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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.

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.”

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    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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