Tag Archives: Iraq

What is History?

The past doesn’t change, right?  So once we know what happened, what else is there to do?  What do historians do, anyway?

The history profession has many critics, but even many of its fans cannot figure out what historians do, other than teach.  I recently visited family and encountered these questions more explicitly than I had in the past.  As a historian starting an assistant professorship, these are questions I expect to hear from my students, and to which I hope to provide them with an adequate answer.

We might grant that the past doesn’t change, but to do so we need some large caveats.  While what happened does not happen differently (unless time travel is in fact possible, according to Back to the Future), our access to what happened is indirect.  New sources are being discovered which reveal additional aspects about parts of the past which were unfamiliar.  Discovery of new data is one of the important functions of historians.  And if you wish to learn anything outside of the past 500 years or outside of that portion of the world dominated by English speakers, you will need trained experts to interpret the evidence and translate it into a language you can understand.

But discovery of new data is only a small portion of what historians do, although it is always exciting when it happens.  A larger portion of the historian’s job is to interpret the data which is already known.  Okay, so we know that in 1258 the Mongol general Hulegu (grandson of Chinggis Khan) conquered Baghdad and executed the last Abbasid caliph.  So what?  Why is that an important event?  Who cares?  The historian’s job is to answer these questions.  This conquest put a final whimpering end to the myth of unity in the Islamic world.  For three centuries already the caliph in Baghdad had been a puppet in Baghdad with little real power, yet Sunni thugs who wanted to appear as legitimate rulers would send letters to Baghdad claiming to ask for recognition from the caliph, which the caliph rarely if ever refused.  And thus, at least for the region west of Libya, there was a notion that all Islam was united under one caliph.  After the Mongol pagan Hulegu killed the last Abbasid caliph, a new Abbasid caliphate was quickly established in Egypt (whose successors continued, after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt, in Istanbul until 1923), which achieved recognition within lands ruled from the Nile valley. But to the north in Anatolia and to the east of the Euphrates, areas now ruled by Mongols, Muslims religious thinkers learned how to get along without a caliph in their political theories.  The events of 1258 forced some rapid rethinking of the relationship between religion and politics in the Islamic world.

That’s the significance question, but historians also care about the causality question: why did the events of 1258 happen as they did?  Why did the Central Asian steppe nomads conquer most of Asia and part of Europe, but not India, Palestine, Egypt, or Western Europe?  It’s easy to say that they ran out of gas, but why then?  Why there?  Western European sources from the 1240s to the 1260s show clear concern that the Mongol juggernaut would roll over them next.  And why did the events of 1258 have the particular effects they did, rather than some other effects?  Why didn’t all Muslims in Iraq rise up in revolt at the death of the caliph and attempt to establish a new caliphate, as some are doing today in northern Iraq?  Causal questions are difficult, because the phenomena involved are many-faceted, and there are many variables that we don’t have access to in the evidence that survives (and historians are bound to the surviving evidence; that is what distinguishes them from authors of historical fiction).  Because questions of causality are difficult, they occasion much debate, as questions of significance also do, and historians debate these questions.

One might naively suspect that the causality and significance questions could be settled once and for all, and then historians would move to more recent topics.  But this has not happened, and will not happen, for a few reasons.  One reason is that we interpret the evidence of the past through our present understanding of the world.  As we understand better, or perhaps just differently, “how the world works,” so our understanding of the evidence for the past changes as well.  Historians are necessary to help sift out narratives about the past which depend on theories about the world which have been disproven.  For example, a theory about the rise of the Mongol Empire in the 13th C which remains popular today is the environmental theory put forward by René Grousset’s The Empire of the Steppes, according to which all Central Asian nomads grew up in a climate which forced them to be natural warriors with a desire to conquer the sedentary lands around them, and whenever the military of those sedentary lands degraded in quality, conquest from the steppe lands was inevitable.  This is to say that the Mongol conquests did not depend at all upon what happened where the nomads lived, but was exclusively a function of what happened in the “civilized lands.”  This is clearly wrong, and yet it remains popular, because it was written in a seductively clear narrative which was mass-marketed.  Historians need to challenge this notion.

