Talisman Gate

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Iraq is Succeeding

October 25, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Iraq is Succeeding

BY NIBRAS KAZIMI

October 25, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/42234

There are legitimate concerns over where things stand in Iraq.

Those who are genuinely worried about the welfare of the Iraqi people as well as about America's long-term interests should be commended for fretting over what is a fatefully decisive issue. However, these anxieties are being preyed upon and manipulated by dark and cynical forces whose affirmed goal, from the very beginning, was to declare the democratic experiment in Iraq a "failure." Within Iraq, the jihadists and Baathists are among these forces, joined by the intelligence services and news bureaus of regional state actors such as Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Inside Washington, these forces include some who are in the pay of the Saudis, and bureaucrats safeguarding their careers. Coming in third are those who would rather win local congressional elections than a very serious battle in Baghdad.

The "Iraq is a failure" crowd is not only craven but also mistaken. If pressed to the wall to give a verdict on Iraq, I'd say that Iraq is succeeding. A strategic corner in the counterinsurgency campaign has already been turned, but the tangible results will take longer to register in the public mind. Should America retract now and walk away from the victory at hand, many more Iraqi and American lives will be harmed and disrupted down the road.

Iraq is succeeding because the Iraqi state has weathered the worst of the insurgent storm and survived, and because the Sunni insurgency is fatigued. "What about all the bodies? What about all the bombings?" Indeed, it's the worst it has been, but not the worst it can be. I see many hopeful signs that cannot be dismissed. To me, the numbers of the dead — painful as they are — are not as critically dangerous as a much talked about shift in American strategy away from the goal of securing a democratic Iraq.

Insurgencies are about perceptions, not about hard facts on the ground. Usually, insurgents try to present their goals as noble, hoping to win over the population. Historically, insurgencies had only two options: overturning weakening regimes or being methodically stamped out. Modern times afford modern insurgencies another option: They have an unprecedented chance to mold global perceptions. The insurgents in Iraq have given up on winning over the Iraqi people. No righteous cause can justify the senseless murder of elderly women out to buy some groceries, not even to the most gullible or cynical of audiences. Rather, the insurgents have other goals in Iraq: They seek to create an atmosphere of terror where even the most mundane acts of life are paralyzed. They don't fight for victory. They fight to make the other side "feel" defeated. Public sentiment in Iraq is superfluous to the insurgents, whereas American opinion polls matter plenty. Should they succeed in making Washington waiver, then it would be a massive breakthrough in the business of terror.

Imagine how the battle of Stalingrad would have been covered by today's press and broadcast enterprises. The Russians ended up executing 14,000 of their own for desertion. About 50,000 Soviet citizens fought alongside the Nazis. Civilians continued to live in this most ferocious of war zones. A lot of negative spin could have been generated to weaken Russian resolve, at a time when the Stalinist regime deserved to be bad-mouthed. But even evil is relative, and it was clear who should have won and did indeed win.

The new Iraq is not Soviet Russia. In theory, the new Iraq is the grand hope of resurrection for a country and a region that has long been mired in brutality. It is a cause worthy of being fought for, or so it should be patently clear. Saddam Hussein has been brought to trial over two crimes so far, the relatively minor incident of Dujail and the genocidal campaign against the Kurds. Both highlight how the Baathist regime found its subjects guilty by familial association. Harm against a loved one was a technique that was thoroughly and easily employed to terrorize any would-be dissenter. These days, the family members of the court officials prosecuting Saddam are being systematically killed. Those doing the killing are the same ones who used to take orders from Saddam, but now don the insurgent mask rather than the epaulets of the Republican Guards. The nature of evil in this case should be clear.

I was pro-liberation and anti-occupation, but at least I could see that the American occupation of Iraq was the "nicest" such occupation in the history of mankind. The campaign was well intentioned, and the mistakes made resulted from ignorance rather than from malice. Aberrations such Abu Ghraib were quickly punished and apologized for, while the populations of Southeast Asia are still waiting for the Japanese to come clean. But more odd and unfair accusations are being constantly leveled against America's presence in Iraq with every turn, the latest holding it responsible for fueling sectarian strife. Sunnis and Shiites have been killing each other long before Columbus ever set sail. Al Qaeda in Iraq has been incessantly trying to ignite a civil war as part of its strategy to jumpstart an Islamic caliphate. Should America be blamed for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's dark vision and the lengths he was willing to go for it?

