraq during those crucial days of the intifada, or uprising, which followed immediately after the Gulf War. It is a fascinating but far from edifying story. Makiya himself admits to having lost some illusions about the intifada in the course of his research. “With an iron logic,” he writes, “the rebellion that I fully associated myself with mirrored the tyranny it had so earnestly sought to rid Iraq of. An abyss of human hell opened up—mass murder, wanton desecration—along with acts of the purest self-sacrifice, courage, consideration, and compassion.” He describes in detail how Shi’a Muslims, among them former soldiers and army deserters, joined with others to organize uprisings in Basra and Najaf and other southern cities and how in some cases they indiscriminately killed their fellow townsmen. “Such violence,” Makiya writes, “justified in the name of Islam, but more often than not motivated by the desire for vengeance, promptly terminated the lifeblood of the intifada: the flow of defections from the army.”

According to one of Makiya’s informants, Um Husain, a traditional, veiled housewife from Basra, the pattern of violence followed by the rebels in government buildings was “kill every official you could get your hands on, loot everything inside, spread some kerosene around the building, light a match, and get the hell out of the place fast.” There were no courts, she adds, “just roving bands,” some composed of exiles returning from Iran. “They’re not good people, the ones who came—they destroyed, burned, demolished. They killed and fled. Is Islam like this?” To which Makiya replies, “This is not Islam; this is Ba’thism’s mirror image.”

In the book’s central essay, entitled “Whither Iraq?,” Makiya insists on the moral devastation the Baath regime has brought about in Iraq and on the fact that this will inevitably still be there even when the regime itself comes to an end. There is an echo here of Václav Havel’s speech at the time of the Velvet Revolution, about the moral contamination that communism had spread throughout Czechoslovak society. But the Velvet Revolution was able to earn that name because Czechoslovak communism itself, in its latter days, was velvet-gloved; it refrained from killing people and from physical torture. There is no such velvet glove on Saddam’s iron fist. “Saddam Hussein,” Makiya writes,

invents and reinvents his enemies from the entire mass of human materials that is at his disposal. He thrives on the distrust, suspicion, and conspiratorialism which his regime actively inculcates in everyone; he positively expects to breed hate and a thirst for revenge in Sunni and Shi’i alike. As a consequence civil society, attacked from every direction, has virtually collapsed in Iraq…. The fact that Iraqis are already competing with each other over who has suffered the most is a sign that whether or not Saddam is still around in person, what he represented lives on inside Iraqi hearts.

Makiya is especially severe on the Shi’a community, to which his own family belongs, and which makes up the majority of Iraq’s population. Saddam’s Baath organization, he says, was only able to defeat the intifada by whipping up Shi’i-Sunni hatred.

The strategy worked not because the Americans didn’t support the intifada (which of course they didn’t), and certainly not because they actively wanted Saddam to stay on (they would much prefer to have seen him replaced by some other strongman from the army or the Ba’thi inner circle). Nor even did Saddam’s strategy of inculcating sectarianism among Iraqis work because he was better armed and better equipped; it worked solely because of a failure of Shi’i political leadership.

If that judgment is accepted at face value, it means that for Bush to have supported the intifada without occupying Baghdad would have made no difference, unless possibly to produce an even longer and ghastlier bloodbath. Only a full-scale occupation and process of rehabilitation, over a period of years, could offer any hope of civilized government, let alone democracy, in a society so profoundly sick. Such a process is what Makiya called for in March 1991. “What would have happened if the US had withdrawn from Europe after World War II with no commitment to democracy and economic reconstruction?” Implicitly he still hankers for a continued US presence, writing with great bitterness of the legacy of “George Bush’s unfinished war.”

The legacy includes the “Iraqis who died as a result of the Iraqi uprising … and through epidemics and waterborne diseases resulting from wartime damage to the country’s infrastructure,” and who far outnumber the directly war-related deaths during January and February. It also includes the long-term consequences of the war for health, and the “lost generation” of Iraqi children, meaning those who “died as a direct consequence of the American decision to target the power stations in the country and then wash its hands of Iraq, leaving them unrepaired.”

Makiya writes of nearly five million children who “risk spending their formative years in deprived circumstances as a result of the Gulf crisis,” among whom psychologists have found “the most traumatized children of war ever described” (80 percent of the primary-school-age children interviewed lived in daily fear of losing their families through death or separation and “nearly two-thirds did not believe they would make it to adulthood”). Above all, he evokes the despair which led a longstanding family friend to write to him ridiculing calls for human rights and tolerance as utterly meaningless in the actual circumstances of postwar Iraq.

I don’t know. I still like to think that if the West had actively supported the opposition at least some of these horrors could have been avoided without an allied occupation; that, with Western backing, a leadership pledged to respect human rights and the rule of law could have succeeded in imposing a degree of discipline on the insurgents; and that the army could have seen its best hope of survival in ensuring an orderly transition rather than in drowning the postwar insurrections in blood and restoring Baath power. But maybe all that was wishful thinking.

  1. 1

    See The New York Review, April 11, 1991, and his Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, March 27, 1991.

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