Democracy holds little allure in the Muslim world
Special to The Times
Whatever its immediate apparent outcome, the war on Iraq represents a catastrophic breakdown of the British and American imagination. We've utterly failed to comprehend the character of the people whose lands we have invaded, and for that we're likely to find ourselves paying a price beside which the body count on both sides in the Iraqi conflict will seem trifling.
Passionate ideologues are incurious by nature and have no time for obstructive details. It's impossible to think of Paul Wolfowitz curling up for the evening with Edward Said's "Orientalism," or the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, or "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," or the letters of Gertrude Bell, or the recently published, knotty, often opaque, but useful book by Lawrence Rosen, "The Culture of Islam," based on Rosen's anthropological fieldwork in Morocco, or Sayyid Qutb's "Milestones." Yet these, and a dozen other titles, should have been required reading for anyone setting out on such an ambitious liberal-imperial project to inflict freedom and democracy by force on the Arab world.
The single most important thing that Wolfowitz might have learned is that in Arabia words like "self," "community," "brotherhood" and "nation" do not mean what he believes them to mean. When the deputy secretary of defense thinks of his own self, he — like I, and, probably, like you — envisages an interiorized, secret entity whose true workings are hidden from public view. Masks, roles, personae (like being deputy secretary for defense) mediate between this inner self and the other people with whom it comes into contact. The post-Enlightenment, post-Romantic self with its autonomous, subjective world is a Western construct, and quite different from the self as it is conceived in Islam.
Muslims put an overwhelming stress on the idea of the individual as a social being. The self exists as the sum of its interactions with others. Lawrence Rosen puts it like this: "The configuration of one's bonds of obligation define who a person is... the self is not an artefact of interior construction but an unavoidably public act."
Broadly speaking, who you are is: whom you know, who depends on you, and to whom you owe allegiance — a visible web of relationships that can be mapped and enumerated. Just as the person is public, so is the public personal. We're dealing here with a world in which a commitment to, say, Palestine, or to the people of Iraq, can be a defining constituent of the self in a way that Westerners don't easily understand.
The recent demonstrations against the U.S. and Britain on the streets of Cairo, Amman, Sana'a and Islamabad may look deceptively like their counterparts in Athens, Hamburg, London and New York, but their content is importantly different. What they register is not the vicarious outrage of the anti-war protests in the West but a sense of intense personal injury and affront, a violation of the self. Next time, look closely at the faces on the screen: If their expressions appear to be those of people seen in the act of being raped, or stabbed, that is perhaps closer than we can imagine to how they actually feel.
The idea of the body is central here.
On the Web site of Khilafah.com, a London-based magazine, Yusuf Patel writes: "The Islamic Ummah is manifesting her deep feeling for a part of her body, which is in the process of being severed." It would be a great mistake to read this as mere metaphor or rhetorical flourish. Ummah is sometimes defined as the community, sometimes the nation, sometimes the body of Muslim believers around the globe, and it has a physical reality, without parallel in any other religion, that is nowhere better expressed than in the five daily times of prayer.
The observant believer turns to the Ka'aba in Mecca, which houses the great black meteorite said to be the remnant of the shrine given to Abraham by the angel Gabreel, and prostrates himself before Allah at Shorooq (sunrise), Zuhr (noon), Asr (mid-afternoon), Maghreb (sunset) and Isha (night). These times are calculated to the nearest minute, according to the believer's longitude and latitude, with the same astronomical precision required for sextant-navigation. (The crescent moon is the symbol of Islam for good reason: the Islamic calendar, with its dates for events like the Hajj and Ramadan, is lunar, not solar.) Prayer times are published in local newspapers and can be found online, and for believers far from the nearest mosque a $25 Azan clock can be programmed to do the job of the muezzin. So, as the world turns, the entire Ummah goes down on its knees in a never-ending wave of synchronized prayer, and the believers can be seen as the moving parts of a universal Islamic chronometer.
In prayer, the self and its appetites are surrendered to God, in imitation of the Prophet Mohammed, the "slave of Allah." There are strict instructions as to what to do with the body on these occasions. Each prayer-time should be preceded by ritual ablutions. Then, for the act of prostration, and the declaration of "Allahu Akbar" (God is great), the knees must touch the ground before the hands, the fingers and toes must point toward Mecca, and the fingers must not be separated. Forehead, nose, both hands, both knees and the soles of all the toes must be in contact with the ground. The body of the individual believer, identical in its posture to the bodies of all other believers, becomes one with the Ummah, the body of the Islamic community on Earth. The abdication of self five times a day, in the company of the faithful millions, is a stern reminder that "self-sufficient" is one of the essential and exclusive attributes of Allah, mentioned many times in the Koran. Human beings exist only in their dependency on each other and on their God.
The physical character of this is unique to Islam. Jewry and Christendom have nothing like it. The Ummah, a body literally made up of bodies, has a corporeal substance that is in dramatic contrast to the airy, arbitrary, dissolving and reconstituting nations of Arabia. To see the invasion of Iraq as a brutal assault on the Ummah, and therefore on one's own person, is not the far-fetched thought in the Islamic world that it would be in the West.
