A Mind That Suits What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Thursday, February 24, 2005 :::
It was not, you know, supposed to end this way. It really wasn’t. The first prime minister of Iraq was not supposed to be a pro-Iranian “Islamist.” But that’s what appears likely.

There is another step to come: the Kurds and the backers of interim Prime Minister Allawi will have a say. But if Mr. Jafaari answers certain questions to their satisfaction---and, for reasons we will discuss in a minute, that is very likely—then he will indeed be the first elected Prime Minister of Iraq. It is not, as David Frum pointed out yesterday, the end of the story. It is, however, the end of US control over events, which was always a slippery thing anyway.

When the results of the vote were first tabulated, the two parties at the top of the list, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Dawaa (meaning “Teaching Others the Ways of Islam”) immediately cast off the caution urged on them by the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, and talked openly about imposing shari’a, Muslim holy law, at least on a province-by-province basis.

Mr. Jaafari, the new Prime Minister, seemed to change his tune by saying his party did not " ‘aim to establish an Islamic state to apply the Islamic sharia,’ or law. Instead, it would establish a government ‘respecting human rights and applying justice and respecting the rights of women.’” (Quotes taken from the Washington Post.)

This writer’s first reaction was that Mr. Jafari had gone far in trying to achieve office, but now, he realizes, he merely changed a few words—something which did not hoodwink Mr. Frum who, according to the caricature of “neo-cons,” should be a patsy for this kind of talk. But he is not, and with good reason. Mr. Jaafari said nothing about applying shari’a on a provincial level, merely on the national level. Indeed, it is probably in his interest for there to be not much of a national state established at all. (Perhaps we are seeing the birth of a state which actually will "wither away.") And “respecting human rights and applying justice and respecting rights of women” is what traditional Muslims think they are doing when they establish shari’a. This writer knows that from having conservative Muslim women tell him that in class, in rather emotional terms, even as one of the leaders of Dawaa, a woman, has told the press.

In any case, as all this was being resolved, this writer was absorbing Christopher de Bellaigue’s absorbing In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs. Mr. de Bellaigue, the Economist’s Tehran correspondent for fifteen years, is fluent in Farsi and, perhaps most importantly, married to an Iranian. It appears that he has indeed written the one book you need to read to acquire a textured, living understanding of Shiism and Iran. One vital section of the book, an extended interview with an opponent of the regime into which he weaves much of the history of Iran, should tell you clearly that opposition to the revolution does not mean opposition to shari’a, nor to “political” Islam. (This writer is not sure there is a non-political version of Islam, but he will admit that he does not know enough to say with confidence.)

Mr. de Bellaigue drops quite the little bombshell in discussing the revolution of Ruhollah Khomeini, who was himself one of the Grand Ayatollahs in his day. It is indeed true, as many a writer has tossed off reflexively, that Mr. Khomein’s views involved novelties, particularly as regards a doctrine called the “Guardianship of the Jurist.” (It is impossible not to notice how closely that resembles the Ideal Republic of our tenured left.) But it is also true that many a Shi’a has come to agree with him on just that point.

And, during Mr. Khomeini’s brief stay in Paris, he could be heard to talk about how his aim was democracy, although the qualifier “real” before democracy should have tipped off anyone conversant with 20th Century totalitarian rhetoric. (This writer will pause to note that he was surprised to find out that Mr. Khomeini lived in Paris, the vacation home of many of the last century’s real monsters, for only a very few months, having been driven from Iraq, where he had lived after the last Shah threw him out. He became famous in the States only during his Paris sojourn.)

In any case, let us pause over this passage from Mr. de Bellaigue’s invaluable book:

“It’s possible that the Imam was speaking sincerely in Paris and that he subsequently changed his mind. (In Paris, he approved a draft constitution that restrictred the role of senior mullahs to membership of a council that could declare legislation incompatible with Islamic law at the request of government officials.) Some believe that the Imam was exercising what Shi’as call prudential dissimulation—the right to lie about one’s beliefs as long as the lie is in the wider interests of the faith.” (P. 98, emphasis added.)

“Prudential dissimulation.” Sit back and think about that one for a minute.

And then think about all the confident assertions from all the war-boosters based on single comments from Iraqis.

Single comments. For whatever reason, people took single comments and turned them into proofs.

They almost never are. They can be, but almost never. Most of life is ambiguous.

And it turns out that Shi’a believe that, in single quotes, you can lie, although they do not call it that.