Those who wish the new Iraq to fail are very sophisticated: They understand and keep track of American politics. The different strands of the insurgency —jihadist, Baathist, and Sunni — may not be operationally cohesive, but they do synchronize their actions. They have a "brain trust" that maps out the next move. They worked hard to bring the insurgency right up to the gates of the Green Zone, but failed to storm it. The insurgents are negotiating: They are knocking at the gates, hoping to be let in before it is too late. Hence, the spike in violence and the last big push before bringing the cowed Americans to the negotiating table at their most politically vulnerable.

The insurgency is confronting its limits. It is finding that replenishing expertise, personnel, and the treasury is getting harder and harder. They are also finding that the Iraqi state and the Americans are getting better at fighting them through enhanced intelligence and an increased sense of confidence. Not surprisingly, the most recent insurgent offensive aimed to hold down territory, but was beaten back all over Iraq, most notably in Mosul.

The insurgents are also fragmenting, as mainstream Baathists and sectarian Sunnis find that the agendas harbored by their fringes, such as bringing back the Saddam regime or declaring an Islamic state, are unrealistic bargaining positions. These are bad times for the insurgency. But they are benefiting for the time being from the chaotic conditions created by the followers of Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr who continue to undermine law and order in Iraq. Mr. al-Sadr's authority over his radical followers is weakening. They are breaking up into a shadowy Iranian-backed outfit called the Mumahidoon (literally, "those preparing for the return of the Mahdi," the hidden imam or messiah) that is responsible for most of the reprisal sectarian killings, and others moonlighting in organized crime. Once these Shiite militias are confronted and broken up, the larger insurgency will find it harder and harder to breathe.

And although one hears jingoistic and exaggerated statements made on editorial pages about the breakdown of the Iraqi government, the Iraqi state continues to function and improve its performance. Salaries are being paid, oil is being sold, and the incredibly complex monthly food-ration system is still up and running. The anti-corruption arm of the government is doing marvelous work in prosecuting the guilty, which is a first for the Middle East. Given that the insurgents kill municipal trash collectors for simply doing their jobs, it is no small feat that any garbage is being picked up at all. The insurgents continue to threaten teachers and professors, yet schools are open. It is these simple acts of courage — to keep going amidst all the threats of terror — which were on display during the elections, but they keep happening daily even when the cameras stop rolling.

There is plenty of heartache coming from Iraq. But there is also plenty to be proud of. It is a very simple choice: Do the bad guys — the Baathists, Al Qaeda, and the tyrants — win this round of the long war ahead, or will the regular Iraqis who are just trying to live a decent life emerge victorious. And you can bet your life that the outcome matters to those seeking to live similarly decent and terror-free lives in Manhattan, St. Louis, or anywhere else in America.

Mr. Kazimi can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

October 25, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Alevis in the Balance

October 17, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Alevis in the Balance

BY Nibras Kazimi

October 17, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/41692

"The Alevis maintain the secular balance in Turkey," the thoughtful man said, "They are the infantry of Kemalism," alluding to the radically anti-religious doctrines laid out by modern Turkey's founder, Kemal Ataturk. Well, so much for secularism and Kemalism, I thought to myself.

The Alevis are Muslim only in name, for under a thin veneer of Islamic symbolism survives the animating creeds of ancient folk religions. Facts and myths about Alevi history, identity and numbers have been an integral part of Turkish political discourse for the past decade, and this debate is becoming more important as pan-Middle Eastern disputes between mainstream Sunni Islam and heterodox Shiism flare-up.

The Alevis would like to believe, along with their patrons in the Kemalist ideological camp, that they constitute a third of Turkey's population, and that this bloc would be impenetrable by or immune to the Islamist agenda.The thinking goes that such large Alevi numbers allied to other communal forces with staunchly secular tendencies will perpetually deny the Islamists an outright majority at the polls. Only a third of Turks voted for the governing pseudo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002. The AKP thinks it can perform better in next year's general elections. But their opponents wager that with the Alevi vote, if rallied, they can tip the scales this time.

But there are no clear census numbers for Alevis in Turkey.And even if they indeed constitute a sizable portion of the electorate, it is an open question whether many of them are conscious of a separate Alevi identity or would act according to communal interests. In fact, many Alevis are not vocal about their "otherness"and find it easier, in light of rampant and long-standing orthodox bias against them, to simply dissolve into the prevalent and current trend in homogeneity, which is turning more and more religiously conservative.

