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6 Kislev 5766 - December 7, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Observations: Sunni Arabs Fear Shiite Emancipation
by Fouad Ajami

The remarkable thing about the terror in Iraq is the silence with which it is greeted in other Arab lands. Abu Musab al- Zarqawi has exposed the pitilessness and the moral emptiness of so much of official Arab life. Zarqawi is a bigot and a killer. In the way he rails against the Shiites (and the Kurds) he expresses that fatal Arab inability to take in "the other."

Zarqawi kills and maims, he labels the Shiites rafida (rejecters of Islam), he charges them with treason as "collaborators of the occupiers and the Crusaders," but he is perceived as a holy warrior on behalf of a wider Arab world that has averted its gaze from his crimes, and that has given him its silent approval.

What is one to make of the Damascus-based Union of Arab Writers that has refused to grant membership in its ranks to Iraqi authors? For more than three decades, Iraq's life was sheer and limitless terror, and the Union of Arab Writers never uttered a word. Through these terrible decades, Iraqis suffered alone.

Unreason, an indifference to the most basic of facts, and a spirit of belligerence have settled upon the Arab world. Those who, in Arab lands beyond Iraq, have taken to describing the Iraqi constitution as an "American-Iranian constitution," give voice to incoherence. At the heart of this incoherence lies an adamant determination to deny the Shiites of Iraq a claim to their rightful place in their country's political order.

The drumbeats against Iraq from the League of Arab States and its Egyptian apparatchiks betray the panic of an old Arab political class afraid that there is something new unfolding in Iraq—a different understanding of political power and citizenship, a possible break with the culture of tyranny and the cult of Big Men disposing of the affairs— and the treasure—of nations.

The Egyptian autocracy knows the stakes. An Iraqi polity with a modern social contract would be a rebuke to all that Egypt stands for, a cruel reminder of the heartbreak of Egyptians in recent years.

We should not be taken in by warnings from Jordan, made by King Abdullah II, of a "Shia crescent" spanning Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This is a piece of bigotry and simplification unworthy of a Hashemite ruler, for in the scheme of Arab history the Hashemites have been possessed of moderation and tolerance. Of all Sunni Arab rulers, the Hashemites have been particularly close to the Shiites, but popular opinion in Jordan has been thoroughly infatuated with Saddam Hussein, and Saddamism, and an inexperienced ruler must have reasoned that the Shiite bogey would play well at home.

The truth of Jordan today is official moderation coupled with a civic culture given to anti-Americanism, and hijacked by the Islamists. Verse is still read in Saddam's praise at poetry readings in Amman, and the lawyers' syndicate is packed with those eager to join the legal defense teams of Saddam Hussein and his principal lieutenants. Jordan has yet to make its peace with the new Iraq.

It was luck that the American project in Iraq came to the rescue of the Shiites—and of the Kurds. We may not fully appreciate the historical change we unleashed on the Arab world. We have given liberty to the stepchildren of the Arab world. We have overturned an edifice of material and moral power that dates back centuries.

The Arabs railing against U.S. imperialism and arrogance in Iraq will never let us in on the real sources of their resentments. They can't tell us that they are aggrieved that we have given a measure of self-worth to the seminarians of Najaf and the highlanders of Kurdistan. But that is precisely what gnaws at them. The Sunni political and bureaucratic elites, and the Christian Arab pundits who abetted them in the idle hope that they would be spared the wrath of the street and of the mob— were overturned in Iraq.

And America, at times ambivalent about its mission, brought along with its military gear a suspicion of the Shiites.

For the Sunni Arabs, this new war in Iraq was a replay: the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258. The great city of learning fell to savages, and an age of greatness had drawn to a close. In the legend of that tale, the Mongols sacked the metropolis, put its people to the sword, dumped the books of its libraries in the Tigris. That river, chroniclers insist, flowed, alternately, with the blood of the victims and the ink of the books.

A tale of betrayal is told. A minister of the caliph, a Shiite by the name of Ibn Alqami, opened the gates of Baghdad to the Mongols. In his call for a new `holy war' against the Shiites, Zarqawi dredges up that history, dismisses the Shiite-led government as "the government of Ibn Alqami's descendants."

Zarqawi's jihadists have needed the harbor given them in the Sunni triangle and the indulgence of the old Baathists. Iraq is now a "stolen country" delivered into the hands of subject communities unfit to rule. Though a minority, the Sunni Arabs have a majoritarian mindset and a conviction that political dominion is their birthright.

The project in the burning grounds of the Arab-Muslim world remains, and we must remember its genesis. It arose out of a calamity on 9/11, which rid us rudely of the illusions of the '90s. In Kabul and Baghdad, we cut down two terrible regimes; in the neighborhood beyond, there are chameleons in the shadows whose ways are harder to extirpate.

Our work has been noble and necessary, and we can't call a halt to it in midstream. We bought time for reform to take root in several Arab and Muslim realms. Leave aside the rescue of Afghanistan, Kuwait and Qatar have done well by our protection, and Lebanon has retrieved much of its freedom. The three larger realms of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria are more difficult settings, but there, too, the established orders of power will have to accommodate the yearnings for change.

The claim that our war in Iraq will have hatched a Shiite theocracy is a smear on the war, a misreading of the Shiite world of Iraq. In the holy city of Najaf, at its apex, there is a dread of political furies and an attachment to sobriety. I went to Najaf in July; no one of consequence there spoke of a theocratic state. The new order shall give them what they want: a place in Iraq's cultural and moral order, and a decent separation between religion and the compromises of political life.

It has not been easy, this expedition to Iraq, and for America in Iraq there has been heartbreak aplenty. But we ought to remember the furies that took us there, and we ought to be consoled by the thought that the fight for Iraq is a fight to ward off Arab dangers and troubles that came our way on a clear September morning, four years ago.

Mr. Ajami teaches International Relations at Johns Hopkins University. These are excerpts from an article that originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.


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