Mr. de Bellagues’s book is full of tantalizing information, which begs to be teased out and explained. For instance, Mr. Khomeini’s Guardianship of the Jurist was new, but the “other-worldly clerics” of Karballah and Najaf were so much trouble that the British, seeking to establish some mystical, never-before-heard-of nation of Iraq following World War I—fifty years before Mr. Khomeini, in other words—threw them out. The famed seminary at Qom, where Mr. Khomeini taught most of his life and died, was established only after the clerics had been thrown out of Iraq. And modern ethnic Iranians cherish bricks made from the earth of Karballah in Iraq, an Arab country. In other words, it is an emotional thing with Iranians, perhaps not so much Arabs, that they be united with southeastern Iraq.

As an aside, that doctrine—“prudential dissimulation”—makes it almost certain that Mr. Jaafari will come up with a way to satisfy the Kurds and Mr. Allawi’s supporters. What that means is anyone’s guess.

With all due respect, the conservative faithful should have been told all this stuff a long, long time ago.

This writer will not shy away from pointing out that he wondered about all this stuff over a year ago, when he discovered that there was something called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and that its leader openly supported a US military liberation. (He is claiming no prescience, just awareness of details that need exploring.) The calculus, it seemed obvious, was different than it appeared to certain non-profit-think-tank-dwellers and their heroes in the Defense Department. But to raise the question was to risk being denounced as the perpetrator of a “vile lie,” as this writer actually was on a prominent conservative website.

What is notable is that the usual derisive cascade of sneers from those conservative websites has not appeared in the last few days. There has been a glorious and welcome silence from all that know-it-all-ness. Gone are all the so-much-fors and failed-to-understands and totally-ignorant-ofs. It has turned out exactly the way that the support for the American intervention by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq would imply. They assured us it would not be so; they stamped their foot and threw acid sneers toward anyone who said it might be so, but now it indeed is so. The "national" question in Iraq remains problematic; on the local level, the entire situation has become problematic because there is absolutely no question about how the average Shi'a feels. Would the situation have changed if certain writers had listened and been less confident? Probably not, but the country would have been better prepared.

(There is some remarkably oblique commentary about how the elections are inspiring protests in other countries, but again their is that strange silence on what the protesters want. It is as if everyone has forgotten that, fraud aside, the overwhelming majority of German voters in 1933 voted for National Socialism or its equally repugnant half-sister, Communism. Protesting is not in and of itself a virtue.)

Those who, for reasons that escape this writer, idealize Mr. Chalabi may find moral consolation that Mr. Chalabi actually has the support of a majority of the 140 recently elected members of parliament from the United Iraqi Alliance (or House of Shi’a). He says he has them, and the two major religious parties simply refused to allow a ballot among the members, confirming that he is right.

This may sound like foul play, but one must remember that this was German-style “list” voting. A party produces a list of candidates, and voters vote for the party. If the party gets 15% of the votes, then they get 15% of the seats. In Iraq’s new parliament, that would be about 40. So that party, in this case Mr. Allawi's, would take the first forty names on their list and put them in office. (The House of Shi’a got less than 50 percent of the vote but more than 50 percent of the seats because certain small parties missed the threshold for getting any seats.) In other words, neither Mr. Chalabi nor anyone else actually went before the voters. Indeed, out of fear for the insurgents, many names on the lists were not public.

However, in the provincial elections, the religious parties—separate from the alliance-- swamped everyone else. That implies that the average voter thought “federation nationally, shari’a locally.” Mr. Chalabi wisely decided to regroup, and the situation is what it is.

Two things need to be added about Mr. de Bellaigue’s amazing book.

One is that the distance between the Islamic Revolution and “quietist” Shi’ism is marked by many gradations that only an expert could clarify. They are certainly more complicated than many a pro-war writer has allowed.

The other is that Mr. de Bellaigue is undoubtedly a member of the trouble-free, rich, privileged, Western elite. He compares the Iran-Iraq conflict with the Cold War. It is hard to think who, between Saddam Hussein and Ruhollah Khomeini, proposed the Middle East equivalent of establishing the rule of law in Germany, Italy, Japan, most of Latin America, Central and (some of) Eastern Europe, the elimination of an aggressive Soviet State, and the “build-down” of nuclear weapons.


So get the book from the library or used bookstores. Don’t give him as much money as A Mind That Suits regrets that he has given him.

::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 4:03 PM



Post a Comment


A Related Website on Christian Spirituality
The Fullness of Him
The Easiest Way to Keep Up With the News:
Best of the Web
Links to Web Friends
One Good Turn
A Dog's Life
Power Line
Rambles and By-ways

What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Powered by Blogger