Divide and rule?

Making sense of the political changes the Americans are introducing in Iraq is not an easy task. On 7 July, Baghdad acquired an “elected” municipal body — actually appointed by district committees. A week later, the Governing Council sprang into action. Iraq’s institutional rebirth is still a matter of trial and error, or — some would argue — outright machination. The social and political chaos that followed the collapse of the regime has created a murky situation that is further complicated by ongoing military operations against the occupation forces. Are these operations an accidental reflex that is likely to fade away with time? Or are they a taste of things to come, democratic or otherwise? It is hard to tell. But there is an obvious risk that military resistance will be tainted by the same sectarianism that has so far marked Iraq’s newly-created political institutions.

The establishment of these institutions has already generated a wide-ranging debate — even before the intentions behind them have been fully clarified, even before the interlocutors have been able to free their minds of Iraq’s gruelling past, even before the dust had settled on the convoluted discussion that was held in the UN, and even before anyone has figured out whether Iraq was attacked because it had weapons of mass destruction, or just because it was a particularly unpleasant regime.

Saddam, ironically, was always consistent in his compliance with the wishes of the US administration, at least since he set his heart on filling the power vacuum he imagined had been left by the ouster of Iran’s shah. It was part of this consistency that he never used weapons of mass destruction, except against his own people. The Americans, in return, turned a blind eye to Saddam’s oppression, so long as he served their interests. Saddam was thus only telling the truth when he said, on the eve of the war, that he had no weapons of mass destruction. His foes, in contrast, were lying. They could have saved us the tough talking of Rumsfeld and the sophisticated savvy of Blix and El- Baradei, for as it turned out, the decision was already made. The Iraqi regime had to go, in order for the Americans to achieve certain strategic goals — whatever those goals may be. Was democracy one of them? Yes, but only in the eyes of certain diehard US advocates who still believe in the white man’s burden, and who yearn to relive the role the United States once played in the reconstruction of Germany and Japan.

The latter, however, were industrially advanced and ethnically homogeneous countries, to an extent that is rare in Europe as in Asia. The Germans and Japanese had succeeded in creating totalitarian regimes that condoned genocide and were prepared to fight till the bitter end, and whose leadership, or at least part thereof, was ready to commit suicide rather than surrender. It was this destructive vitality which, once harnessed in a democratic setting, did much to modernise both countries. In contrast, Saddam’s regime never developed a rigorously totalitarian system. Instead, it plodded along on a hybrid mixture of tribal allegiances, sultanate traditions, and military high-handedness. The regime was not even above buying the allegiance of various clans with hard cash, when all else failed.

This is all now in the past. What we are faced with today are a number of competing constitutional ideas about how to reorganise an Arab state. This is a valid topic for debate. Arab democratic forces, both pan-Arab and otherwise, have legitimate concerns about Iraq’s future, and are willing to voice them.

One does not need to be particularly insightful to see what’s coming. The ongoing debate on various television satellite networks has already highlighted the alarming issue of sectarian revival in Iraq. Sectarianism, some have argued, has to be taken into account during the initial phase of restructuring, at least to keep outright opposition to the process at bay. For other commentators, the Americans and their allies may be trying to mate federalism with sectarianism, in an attempt to blend modernity with tradition. Others still would argue that Iraq will not be any more sectarian in the future than it was in the past, just because the majority sect is now in control. If anything, this may actually be an improvement on the rule of the minority sect. Democrats, of course, would maintain that a democratic majority and a sectarian majority are not quite the same thing.

Iraq’s past is not that of a sectarian minority in government, but of a hybrid state ruling through an intricate web of clan allegiances, in a climate of corruption and fear. Sects are a fact of life in Iraq. But to turn them into the building stone of a modern state would be a negation of democracy, and would court disaster. Democracy depends on principles being systematically turned into facts — the rule of law, the rights of citizens, and the separation between the public and private domains, to mention but a few. Once a regime is built on sectarianism, it will be very hard for it to break free from those roots. Once sects coalesce into legal entities, a momentum would be created that it would be difficult to reverse. As a result, the future course of the country would always have to be addressed in sectarian terms.

Take Lebanon, for example, where constitutional sectarianism dominates political discourse, even when the interlocutors are non- sectarian in their beliefs. It is difficult for a regime established on a sectarian basis to regulate the relationship between the citizen and the state, except through the mediation of the sect into which each citizen is born, even if the individual in question is secular in his or her politics and creed. The regime would automatically marginalise any party that sought to address the future of the country, of the citizenry at large, and transcend the oppressive limitations of the sectarian structure. The most such a regime could ever aspire to is a consensual democracy, in which the consensus is established among sects, rather than directly between people. Political leaders, in order to survive, would have to emphasise the symbols of their own sects, thus stressing the past over the future. Of course, Lebanon’s limited consensual democracy is better than a dictatorial regime in peace time, but it also exposes the country to the constant threat of civil war.

