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Saying the Unsayable

Anyway, Makiya of all people is not one to waste much time in blaming the West. The most refreshing thing about Republic of Fear, his analysis of the Baath regime written before the Gulf War broke out, was precisely his explicit refusal to put the blame on the machinations of foreign imperialists, his insistence that Saddam’s abominable government was a genuine Iraqi product, for which Iraqis must take responsibility. And the hero of his new book is the Iraqi tank commander (to whom Makiya gives the name “Abu Haydar”—his real name remains unknown) who “tore down the barrier of fear” on February 28, 1991, by turning his gun turret against the giant mural of Saddam Hussein in Saad Square in downtown Basra.

He gave all Iraqis, including myself, the possibility of a future. On March 7, 1991, at Harvard University, the author of Republic of Fear could go public because of what that man … started in Basra on February 28. Since then my life, and that of all Iraqis, has completely changed.

The first half of Makiya’s book seeks to describe the reality of present-day Iraq through a series of personal testimonies. First comes that of a Kuwaiti he calls Khalil, who lived through the seven months of Iraqi occupation. Khalil gives a sickening description of how his house was looted and befouled. He also describes a visit to the Basra highway on which many retreating Iraqis were killed. Khalil looked inside the burnt-out vehicles and found:

Barbie dolls. Can you imagine! They stole Barbie dolls! Not just one doll, but lots of them. Dressed like brides in white lace. Ladies’ underwear, wall calendars, watches, cartons of cigarettes, piles upon piles of a silly magazine for Kuwaiti ladies called Mir’at al-Umma [The Mirror of the Nation]. Not to mention boxes of oranges and bags of rice and onions. Generally, the most trivial and silly things were taken. It was like a junk market. The stuff was spilling out of suitcases thrown into armored personnel carriers and the like. Iraqi soldiers had died amidst piles and piles of this stolen junk. It is bizarre and makes you start to think about your own life, to reflect about material things and their value. There was gold and jewelry in Kuwaiti houses; instead, look at what these men took with them while running away for the lives. What was more precious, I ask you, their life or these trinkets? What an ugly death! Regardless of whether or not you think this war is just, these men died cheap thieves.

Then there are the narratives of those who took part in or witnessed the intifada and its unbelievably savage repression in both the south and north. An important point here is that the rebellion in the south was not purely sectarian. Some Shi’ite tribes refused to join, “preferring to wait and see which way the wind was blowing,” whereas many Sunni Arabs did join.

But when Saddam’s Republican Guard divisions entered Najaf to suppress the revolt, its tanks had the words “la shi’a ba’da al-yawm” painted on them: “No more Shi’a after today.” And when the revolt had been suppressed it was denounced in a series of unsigned editorials in the official Baath newspaper al-Thawra.

The novelty came in the idea that the perpetrators were not only “foreign by virtue of their identity and nationality,” but were “alien to Iraq by virtue of their mentality, conscience, and feelings.” Instead of loyal Iraqis, working for the good of the Ba’th revolution and the Arab nation, which is how the Shi’a were extolled in official propaganda all through the Iraq-Iran War, they became degenerate subhumans, who observed a debased religion that had no proper moral code. This kind of language has never been used in Ba’thi publications before …

The narrator of the third chapter is also a Sunni Arab—not a participant in the intifada, indeed not intentionally a political figure at all, but one on whom the regime’s suspicion fell. He is thus able to give a terrifying firsthand account of what it is like to be a prisoner in the hands of Iraq’s political police, carefully avoiding rhetoric or histrionics and even minimizing the physical ill-treatment he personally had to endure—which makes him all the more chillingly credible. As luck would have it, he was informed on by a Kurd and interrogated by a Shi’ite. This helps Makiya to emphasize one of his main concerns, which is to refute simplistic sectarian views on the nature of Saddam’s regime.

In the last two narrative chapters the witnesses are Kurds encountered by Makiya on a visit to northern Iraq in late 1991. Through them he carefully documents the destruction of some 3,500 Kurdish villages since 1968 and “officially sanctioned mass murder of at least 100,000 noncombatant Kurds,” carried out under the code-name “al-Anfal” in 1988, in what turned out to be the closing stages of the Iraq-Iran war. “They came,” he writes, “with photographs of missing fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins. At that moment, with the crowds pressing around me, I felt a deep, inexpressible shame that I was born an Iraqi.” This enables Makiya to make the transition to his criticism, first of Iraqi then of Arab political consciousness.

The first criticism is addressed especially to his fellow Shi’a, many of whom became suspicious of him simply because he took so much trouble to document atrocities committed against the Kurds, even accusing him of “abandoning ‘the Iraqi cause’ or ‘the Shi’a cause’ for ‘the Kurdish cause.”’ “The signs are,” he writes, “that Iraq’s Shi’a are so traumatized by their own tragedy that they are becoming less and less able to think and act like Iraqis.” He criticizes them especially for failing to confront the “legitimate” fear of the Sunni minority, borne out by some of the violent attacks that took place during the intifada, that “Islamic” government in Iraq would in practice mean the revenge and tyranny of the Shi’a majority. But the criticism goes wider than that. Some Kurdish nationalists, he says, objected to him working on the Iraqi documents they had captured even though his object was to publicize the genocide committed against the Kurds. “For political reasons they wanted an American, not a fellow Iraqi, to tell the world what had happened to them.” Meanwhile, “the word spread among the Sunni Arab Iraqis of London that Kanan Makiya was forging a new alliance between Shi’a mullahs and the Kurdish tribal leaders, in which they figured as the prime target.”

