Iraqi experience demonstrates the solidity of the institutions of traditional society

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After the fall of Baghdad and occupation of Iraq by the Anglo-American forces, Iraq was exposed to an unprecedented state of chaos, looting and lack of security. The war on Iraq resulted in a large-scale destruction of civil infrastructure and services, and also the collapse of the institutions of governance, defence and security. Soldiers and officers who survived the war deserted their camps, policemen and security officers disappeared from the streets, and firefighters and municipal workers were absent from their posts.

Baghdad and other Iraqi towns, that had suffered blackouts and water shortages occasionally before the war, have turned dark and thirsty. Everything has fallen into jeopardy: life, personal properties, public assets, mosques, churches, factories and universities. Cars were stolen in the middle of the day; libraries were burgled; hospitals were assaulted; military camps, police stations, ministries, and museums were looted.

More significantly, Iraq seemingly lost its centre of gravity. The occupation forces had neither the desire or will to protect the Iraqi people, nor to establish security. Likewise, the occupation-allied Iraqi ‘opposition’ did not have any substantial support that could enable it to play a leading political and social role. Apart from the oil-fields, which were guarded by American tanks, Iraqis were left to face the music alone. However, Iraq soon regained at least some of its sense of balance.

Before the occupation, there was already a broad consensus among observers –” friends and foes, experts, academics and statesmen, Arabs, Americans and Europeans –” that Iraq is the most modern country in the Middle East. Iraqis enjoyed better levels of modern education and numerous universities and academic institutions in proportion to the population. Modern journalism was introduced into Iraq in the mid-19th century, and Iraq was the first Arab country to introduce the television media. For long periods the Iraqi state had marginalised tribes, weaken the ‘ulama’ , and managed to integrate Iraqi women in the workforce and official partisan politics. During the past few decades, Iraq was dominated by a modern political party that influenced all social sectors. In spite modernization, however, Iraq did not find, in the moment of crisis, any modern force to come forward and rescue the country.

No Ba’athist partisans came forward to protect people and safeguard establishments. No academic, journalistic or artistic associations turned out to guard public libraries, theatres or radio stations. The Iraqi intelligentsia failed to stand up to the gangs that went looting and kidnapping. Iraqis sought refuge for their nuclear (small) families from aggression and starvation in the extended family. From north to south, Iraqi clans provided for the security of townships and villages. In fact, areas which are more tribally cohesive, such as Anbar and Jazeera, continue to be the most safe and secure.

In Baghdad and other towns the ulama took the initiative, reminding people that looting is unlawful and that mosques were open to receive returned loot. Ulama organised groups to provide humanitarian and medical relief, and protect institutions and neighbourhoods. Mosques were turned into centers that provided social cohesion and solidarity. Most important was the rapid emergence of Sunni and Shi’i institutions to lead the Iraqi national movement, to struggle for independence, and to preserve Iraq’s unity. While the Ba’ath party has almost disappeared and other parties have turned into collaborators with the occupation, the Federation of Muslim Scholars and young scholars from Muqtada al-Sadr’s group have confronted the occupiers.

A number of important questions arise from the Iraqi experience. Why did the “modern” Iraqi state, institutions and parties prove so fragile? Why did they fail to respond to the challenges of invasion and occupation? How could these forces, which took decades and vast resources to emerge and develop, and were deemed thebest leadership for Iraqi society, disappear from the arena of national action? Is it true that the modernization movement in the Muslim world has undermined the forces of traditional society? And how did these forces manage to make a comeback and lead Iraqi society despite all their disadvantages vis a vis the political parties and secular organisations?

The modernization movement in the Muslim world was introduced in the nineteenth century and was expedited by the ‘independent’ nation-states during the twentieth century. For one and half centuries it aspired to encompass every aspect of Arab-Muslim societies: education, law and judiciary, family and tribe, the role of religion and ulama, markets, trade, the economy, and the notions of state and governance. Modernization and independence undermined the autonomy of traditional institutions, and concentrated all powers and authorities with the state: which in turn dominated the law and litigation processes, and asserted its status as only the source of legitimacy, in place of Islam. The state also took over educational programmes and economic policies, and undercut social organizations whose legitimacy did not come from the state.

