Talisman Gate

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Trash-Talking Points

October 19, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Trash-Talking Points


October 19, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/21686

Iraq got saddled with a flawed constitution this week, whereby supporters and detractors broke ranks along sectarian lines without really knowing much about what the document said. They were guided throughout the process by a dangerous array of demagogues and ambitious men; men whose main concern with the constitutional text was not its "democratic" portions, but rather the admission or omission of loop-holes that would facilitate commandeering Iraq into "undemocratic" darkness tailored to their even darker agendas. But still, there is a chance that it might all work out in the end if America stays the course and more responsible Iraqi leaders emerge to steer their constituencies away from the fratricidal brink.

Yes, indeed, Iraq has problems, but at least it isn't Saudi Arabia. That was the message delivered by Iraq's interior minister, Bayan Jabr, earlier this month when he tongue-lashed Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal.

Prince Saud

Mr. Jabr

Prince Saud, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in late September, was prolifically doling out advice to America about its project in Iraq. Al-Faisal, along with his brother Prince Turki, who is slated to become his country's ambassador in Washington, and their brother-in-law Prince Bandar, the outgoing ambassador who is assuming the job of national security adviser, are the three leading lights of a concerted Saudi effort to reclaim their influence along the Potomac. Their game plan is simple: throw around a lot of money just like the good old days. Their motto is even simpler: "We told you so."

The trio's refrain is "this whole democracy business is messy and dangerous. We have our own way of doing things in the Middle East. Do not disturb our delicate balancing act with your crazy notions of freedom. Your decades-long support for our archaic dictatorships is not why young Middle Easterners are angry at you. They are angry because of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians. You should have listened to our plan: substitute Saddam with Saddam-Lite. Now Iran is getting all the spoils. But thank Allah that we have decided to forgive you for the lapse of judgment and unkind words you said about our kingdom after 9/11. Now, we will fix-up this mess for you."

And why does Prince Saud believe that his country can bail out the world's superpower? He says, "Saudi Arabia also has a unique position in the world and in its region. It is the cradle of Islam... Accordingly, Saudi Arabia has been thrust into assuming a heavy burden of responsibility, influence and moral leadership."

But then, something unexpected happened: Iraq's Mr. Jabr entered the scene screaming out "Wrong!" and proceeded to trash-talk the Saudi talking points. He was speaking from the grounds of the Iraqi Embassy in Amman about 10 days after Prince Saud's comments were published. Mr. Jabr said the following: "Iraq is heir to an ancient civilization and does not need advice from a Bedouin riding a camel." Mr. Jabr went on to say that Prince Saud should worry about the problems of Saudi Arabia, where minorities are treated like third and fourth class citizens, women are not allowed to drive, and its embittered youth are fueling the ranks of Islamic radicals all over the Middle East.

This was an unprecedented moment in the history of the Club of Arab Rulers. Mr. Jabr clearly broke all rules of proper gentlemanly decorum; Iraq's new spirit of openness has become the clothes-pin of publicly exposed Arab dirty laundry. Ironically, the two leading ethnic Kurds of Iraq rushed to salvage relations with Iraq's Arab brethren: President Talabani from London and Foreign Minister Zebari - who was uncomfortably attending a conference in the Saudi city of Jeddah at the time - quickly crafted sound-bytes distancing the government from the statements made by its interior minister. The Arab press outlets - mostly owned by Saudi and Persian Gulf royalty and staffed by Lebanese, Egyptians, and Palestinians - came out expressing outraged indignation and disbelief.

Although Prince Saud, educated at Princeton and Lawrenceville, who has been at his job for 30 years this October, may not indeed be a "Bedouin riding a camel," Mr. Jabr's outburst revealed an inherent truth about power dynamics in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia's influence is artificial. The Saudis bought their way to the table, but their presence feels unnatural. It is akin to Saudi Arabia's stature in Washington: a regime that survived and continues to survive at America's pleasure and benevolence but has come to believe itself entitled to push America around.

