Well, the Quagmire of our involvement in Iraq is back. Pottery Barn Rules, as former Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “You break it, it’s yours.” (He admits it was a mistake, but I sure would like to hear him come forward and admit that the Cheney/Bush White House deliberately lied bald-face to him and all of us about WMDs, and played him for a fool. Or maybe he was complicit. I hope not.)
In any case, people have continued to die in Iraq since we pulled out, and now even more are dying. And we are getting drawn back in. What are the causes of this problem.
First, there is no excuse for terrorism. The Jihadist, Wahabist ISIL/ISIS are opportunistic thugs, and need to be completely eliminated from the playing field. Al Qaida’s leadership are cowardly demagogues perverting their faith so that the old males can stay in power. You can tell the tree by its fruits: Al Qaida has spawned ISIL and Boko Haram, to name just a couple. ‘Nuf Said. Nothing that has happened in the past can excuse their perfidy.
Innocent hard-working, honest, moderate Iraqis and Syrians are suffering as ideologues battle in their streets. This has to stop.
But Situations have Causes
While being quite clear that these right-wing militant movements in Islam are dead wrong, how did they get a chance to get a foothold? For example, in the US, we know that the obstructionist Neo-Cons (from the Reagan era forward) got a foothold because good people were asleep at their posts, and were too nice and complacent, and politicians and the major news media of all stripes are bought and paid for.
What allowed the horrendous situation that Islam (and in particular the Arab World) finds itself in. We could examine Christianity in the same way, but right now, they are not at the forefront of world problems (they were in previous eras, and might be again…but I hope not!).
I’m sure my faithful readers know that we are going to get into the WayBack Machine and find out what major historical mistakes were made to bring us to today’s impasse. I’ll speak in general terms, but my primary focus is on Iraq, the disaster of the moment.
Everything goes back to Late Antiquity in the West (India to Ireland, more or less, and now extending to the New World). For these purposes, I define Late Antiquity as Peter Brown does, from the 2nd to the 8th Centuries.
Around 284, the Roman Emperor Diocletian drew a line dividing the Empire into West and East. We are still fighting across that line today. Croatia is on one side of the line, and Serbia is on the other. In 320, Emperor (St.) Constantine moved the capital of Rome to his new city Constantinople, and Christianity, which Diocletian had persecuted so severely, became first tolerated, and then the State Religion. In 380, Emperor (St.) Theodosius I declared not just Christianity, but Nicene Christianity (as defined at the Council of Nicaea–325) to be the Only State Religion of Rome. By 394 he closed all the Pre-Christian Temples. No more religious syncretism and toleration, as Julian II had argued for, and as had been practiced for thousands of year in the West. (The reason the Jews and Christians in the early Roman Empire were persecuted because they would not offer sacrifices to the State Gods, not due to theological issues.)
This intolerance, even within Christianity would end up splitting the Church, first at the Council of Ephesus when the far eastern Christians (Persia and India) could not accept the Christological definitions in 431. Then in 451, the Council of Chalcedon left the Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, and Syriac Christians out in the cold when they could not accept its definitions. These disputes are today seen as primarily linguistic, and politically and economically motivated.
In Western Europe, Roman Rule gradually faded, finally being extinguished in the 6th century as the Barbarians took over.
The Muslim Conquest
Egypt and Syria were more and more persecuted by the central Roman Government, and they were greatly disadvantaged ecumenically. Politically correct “Roman Orthodox” Hierarchies were set up in these areas as well to compete with the native Christians. By the 600s, Egypt and Syria were chafing under oppressive Roman “Orthodox-Catholic” rule. It should be no surprise that as the newly created Muslim armies swept across the Middle East and Egypt in the mid 600s, the native Christians did not see loyalty to the Roman Empire as much worth fighting for. In those days, Islam was rather tolerant, especially toward Jews, Christians, and Sabians (Peoples of the Book). By 750, they held all the way to Spain and Portugal in the West to some parts of Western India in the East. If Christianity had not been divided by doctrinal intolerance, fueled by politics and economics, history would be different.
