Robert Spencer has mentioned that someone with a reasonable knowledge of the worldview of Islam, of what Islam inculcates, would not have been a booster of the Iraq the Model (or Iraq the Light Unto the Muslim Nations) Project. For one would have known that “democracy” in the Western sense is not possible — that is, a democracy that would enshrine the rights of the individual (as expressed in the American Bill of Rights, or in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), insist upon legal equality for non-Muslims and for women, and, above all, be based on a system that would require the people in Iraq (not the “Iraqi people” in whom Bush so devoutly appears to believe) to locate political legitimacy in the expressed will of the people. (See the social-contract theories, see Hobbes, see Locke, see Rousseau, and go right up to Rawls, by which governments are legitimated by appeal to that will.)
The people in Iraq do not believe that it is the expressed will of the people that matters, but rather the will expressed by Allah in Qur’an (and glossed by the Sunnah). But Bush scarcely knew or knows a thing about Islam. His chief advisors on the subject have been, inter alios, a professor of law in Ohio. And how did Karen Hughes, our great expert in “reaching out” (something that in any case is completely contrary to what should be done) to the world of Islam, decide that this was just one more little topic, easily mastered, and that in no time at all, by meeting with Saudi ambassadors and suchlike, they’d get the hang of it?
But, you will say, didn’t Kanan Makiya and Ahmed Chalabi explain that everything would be all right? Didn’t Bernard Lewis think it would all work out fine? And what about all those predictions — Paul Wolfowitz claiming the entire war and brief occupation, so very brief, would cost some tens of billions of dollars, or that other fellow, the one who said it would be “walk in the park”? What about Richard Perle, who was so sound when he was Henry Jackson’s deputy but apparently not eager to study Islam himself? Instead he and the rest were willing to rely on those nice unrepresentative Shi’a-in-exile who were all over Washington. It is they who deserve the most credit for the war in Iraq. It is they who held out the promise of so much, in their desire to convince or inveigle the Americans into removing Saddam Hussein.
And Lewis himself, who has Arab visitors to his house to see his rarities in Princeton, always seems so impressed with those Arabs and Muslims who share one important characteristic: they all appear to be so impressed with Bernard Lewis. And so Ahmed Chalabi was seen as an Iraqi attuned to Iraqi reality, when Ahmed Chalabi in fact had been out of Iraq for 45 years. After all, he was a serious mathematician, with a doctorate from the University of Chicago to prove it. (And what has become of Waring’s Problem, since it gave Chalabi, or he gave it, the slip?) And then there was Kanan Makiya, author of “The Republic of Fear” and stout oppononent of both Saddam Hussein and that other bully, this one in so-called intellectual matters, Edward Said. And there was also that charming Arab lady interested in rescuing the Arab world, who was, and perhaps still is, a great and good friend of Paul Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz may have learned from her, rather than from quiet days and nights among the books, nights spent not only studying but taking in, assimilating, the material — which requires the quiet that the hectic vacancy of Washington so seldom permits.
And then there was not only Islam, but history itself. Where was the study of the divide between Sunni and Shi’a? It was seen as something temporary, something that could and would be bridged. After all, were there not Sunni-Shi’a marriages? Were there not good Sunnis and good Shi’a — precisely the kind one would find among the secularized and outwardly westernized elites in exile, the very people who knew each other and who presented themselves as “representative” Iraqis?
Lewis might have been dreaming, for all we know, of an Iraq that would be run by his friends and acquaintances, such as Ahmed Chalabi and Kanan Makiya and Mithal al-Alusi and all the other unrepresentative representative men. How many votes did the slate of Ahmed Chalabi receive? Compare that result with the slate of Moqtada al-Sadr, or the parties controlled by people only a tad less unpleasant than Moqtada al-Sadr. And if the Sunnis were really to participate wholeheartedly in one of those purple-thumbed supposedly majestic exercises in voting, for whom would they vote? Mithal al-Alusi? Well, no, because when he ran, on his own, he received 4,500 votes in a country of 27 million.
The clash between Sunnis and Shi’a goes back to earliest Islam. The depth and duration of that hostility, which in history-haunted Islam can be so easily evoked, so easily brought up and made more real for those living in the present than the present itself, was simply ignored by these Iraqis-in-exile. Party, it was a function of their own ignorance. They really thought that the “problem” of Iraq was Saddam Hussein and the last thirty years. They didn’t know Iraq’s history. Had they spent time reading, say, Elie Kedourie (oh, but he doesn’t count because he was Jewish and as an adult lived in England? So his meticulous and dry studies count for nothing? Is that it?), they would have seen the history of suppression of enemies, of endemic violence, of palace coups. Remember “strongman” Nuri es-Said? They would have read about that early revolt of the Shi’a tribes, who were unwilling to be ruled, as the British wanted them to be ruled, by a Sunni king and a Sunni elite (see “The Letters of Gertrude Bell”).
Islam was not understood. Iraq was wilfully misunderstood.
Otherwise, the American government, the Bush Administration, knew — and knows — exactly what it is doing.