Another reason these arguments will never cease is that we investigate history to learn more about the present.  As the present changes, so too does our view of the past; things that previously seemed very significant suddenly seem less so, or vice versa.  When a descendent of Hulegu, Ghazan Khan, adopted Islam, this is seen as a significant event.  (Personally, I doubt it was very significant).  When Ghazan’s brother Oljeitu rejected Sunni Islam for Shi’ism, this is seen by some as a significant event, precisely those people who look at Middle East conflicts today and see them as sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shia, while others think the switch was largely cosmetic on Oljeitu’s part (how much did he know about Islam anyway?).  Cultural forces which previous generations assumed were universal motivators, such as religion, have been considered in some recent historical scholarship to be just a front for “the real motives,” usually economic or sociological.  Historical causality and significance are difficult and elusive topics, and hence historians are always attempting to come to a better understanding of them.

But I think the most important job of the historian is not these, precisely, although these questions play a role in it.  The most important job of the historian is to help society come to terms with the quantity of the past.

There is a lot more information about the past than any single person can hope to understand, no matter how thoroughly she or he devotes a lifetime to the pursuit (and some people need to earn a living, and see friends and family).  The abundance of information about the past creates the problem that no one can fully understand it.  It’s also true that no one can know all the things that are going on in the world right now, so scientists create models of the physical world to enable us to understand why things happen a certain way, and to allow us to interact with the world around us.  Much more has happened than is happening (because whatever is happening is past just as quickly), and so historians create models and frameworks to organize our understanding of the past.  These mental models and frameworks are necessary to make sense of the past, to reduce the overwhelming details into stories which tell us about our world and what makes it the way it is.

People create mental models to understand their world somewhat reflexively; it’s one of the amazing things about being human.  But these models are not necessarily correct, no more than any other explanation after the fact is necessary correct.  So just as amazing, to my mind, is the propensity for people to create erroneous models of the past.  And historians argue about these models, to see which is better.  To come back to Hulegu’s conquest of Baghdad in 1258, we know it had an effect.  But was that effect significant enough to merit distinguishing all that went before it in the Middle East from all that went after it?  Or did the year 1200 have more in common with 1300 in most of the Middle East than either did with 900?  Historians debate this.  (I have debated this.)  This is the debate about periodization: where should we put the pauses in our accounts of the past in order to make the most sense?  And while historians rightly think that too much effort has been put into “getting the periodization right,” since different phenomena will inevitably have different natural stopping points, periodization is just one aspect of the question of which mental model makes the most sense about the past.

Many people continue to believe history is just a series of names and dates, and no doubt this is how history is commonly taught.  Meanwhile, historians see history as a series of debates, where the dispute is not (usually) about what happened or didn’t, but about larger questions, such as why it happened, why it matters, and what is the best framework for understanding this event in the larger trajectories of human experience.  Such questions transform history from a deadening litany of the dead into a living and changing collective attempt to understand better the world in which we live today.

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Iraq from the Northwest

The last week’s surge of violence by the al-Qa’ida affiliate in Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is raising the usual proposals and recriminations, from hawks blaming doves for allowing the wolves to steal the sheep, to less animalian peace-niks describing this as the latest stage in the cycle of violence, resulting from the 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq.

One viewpoint I found interesting, however, if perhaps a little self-congratulatory, is the view of a Turkish political analyst that Iraq needs help, but not American military help.  It’s well worth reading.

Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia.  A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation.  Both are worth reading.

By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events.  The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion.  It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures.  When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else.  Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.

Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading

Yemen at Center Stage

Yemen does not exactly loom large in the world consciousness, and certainly not among the many Westerners who would have a hard time placing it on a map.  US foreign policy toward the country has often been an adjunct to US relations with Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s far richer and larger neighbor to the north and a key US ally.

But a recent flight afforded me the time to begin reading Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, which places Yemen and Yemeni politics in the center of global politics and terrorist networks, from the Soviet war in Afghanistan to 2012, when the book came out, and from jihad in Bosnia and Chechnya to bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.  Although Yemen is often portrayed as a remote backwater of the Arabian peninsula, Johnsen brings together many strands of international history over the past three decades by drawing links from his detailed familiarity with Yemen’s great families.  Even Osama bin Laden, usually identified as a Saudi, was a younger son of a Yemeni pauper-turned-billionaire who made some useful connections with the Saudi royal family.

I am only about a quarter of the way through the book, but it is a real eye-opener regarding the numerous connections between disparate parts of the contemporary Arab world and the inner workings of various different terrorist organizations.  I am particularly struck by the degree to which family, clan, and tribe shape such a large portion of organizations usually designated religious, which may reveal my own blindspots as a member of an anonymizing and impersonal modern Western society.  Johnsen also points out occasional clues missed or misunderstood by counter-terrorism officials, and analyzes a dispute between the lead FBI investigator and the US ambassador to Yemen following the bombing of the USS Cole on October 12, 2000.  But he does so without succumbing to 20/20 hindsight; instead, his narrative helps readers understand the ambiguity of many of the pieces of evidence before their interpretation became indelibly clear in specific attacks.

The book is very readable and engaging.  The action is fast.  Readers unfamiliar with Arabic names may have trouble keeping track of the many actors involved, often with similar names.  Such readers will find a helpful appendix with brief bios of “Principal Characters”; no doubt the author would have liked to include more than made it in.  There is also a very useful map of Yemen just after the table of contents, which will be essential for readers who have not familiarized themselves with the terrain of the southernmost tip of the Arabian peninsula.

Non-Muslim Significance? The Danger of Oversimplification

It is true that Muslims are today a demographic majority in every country of the Middle East except Israel.  (Even there, however, Muslims would be nearly a majority, if Palestinians in the Palestinian Territories had the same citizenship rights as the Israeli settlers.)  But such a blanket statement obscures more than it reveals.  There is a vast difference between Iran, which is almost 100% Muslim, and Lebanon, where Muslims are less than two thirds of the population and the government is divided roughly evenly between Muslims and Christians (with the requirement that the president be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, among various other requirements).  Granted, the population of Iran is many times that of Lebanon, but the point is that the other countries in the region (including Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, all very populous) are between these two extremes.

Nor are all Muslims alike.  Differences between Sunni Muslims and Shiʿites are only the tip of the iceberg: at least four “legal schools” of Sunnis and several branches of Shiʿa Islam all have different requirements and regulations.  Fellow feeling between Sunnis and Shiʿites is a very recent development, and has not overcome sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq nor the regional rivalry between (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and (Shiʿite) Iran.  These differences are independent of the gradations between secularist and devout Muslims or between modernist and Salafi Islam.  Intra-Muslim diversity means that Muslims may feel more fellow feeling with certain non-Muslims than with other Muslims, and the demographic strength of Islam is more attenuated.  This also leads to greater differences between countries: Egypt has more Coptic Christians than Shiʿites, while Iraq is about two-thirds Shiʿites and one third Sunnis.

When the historical perspective is taken, the present overwhelming demographic dominance of Islam is seen as a relatively recent development in some parts of the Middle East.  The Middle East has been mostly ruled by Muslims since the seventh century, although the Byzantine Empire continued to rule most of what is today Turkey until the eleventh century, the Crusaders ruled parts of eastern Turkey, western Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine/Israel for a couple centuries, and most broadly but most briefly the non-Muslim Mongols under Hulegu and his successors conquered all of Iran, Iraq, most of Turkey, and (repeatedly but ephemerally) Syria. The religion of the rulers is frequently taken as characteristic of the religion of the land, and so the Middle East is often called the “land of Islam,” in Arabic dar al-Islam, or the “central Islamic lands.”  That this term doesn’t simply mean that Islam came from the Middle East is shown by the fact that the Middle East is never called, by parallel, the “land of Judaism” or the “land of Christianity,” though both also came from that region.  In French, the confusion between religion of the ruler and religion of the land is even starker: areas under Islamic ruler are simply labeled l’Islam.

But the religion of Muslim rulers should not be taken as determinative for the population as a whole.  Muslim rulers frequently employed non-Muslims to carry out bureaucratic work, at least into the fifteenth century in much of the Middle East, and later in Ottoman Constantinople.  With rising European interest in the Middle East, local Christians and Jews were often the translators and intermediaries between the newly arrived foreigners and the local Muslim rulers and populace.  Middle Eastern non-Muslims did not only attain prominence through European intervention, however: Faris al-Khoury was already in government before the French claimed Syria in 1920, and went on to become Prime Minister of Syria twice, though a (Greek Orthodox turned Presbyterian) Christian.  Tariq ʿAziz was the deputy Prime Minister of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and a Chaldean Catholic (a group of native Iraqi Christians who, beginning in the 16th C, started entering communion with the Roman papacy).  George Sabra, an active voice in the Syrian Civil War, has been president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition (the opposition group favored by the USA and Western Europe).  The history of the Middle East, even in the last century, cannot be told accurately without naming certain key non-Muslims.