At this point, and for centuries following, Islam preserved the ancient learning, as did Constantinople and the Christian Roman Empire (in the East). Islam became the most cultured and scientifically advanced civilization in the west. The Roman Empire kept defending its Eastern borders. In Spain and Portugal, Islam respected the native Christian and Jewish population, although it was clear who was in charge.
The Disaster of the Crusades
The first watershed disaster was the beginning of the Crusades. Largely to stop the Western European Kingdoms from fighting one another, armies (sometimes well organized, sometimes not), urged on by Pope Urban II in 1095 came from Western Europe to reclaim the middle eastern lands lost to Christianity. They conquered Jerusalem in 1099 killing the Jewish, Christian and Muslim population without mercy, and then began setting up Western Kingdoms, instead of returning the lands to the Roman Empire. These disastrous military adventures continued on and off through the 15th Century. Rather than actually helping the beleaguered Romans, the Crusades weakened the Empire. In 1204, the Fourth Crusade actually sacked Constantinople and set up a Latin Kingdom, massacring the Christians of The City, and pillaging and desecrating the Churches. God protect us from our friends. Ultimately, the Crusaders lost everything they had conquered.
The Crusades left a lasting wound in Muslim-Christian relations. Ignorant Westerners, like George W. Bush, used the word Crusade after 9/11 which only made things worse. Yes, as I said above, there is no excuse for terrorism (and 9/11), but the President of the United States needs to know history:
On Tuesday May 29, 1453 the Roman Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks. In 1492, the Reconquista of Spain and Portugal was completed, and the Christians, not as tolerant as Islam had been, expelled all the Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. My family was awarded the knightly name “Escontrias” for our efforts in the Reconquista.
Meanwhile, the Ottoman domination of Islam did not fare well. The high culture and science of previous ages declined. Women were disrespected. Minorities were persecuted. Already for Centuries, the touted toleration of the Peoples of the Book had given way to forced or coerced conversions. From the 1380s to 1638, the Ottoman Turks captured Christian Children and raised them as Muslims, and made them the crack troops of their Empire, the Janissaries, since their own troops were not as reliable.
As Islam declined, things got worse. Read What Went Wrong for an excellent analysis by Muslim Scholars themselves.
Civility had broken down on all sides. The Muslims held their territory, Western Christians held most of Europe (minus Greece and the Balkans), and Orthodox Christians held the Central and North East portions of Europe (extending into Asia eventually all the way to Alaska).
World War I
Let’s fast forward our time machine to 1914-1918. The European Monarchs, all Cousins, started a war against one another. The Ottoman Empire sided with Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bulgaria against the Allies. As part of the struggle, the Western Powers, including the United States, promised the Arabs of the Middle East and North Africa their own Kingdoms if they would side with us against the Ottomans (see Lawrence of Arabia: T.E. Lawrence). They did, and we betrayed their trust. Britain and France made a secret pace, the Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided all of the captured Arab lands between them as colonies and protectorates in 1916. When the plot was exposed in 1917 by the Bolsheviks, America tacitly accepted it.
Iraq is a perfect example of how the Europeans carved up the Ottoman Empire. They had learned how to do this in Africa during long years of colonialism, and this paternalistic approach of “We know better than the people who live there” was continued.
Ottoman Iraq had been three Provinces,
It was the British who made it one unified area, ignoring the differences between Sunis, Shias and Kurds. This set the stage for the situation we are in now.
I need to make something clear at this point. I support the existence of the State of Israel, and I support an independent Palestinian State (the two-state proposition). I just wanted to make that clear, since this European mismanagement is involved in that story too.
Now, the WWI allies are not the only culprits in the area. Let’s look at the Saudi Kingdom.
From Wikipedia: “In that 1744, Muhammad ibn Saud, the tribal ruler of the town of Ad-Dir’iyyah near Riyadh, joined forces with the religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi movement – a radical form of Islam. This alliance formed in the 18th century provided the ideological impetus to Saudi expansion and remains the basis of Saudi Arabian dynastic rule today.”