Why, some may ask, is democratic federalism better than sectarian federalism? Because, under the former, it is citizenship that defines the individual’s ties with both the federal and the state authorities. Citizens should have parallel ties with both these two structures. They should remain free to conduct their relations, and not be bound by vows of sectarian fidelity. When regionalism emerges in a sectarian setting, it negates democracy and carries a certain risk of secession. In a democratic setting, regionalism can be pursued free of the shackles of sectarianism and creed. A political party with a nation-wide agenda functions best in a system that does not exist just to legalise sectarianism.

Reality, of course, is not that simple. Our whole region is inhabited with dead spirits, as well as with myths that are still very much alive. If not, how can we explain the fanatical clinging to tiny homelands populated with undying images? But having said that, it still pays to play fair, and to stick to the rules of the constitutional state. Constitutional thinking should help reduce the hold which sectarian concepts have over us. It should open the horizon up to democratic change, and prepare the way for relations between the individual and the state that are unhampered by sectarian thinking.

The aim of democratic thinking is to institutionalise citizenship, to establish the rights and duties of each citizen, and to create a direct link between the individual and the authorities. The state should be the tool for creating a viable community that brings together all its citizens. Without a direct relationship between the individual and the state, without a set of guaranteed private and public rights for all citizens, the individuality of the citizen would remain a myth. Structures that fail to provide a strong sense of citizenship can only stifle individuality, for they create a situation where the only force that can protect the individual from the arbitrary exercise of state power is clan allegiance.

Federal divisions may be inspired by religion, culture, or ethnicity — as is the case in Switzerland, Belgium, and Canada, for example. This is quite different, however, from systems in which political sectarianism overshadows citizenship. As a political system, sectarian pluralism would be unable to create a workable consensual democracy — for what hope does it have of sorting out the mixed bag of constitutional complexities and religious intricacies it has to haul along with it? Ultimately, the best representative of any sect is a sectarian party — or even a religious party. So, this is what all sectarian systems tend to produce, sooner or later.

A troubling question comes to mind at this point. Is citizenship alone a sufficient basis for national belonging, for the emergence of a unity that can survive the plurality of allegiances which exist within it without disintegrating into civil war? Do people come together just for the sake of being citizens? I would say the answer is, straightforwardly, no. But it is good to educate a nation to embrace citizenship as a way of life and as a method of interaction among individuals and between individuals and the state. In cases where citizenship is identical with nationalism — as it is, for example, in France — then this problem does not arise. There will of course be other problems, other allegiances, but that is a separate question. Yet, even in cases where multiple ethnicities are a historical fact within the state, the boundaries of both citizenship and national allegiance will need to be carefully explored.

The majority of Iraqis are Arabs, both historically and culturally. Anyone who seeks to underplay this fact in political life is only paving the way for sectarianism — Shi’ite, Sunni, and Christian. The Arab identity is indispensable for the Iraqi state. The Kurds have their rights, as an ethnic group with its own language and culture, and these rights should be upheld. Still, there is a far cry between a democratic country with two ethnicities — an Arab majority and a Kurdish minority — and one that is constitutionally multi-sectarian. Civic life and citizenship are two faces of the same coin, and nationalism should infuse both with cultural and political meaning.

It is impossible to imagine how a modern Iraqi state can emerge without an Arab sense of identity that is unencumbered by clan and tribal allegiances, and which is also able to accommodate the Kurdish sense of identity. Jordan, to give an example of another Arab country, would not have been able to handle its Palestinian-Jordanian mix without its solid sense of Arab identity. The same goes for Lebanon and Syria. Tensions exist, of course, between citizenship and nationality, for the latter is overlaid with historical connotations that citizenship strives to surpass and overcome. But these tensions occur on much higher ground, and on a more sophisticated level, than those associated with tribes and clans. Nationalism carries the risk of deteriorating into a racist ideology, fascist in both its methods and its traits. Yet, it can also act as an inspirational focus within a framework of democratic pluralism, if it is allowed to interact with citizenship in an ethnically-neutral milieu.

The mere publication of the names of Iraq’s Governing Council, with subdivisions listing the number of members from each sect, is hardly reassuring. The Americans may have failed to uncover military weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but they may yet succeed in bringing a social weapon of mass destruction to the region — that of Arab societies divided along sectarian lines.

The writer is a Palestinian Israeli and member of the Knesset.