There is a lot of argument about the root causes of what happened in Paris on Friday 13 November. John Pilger, writing an opinion piece on the Stop the War website, thinks he knows. To say that the man attracts a lot of dislike is to put it mildly. Still, he makes claims and arguments and these need to be discussed, and not simply dismissed with a brusque epithet. So this post is going to be long, and divided into three parts. It’s not a critique of Pilger personally but of his ideas, ideas which are widely shared. I am not interested in hatchet jobs. I am interested in taking the axe to bad ideas. That is the reason that drives me to write this piece. Part I will discuss the role of Iraq and the US-UK. Part II will discuss Syria. Part III will discuss what Pilger thinks should done about it. The use of his surname should be seen as a reference to the ideas he expresses; bad ideas, bad because poorly thought out, bad because pernicious, all the more so because the people who hold them think they have the moral high ground. But they don’t.
Naturally, the roots go back to Iraq. Writing on the Stop the War website (which the website presents as an op-ed, though it probably reflects what a lot of its staff and supporters think), he lays the blame for the rise of the Islamic State (and by extension responsibility for all its crimes) on Bush and Blair:
‘By most scholarly measure, Bush and Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the deaths of at least 700,000 people – in a country that had no history of jihadism. The Kurds had done territorial and political deals; Sunni and Shia had class and sectarian differences, but they were at peace; intermarriage was common … Bush and Blair blew all this to bits. Iraq is now a nest of jihadism… ISIS is the progeny of those in Washington, London and Paris who, in conspiring to destroy Iraq, Syria and Libya, committed an epic crime against humanity … [a] horrific dismemberment of the most ethnically diverse state in the Middle East.’
France, of course, opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the invasion of Iraq unleashed a hurricane of violence as the country tore itself apart on sectarian lines. Why? Why did the invasion set off not just one but several wars, with Sunni and Shia fighting the Americans as well as each other – savagely? If it was an insignificant fact of Iraqi life before 2003, then the subsequent intercommunal savagery we saw post-2003 simply cannot be explained.
However, not all on the anti-war left duck the issue. Patrick Cockburn, in his book ‘The Occupation, War and Resistance in Iraq’ details how exiled Iraqi opposition, in their efforts to entice the Americans to finish the job they started in 1991, deliberately downplayed sectarianism in the country. They talked in the same way that some of the war’s critics do. Cockburn says:
‘Iraqi opponents of Saddam Hussein were inclined to underestimate the extent to which their country was divided by deep sectarian or ethnic fault lines’. Iraqi exiles, drawn from the ranks of the secular middle class, had lost touch with realities in the country since their departure. But, Cockburn goes on, there was a further compelling motive for exiles to downplay sectarianism:
‘The Shia leaders knew that a reason why the US-led coalition had not overthrown Saddam Hussein in 1991 was the fear that he would be replaced by a Shia regime allied to Iran … After the crushing of the uprising of 1991 opponents of Saddam by and large came to realise that the only certain way to get rid of the regime in Iraq was for the US to launch a second war against it – and this time go all the way to Baghdad. The Americans were not likely to do this if they knew that the main beneficiary of Saddam’s overthrow was going to be the Shia allies of the Iranian regime’. (pp. 93-94) Relying on Iraqi exiles for their intelligence meant that the Americans ‘did not understand in 2003 the extent to which Iraq – and this was true of both Shia and Sunni – was a highly religious country …’ It took them a while to wake up:
‘Exaggerating the influence of secular Iraqi leaders and underestimating that of religious leaders was to be a recurrent theme of the US occupation. When it supposedly handed over sovereignty in June 2004, Washington backed Iyad Allawi, the former Baathist and leader of the Iraqi National Accord, as interim Prime Minister. It was only after Allawi and Ahmed Chalabi [an Iraqi exile who did much to downplay the sectarian divide] did so badly in the election December 15 2005 … that the US seems to have appreciated the weakness of the secular anti-Saddam leadership which it had cultivated for so long’ (pp. 95-96) Episodes like the American siege of Fallujah forged temporary solidarities – which did not last. The Shia sent a convoy loaded with supplies to the besieged Sunni city only to have seven Shia drivers executed by the very insurgents they had come to help (pp. 144).
Pilger shares the same blind-spot as the Americans did. He still does. But no one can write off Cockburn as an apologist for the invasion and occupation; he is a fierce critic of the war. But he has a greater sense of political realities than Pilger and most of Stop the War’s activists, including Jeremy Corbyn.
The invasion did not create the Jihadi forces we see running amok today. They unleashed them. If that is so, then a disturbing conclusion follows. They can only be reined in by the firm hand of a dictator. That is not a conclusion that, I suspect, Pilger can stomach. He was fiercely critical of British and US support for the Iraqi dictator in the 1980s (as were other critics like Harold Pinter). They were outraged we backed Saddam in the 1980s and outraged when we overthrew him in 2003.
Their inconsistency on this point is easy to understand if we accept that the source of their outrage was on account that doing both things forestalled the emergence of a progressive democracy in the country, founded on Enlightenment values, secular and non-sectarian. That was not a possibility in the 1980s and it’s even less likely now. Might it have been? There is no doubt that the wars (two out of three of them started by Saddam) and sanctions weakened the secular middle class in the country. Perhaps the decimation and impoverishment of this class in the 80s and 90s left Iraq ripe for the Jihadists’ picking in the 2000s.
It seems unlikely. Truly secular, democratic and liberal forces of any kind have never been strong in the Middle East. Over the last 40 years, the steady rise of political Islam has been felt everywhere in the region with polling showing a region-wide drift to the conservative right. Socialist and other secular ideologies were long discredited with their association with both unbelief and political repression. Even so-called secular leaders like Saddam and the Assads in Syria, father and son, have had to cloak themselves in Islamic garb and credentials to cement legitimacy in the eyes of their subject populations.
The much touted ‘multiculturalism’ of countries like Syria is not akin to its western practice. Syria ‘tolerated’ its minorities because of their political quiescence and because there were not many of them. They had no right to claim a share of power or representation in the state. The Egyptian dictator, Mubarak, presided over a steady Islamicisation of society but did little to counteract this, so long as Islamists made no concerted effort to challenge the power of the state. Christian Copts, 10 per cent of the population, found little in the way of protection from the supposedly secular state. Bomb attacks on Coptic places of worship met with calls for unity from Mubarak but not much else.
If the invasion had never happened, and we had kept Saddam in place as a kind of safety-catch on the Jihadi pressure cooker, would that have been better? Perhaps not. In Syria, a dictator finds himself beleaguered by Jihadists. In this case, repression has failed to keep the lid on. Indeed, it’s pretty certain that repression has added fuel to the fire. But Pilger does not think so. It’s to Syria we now turn.