Martin Thomas reviews In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq, by Nir Rosen.
Right from summer 2003, according to Nir Rosen’s new book, politics in post-invasion Iraq was dominated by Islamists who defined their enemy, more or less interchangeably, as America, “the Jews”, secularism, Israel, “the Masons”, or “Zionism”.
In Iraq, with a long-subdued Shia Muslim majority and a long-dominant Sunni Muslim Arab minority, political Islam could hardly avoid also being sectarian, a matter of Islamist fighting Islamist as well as Islamist fighting infidel. Rosen’s book shows that the sectarianism which has now become simmering civil war was warming up as far back as 2003.
He records several appeals by Islamists for Sunni-Shia unity; but most of them, in context, have been appeals for unity on a basis either of assumed Sunni hegemony or of assumed Shia hegemony.
Rosen is far from any illusions about the brutality and arrogance of the US-UK invasion and occupation. An earlier version of one chapter of this book, on Fallujah under “resistance” control just before the big US onslaught of November 2004, was reprinted in the SWP’s Socialist Review (October 2004). The SWP editors, evidently satisfied by Rosen’s hostility to the occupation, apparently did not read, or did not care about, what Rosen described of the totalitarian-medievalist character of the local “resistance” regime, which allowed no space at all for democratic, secular, or labour-movement politics.
As Rosen comments, in Iraq as in former Yugoslavia, a small minority of violent sectarian bigots can force a whole society into sectarian polarisation even if the majority does not want that.
Rosen is one of (as far as I know) only two English-language journalists who have found out about the Iraqi “resistance” first-hand, by taking the huge risk of seeking out and talking with its leaders and activists. The other is Christian Parenti, author of The Freedom.
Rosen had greater scope than Parenti because he speaks Iraqi Arabic and “looks” Iraqi (although he is in fact American, with an Iranian father). Like Parenti’s, his reports are unassuming. He does not theorise. He just tells it as he heard and saw it. (At a few points the book tends to collapse into a string of disjointed facts). Unlike Parenti, he does not mention the Iraqi labour movement; like Parenti, he believes, though he regrets, that only the armed groupings will determine the future of Iraq. His conclusion: the future which the US/ UK occupiers and the various Islamist militias have jointly determined is one of civil war.
Rosen adds to Parenti by his description of the anti-semitism in “resistance” ideology — and by his report of a revealing conversation with the Kurdish military chief in Kirkuk, vehemently secularist but as bigoted and sectarian against Arabs as the Islamists are against “heretics” or non-Muslims.
The scale of the sectarian-Islamist explosion in Iraq over the last three years, documented here in a series of reports by Rosen spanning the whole period, is a puzzle. Rosen reckons that women have now been pushed back by Islamism in Iraq even more than they have been in Iran by 27 years of Islamist rule.
This is not a matter of difficulty in shaking off age-old traditions. Iran is not Afghanistan. It had lively secular politics long ago, on a large scale in 1958-63 and on some scale for decades before that. Since 1963, it has seen a vast increase in urbanisation, modern education, and intermarriages. Many of the Islamist leaders whom Rosen interviewed for the book are educated 21st century professional people… doctors, university professors in scientific disciplines.
Twenty-odd years of Ba’thist totalitarianism, plus the chaos and fear unleashed by smashing that regime “from above” and installing a military occupation unable to run basic public administration, can evidently trigger huge regression.
Whether that regression can wipe out all the possibilities inherent in the mass urbanisation, mass education, relative industrialisation, and history of labour-movement activity, is yet to be decided. Our solidarity, or lack of it, with the hard-pressed Iraqi labour movement will be a factor.