Who cares if the Saudis control Mecca and Medina? That does not give them moral authority over Islam: when the first Muslims expanded their empire beyond the Arabian Peninsula, the first thing they did was move the capital to Kufa in Iraq. Thence it went to Damascus, and then back to Baghdad, and for a while, under the heterodox Fatimid Caliphs, to Cairo. There are three "real" power centers in the Arab Middle East: Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo. Throughout Islamic history, coups in these three capitals determined who got into power, not control over the holy sites in the Peninsula. Mecca and Medina may by the crown and majestic robe of a would-be sovereign, but the throne was firmly planted in Baghdad, Damascus, or Cairo.

Mr. Jabr's rude comments had the regional effect of putting the Saudis in their place. He basically said that Saudi Arabia does not have the historical, cultural, and symbolic heft to arbitrate power-politics in the region. And he was right about Saudi Arabia's own internal problems: an example would be the current uproar among fundamentalists against their government over the mere rumor that a leading Saudi Shia cleric is to appear on national TV and give a sermon during Ramadan.

The Saudis are far behind these changing times. Recently, I was watching televised parliamentary debates a-la C-SPAN on Iraqi state television. The members were discussing legislation that would compensate political prisoners under Saddam. It was so extensively detailed that it even stipulated that a former prisoner would be entitled to enjoy a trip abroad once in his or her life, courtesy of the Iraqi government. The programming halted to announce the mid-day call to prayer, which usually lasts for a couple of minutes. But this particular call lasted a little longer since it was the Shia version. Then, the regular programming went back to the lawmakers.

If I were a Saudi prince watching this half-hour segment of official Iraqi TV, I'd be scared. Times have changed drastically. Not only are members of parliament discussing some heady stuff, but the official call to prayer is recognizing Iraqi sectarian demographics; something that had never happened before the fall of Saddam's regime. Imagine what this Saudi prince would be thinking if he were to turn on the TV today, as Saddam's trial is being broadcast? The Middle East has been turned on its head, and Baghdad, a natural center of cultural and political gravity, is leading the way towards a brave, new Middle East.

Surely, Iraq has problems and these problems matter for a very important region of the world. Saudi Arabia also has problems, but taking its opinions too seriously is part of the larger problem by which America misunderstands the Middle East.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

October 19, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Calling All Caliphs

October 12, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion > Printer-Friendly Version

Calling All Caliphs

October 12, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/21392

President Bush gave a seminal speech on October 5th, but few people took notice. He correctly described the war against terror as a clash of ideologies and drew comparisons to the fight against communism: America has embarked on a make-or-break struggle against a grand and terribly ambitious terrorist strategy. Thus, it is not enough to deny the terrorists the means to enact their evil tactics, but their ideas and goals must also be challenged and discredited.

So what is the strategy of the terrorists? According to Bush, the terrorists seek to "establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia." Thus terrorism is a means to hoist a totalitarian ideology upon a reluctant population rather than some form of protest against Western domination. Furthermore, identifying this goal at this time is a brilliant move because the radicals themselves have yet to articulate this message, and there is a simple reason as to why they've been procrastinating: declaring the reestablishment of the caliphate is going to be messy, and disillusioning.

The romantic notion of resurrecting the Islam Empire under a ruling caliph is unworkable and will lead to infighting and chaos among the ranks of the bad guys; this unreachable goal marks the weakest clause in their self-defeating vision for what comes next after jihad.

A quick review of the Islamic caliphate: After 23 years of proselytizing for his new revolutionary faith and managing a nascent, albeit provincial, mini-state, the Prophet Muhammad died, leaving no clear-cut successor. One faction of Muslims - nowadays called Shias and numerically comprising a quarter of all Muslims - believe that Muhammad had indeed appointed his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as heir apparent. Ali's sons, Hassan and Hussein, were the only surviving grandchildren of Muhammad, and the Shias still argue, 1,400 years after the fact, that the sanctified progeny of Ali were robbed of their just right to rule by a counter-revolutionary elite that had governed Mecca before the advent of Islam.