This alienation from Alevism is compounded by confusion over Alevi identity.They have inherited a mixed bag of folk magic, mysticism and bits and pieces of defunct religions and sometimes not all the pieces go together.To confuse matters further, the ancestors of Alevis had incorporated, at one time or another, the outward symbols of whatever zealous faiths had lorded over them, namely Christianity and Islam, as an insurance policy against religious persecution.

All these mismatched components have resulted in a clunky sense of self among Alevis as they proceed to define themselves in the modern world. One way of asserting "Aleviness" is to get attached to symbols, and one such symbol is a 13th century holy man called Hajji Bektash Veli whose writings map out a humanistic reading of Islam that focuses on spirituality and is rather lax on the duties associated with Muslim worship.

A festival honoring Hajji Bektash through song and dance has been held at his Anatolian shrine by the local municipality every mid-August for the last decade or so. By my unscientific count, tens of thousands of Alevis attended this year's festivities. I would have expected more given that this has become the most important event on the Alevi calendar.

But then again, why would Alevis celebrate the patron saint of those who killed them many centuries back?

Hajji Bektash used to be the inspiration for a Sufi order that was in good odor with the Ottomans. In fact, Bektashi dervishes, or Sufis, were assigned to become the spiritual guides for an imperial military force of utmost importance, the Janissary Corps. The latter were instrumental in defeating the Shia Safavid state in Iran. At the time, middle and eastern Anatolia was teaming with the Kizilbash. The Kizilbash — literally "red heads" were opposed to the Sunni Ottomans. This latter group viewed them as treacherous supporters of the Iranian emperor, Shah Ismail and beholden to his Shia propaganda. The Janissaries went to work massacring the Kizilbash in the tens of thousands.

The vast majority of Alevis today are probably descended from those Kizilbash survivors, who found refuge in the forgotten corners of rural Anatolia. The soup of ideas and rituals that stand in lieu of Islamic practice and that still endure among Alevis were inherited from the Kizilbash, who themselves were influenced by ancient Turkish shamanism as well as long forgotten Anatolian fertility religions. Their "otherness" became more pronounced with the adoption of the politically schismatic Shia call. Alevis don't pray at mosque, preferring to show their piety through a ritual called a cem (pronounced "gem"). Allah and Muhammad get some mention during these rites, along with Ali, the patron saint of Shiism. In this trinity's honor, three candles are lit at the beginning of the ceremony, followed by a mixed mystical dance of men and women, then some crying, some singing, and exultation in liturgical poetry to the long dead Shah Ismail, with the finale including a ritualistic sweeping with a broom — not Islamic acts at all.

However, as the Alevis began migrating to cities, grave challenges to their communal cohesion confronted them.First, it turned out that cem rituals varied from one region to another, and that there were also language barriers — Turkish and Kurdish — that separated them. In these urban centers, they also found the remnants of the Bektashi tradition that had survived even after they had fallen out of Ottoman favor.The assimilation of the smaller numbers of Bektashis into Alevi ranks wedged another misshapen brick into the structure of identity. Furthermore, many Alevis were caught up in the frayed leftist and rightist politics of those years.

As Islamism began making its bid for dominance in Turkey over the last 20 years, the Alevis were caught unprepared.A hurried, and ultimately unnatural, synthesis of the Kizilbash and Bektashi traditions was enacted by communal leaders, who hoped to wed the Alevi community to Kemalism and its secular legacy.Thus, the Hajji Bektash festival was born and Ataturk was elevated to a saintly status.There are two Alevi TV channels, and many more centers where the cem is performed have been opened in the major cities. These developments are mirrored by an increasing Sunni resentment at nascent Alevi assertiveness.The AKP heads seem to have already made up their minds that activist Alevis will stand against them in any showdown between Islamism and Kemalism, and are consequently ratcheting up the levers of religious harassment.Yet the bulk of the Alevis have failed to coalesce around an agenda capable of rallying them to the defense of secularism, even with all these internal and external forces justifying it.

Thus the Alevis, being fuzzy about who they are and not working together, will not measure up to any real challenge to the finely-tuned Islamist machine in the 2007 elections.Their failure will result in heartbreak for those who wish the Turkish secular experiment well.

Mr. Kazimi was recently in Turkey and can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

October 17, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >