Kanan Makiya Interview (Part 1) - Putting Cruelty First
(I was struck by the way that all these qualities are brought out in the critical but sympathetic portrait of Makiya in George Packer's recent book about the Iraq War and its aftermath, The Assassin's Gate, despite the fact that Packer also wants to suggest that Makiya may have been overly optimistic about Iraq's post-Saddam political possibilities.)
The latest issue of the journal Democratiya carries the first half of a two-part interview with Makiya. The second part, dealing with the Iraq war, will appear in the next issue of Democratiya (issue #4, March-April 2006).
This wide-ranging interview is worth reading in full. Some excerpts follow.
Putting Cruelty First: An Interview with Kanan Makiya (Part 1)
Kanan Makiya is the Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University, and the President of The Iraq Memory Foundation. His books, The Republic of Fear: Inside Saddam's Iraq (1989, written as Samir al-Khalil] and Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World (1993) are classic texts on the nature of totalitarianism. Makiya has also collaborated on films for television. The award-winning film, Saddam's Killing Fields, exposed the Anfal, the 1988 campaign of mass murder conducted by the Ba'ath regime in northern Iraq. In October 1992, he acted as the convenor of the Human Rights Committee of the Iraqi National Congress. He was closely involved in the Iraqi Opposition in the run-up to the Iraq War, which he supported as a war of liberation. The interview took place on December 16 2005.
Alan Johnson: Can you tell me about your family background in Iraq?
Kanan Makiya: I was born and brought up in a middle upper class family in Baghdad. I recall a very liberal outlook at home. My mother is of English origin but she cut all her ties with England when her family refused to acknowledge her marriage to my father. I've have never known anybody from the English side of my family, the rejection was so great. My father's mother accepted my mother and she integrated in Iraq. So I grew up as an insider with an outsider's perspective, reading English from a very early age, especially fiction that others of my generation might not have read. [....]
My father was Head of the Department of Architecture at Baghdad University, so we had circles of architects and artists in and out of the house all the time. I sort of grew up with them. I drew on that background when I wrote The Monument (1991).
The first political event of my life was the 1967 Arab/Israeli war. Although I had no political background, I started to listen to the BBC during the war. In Baghdad we were getting triumphalist speeches from the Arab Nationalist Regime (that preceded the Ba'athist takeover in '68) telling us the Arabs were winning, and that the Israelis were on the run. All lies and bullshit. And I remember knowing that it was bullshit at the time. [....]
In the summer of 1967 Iraq cut all its relations with the United States and Britain. But I won an acceptance to study architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). [....] I became very active in the anti-war movement, which was burgeoning in the United States. And I was very active in supporting the emerging Palestinian Resistance Movement. I passed through the Nationalist Palestinian groups and I ended up in the Marxist one. All of this happened very rapidly. Within a span of a year I became a Marxist and was attracted to Trotskyist politics. [....] I started to soak up books and I became active in the Socialist Workers' Party, the American section of the (Trotskyist) 4th International. I moved to Britain in 1974 and I became active in the International Marxist Group (IMG). I recall there was a Lebanese Trotskyist organisation, remnants of an Iraqi Trotskyist organisation, and some Egyptian and Tunisian Trotskyists. I spent a lot of time in those countries meeting those people, going backwards and forwards to Lebanon. I was a full time political activist. [....]
The Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975 between the so-called 'progressive' and 'reactionary' forces. That's how we tended to view it. There were those who were on the side of the class struggle and those who were against. But that form of classification was really at odds with the way the war was unfolding. Sectarian and communitarian tensions were at work in the so-called 'left' front of forces, which was really nationalist and radical-nationalist and sometimes capable of the same sorts of atrocities as the Christian forces, or 'reactionary' forces as we insisted on calling them. The left insisted it was not a sectarian war. That was troubling to me but I had no other set of categories. [....] A tension was building up between the way the Middle Eastern world was, to my eyes, and the way our categories described it. The two didn't match. [....]
I stayed in this contradictory position for three or four years, until the Iranian revolution. My wife was an Iranian and a student at Harvard. She had quit and joined revolutionary politics. The line of the 4th International was that the Iranian revolution was a progressive thing. We were all supposed to think that. Everyone was working against the Shah and his secret police. But, as the clerics became stronger and stronger, even before the revolution itself, I started to become deeply critical. My wife had returned to Iran and was fighting the good fight from inside Iran. [....] My wife returned broken. The left had been smashed. The Iran-Iraq war broke out. [....]
I was now totally alienated from my previous world view. I thought it didn't describe the world I was now in. These had been seminal events: the Lebanese civil war, and the behaviour of the Palestinians, when they lost their halo entirely from my point of view, the Iranian revolution and the Iraq-Iran war. [....]
Stories were coming out of Iraq from family and friends of the horrific things that were going on. I had blocked Iraq out of my mind. A whole generation of Arabs of my age threw themselves into supporting the Palestinians post-1967 at the expense of facing the degradation of politics going on in their own countries. But as these stories started to filter out I had the idea of writing a book about Iraq. I threw myself into it and that was the turning point.
The writing of what became The Republic of Fear took six years. I had returned to England. It was probably the 6 most wonderful years of my life, in some senses. Nobody knew I was writing this book, except 4 or 5 friends. My parents didn't know until they discovered by accident, but that's a long story. I discovered writers I'd never read before, above all Hannah Arendt. Also Isaiah Berlin, John Stuart Mill, Hobbes: very basic texts that I'd never read. I had spent weeks and months studying Capital and Theories of Surplus Value, but I had never read John Stuart Mill! This was the lopsided education that we all had. These basic texts I discovered, as I was writing Republic of Fear, became very important to me. They changed my whole way of thinking about politics, though they didn't change certain underlying values. [....]
So I went hunting for a publisher. This was 1986. I had over 70 rejections before anybody would take up the book. But I was 'on a roll' as they say. I had been buoyed up by that feeling that I was changing and doing something new, and perhaps important. I started writing another book even before the first one found a publisher! I was circulating a manuscript under a pseudonym and nobody knew who I was. My first wife, Afsaneh Najmabadi, who is now an academic in the States at Harvard, vouched that I existed! In the end the California University Press came to the rescue when they took on The Republic of Fear and the book was finally published in 1989. [....] Until Saddam Hussein went into Kuwait only Iraqi exiles were interested in the book. It sold 300 or 400 copies at most. It was about to die a death as many books do. But when Saddam Hussein entered Kuwait it started selling in great numbers and overnight I found myself in a whole new world. I finally went public about my identity in March 1991, at a public event at the Centre for Middle East Studies at Harvard University, with other Iraqi oppositionists. Bahr al-Uloom, who was a cleric, Hoshyar Zebari, who is Iraq's Foreign Minister today, Ahmed Chalabi, and myself, had been invited by Roy Mottahedeh, the Director of the Center.
The talk I gave at that meeting was expanded into an article that appeared in the New York Review of Books. I argued that the war should be finished by going all the way to Baghdad. That was a very controversial position.
Alan Johnson: Did a storm break at that point?
Kanan Makiya: Yes. The previous good wishes that had been passed in my direction from the left ended. I was viewed as a complete traitor. I was called a 'quisling'. But my position [that the uprisings should be supported and Saddam should be deposed] was a logical continuation of the changes that had taken place in my thinking during the course of the writing of The Republic of Fear. The be-all-and-end-all of politics was removing this dictatorship in Iraq. Abstract considerations—such as the categories 'imperialism' and 'Zionism'—became totally secondary in importance to the removal of dictatorship. I had written in The Republic of Fear that the legitimation of this dictatorship had taken place on the grounds of Zionism and the threat the Zionists represented to the Arab world. In throwing away that rhetoric and the whole political language associated with Arab Nationalist politics it was the internationalist spirit—present in my early formation in the Trotskyist movement—that was very much present. [....]
The Arab left had essentially become a moribund force. It was locked into old categories. All through the 1980s it could go nowhere. There was nothing new coming out of the political culture. We were locked in the dynamic and the language of the Lebanese civil war. Issues of human rights, of building civil society, of dictatorship, of our own responsibility for our own ills, were all constantly being subordinated by the old language of anti-Zionism and anti-Imperialism. I had come along with Republic of Fear and said the most important thing is what we have done to ourselves. I was bending the stick, as we say. Many Arabs, and people on the left who identify as 'pro-Arab', objected. Why? Well, the moment one passes from analysis and description to political action a boundary is crossed. [...]
Alan Johnson: In the preface to Republic of Fear you noted 'the terrible silence of the intelligentsia'. You asked 'Where are the Arab Vaclav Havels and Christa Wolfs who will call Saddam to account?' In your next book Cruelty and Silence (1993) you exposed, indicted and explained this silence of the intellectuals. Faced with the cruelty of the Iraqi regime towards its people, parts of the Arab intelligentsia, and the western, often 'left', intelligentsia, had offered up a catalogue of evasions: silence, exculpation, complicity, rationalisation, subject changing, denial, avoidance. How did you come to write Cruelty and Silence?
Kanan Makiya: It was born in the tumultuous last moments of the 1991 Gulf war and was filled with the anger and energy of somebody caught up in that moment. It was a cry for elevating cruelty, violence, and abuse over any other consideration.
The first Gulf war had suddenly opened up this enormous reservoir of Iraqis who wanted to tell their horrific stories of the Anfal, of being in prison, of being crushed during the uprising, and of daily life under Saddam's regime. The people's testimonies were the driving force of Cruelty and Silence.
The book is divided into two parts, cruelty and silence. Part one gives a platform to the words of victims. It's almost two thirds of the length of the book. I spent days taping interviews with these individuals. Each individual victim stood for a lot of others with similar experiences. I wove a larger story around these individuals. Around Khalid, the Kuwaiti, I wove the story of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Abu Hayder, the Shiite officer who accompanied Majid al-Khoei when he went to beg for help from the American forces, symbolised the uprising that followed the first Gulf War. The story of Umar, the Sunni Arab, stood for all the people who had gone into Ba'athist prisons for no reason at all. (In his case somebody told a joke in a party. He entered hell and came out again to tell the tale.) The story of the Kurds was told through two other individuals, Mustafa and a young boy called Taimour.
In the second part of the book, called Silence, I pit the words of Arab and western intellectuals of my generation, many of the left, against all these Iraqi words about violence and cruelty. The point was that between the two sets of words there was a chasm. The intellectuals offered rhetoric about 'nationalism', 'Imperialism', 'the Crusades', and so on. The focus of the book was about the rhetoric that the war had generated and the chasm between that rhetoric and the reality. Between these two realities - the words of the intellectuals and the words of the victims - was a yawning gap. [....]
In writing that book, I was naïve. I had thought that I would simulate a debate in the circles I had come from. There was no debate or dialogue. I thought that the weight of the words of the victims would make the case. All you had to do was read the first half of the book. As it turned out, most of these intellectuals only read the second part of the book and the references to themselves. I was naming names, you see. I couldn't just write general abstractions. I was pitting words against words. Two sets of words had to clash with one another. So I named names. That upset people no end, and there was a huge backlash. The book was blasted by the very people I thought I was opening a dialogue with. I realise now how naive that whole approach was.
[One of the intellectuals criticized in Cruelty and Silence was Edward Said. These brief but entirely deserved critical remarks must have hit a nerve, since right up to the end of his life Said continued to try to smear Makiya with slanderous ad hominem attacks and unabashed character assassination--for example, this 2002 piece in Al Ahram. --JW]
[....] But this hostile reaction was not an Iraqi reaction. I was buoyed up by that fact. A chasm had opened up between the way Iraqis viewed politics and the way the rest of the Arab world, and the left, did. Among the latter there were only individuals—I have in mind people like Fran Hazleton, Peter Sluglett, David Hirst, and, of course, the CARDRI people (The Campaign Against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq)—who really faced the nature of this regime. [....]
The positive element which I carried from the Trotskyist movement, from the writings of Trotsky himself, was an internationalist spirit. It was more alive in me, I think, than in many of those who claimed Trotsky's mantle, but did not practice that internationalism. It is a very sad state of affairs. The left has turned against its own internationalist traditions and thrown away its own universal values. The older left was able to cross boundaries and think across boundaries. That was its strength and its weakness.
I am not saying that intervention is always a good thing. I argued for intervention in Iraq because of particular circumstances. First, the exceptional nature of the Saddam Hussein regime. Second, the world owed the people of Iraq after putting them in the straightjacket of sanctions for 12 years and giving them no way out. The country was rotting. Society was rotting. Sanctions weren't working. The regime was not toppling from within. You either remove the regime or you re-legitimise the regime. Continuing with the status quo was morally unacceptable. The price being paid inside Iraq was too high. The case for war, the case for regime change, can be made on many levels in the Iraqi case. These don't necessarily apply elsewhere. They certainly don't apply for Syria, or Iran today. Everything has to be looked at in terms of the concrete circumstances. [....]
