Thursday, December 25, 2014

Iraq, the Gift of the Magi and the Islamic State

The Christmas celebration calls to mind the Gift of the Magi - the visit of the Three Kings ("We Three Kings of Orient Are"), or Wise Men, who came to Bethlehem bearing gifts for the newborn Christ child.

While the Three Kings brought precious offerings - gold, frankincense and myrrh - the reason for their trip was spiritual, not material.  For them, the birth of Jesus offered the possibility of a better world, one in which love, tolerance and respect for cultural diversity would become humankind's dominant values.

IS crucifixion in Raqqa, Syria
Like the Three Kings, the Islamic State (IS) has also come bearing three gifts.  However, the gifts it has given Iraq are not those that will lead to the betterment of mankind.  Instead, the IS has been responsible for indescribable violence and destruction, the displacement of thousands of law-abiding and peace loving people solely on the basis of their confession or ethnicity, and the enslavement of hundreds of women for the sexual satisfaction of its male members.   The three gifts of the Magi - juxtaposed to the three gifts IS has given to Iraq - could not be more stark.  What relevance does the parable of the Magi have for the contemporary Iraq?
IS crucifixions near Aleppo, Syria
Despite their hopes for a better future, the Three Kings lived in a violent world and had to use caution during their visit.  When Herod, the puppet Roman King of Judea, learned that the baby who had been born was purportedly the "king of the Jews," he became frightened and ordered all male children in Bethlehem and the surrounding area to be killed, a brutal act known in the Bible as the "Massacre of the Innocents."

Having killed his wife and two sons, as well as many of his subjects, Herod was viewed by many as an unstable and violence-prone psychopath.  It is said that the Three Kings had a dream in which they saw themselves threatened by Herod and, fearing for their safety, quickly and surreptitiously left Judea to return to their home countries.

The tension between the hopes of mankind for a better world, and nefarious political elites who seek to crush these aspirations to enhance their personal gain of power and wealth, existed at the birth of Christ and has continued down through the centuries.

In Iraq, this tension exists among the estimated 400,00 Christians still remaining in Iraq who yearn for a past when Muslims helped Christians celebrate Christmas, setting off fireworks and visiting their homes to partake of celebratory feasts.  Instead, due to the actions of terrorist organizations, over a million Christians have been forced to leave Iraq and, among those who remain, many have been displaced from their homes. (The New York Times, Dec. 25, 2014)

This depressing situation would not seem to augur well for Iraq's ability to establish a tolerant, stable and ultimately prosperous and democratic society.  Nevertheless, tyrannical despots such as Hitler, Saddam Husayn, Pol Pot and many others - the list is all too long - invariably meet an end that they did not plan for themselves or the people that they rule.   Either these despots die a violent death or the tyrannies they establish collapse after they die or are forced from office.  This will be the fate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - the so-called "Caliph Ibrahim" - who rules the "Islamic State."

Tyrannical rule is inherently unstable and, in the modern era, has always played a central role in its own destruction.  So too the IS - which originally possessed the aura of an unstoppable juggernaut - is already beginning to decay, not so much as a result of the actions of its enemies, but by the unintended consequences of its own self-defeating policies.  What, then, are IS's gifts to Iraq?

Gift Number One  The IS' first gift to Iraq is the gift of leadership.  No one would disagree with the argument that, had it not been for the IS seizure of Mosul and large areas of northern Iraq in June 2014, Nuri al-Maliki would still be Iraq's prime minister today. He would thus be in a position to continue his political and economic policies that, during his 8 years in power, were leading to the destruction of Iraq.

Maliki promoted sectarian tensions, massively increased government corruption, curtailed the personal freedoms of Iraq's citizenry, laid the foundations for a new "security state" along the same lines as the former Ba'thist regime, and undermined the Iraqi military through appointing his cronies and relatives, who possessed little or no military qualifications, to high positions in the armed forces.

Not only did the IS give the Iraqi political elite the rationale and the backbone - with strong backing from the US and the international community (including even Iran) - to force Maliki from office, but it led to the election of a prime minister who represents the first truly democratic leader in the long history of modern Iraqi politics that began with the founding of the state in 1921.

Haydar al-Abadi is the first leader to take democracy seriously in Iraq.  A Ph.D. in economics from Manchester University, he spent many years in the financial sector in the United Kingdom where he learned the "ins and outs" of a modern advanced industrialized economy.  Unlike Maliki, who spent much of his youth and adult life engrossed in political intrigue, Abadi has been a problem-solver for many years as required by his career in the private sector.

Abadi and Maliki's personal qualities and style of rule could not be more different.  Whereas Maliki is brusque and authoritarian, and saw a conspiracy and threat to his power in every political act, Abadi has reached out to his potential opponents in an effort to  avoid Maliki's "zero-sum" game approach to politics that alienated so many members of the Iraq's political elite, including many within his own Islamic Call Party (Hizb al-Da'wa al-Islamiya). 

When Maliki was asked while in office why he didn't pursue national reconciliation (al-musaliha al-wataniya; asht boonawiy nishtimani), Maliki always dismissed such questions. Iraq needed the "rule of law," he replied, not national reconciliation.

Haydar al-Abadi disagrees.  He is actively pursuing national reconciliation - the key prerequisite for transcending the authoritarian legacy of Ba'thist (and Maliki) rule. Recently he gave the portfolio for this task to a former (and secular) prime  minister, Ayad Allawi, another example of reaching out to the political opposition.