During the invasion, the Jordan Times — like every other newspaper in the region — carried front-page color pictures of civilians wounded or killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Government censorship being what it is, the photographs could afford to be more eloquent and candid than the stories printed beneath them. On April 2, the picture was of an Iraqi father in a dusty gray jellaba, arms spread wide, screaming at the sky in grief, while at his feet, in a single bare-wood open coffin, lay huddled the three small, bloodied bodies of his children. His rage and despair can be seen exactly mirrored in the faces of Egyptian demonstrators in Tahrir Square, as the Ummah bewails the injuries inflicted on it by the Western invaders. Geographical distance from the site of the invasion hardly seems to dull the impact of this bodily assault.
It's no wonder that the call of the Ummah effortlessly transcends the flimsy national boundaries of the Middle East — those lines of colonial convenience, drawn in the sand by the British and the French 80 years ago. Wolfowitz repeatedly promises to "respect the territorial integrity" of Iraq. But integrity is precisely what Iraq's arbitrary borders have always lacked: One might as well talk about respecting the integrity of a chainsaw, a pair of trousers and a cherry pie.
When the British cobbled together Iraq out of three provinces of the collapsed Ottoman Empire, they were deliberately fractionalizing and diluting two of the three main demographic groups. It made good colonial sense to split up the ever-troublesome Kurds (Sunni Muslims, but not Arabs) between Syria, Turkey, Persia and Iraq. Equally, the Shi'as had to be prevented from dominating the new state. In her letters home, Gertrude Bell described the Shi'as as, variously, "grimly devout," "violent and intractable," "extremist," "fanatical and conservative."
By contrast, the Baghdad Sunnis were seen as generally docile, forward-looking and pro-British. A representative democracy was out of the question, because the majority Shi'as would promptly hijack it. Bell wrote: "I don't for a moment doubt that the final authority must be in the hands of the Sunnis, in spite of their numerical inferiority, otherwise you'll have a mujtahid-run, theocratic state, which is the very devil."
(Wolfowitz, please note. Out of the lawless turmoil of liberated Iraq there emerged one image of placid civil order: a photo, taken on Friday, April 11, and published in The New York Times, showing some 700 Basra Shi'as seated in neatly serried rows outside their damaged mosque, listening to a sermon. This in a city otherwise then given over to riot, looting and murder. The contrast between the power of the occupiers and the power of the ayatollahs could not have been more forcefully stated.)
Bell and her colleagues sent for Faisal — son of the emir of Mecca — who had already had a go at being king of Syria before the French deposed him. As a member of the Hashemite family, direct descendants of the prophet, Faisal, though a Sunni, was acceptable to the Shi'as. So the perils of democracy were neatly circumvented. Bell again:
"Lord! They do talk tosh. One of the subjects that even the best of (the Arabs) are fond of expatiating upon is the crying need for democracy in Iraq — al damokratiyah, you find it on every page. I let them run on, knowing full well that Faisal intends to be king in fact, not merely in name, and he is quite right."
From the start, the unwieldy assemblage of Iraq needed not a government but a ruler. When monarchy failed, tyranny of a peculiarly Middle Eastern kind took over. Lawrence Rosen interestingly asserts that the idea of "state," in the Western sense of a complex machinery of government independent of the person of the ruler, barely exists in the Arab world, because an entity as abstract and impersonal as a state cannot be credited with those "bonds of obligation" that define and constitute the Islamic self.
This is borne out by fundamentalist Web sites that warn their followers not to vote in Western elections for fear of committing the sin of shirk, or blasphemy: to show allegiance to a secular state, instead of to the Ummah and to Allah, is to worship a false god. The typical Arab ruler is likely to echo Louis XIV: The state, such as it is, is him — a warlord-like figure on a grand scale, with an army and a secret police at his disposal, like Nasser, Hafez al-Assad, King Saud, or Saddam Hussein. For the individual strong man, even a secular one, is compatible with strict Islamist teaching in a way that a strong secular state is definitely not.
In the case of Iraq, arrogant colonial mapmaking happened to conspire with Islamic tradition to create a state that would permanently tremble on the verge of anarchy, or at least of violent partition into a Kurdistan to the north, a Shi'ite theocracy to the south, and a Sunni-led secular statelet in the middle with Baghdad as its capital. That Iraq still conforms — just — to its 1921 borders is a tribute to the extraordinary power and brutality of Saddam Hussein.
Yet, Wolfowitz singled out this state-that-never-should-have-been for his breathtakingly bold experiment in enforced American-style democracy. On April 6, he went the rounds of the Sunday-morning talk shows to "warn" the nation that it might take "more than six months" to get Iraqi democracy up and running. He should be so lucky. What seems to be happening now is that, as American troops take full possession of Iraq, they're beginning to find out — in Baghdad, Ur, Karbala, Mosul — that the country they invaded has effectively ceased to exist.
A longer version of this article was published April 19 in the Guardian newspaper of London, www.guardian.co.uk. Jonathan Raban's new book, "Waxwings," a novel set in Seattle, will be published by Pantheon in September. His other books include "Bad Land" (1996) and "Passage to Juneau" (1999).