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Mainstream, VOL LII No 28, July 5, 2014

Coming Full Circle in Iraq

Saturday 5 July 2014, by Uttam Sen

It is one of those ironies that the Khilafat movement of 1919 that brought two subconti-nental communities together in the cause of the Ottoman Caliphate, ostensibly came to naught. The Caliphate itself was neutralised by the secular vision of Kemal Attaturk. Yet that ideo-logical separation of church and state, mostly confined to the elite, has been under fire from the West Asian fundamentalism of the past few decades as the middle class-led masses have first assailed the state, the world order and its norms, and then, if whispering campaigns are to be given credence, sometimes been egregiously co-opted by the very same adversarial forces in their homespun quest for identity and power.

The paradox was immanent at more than one level. The allegorical underpinning of a heraldic device, of espousing the cause of a once-governing power and religion, derided and brought to heel as the “sick man of Europe”, found resonance in India. Opinion is still divided on where the ensuing mass non-cooperation movement would have ended up unless refluxed by Gandhi’s pang of conscience after the burning of policemen in Chauri Chaura. The inventiveness of the initial political mobilisation was special at the time, but its shadow was unmistakably discernible later. The other seeming inconsis-tency lay in a secular political leadership incorporating a religio-communal agenda, though unifying in content and purpose, possibly to meet the situation.

But the crowning irony surely lies in the idea of establishing an Islamic Sunni State on the ISIS-occupied regions in eastern Syria and western Iraq, almost a century after progressive Indian leaders had made common cause with impassioned compeers for obeisance and support to the religious head of Islam worldwide. Turkey was besieged by the victors after its World War 1 defeats, parts of its homeland being ceded over to Greece. Mesopotamia (Iraq) was trans-ferred to Britain as a League of Nations mandate. The ragtag but unrelenting band of storm-troopers from across the Islamic world wants to establish a theocratic State, with professed ambitions of achieving Turkey’s earlier salience. The context makes it more comprehensible, namely, the elaborate tactic to ensure the uninterrupted supply of oil from the region to the world.

Politically, the British converted their man-dated territory into the Hashemite kingdom of Iraq following large scale nationalist violence. But the kingdom acquired independence in 1931-32, to be overthrown by a military coup in 1958. A Baathnationalist-socialistendeavour to protect national resources, sometimes safeguard rich and poor alike, amidst Shia-Sunni-Kurd pluralisms, dominated the subsequent narrative. The tragedy of Iraq’s Baathist socialism was arguably unfolding with Saddam Hussein’s excesses against the Kurds and Shias, ultimately leaving the field clear for a free-for-all.

The rest is history but the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s Praetorian Guard and army, and the indiscriminate supersession of Sunni by Shia led to the formation of a leaderless and half-witted Army which capitulated to the ISIS’ advance through western Iraq, but is still not being written off in Baghdad and its environs, among other things, home to Iraq’s oil facility in the East Baghdad Field, and a substantial component of the Shia population. China has invested money and material in the revival of Iraq’s oil industry and has been its principal beneficiary. Words are not being minced about the extra-national principals of the conflict. Shiite Iran and Sunni monarchist Saudi Arabia figure prominently, as do the US and Israel in the back channels. Getting all (or most) of them together along with the other major powers would be a fairly reliable guarantee of reviving at least surface stability.

The passionate Indian intellectual and diplo-matic involvement in Iraq, Iran and West Asia generally should not be nullified off-hand but could be in need of reinvention. Saddam Hussein fell on the wrong side of history, though his deposition and execution opened a Pandora’s Box. Even when considered separately from other things, strict adherence to the basic principles of Islam is proving violently divisive. Iraq’s political history, for one, conveys the impression of a people toiling in reverse gear. In ancient times Mesopotamia was the proverbial cradle of civilisation.

Its people have lapsed into the template of diverse strata at odds with each other. While the educated have in the past tussled to ring in change and justice, some members of the commons are making a virtue of belief in an institutionalised controlling power, to translate into the state apparatus itself. The shocks are reverberating in India’s neighbourhood where Pakistan’s predicament with the Taliban is unavoidably investing it with sharply contrasting characteristics which India must tackle with ingenuity, as cloak and dagger aspects unravel.

But it must be said that the vision of respected Indian political figures in anticipating the wider West Asian horizon has relevance today. (It would be even more pertinent some day with the transfiguration of fundamentalism into a tolerant ethic. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgars fought a non-violent political struggle and did social service among the same supposedly bloodthirsty people on Pakistan’s north-west.) The restitution of pluralistic governance mirroring democratic aspirations, however impressionable and volatile some might have turned in response to bigotry and avarice in high places, holds the promise of securing Iraq’s integrity. There are contemporary Indian social scientists who feel that post-Saddam Hussein institutionalised democracy was a hurried Western construct which steamrolled an intricate tapestry integral not only to Iraq but also Syria. These two coun-tries had enjoyed relatively high participatory democracy by the region’s standards, not to be belied by the authoritarian nature of their political leaderships. For that they were envied by the people of some parties who are today poised to play arbiters.

The cut and dried classification of “Shia” and “Sunni” did not obtain on the ground the way Western do-gooders perceived it and the enforced mutation of a people’s fundamental characteristics by clearing the decks for supposed “majoritarian” Shia rule of a Sunni “minority” was perilously misconceived. The quality of leadership that the interregnum threw up, subsequently validated by a simple majority in “elections”, was reflective more of the prevalent chaos than the considered choices of the people. The earlier interlocking engagements of a non-Occidental matrix defined an ambience that a strategic calculus could not grasp. It is not that cultural relativism escapes all Westerners, particularly the present American President, who has made a clever pitch for leaving Iraq’s problems to its people. The lament is that his predecessor played a big part in creating them. Consensus-building to restore Iraq’s political processes is of the essence and cannot be built without universal approbation. The verbal assurance of promoting unity has lately been forthcoming from the US Secretary of State, John Kerry. The potential of the region’s swirling vortex to pull down distant elements in future has given the world pause for thought.

China has set an example in pragmatism that India could emulate with its technology and investment in the petroleum sector (said to be in demand) and bring to bear its statesmanship on global players for a political solution. India’s political temperance based on knowledge and understanding helped rescue its citizens in previous regional conflicts and would be expected to do so again. Memories of the Gulf oil crisis of 1973 should spur us into doing everything that is needed to hold the price line and protect the maritime routes that bring the oil to India.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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