Whereas Maliki promoted corruption by placing loyalists in positions in the Iraqi cabinet, and throughout  the bureaucracy, military and security services, Abadi has removed over 40 incompetent officers - many of who were responsible for the ignominious defeat of the Iraqi army in Mosul and northern Iraq last June.  He has fired 50,000 "ghost soldiers" who received salaries but did not serve in the Iraqi army. He has reduced his own salary and those of his cabinet ministers, sending an important symbolic message to Iraq's citizenry that the government serves the people, not the other way around.

Prime Minister Abadi's statement that he will continue to fight corruption even if it results in his assassination would have been unheard of coming from the mouth of Nuri al-Maliki.  The very fact that Abadi makes such statements sends a new and different message to Iraq's citizens, one that has  begun to create a very different and more positive view of the central government.

Unlike Maliki who continually insulted the Kurdish leadership while pursuing spurious criminal charges against Sunni Arab political leaders who he saw as threatening his goal of building a new dictatorial regime, Abadi has reached out to the Kurdish and Sunni Arab communities.  One of his first acts was to order the Iraqi army to cease indiscriminate shelling of Sunni Arab towns and villages that were suspected of harboring IS forces and to suggest the creation of provincial national guard units that would give local communities a "buy-in" to insuring their own security.

Gift Number Two  IS's second gift to Iraq was to promote reconciliation between the Arab political elite in Baghdad and the Kurdish political elite in Arbil.  The most concrete manifestation of this reconciliation has been the conclusion of an interim oil agreement between Baghdad and Arbil, a dispute that has been ongoing since the fall of Saddam Husayn in 2003.

The oil deal has opened the way for the Kurds to address a major fiscal crisis.  The crisis' origins stem from the Kurdish Regional Government's inability to sell its oil on the world market (due to potential buyers' fears of being sued in international courts by the Iraqi government), and Maliki's retaliation for the attempt to sell oil by terminating funds used to pay the KRG's employees' salaries.  It was exacerbated after last June by the IS having disrupted the KRG's ability to export its oil through Turkey.

Inadvertently, the IS has strengthened Iraqi federalism. While the Kurds were threatening to declare independence when it appeared that Maliki would win a third term after the March 2014 parliamentary elections, those declarations have now disappeared as relations between the central government in Baghdad and the KRG have taken on a completely new quality. (al-Monitor - Iraq Pulse, December 2014)

Difficult to quantify, but perhaps most significant of all, is the symbolism of an Arab government in Baghdad beginning to respect Iraq's Kurdish population, listen to its demands, and work to reconcile Arab and Kurdish interests.  If Abadi continues moving in this positive direction, a lasting federalism could develop in Iraq that would, as it has in Canada through reconciling the Quebecois with the English speaking populace, place the country on a sound political footing.

Gift Number Three  The IS' third gift to Iraq is to have demonstrated the complete bankruptcy of its rule and to have destroyed any pretense that its so-called "Caliphate" has anything to do with Islam.  Its unparalleled brutality is so extreme as to even been criticized by other terrorist organizations including al-Qa'ida Central and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) in Syria.

The IS's brutality is on par with its gender politics which reduces women to slaves and sexual objects used for the pleasure of the organization's male members.  The IS executed 150 women alone in al-Anbar Province, some of whom were pregnant, for refusing to marry IS fighters (The Daily Mail, Dec 18, 2014).  The IS has sold hundreds of Christian and Yazidi women and girls into sexual slavery at "slave markets," underscoring its brutal policies yet again.

As foreign fighters have come to join the IS, many have discovered that, far from fighting to overthrow the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Asad, they are fighting other terrorist organizations.  Coalition air strikes, which have killed over a 1000 IS members alone in the fight for the Kurdish majority town of Kobani along the Turkish-Syrian border, have further undermined morale, leading many foreign fighters to try and desert their posts.

In response, the IS has established a military police and begun executing fighters caught trying to flee the battlefield. (Financial Times, December 19, 2014).  With conditions worsening by the day in Mosul, large numbers of IS fighters have left the city, especially after the recent defeat of the IS on Mount Sinjar by Kurdish peshmerga forces. (Niqash , Dec 24, 2014)

Whereas the Wise Men brought the Christ child three gifts in the hope that his birth signaled a new world based on love, caring and mutual respect among all peoples, so too has the IS come bearing three gifts.  However, in the latter instance, the gifts it has given Iraq are the unintended consequences of its brutal and destructive policies.

No one would ever wish the IS on Iraq, Syria on any other country.  Still, if the IS attack against Iraq leads to a stronger political system, one based on a true federalism and a more rational administrative system in which corruption is seriously tackled and the government begins delivering badly needed social services to the Iraqi populace, then the events of the past 6 months may ultimately have a positive outcome.

Leadership, a strengthened federalism, and the delegitimization of its rule and claims to Islam are the three gifts that the IS has bestowed on Iraq.  One day the IS will be nothing more than a horrible memory, much like that of the so-called Third Reich that was supposed to last for a 1000 years.  Iraq, however, will persevere and be all the stronger for its defeat of the Islamic State.

(For my views on the future of Iraq's political unity, see the post, 24 Views on the Unity of Iraq, on the excellent blog, Musings on Iraq).


1 comment:

Steve Miller said...

Marvelous post. It parallels my thoughts, that Iraq would never have gotten out of its Maliki-created rut had it not been for the existential threat of ISIS. It will be a long road though.