Makiya sees all such fragmentation and competition between different ethnic or religious communities as a victory for Saddam and Baathism. He pleads for an utterly different approach according to which “there is no grievance, no idea, no creed, no religion, no belief, no God worth asserting if it entails taking one more Iraqi life.” I’m not sure this radical pacifism is meant to be taken quite literally. In context, it is used to warn Arab Iraqis against using violence to oppose Kurdish secession, if in the end the Kurds choose to go that way, something Makiya has perhaps done more than any other Arab Iraqi to dissuade them from. I doubt that Makiya is so naive or idealistic as to think the Baath regime itself can be toppled without a shot fired, or that the lives of Saddam himself and a few of his closest lieutenants would not be worth sacrificing for the cause of freedom. But he admits to being numbed by the sheer scale of the cruelty among Iraqis he has uncovered:

Studied truthfully, with no holds barred and no one’s feelings spared, the Iraqi intifada of March 1991 is like a lens through which ghosts from the past loom and stark options for the future may be dimly perceived. I am tired of looking through that lens, maybe because I am no longer able or willing to bear so much reality.

But it is the last one hundred pages of the book, entitled “Silence,” which have delighted A. M. Rosenthal, who thinks they will drive Arab and pro-Arab intellectuals crazy. Here Makiya widens his focus and, in a veritable “j’accuse,” charges virtually the entire Arab intelligentsia with complicity in the crimes of Saddam and his ilk. Although Arab nationalism is his main target, he point to an “anti-imperialist” reflex and rhetoric which go wider than any specific political doctrine. There is, he suggests, a common language of Arab political discourse which is essentially negative: that is, it is much clearer about who the enemy is—Israel and the US—than about the precise identity of the people it is defending. Insofar as it is positive, it exalts an abstract collectivity. The welfare of the Arab nation, or of the Islamic umma, is largely divorced from the fate of individual Arab or Muslim men and women. Thus almost all Arab intellectuals outside Egypt (an important qualification) felt they could brush aside the issue of Saddam’s human rights record and of what his regime was actually doing to people in Iraq and Kuwait, as soon as he was clearly in conflict with the US and the West. Makiya quotes an Egyptian writer, Fouad Zakariyya, who asked one of Saddam’s intellectual admirers, an Arab living in the West, “What is the issue that Saddam is standing up for?”

He couldn’t answer me. The problem is not that he couldn’t answer, the problem is that it became clear that he had never asked himself the question before.

Yet according to Makiya, the overwhelming majority of Arab intellectuals held the view that “Saddam Husain’s military might was in some sense a source of strength for all Arabs.”

The Gulf crisis [he concludes] revealed Arab silence to mean first and foremost a loss of empathy with the other, a retreat from the public realm into the comforting but suffocating embrace of smaller and smaller units of identity like tribe, religion, sect, and family allegiances. Silence is a synonym for the death of compassion in the Arab world; it is the politics of not washing your dirty laundry in public while gruesome cruelties and whole worlds of morbidity unfold around you. Silence is choosing, ostrichlike, not to know what Arab is doing to fellow Arab, all in the name of a knee-jerk anti-westernism which has turned into a disease…. Silence in the Arab world is silence over cruelty.

In the end, the contention of this book is very simple: the politics of keeping silent over escalating cruelties inside the Arab word, cruelties inflicted for the most part by one Arab on another, is principally responsible for an Arab moral collapse which has today reached epidemic proportions. Leaders like Saddam Hussein thrive on the silence of the Arab intelligentsia toward cruelty…. Breaking with this silence is the moral obligation of every Arab, in particular the “intellectuals” among us.

This is a serious argument, addressed to “young Arabs” for whose benefit the book, Makiya tells us, is appearing simultaneously in Arabic (as well as English and Kurdish). Let us hope they will take it seriously and not be put off by ad hominem arguments from Makiya’s critics suggesting that he has adopted an “anti-Arab” view to curry favor with the Western press. On the contrary, Cruelty and Silence presents the most serious secular challenge to Arab conventional wisdom since the books of the Syrian intellectual Sadiq al-‘Azm in the aftermath of the 1967 defeat.2

Makiya is not saying (as he has been accused of saying by Edward Said) that violence is “inscribed in the very genes” of Middle Eastern people. Nor does he adopt the “orientalist” view (actually held by few if any real orientalists) of an unchanging Islamic culture holding the Middle East back from participation in the later stages of human progress. On the contrary he sees both state violence, as currently institutionalized in much of the Arab world, and the anti-imperialist rhetoric which legitimizes it, as essentially modern phenomena. In an especially illuminating section on “Cruelty and the Arab Woman” he uses the example of an Iraqi policeman whose activity is defined, on an official index card found in the Central Security Headquarters Building in Sulaimaniyya (a town in northern Iraq), as “Violation of Women’s Honor.”