The Sunnis, on the other hand, came up with the idea of the caliphate, literally, the "succession" to the prophet. The first four are revered as the Righteous Caliphs, but three of them were assassinated in tumultuous power struggles. The first two effectively picked each other, while the third was selected by committee and the fourth (Ali, the patron saint of the Shias) rallied some support behind him and them proceeded to fight off all those who questioned his rule. One such upstart was Mu'awiya, the nominal head of the counterrevolutionary ancien regime, who after Ali's assassination established a new form of Muslim government through dynastic rule. But the last Ummayad caliph in Mu'awiya's line was murdered a century later in Damascus by the rival 'Abbassids, who went on to establish their own dynasty that lasted for five centuries. The Mongol hordes over-running the Islamic capital Baghdad in the mid-12th century put an end to that, and the destitute 'Abbassids found refuge in Cairo, where they were reduced to showcase caliphs, lending legitimacy to one warlord or the other embroiled in factional coups and counter-coups.

The Ottomans then came along, but they found no use for the office of the caliph until the 18th century, as the frontiers of the last great Muslim empire receded in the face of renascent European and Eurasian powers. The caliph became the spiritual, rather than temporal, leader of Muslims left behind "infidel" lines. Hasty myths were spun that had the last ailing caliph of the 'Abbassid line give up the mantle to the Ottoman conqueror of Cairo, and thus the title was transferred unto a Turkish dynasty. Even that came to an abrupt end on March 3, 1924, in Istanbul, when Mustapha Ataturk annulled the office of caliph.

Abdul Mejid II, the Last Caliph in the Ottoman line

Therefore, the idea of who gets to lord over the Muslim community has been a tad bit controversial, to say the least. So why has the reestablishment of an institution that had brought turmoil, civil war, and rupture to the world of Islam become the stated goal of the Bin Ladens and Zarqawis? Because, like every political campaign, the jihadists need to come up with a blueprint as to what the day after jihad would look like. And after they are done with expelling the infidels and eradicating the Shia heresy, and after pushing the Jews out into the sea, and after the liberating Spain and conquering Rome, who is going to collect the garbage? Who is going to fix the potholes in the street? The only form of government the jihadists can turn to is the one that mirrors the tradition of the prophet and the early Muslims, and that would have to be the caliphate.

Of course, the inherent danger is that they might actually come-up with a viable and well studied formula. Should they enunciate a logical framework for what an Islamic Empire would look like, their recruiting pool for terrorist foot soldiers would expand exponentially. But it won't be so easy. From the get-go, no one in the jihadist camp wants to talk too audibly about this matter, lest this person be seen as vying for the post of caliph. So whereas fundamentalist literature covers every nitty-gritty detail to do with jihad, the actual discussion of what comes next is couched in very general and fluid terms.

And then there are all these archaic conditions: according to one tradition, both Zarqawi and Bin Laden are disqualified from running for the post because the caliph must be from the Quraysh tribe, which is the tribe of Muhammad. The 'Alids, Ummayads and 'Abbasids fit this category, but not the Ottomans, so maybe there are hidden loop-holes somewhere in this confusing, ad hoc process.

Given time to ponder and compromise, the jihadists may figure out a formula, so let's light a fire under their camp and keep bombarding them with the question "Who is going to be caliph?" This would throw them into utter confusion; what are they fighting for exactly? If it is to reestablish the Islamic Empire, then how do they intend to govern it, and how would they go about picking a caliph? They should be taunted into announcing the name of a candidate, and not simply stating a concept.

Therefore, under these circumstances and during this most auspicious month of Ramadan, I would like to formally announce my own candidacy for the post of Shadow of God on Earth and Caliph of All the Muslims. I would like to see the jihadists emerge out of their ideological black holes and spell out why I am not eligible to run, and who exactly is.

We must not allow the crazies to set the timetable in this ideological war. On paper, America has enough Muslim allies with pliable clerical institutions to bring this debate on the caliphate out into the open. The initiative for attack must be seized by embarrassing the jihadists in the eyes of their would-be recruits: they must be immediately dared into articulating their vision for what comes next. In the meantime, democracy as a model of government would seem far more viable for the Middle East than the idea of the caliphate with its legacy of upheaval and cataclysm.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

October 12, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion > Printer-Friendly Version