The state’s control of the waqf establishment, the emergence of new social forces and intelligentsia, and the loss of the ulama’s judicial and educational role, all combined to weaken the ulama and marginalise them. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the theories of development and Marxism were prevalent in the social sciences, it was widely believed that modernization had triumphed over the traditional society, that it is a ‘progressive’ movement, and that it has an irresistible impetus. Furthermore, the policies of the Eastern and Western blocs and of the postcolonial states in the Muslim world were all based on accelerating the modernization process as the main vehicle of ‘development’ and ‘progress’.

Nonetheless, it now seems that many of the assumptions that underpinned modernization and development were incorrect. The modernization movement failed to triumph finally over the traditional forces of Muslim-Arab societies. That is not only owing to the potential for resistance of such forces, but also due to the firm attachment between these forces and the values that govern people’s lives. In reality, there was a divide in the life and soul between two domains: the modern and the traditional. Modern statesmen dominate and control most aspects of public life, whereas people turn to the ulama to learn about their religious obligations and the lawful and the unlawful in their lives.

So, despite the weakness of the institutions of the ulama, a largely traditional Iranian scholar managed to mobilize his people and initiate a revolution that eventually overturned one of the most thoroughly modernized and best-armed regimes in the Muslim world. Most Muslims receive modern education, but some families choose to add some form of Islamic learning too. The legal domain is a clear example of the modernization crisis, and the divisiveness that resulted from it. The idioms and terms of modern law are incomprehensible to non-specialists, and the legal authority fails to restrain people, despite the fact that it is fully supported by the state’s powers. Most Muslims endure a perpetual conflict between the values that are conveyed to them by modern law and those taught in the mosque and home.

At its inception, the modernization enterprise was neither a popular demand nor an outcome of internal development of society. In its core, modernization was a late Ottoman attempt to fix the power imbalance with the European imperial powers. From its commencement, the modernization enterprise was strongly connected to the state. Thus, as soon as the state’s grip waned, the traditional forces are re-emerging more effectively, and reoccupying all the areas that were previously occupied by the modernization enterprise.

No doubt the modern Iraqi state, whether a monarchy or republic, continued the modernization policies of the late era of the Ottoman Empire. As such, these policies weakened traditional forces, such as the tribes and the Sunni and Shi’i madrassah-based institutions. However, in its defeat and desperation after the 1991 war, the Iraqi regime tended to rehabilitate tribes and tribal values and bonds, because of the apparent need of Iraqi society to face the external dangers. Similarly, the regime reinstated the Islamic discourse and opened, albeit cautiously, windows for the ulama and Islamic forces. The moment of the regime’s collapse was the most significant sign of this complex relationship between the modern and the traditional.

The fragility of modern influences, including the modern state, can be attributed to the nature of the relationship that relates these influences to society as a whole and to the people’s view of them. The central system is the core of the modernization enterprise. The nature of this enterprise is manifested in its tendency to seek dominance, control, a power-monopoly, and consumption of resources by the institutions of modernization. These inclinations collide with substantial amounts of tension and alienation that separate the society and its groups from the modernization of values and institutions. That is, Muslim and Arab societies find it unjustifiable to spend vast resources to sustain a government and institutions that do not share their idiom, tend to perpetuate their control on people’s destinies and wealth, and work to extend and perpetuate such control.

The modern state, institutions and forces, which were imitations of their Western counterparts, have failed to respond positively to the challenges of external hegemony and aggression, economic growth and development. This failure exacerbates the current state of affairs. In other words, the fragility of modern phenomena stems from their inability to gain people’s trust and loyalty or to identify with them, as is necessary to institute a collective awareness of one’s society’s destiny. Few or no Iraqis were ready to die in defence of the nation-state, its institutions, a ministry of justice that did not establish or maintain justice, or a national theatre that did not really reflect the nation. However, as soon as Iraq became the responsibility of all Iraqis, they were out to defend their country’s independence.

The Iraqi experience is not an anomaly. It is a model that demonstrates a Muslim-Arab crisis that started to build late in the nineteenth century. It is now necessary to admit the divisiveness that has been endured by various Muslim societies, and to admit that many of the developments experienced by such societies are irreversible. This situation requires a mutual recognition between the modern and the traditional, as well as a genuine reconciliation that encompasses all aspects of society. Without these things we are in for prolonged internal conflict and paralysis.

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