The notion of women’s honor as crucial not only to their own self-respect but to that of their male relatives is of course a traditional one and a source of much cruelty to women in traditional societies. But the systematic violation of it by the state as a means of political control is decidedly nontraditional: “an added new cruelty,” as Makiya puts it, “which takes place on the grounds of an unwritten silent contract between traditional male-dominated Arab culture and ‘modern’ public life, whose most cruel epitome is the Ba’thist state of Iraq.” His concern is with these “modern state machineries of surveillance and repression,” which “came into existence all over the Arab world during the 1970s and 1980s.”

After giving various examples—the destruction of the city of Hama by the Syrian army in 1982, the killing of 13,000 people in a coup in South Yemen in 1986, the expulsion of Yemenis from Saudi Arabia in 1990, the torture and killing of Palestinians in Kuwait in 1991, he asks,

Was this about reverting to tribalism? But in tribal warfare there were rules of conduct regarding violence which held the ancient system of raiding for profit in some sort of balance. The point about what happened in places like Yemen in 1986, Lebanon during its civil war, and Iraq during the March 1991 intifada is that there were no longer any rules.

It is only since 1975, he argues, and the beginning of the Lebanese civil war, that “the Arab world east of Egypt has become an exceptionally nasty place.” “This cruelty is a highly specific phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s, with no general implications for ‘the Arabs’ or ‘Islam.”’

The irony, as Makiya admits, is that the deterioration he describes followed a period, the aftermath of the defeat by Israel in 1967, when Arab intellectuals such as Sadiq al-‘Azm and the Syrian-born poet Adonis did embark on very searching self-criticism, looking “into Arab and Muslim political-cultural defects, without seeking outsiders to blame.” The trouble was, he thinks, that this self-criticism did not go far enough.

It remained trapped inside the limitations of underlying assumptions like: What is wrong with us such that they succeed in defeating us so overwhelmingly? How can we change so that we can do to them what they did to us the next time around?

Israel remained an alien and “unfathomable entity in Arab eyes.” And so “the ground was now left clear for radical ideologies of every description,” none of which “is capable of evolving a view of the world centered on a conception of human rights or the inviolability of the human person as the central principle of a modern vision of Arabness.”

At this point, I have to utter a little protest, or at least corrective for the benefit of those tempted to react like A. M. Rosenthal. There were Arab intellectuals in the 1970s who made a real effort, not only to fathom that “unfathomable entity” but actually to establish human contact with the human beings of whom it is formed. Makiya himself was one, but he was not alone. I think especially of my friend Said Hammami, who represented the PLO in London between 1972 and 1978, and who pioneered the “two-state solution” based on mutual recognition and peaceful coexistence between Israel and a Palestinian state, which much later (in 1988) became official and explicit PLO policy. I still believe that development could have happened much sooner if the US had been willing to take it seriously and to press it on Israel as an essential ingredient of a general Arab-Israeli peace.

Said Hammami was killed by Arabs—almost certainly by the Abu Nidal group, then under the aegis of the Iraqi Baath regime—not by Israelis. Makiya is certainly right to break with the tradition of attributing whatever is wrong with the Arab world to the nefarious influence of Zionism and/or imperialism. If one has to apportion blame for the fact that it took so long to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and that those negotiations are now threatened by an escalating spiral of fear, resentment, and mistrust, no doubt the Arab attitudes and discourse which Makiya describes must take a very large share. He is right, writing as an Arab and addressing himself especially to an Arab audience, to lay the emphasis on the failings of the Arab side. But, in the same spirit, we in the West have a special duty to address our own responsibility, to see where we have failed. All too often, Western attitudes to the Arab world have not been calculated to encourage such people as Hammami and Makiya. Western governments, and all too many Western commentators, have shown no greater willingness to think about Arabs as individual people than have the intellectuals Makiya complains about.

Makiya is brave and lucid enough to write what he believes is important, without being inhibited by the use that the A. M. Rosenthals of this world will make of it. But no one should imagine that he is actually endorsing Rosenthal’s views. Indeed, Rosenthal himself has the decency to refer to him as “pro-Palestinian,” and Makiya says that “nothing I say in this book should be construed as a critique of Arabs whose dignity and very identity as human beings is being assaulted daily by Israeli policies on the West Bank.” To support this statement he describes some scenes he himself witnessed on a visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank in October 1990, including one “when two Israeli policemen astride jittery horses searched a terrified Arab boy, who cannot have been more than eight or nine years old, by making him turn out his school satchel upside down and spill all the contents on to the grass verge.” In “that little boy’s position,” says Makiya, “as I scoured the dirt for my eraser, pencil sharpener, and scattered papers after the soldiers had gone, I too would look upon Saddam Husain as a saviour.”

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    As Makiya comments, “The titles of ‘Azm’s books alone tell the story: A Critique of Religious Thought, Self-Criticism after the Defeat, A Critique of the Thought of the Palestinian Resistance.”

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