Although these individuals are exceptional, they are not unique.  They are rare because they are at the highest echelons of government, where they were not selected because of but despite their non-Muslim religious affiliation.  Many more non-Muslims have been employed by Middle Eastern governments, both pre-modern and modern, at lower ranks.  And the broader population of non-Muslims, not employed by government, was a significant portion of many Middle Eastern countries into the twentieth century.  Before 1915 in eastern Anatolia and 1923 in western Anatolia, Christians were almost a fifth of the population (mostly Armenians and Syriac Christians in the east, Greeks in the west) in what would become the Republic of Turkey.  Such a proportion means that, depending on levels of integration, every Muslim would know not merely one but several Christians, and may need to do business with them.  Christianity in Iraq has dipped from 10% around the middle of the 20th C to less than 2% today.  We do not know when Muslims became even a bare majority of the population in Egypt or Syria, but it was certainly not before 1250.  That may seem like ancient history to many modern readers, but that means Islam spent at least six centuries as a ruling minority religion, almost half of the history of the “Islamic” Middle East to date, and both countries still have Christian minorities around 10% of the population, absent from parts of the countryside but certainly visible in all cities.

Today a higher proportion of Middle Easterners are Muslim than at any point in the past, but the proportion has changed significantly even within the last century.  Nevertheless, Christians have continued to play a prominent, if subordinate, role in government.  And the divisions between different Christian and Muslim groups reduce the sense, within the Middle East, that “basically everyone agrees with me.”  People from the Middle East know there is religious diversity.  For westerners to regard the Middle East as “Islam + Israel” is negligently over-simplistic.

Found: Disunity

Many Americans have a simplistic view of “all Arabs” being the same.  (Or is it “all Muslims”?  The two phrases are usually synonymous, and sometimes includes Sikhs.)  I just read a news article that lays out the political differences between the member states of the Arab League clearly and concisely.  I thought I’d link to it here, mostly for myself, so I can find it again later.

Lost: The Meaning of “al-Anfal”

What’s in a name?  News outlets (e.g. here and here) are reporting increased violence in Latakia province, a province on the Syrian coast with a population which is majority Alawite and from which the ruling Assad family itself comes, in an offensive by Syrian rebel groups Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham (labeled “Sham al-Islam” by al-Jazira) and Ansar al-Sham (probably not the branch of the Iraqi Ansar al-Islam, but rather the Latakia branch of the Syrian Islamic Front) labeled “Anfal.”  In a long sentence like that, with all those things to look up, it can be easy to miss the codename adopted for the jihadi offensive.  It’s just a word, right, not people, guns, or territory?

Words are also power, and names mean stuff, especially in Arabic.  “Muhammad” (محمّد) means “someone highly praised,” and the name of the Muslim general who conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders, Saladin (صلاح الدين), means “the righteousness of the religion (of Islam).”  The Syrian president’s last name, al-Assad (الاسد) means “the lion.”  So what does “Anfal” mean?  A quick look in an Arabic dictionary gives it as a plural of nafal (نفل), meaning “plunder, spoils of war.”  (Entertainingly, Google Translate only suggests the meaning “clovers,” if it is not a proper noun.)  So if we stop here, we are left with the impression that the jihadis are advertising the fact that they are just in it for the money, boasting that they are sell-outs.

That seems unlikely.  Much more likely, and important whenever dealing with jihadi names, is to look to the Qur’an.  In this case, the eighth chapter (or sura) of the Qur’an is entitled “al-Anfal.”  Traditionally said to have been revealed after the Battle of Badr, the verses of this chapter attribute victory by a smaller Muslim force coming from Medina against a larger and better-equipped Meccan army to divine assistance (Q 8:1, 5, 9, 12, 17, 30) due to the Meccans’ opposition to Muhammad’s new preaching of the unity of Allah (Q 8:6, 13, 36-37).  The chapter paints the Muslims’ enemies as beyond any possibility of redemption, not listening even though they claim to hear the message, and they would even turn away from Islam if they did at any point heed Muhammad’s message (Q 8:23).  Applying that situation to the present day, the jihadi rebels seem to be likening the regime forces to the Meccans, alleging that they are not valid Muslims, and expecting God’s assistance even against a larger and better equipped force.  (It is not unusual for al-Qa’ida to assert that Alawites, Shiites, and even Sunni Muslims who reject al-Qa’ida are not Muslims.)  With this parallel reading between the traditional past and the bleak present, Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies may be trying to boost morale by appealing to verses such as Q 8:26:

