To be a stranger in one’s own town

IRAQ / The Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has written an excellent book that dispels the typical view of a sectarian and divided society as the main cause of Iraq's long and continuing tragedy.

A Stranger in Your Own City
Author: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
Publisher: Hutchinton Heineman, UK

In the last days of April 2003, thousands of people marched through the Iraqi city of Karbala. They were Shia Muslims marking Arba’een, which occurs 40 days after Ashura. This mourning period in the Shia Muslim calendar is connected to the Battle of Karbala in the year 680, where Imam Hussein ibn Ali was martyred.

While normally a day of crying and beating one’s chest, Arba’een in 2003 had clear signs of celebration. A few weeks earlier, American forces had invaded Iraq and overthrown Saddam Hussein’s despised regime.

«This was in extreme contrast to how Ashura had been observed a few weeks earlier, just before the war. I had sat in Khadimiya, the largest Shia Muslim shrine in Baghdad, and watched only a few people sneaking in quickly», writes Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in his new book, A Stranger in Your Own City, about the country’s tragedy.

Karbala Iraq
Karbala, Iraq

Overthrowing a dictatorship

The book marks the 20th anniversary of the events that temporarily created conditional optimism among Shia Muslims and other Iraqi groups. They had lived in fear under Saddam Hussein’s brutal Sunni Muslim rule for years. While many could see that something was fundamentally wrong with how things were going, they hoped to see the country move towards freedom and democracy.

The «liberation» of Iraq has become an extremely significant event in the modern history of the Middle East, and many books have already been written about the events of 2003. However, Abdul-Ahad stands out from the crowd. He is not only a well-written and clear analyst, but he constantly views the events from his own perspective – the local perspective.

As the invasion was imminent, Western journalists gathered in one of the hotels in Baghdad. Over drinks at the bar, they exchanged memories of previous wars and were already well on their way to new armed conflicts elsewhere in the world. When Abdul-Ahad joined them and – as he writes – «told them that I had once come here to use the swimming pool with good friends», he was met with patronising condescension. How could he dare to talk about normality in the presence of these foreigners? In their eyes, he and the Shia Muslims were victims, while all Sunni Muslims were executioners with the deepest sympathy for the dictator Saddam Hussein. That’s just how it was!

Of course, this is drawn in harsh terms, and there are also numerous good and nuanced accounts from Iraq. However, the author still makes an important point. The atmosphere in Karbala was characterized by contradictions, vague hopes, and doubts, while the Western perception often builds on a confident conviction of understanding the many aspects of the problem. According to Abdul-Ahad, this was very characteristic of George W. Bush and the American administration, and it is precisely this lack of understanding of nuances often derails developments. Thus, the book also has a fundamental significance, as the same problem recurs in many places where the West wants to introduce democracy. Overthrowing a dictatorship is a good goal, but there are many local pitfalls along the way. In this regard, Iraq serves as an example of how things can go dramatically wrong.

The atmosphere in Karbala was characterised by contradictions, vague hopes, and doubts, while the Western perception often builds on a confident conviction of understanding the many aspects of the problem.

Back to the same shack

The new rulers of Iraq used the narrative of madhloumiya – the imaginary or real oppression that Shia Muslims have lived under ever since Hussein’s death at Karbala 1400 years ago. They did not understand that not all Sunni Muslims necessarily supported Saddam Hussein’s rule, and this is where things started to go wrong from the beginning.

The new Government Council reinforced this sectarian rhetoric by establishing a political system based on muhassasa – a distribution of public resources along sectarian and ethnic lines. This allowed a group of corrupt and religious warlords to rule the country for the next 20 years, making Iraq one of the world’s most corrupt nations.

This unpleasant development could possibly have been avoided to some extent if Iraq’s new leaders back in 2003 had not pushed the sectarian fear so hard. This was what neoconservative American leaders argued, and precisely this element gave Al Qaeda and, later, the Islamic State significant impact.

When the Islamic State was defeated territorially, Iraq returned to the same shack where it has more or less remained to this day. The country returned to the same sectarian order that the new rulers created after the 2003 war, and this is what the author describes as being a stranger in his own city.

In Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria, the people’s anger during the so-called Arab Spring was directed at despots, while the situation in Iraq after 2003 was entirely different. It revolved around a ruling class that came to power after the war back then – and it is a product of the West’s perception of Iraq as deeply sectarian. This perception is what Ghaith Abdul-Ahad challenges in his book. He maintains that Iraq lived with widespread coexistence among different ethnic groups before the American invasion, which the Western world never understood. And this is why many Iraqis today miss Saddam Hussein, even though he was a brutal and ruthless dictator.

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Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Modern Times Review.

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