Thursday, December 29, 2005

A Matter of Perspective

Today´s LA Times includes a long and extremely informative article confirming what I argued last week, that the Parliamentary elections appear to have sounded the death knell for a united--much less secular--Iraq. In the South, 90% voted for Shi´íte lists (mostly religious ones); in the center 90% voted for Sunni lists (many of them religious as well); and in the Kurdish areas 90% voted for Kurdish lists. The UN obsever team has dismissed accusations of fraud and ruled out a re-vote. Under the Constitution, which the Shi´ites and Kurds will see no reason to revise, those two groups can move quickly to set up quasi-independent states. Given the huge mixed population of Baghdad, however, the Shi´ites may prefer to try to rule even more of the Arab areas, sparking civil war.

The story also includes some interesting quotes from Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, certainly an authority on Islam. While in a sense accurate, it seems to me they illustrate the benfits of an acquaintance with the Strauss-Howe theory of 80-year cycles and the ebb and flow of ethnic identity on the one hand and civic virtue on the other. Here are they key paragraphs:

"`I would argue that all national identities have been recently created, so Iraq is not significantly different,´ [Cole] said. For 85 years, `Iraqi nationalism has been drilled in through the school system and in other ways.´

"With the collapse of Baathist-imposed Arab nationalism, Iraqis need to work out a new identity that includes all Iraqis, just as Canada managed to accommodate the Quebecois and Britain the Scots, Cole said."

Cole, whom it would be fair to describe as a mainstream academic, accurately identifies the fragmentation that has been characteristic of all western societies, to say nothing of the former Communist bloc, during the last 40 years. Quebec now has a separate cultural identity, whose creation involved some significant, albeit non-violent, ethnic cleansing of English-speaking Canadians. Scottish nationalism has grown in strength. The Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia have ceased to exist. In the United States (and especially in academia) multiculturalism has gained strength at the expense of any national identity. National identities have not necessarily been "recently" created. What history shows, to those willing to take a long view, is that they must be periodically recreated if nations want to survive.

What Cole is overlooking, it seems to me, is that this process leads to the disintegration of states if a violent crisis of some kind--sometimes internal, sometimes external--does not reinforce national identity. The US was fragmenting politically in the 1850s, before the civil war ended dreams of secession and helped integrate Irish-Americans into American society. The Second World War provided a similar function both for immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, who became truly assimilated, and for black Americans who finally began to secure real citizenship. Sad to say, societies need these periodic crises, it would appear, to survive, and Europe, already beset with cultural divides, will face an even more interesting challenge after five decades of attempting to replace national identity with European identity. But in Iraq, there no longer seems any chance of avoiding the break-up of the country, and as the majority Shi´ite population comes under religious rule, this will clearly emerge as a significant strategic defeat for the United States. Like the Austro-Hungarian government that felt a preventive war might destroy the threat of Balkan nationalism in 1914, we have instead unleashed a process that is likely to make things worse from our point of view.

The full LA Times article is available at,1,2190608.story?page=2&coll=la-headlines-world
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