And remember when you were few and considered weak in the land.  You were afraid that people would capture you.  Then He sheltered you and supported you with His help (naṣr, related to Jabhat al-Nuṣra’s name), and He provided you with good things so that you may be thankful.

There are several other verses which might appeal to the extremist rebels at the present time (exhortations to fight to expunge false religion, for example, in Q 8:39, or how Allah is said to distort the appearances of relative numbers in Q 8:43-44, or threats against those who retreat in Q 8:15-16).  There is a lot more here, and of course, all of these verses need to be interpreted through the hadith and commentaries (tafasir), both medieval and recent, which comprise the sunna (something like “traditional norms”) from which Sunni Islam derives its name.  (There is no analogue of sola scriptura within Islam.)

But there is perhaps also another, more recent, echo of the name “Anfal” in a military context, which may be on the minds of Syrians, and should cause greater concern.  Just over a quarter century ago, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein authorized his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid to massacre tens of thousands of Kurds (and other minorities) in northern Iraq, and to seize anything of value, in a campaign code-named “al-Anfal.”  The poison gas attack in Halabja in March 1988 is the largest chemical weapons attack against a civilian-inhabited area in history, and the campaign as a whole attempted to accomplish genocide and forced Arabization.

It would be surprising if extremist Sunni jihadis were deliberately evoking the genocidal campaign of a secularist Ba’athist dictator in Iraq.  (Despite US government allegations of links between al-Qa’ida and Saddam Hussein’s government, subsequent investigations have denied any evidence of links, and there was little ideological sympathy between the two groups.)  But if they are, they could be using their own “al-Anfal” campaign as a planned attempt at genocide against the Alawite majority in Latakia province, perhaps attempting to terrorize their opponents into submission.  Even more insidiously, since the port of Latakia is the point of egress for the regime’s chemical weapons, it could be that the jihadis are hoping to intercept these chemical weapons shipments and use them against the civilian population, just as Ali Hassan al-Majid did in Halabja in 1988.

Such tactics seem to me doomed to fail.  Making clear to the Alawites that they have no future in a post-Assad Syria will not cause Bashar al-Assad’s knees to tremble, but will rather redouble his efforts against the rebels.  (The grotesque terror tactic has been tried before, such as when one extremist rebel leader cut open an Alawite corpse and bit into an organ.)  Even more so, any rebel disruption in the exportation of the regime’s chemical weapons will not only slow down the process, it will also give the regime cover to use chemical weapons itself, since it will be impossible to prove which side used it once it is proven that the rebels have such weapons.  (Al-Qa’ida’s desire to obtain such weapons is already documented, for example, at #4 here.)  The core of the international argument that the August 2013 Ghuta poison gas attack was perpetrated by the regime is that there is no evidence that the rebels have such weapons.  If it becomes clear that some rebel groups also have chemical weapons, that argument will not hold water.  In other words, an extremist rebel attempt to capture chemical weapons will most likely result in increasing chemical weapons attacks by both sides.

But even if the extremists’ decision to label an offensive “al-Anfal” does lead to tactics which are ultimately doomed to failure, other countries should not sit idly by while a terrorist group attempts to initiate a genocide, with or without captured chemical weapons.  It is not true that my enemy’s enemy must be my friend, and al-Qa’ida and its various affiliates and jihadi allies are enemies not only of Syrians (of whatever sect), but of civilians everywhere.  Turkey should take a stronger line against extremist rebels, and may be encouraged to do so by diplomatic pressure.  The capture of a border crossing into Turkey clearly shows that the extremists involved expect some benefit to come from across the border.  While I doubt Bashar al-Assad would be willing to barter his resignation for UN Security Council approved international military assistance against al-Qa’ida, the fact that Turkey is a NATO member means that action can be taken to the north of the border.