From that time, through the revolt against Ottoman Rule, and finally between the World Wars, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formalized in 1933. The problem is this. Wahhabism is perhaps the most debased and despicable form of fundamentalistic Islam. It is decried by Sunnis, Shias and Sufis alike. And we support the Saudis. Wahabism spawned Al Qaida.
What Are We Doing?
Why are we continuing the colonial mistakes of Great Britain in Iraq, just as we tragically decided to support French Colonialism in Viet-Nam? Why not let Iraq divide into three Countries, or at least three autonomous provinces, perhaps not exactly along the lines of the Ottoman Provinces, but something fair for all three groups, with an agreement to share the oil revenues justly?
To do so would be to admit openly that (1) European Colonialism was in most cases very destructive, and (2) We, as part of the WWI Allies, betrayed our Arab allies and did not fulfill our promises to them after the World War I. Instead, we acquiesced in the extension of Colonialism to the Arab world. This has to stop, as it has opened the door to something very evil. The inherent instability of an artificially united Iraq has allowed “demons worse than the first to enter”:
Ὅταν δὲ τὸ ἀκάθαρτον πνεῦμα ἐξέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, διέρχεται δι’ ἀνύδρων τόπων ζητοῦν ἀνάπαυσιν, καὶ οὐχ εὑρίσκει. τότε λέγει· Εἰς τὸν οἶκόν μου ἐπιστρέψω ὅθεν ἐξῆλθον· καὶ ἐλθὸν εὑρίσκει σχολάζοντα σεσαρωμένον καὶ κεκοσμημένον. τότε πορεύεται καὶ παραλαμβάνει μεθ’ ἑαυτοῦ ἑπτὰ ἕτερα πνεύματα πονηρότερα ἑαυτοῦ, καὶ εἰσελθόντα κατοικεῖ ἐκεῖ· καὶ γίνεται τὰ ἔσχατα τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκείνου χείρονα τῶν πρώτων. οὕτως ἔσται καὶ τῇ γενεᾷ ταύτῃ τῇ πονηρᾷ.
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation. — Matthew 12: 43-45
Saddam was bad. ISIL (ISIS) is worse.
The Newest Threat to Peace
The utter corruption of the Syrian Government under Assad, and our mistaken duct-tape and bailing-wire job of continuing the British mistake of creating one Iraq from the three Ottoman provinces have opened the door to the neo-jihadist ISIL/ISIS. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), alternately translated as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is an extremist jihadist group so terrible that even Al Qaida denounces them! They have declared themselves to be the ancient Caliphate reborn, and that they have authority over all Muslims worldwide. They were born from the Muslim Brotherhood, which recently attempted to take over Egypt, and intend to undo all of the post WWI divisions. (See, they remember the history we conveniently forget.)
Most recently, ISIL has told the indigenous Christians in their captured territories in Syria and Iraq that they must either convert to Islam, pay the “protection tax,” or be killed. Here is the BBC’s report. “We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract – involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword,” the Isis statement said. They are turning the clock back to the 7th century.
So many Americans, Iraqis, and our allies have paid the price of death and maiming to free Iraq from tyranny. Whether or not the pursuit of the second Iraq War was justified, it happened. Far worse than the feckless prosecution of the War by the cowardly “W” administration (remember parents having to buy suitable equipment to send to their children fighting in IRAQ?) was Bush/Cheney’s complete lack of a plan for Nation Building and exit. Now they sit back with their Saudi pals and laugh, and the world has to figure out how to exorcize the far worse ISIL demons from Iraq and Syria.
I don’t have a neat solution, but ISIL certainly must be completely eliminated. I think the other Muslim Nations may need to clean up this mess, and the Europeans and Americans must fess up to having set the stage for this complete debacle. And most certainly, we need to support the Kurds in their quest for an independent Kurdistan in the Middle East. Watch this episode of Vice on HBO: “A Syria of their Own,” to see why they are the ones to back!
Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant