Rio de Janeiro.
For many weeks, the United States Armed Forces in Iraq have been preparing what they were stopped from doing five months ago, invading the holiest city of Shiite Islam, al-Najaf, site of the Imam Ali shrine. The decision to start pummeling the city from the air and now invade on the ground, alongside Iraqi forces, surely ranks among the most short-sighted and dangerous, indeed the stupidest, thus made during the entire invasion and occupation. We are all at risk as a result.
In a typically cynical ploy played out by the Bush administration, the American army has invaded Najaf with Iraqi police forces to cover its unilateral aims and buffer American troops. The police forces are filled predominantly with Sunnite Muslims, i.e. the re-trained staff of the former Baathist terror police once under Saddam Hussein’s command. In addition and as usual, the US campaign has been waged on the battlefield of Anglo-American minds as well. It has been so successful in fact that even last week the Guardian, the British daily famed for its objectivity, reported that many of the Najaf resistance fighters were supporters of Saddam Hussein.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Iraq’s Shiites, despite often being on the front lines in the 1980-88 war against Iran the majority of whose population is also Shiite, saw thousands of their own brutally massacred by Saddam Hussein after rising up against his rule in 1991. They were prompted to do so by the US in return for a promise of military assistance that never came. The Shiites are Iraq’s ethnic majority, and their refusal to join with the United States occupation has always depended, in the eyes of their field leader, Moktada al-Sadr, the second most influential Shiite leader in Iraq, on one thing and one thing alone: the United States army leaving Iraq.
Deep disrespect for religious concerns, cruel cynicism, to say nothing of sheer stupidity, are what rule the day at Bush&Blair Inc. As every month passes, the United States is exposing its troops and its population back home to an increased threat of terror attacks–real ones this time. The violent campaign it has led in Iraq ever since its air attack and invasion a year and a half ago has led even Anglo-American capitalism’s billboard, The Economist to recently avow that ” well-intentioned or not, [Messes. Bush and Blair’s] salesmanship of the war has made us all less safe, and more vulnerable to terrorists.”
Worse. On the verge of defeat, like in Vietnam, the American army has explicitly turned to waging a war of terror. Gone are the claims of WMDs, exporting democracy, protecting human rights and vouching for the rights of women. All that remains is coercion, torture and massacres–ordinary facts in the history of illegally occupying foreign countries.
One of the stated reasons for al-Qaeda’s declaration of war on the United States was its military bases in Saudi Arabia. Given that the desert kingdom is home to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in Islam apart from Jerusalem, foreign troops on its soil are very much akin to the offense Christians might have experienced had a Muslim army been stationed in Italy to conduct air strikes against Spain when under the rule of the dictator Franco. In the neoconservatives’ strategy, openly acknowledged by President Bush in his speech to the Senate in July, the United States army would have left Saudi Arabia due to its failure of “containing” Saddam Hussein, despite regular air strikes and a trade embargo enforced since 1991. In his Vanity Fair interview in the spring of 2003, Paul Wolfowitz went as far as avowing that leaving the Arabian Peninsula was necessary for security reasons–which have since become even more pressing considering the six million foreign professionals working there and vulnerable to an exploding revolt.
As a national energy strategy, and the dwindling state of long-term petroleum reserves, another matter was at stake. The US would invade and occupy Iraq in order to guarantee both its supply of petroleum as well as control petroleum distribution to Europe and China.
Instead of doing so in a profit-sharing scheme with Iraqis, former vice-consul Paul Brenner’s occupation administration ultimately made Iraq an extension of US plans for global hegemony. It sold off industry, commodities and restructuring contracts mainly to American corporations, often at inflated prices, with the exception of a few others run by the minions serving in the so-called Coalition forces.
In political realist terms, global hegemony is tantamount to controlling “oil”, no matter the price in human lives or diplomacy. Yet for those who have to sacrifice their lives for the prosperity of wealthy CEOs and political lords, denial cannot be an option. The terror the US army is now instilling amongst Iraqi Shiites must be denounced far and wide by those whose lives are most at risk in the retaliation that will surely come one day, which means ordinary Americans.
A week after this latest phase began, hundreds have been reported dead, the wounded are mounting into the thousands. One day, the Americans will have to answer to how it claimed to support the Shiite rebellion against Saddam Hussein in 1991, which led to thousands of deaths at the hands of Saddam’s henchmen, only to then itself commit the same gruesome atrocity. Where does the difference lie? Americans can’t even claim any more than torture is not part of their panoply of weapons, especially since the one man who should have resigned for accountability’s sake, Donald Rumsfeld, is still spreading death and destruction. One day, the U.S. will be bound to the terms of the International Criminal Court.
