Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Harvard symposium: Growing up in Contemporary Iraq

Dr. Kanan Makiya, the author, Dr. Joseph Sassoon and Sayed Hossein Qazwini
Recently I had the pleasure to attend the second annual symposium on Iraq sponsored by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.  As with the prior symposium held in March 2016, this event, organized by former Center Director, Roger Owen, and Dr. Muhamed Almaliky, Associate of Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, offered a heady stream of presentations. The theme, “Growing up in Contemporary Iraq,” focused on Iraqi youth and the impact of recent sociopolitical demographic on this oft ignored demographic.

The Harvard symposium raised the following question: Why has youth as a category of analysis been largely ignored in the politics of the Middle East?  In Iraq, and in most of the MENA region nation-states, youth constitute 70% of the population under the age of 30.  Unfortunately, the many authoritarian regimes which control most MENA states fear youth. 

The Arab Spring only reinforced this fear, leading to the ouster of leaders in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In Syria, the political graffiti and peaceful demonstrations initiated by youth led to the start of a vicious civil war whose end is still not in sight.  Indeed, in March 2016, Iraqi youth were instrumental in the resignation of many corrupt ministers in the government.

After welcoming remarks by Roger Owen and Muhamed Almaliky, I began the day with my presentation, “How should we envision a Post-Dacish Iraq?”  I argued that answering this question involved a deeper understanding of 5 “critical junctures” which Iraq has faced over the past 50 years.  In other words, to ask about “post Dacish Iraq” assumes we know what Iraq was like prior to the rise of the IS when it seized one-third of Iraqi territory in 2014.

Iraq’s current challenges began with the 1979 coup in which Saddam Husayn seized power from Muhammad Hasan al-Bakr and imposed what the late Falih Abd al-Jabbar so aptly called the “family-party state (dawlat hizb al-usra). 

Followed by the September 1980 invasion of Iran, in response to continued verbal attacks on Saddam’s regime by Ayatollah Khomeini, Iraq entered a period of rising sectarian tensions.  “Persians” became associated with Iraq’s majority Shi a population whose loyalty was increasingly disparaged as the war dragged on.

The seizure of Kuwait in August 1990 and the Gulf War of 1991 represented the second critical juncture which was followed by the third, the Intifada of March 1990 which was suppressed by Saddam using helicopter gunships allowed to take to the air by the US.

The brutal United Nations sanctions regime, which lasted from 1991-2003, and caused the collapse of the national economy and education system, constitutes the third critical juncture. Saddam’s so-called “Faith Campaign,” launched under his sidekick, Izzat al-Duri in mid-1993, further strengthened sub-national identities, already weakened by Iraq’s severe economic decline.

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq on the pretext that Saddam’s regime still possessed a substantial arsenal of chemical weapons.  Appointing a sectarian based Iraqi Governing Council in July 200-3 and handing Iraqi politics to a group of sectarian entrepreneurs, or carpetbaggers, who lacked any commitment to building democracy, only undermined Iraqi nationalism still further.

The final critical juncture occurred with the Dacish’s seizure of Mosul and two thirds of Iraqi territory in 2014.  The humiliation of the Iraqi Army in Mosul and Iraq’s north central provinces underscored the corruption and sectarianism of the Iraqi government at the time under the leadership of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The killing of large numbers of Shica troops at Camp Speicher and the formation irregular militias, many of whom were loyal to Iran, only added to the sectarian flavor of Iraqi politics.

Thus to speak of a post-Dacish Iraq has little meaning without consideration of the cumulative effect of a long historical trajectory of events which had serious negative impact on Iraq. The most damaging impact was to erode a sense of “Iraqiness” which crossed the lines of ethnicity and sect.

The key factor I emphasized in all these critical junctures was that they do not prove the hypothesis of a sectarian Iraq.  Quite the opposite is the case. Each decision which produced a serious consequences was made by a small political elite.

Whether the decision by Saddam Husayn and his immediate circle of cronies to invade Iran and later seize Kuwait, or decisions by exogenous forces, such as the George H.W. Bush's administration to expel Iraq from Kuwait in January 1991 and impose UN sanctions, or George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraqi in 2003,or Iran’s efforts to take political advantage of the militias formed in 2014 which it funded and controlled, the domestic populaces were excluded.

In all critical junctures, the Iraqi people had little or no say.  As I noted in my presentation, an important part of the civic education of Iraqi youth is to inculcate them with the understanding that destructive political leadership, not some inherent “flaw,” namely sectarianism, is the cause of the problems Iraqi faces today.