The 'civilisational challenge' is this: can the Arab Islamic world come to terms with the fact that it is responsible for its own ills, and for pulling itself up by your own bootstraps in order to get into the world, rather than keep finding ways of staying out of it? This is not an easy thing. [....]
Islam is largely at war with itself. The greatest number of people who are dying on the battlefields are Muslims. Muslims are fighting Muslims. Think of Algeria. Think of the struggle inside Egypt. Think of the Lebanese civil war. The greatest number of casualties so far, 9/11 notwithstanding, is Muslims fighting Muslims. But we don't have a properly focussed debate, with those trying to reform and transform the religion leading one side and those trying to hold it back leading the other.
However, there are very important changes starting to take place, New voices are being heard. [....] So while there are reasons for optimism, there are also reasons to worry. Because, as yet, these new voices aren't anywhere near as strong as they need to be. Moreover, Jihadi Islam now has a substantial social base it didn't have ten years ago. One could even say we look like we're losing the battle at the moment. I certainly hope that's not the case. But we are in the throws of a deep convulsion that is taking place within Islam itself, among Muslims, and we have no way of clearly predicting how this is going to turn out. I call that a civilisational crisis of the first order. [....]
Alan Johnson: The western left has responsibilities here. When the left shouts that 'Bush is engaged in a war on Muslims' it isn't just factually wrong. It's politically dangerous. It echoes the message of the Salafi or Jihadi groups, it boosts them, and it leaves the Muslim democrats and reformers isolated from a left that should be its natural ally.
Kanan Makiya: You're right. And Alan, I'd go even further. It's not just the left. People like myself, those of us who went into Iraq after April and March 2003 as part of the effort to transform this country, have felt betrayed by Europe as a whole. We were attacked by the media of all the surrounding countries, countries utterly hostile to the sort of values on which Europe rests. Satellite stations distorted what was going on. The silence in Europe at that moment gave enormous sustenance to all those forces struggling against the transformation of Iraq. It enabled the Jihadis, the Ba'athists, the extreme Arab nationalists, and the Arab regimes, to say 'Look at the hostility of Europe to what the United States has done!' Europe made it possible to isolate not just the United States but everything that is represented by the west. Europe gave strength to the argument that it was a traditional colonist land grab or oil grab, which was nonsense, of course. [....]
Iraqi people are angry that for the last three years the Arab world has not supported them. In fact the Arab world seems to support the terrorists, in the name of 'Arab solidarity' or 'Arab unity'. There is a real fury about this. Take the case of the Jordanian suicide bomber, Raed Mansour al-Banna , who killed 125 Iraqis in Hilla when he blew himself up on 28 February 2005. When his body was flown to Jordan instead of a funeral there was a party, a giant celebration of the hero's return! [....]
But in spite of the European silence, and the Arab silence and complicity, we now see the ripple effects from what has happened in Iraq. Think of the reaction to Rafiki Hariri's assassination in Lebanon! Think of the isolation of Syria. Think of the civil society movement in Lebanon. I was almost a pariah in Lebanon for ten years, because of Cruelty and Silence. Suddenly, all these Lebanese NGOs appear, interested in memory, and in what happened during the civil war. They are digging up mass graves and inviting me over to speak. Hostility to Syria is now the predominant tenor of Lebanese politics (with the exception of Hezbollah, which is still supposedly fighting the good fight, and waiting for the good struggle against Israel). And there is opposition inside Syria itself. The Syrian regime is in its final stages. Lebanon was one of the bastions of the old rhetoric, and it is changing as we speak. The overwhelming majority of people are angry, and they know exactly who is behind these assassinations and bombings. The attempt of the Syrians to pretend there is some greater plot to isolate Syria in the world (they haven't yet managed to specify exactly how Israel is behind it) is not persuading anybody. There's not a single Lebanese who thinks anybody but Syria was behind the assassination. So you have change taking place in spite of everything.
Part 2 of the interview, in which Kanan Makiya discusses the Iraq War, will appear in Democratiya 4 (March-April 2006).