There is an erroneous idea amongst non-Muslim Westerners that Shiites represent a more fanatical wing of Islam. This sect of Islam is rooted in a terrible historical drama. The word “Shiite” comes from “shiat Ali”, meaning the party of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, whom its followers consider as the rightful heir to Muhammad. Ali chose not to take the claim, but passed it on to his youngest son, Husayn. But upon taking over the leadership of the Islamic State, Husayn was assassinated with his entire guard by those who became known as the Sunnites, i.e. the followers of the Sunnah, the second source of the Prophet’s guidance and rulings.
Ever since Husayn’s martyrdom, Shiites have been at odds with Sunnites in various parts of the Islamic world. The scenes of flagellation seen again as of last year–until then the ceremonies had been banned by Saddam Hussein–are only remarkable for Christians who know nothing of their own history, and the physical means by which to heal bodily longings. Not that the public self-flagellation performed by Shiites has anything to do with Christians’ closet sadomasochism. Here we have an entire people suffering their disenfranchisement from ruling what went on to become the most glorious civilization on the planet for several centuries.
As for modern times, the Shiites have gone through much to make them very angry. The American and British orchestrated coup in Iran in 1953 against the democratically elected secular-nationalist leader Mohammad Mossadegh led to imposing the Shah of Iran onto an unwilling population, which in turn was made to bear the brunt of his secret police. Back home in the US, what viewers were graced with were not the dungeons of Tehran but only the elegance of the mild mannered Reza and his wife interviewed ad nauseum by Barbara Walters. Meanwhile intellectuals, artists and activists correctly identified the United States as a collaborating culprit to their striving for independence, which first took shape as a Marxist-inspired revolution and then shifted grounds to the theocratic regime that certainly never hid its contempt for Iran’s former lords.
As in Iran, so also in Iraq. The Shiites seek to establish their regime, which means imposing their own–and not a western–legal code. After all, the latter is already dysfunctional enough in the United States when it comes to protecting the rights of the poor and underprivileged, and the ethnically undesirable. At least in Shiite Islam there are signs of economic solidarity that have long left our capitalist shores. That democracy is not yet a keyword there should be irrelevant, then. The only Persian Gulf state that is experiencing democracy anyway, Iran, is on the US’s hit list. The rest of the region’s states are either monarchies, with more or less degrees of enlightenment, or theocratic regimes.
The legal system that Iraqi Shiites as well as Sunnites strive to see applied in their homeland is the Shari`ah (sacred law) and the Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Unlike what Western pundits want us to believe, the Shariah does not necessarily mean that all women will be stripped of their civil rights and that men be subject to the reign of orthodox Wahhabism as it rules in Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that we know next to nothing of how this system actually works apart from the most sensational acts of retribution gleefully reported by the Western media. But for a country like the US that, in 2003, executed 65 inmates in 11 states and sentenced twice as many to death, an eye for an eye should be kid’s stuff. Certainly, the Bush administration has no problems with it. It is led by the former governor of a state where, in the words of some, execution is a business. The only condition is that the Saudi kettle not boil over into popular revolt.
Fiqh is built upon premises of jurisprudence and oriented by the religious faith and convictions of Islam, though not explicitly covered in the texts of the Koran and Sunnah. With the United States spreading terror in Iraq, no American can credibly maintain that Muslims are essentially fanatical and violent, willing to impose their system of beliefs on others. They are the victims of an illegal foreign occupation. The words Americans speak apply only to their own nation and civilization.
Yet all this blood and terror is rendered even more gruesome, ever more pathetic, as it is really just a big show for the American public back home in a bid to strengthen popularity for the fall election. What do a few thousand deaths of poor Arabs mean when trillions of dollars are at stake? The criminal injustice that allows such a sentence to be written, let alone thought and acted upon, underscores the reality of class difference, economic disparity, and the reign of capitalism as ever more Americans are disenfranchised and distanced from the political decision-making that claims to speak in their name.
This is the meaning of the poor having to die for the rich, no matter their nationality, religion or ethnic background. Invading al-Najaf has now completed Osama bin Laden’s wish, a religious war to top things off. Stupidity has never seen so feeble a word to describe such a dramatic situation.
NORMAN MADARASZ is editor and translator of Alain Badiou’s Briefings on Existence, forthcoming from SUNY Press. He writes from Rio de Janeiro.