One of the most common refrains concerning Iraq in the post-Saddam era is that it is best divided into three separate states, and that the major impediment to that is an equitable resource division. This, in theory, explains Sunni recalcitrance to the division of the Iraqi state. They would ask for greater autonomy than they currently do, the theory runs, except if they did, they'd be left with a rump state with little real advantage by way of natural resources. So has run the theory from the time that it was first proposed by then Council of Foreign Relations chief Leslie Gelb and then Senator Joseph Biden, accompanied by a means to achieve that necessary resource division.
And, for the record, I find it orientalist nonsense.
The problem is that it pretends as if there can be no such thing as national sentiment in the East, because we in the East are foreign, different, unintelligible and of course thoroughly antiquarian in our preferences and commitments. In the East, we're ruled by tribes and clerics, not by any sort of attachment to the nation. Bernard Lewis even says there is no such word as "nation" in Arabic. (Ummmm, it's watan. Whatever the hell the word meant in 1850 or before, what it means now is "nation." Made up word after the fact? I suppose. And much the same can be said of the word "nation" in English, albeit a few centuries earlier).
This is particularly obvious in Iraq. The Kurds, of course, seek autonomy from the broader Iraqi state in a form of Iraqi Kurdistan, though that has nothing to do with some sort of commitment to tribe or religion (if the former, they'd call it Barzanistan, and if the latter, they'd not seek autonomy at all). It's just a commitment to a different nation, hence the Kurdish flag everywhere. I've been pretty clear that I think Iraq in its current borders is here to stay, and the Kurds won't seek a separate state, but clearly the Kurds desire autonomy. That they feel the same in Turkey is relatively obvious as well, it's their primary claim, and the reason that extremists in Turkey can be seen to burn Turkish flags in demonstrations. Yes, extremists do that, and yes, moderate Kurds find that properly pointless and indeed self destructive, but it reflects an autonomy sentiment because you are talking of a people who regard themselves a separate nation.
Walk into Falluja and burn an Iraqi flag, despite all the discontent, and watch what happens to you. More or less what happens if you try burning an American flag in Atlanta, though they aren't quite as nice in Falluja perhaps. The point is, people in Atlanta don't think about independence first, and resources restrain them. They think of themselves as Americans, and resource divisions, or income divisions, or who pays what in taxes and receives what in benefits, is not the point. Nor New York, nor LA, nor Columbus, Ohio, and so forth.
Sunnis and Shi'a in Iraq aren't so different. As my book shows, what has managed to enable the Iraqi constitution to survive, and the commitment of Sunni and Shi'a alike to the Iraqi state to continue to exist unabated despite their self evidently severe divisions is the fact that there is strong national sentiment on both sides. Leading Shi'a negotiators during the Iraq constitution felt otherwise, and sought autonomy, and paid a heavy electoral price for it, among the Shi'a. Maliki is Prime Minister precisely because of his perceived national commitment, despite other flaws. That is what drew the Shia to him. Yes he's Shi'i and yes he's connected to the Najaf clerics, but others are too, perhaps even more so as concerns the latter. He's the nationalist and has been throughout.
So the state exists, and the constitution exists as symbol for it, notwithstanding all the other obvious and very serious problems. Because national commitment in Iraq isn't artificial or invented. It's very real.
A growing frustration of mine is the manner in which Islamic banking sort of attempts in many ways to have its cake and eat it too, to use the rather careworn proverb.
So if I am rather caustic in my criticisms of particular rather transparent artifices used to circumvent interest in all but name--say the use of a leasing structure that sets LIBOR as the "target return" and more or less replicates the risk structure of any conventional loan, the reaction is one of puzzlement. What's wrong with that? Did we ever say that earning money was bad, the argument runs? And if it is the same amount of money as a regular bank earns, is it bad for that reason? So then if the nutritional value of turkey and pork are the same, you're going to criticize us for banning pork? You're being silly, or so the theory runs, OF COURSE AAOIFI finds no difficulty with this.
Fine. So then this is the discharge of an obligation, no more and no less. You claim no moral or ethical advantage to Islamic finance in that event beyond that matter of divine obedience, any more than one could logically claim a nutritional advantage to avoiding pork. God says it, and who are we to question its wisdom?
And then, on the other hand, you get the First Global Islamic Economy Summit. And here, of course, the goal is to expand the practice, to get more customers. So what do reports claim the theme is. Well, of course, the claim that the crux of shari'a banking is ethical banking. So say folks as prominent as the heads of pretty prominent Islamic banks. And so we're back to ethics, where somehow we are doing something different than exactly what conventional banks do, earning exactly the same return with exactly the same risk, with only artifice and formalism separating us. Now we're not avoiding pork, we're creating a brave new ethical world. Such that some dude who didn't give a crap about the divine obligation being discharged, the putative nonMuslim the industry claims will find Islamic banking attractive according to summit leaders, will sign up.
So if that's because Islamic banking does not invest in tobacco, strip clubs or AK-47's, then fine, but then there are plenty of socially responsible investments that do that too. No player in the industry would claim adherence to those facts is enough to render the investment "Islamic". No, it's the interest ban that is the true crux of Islamic banking. And if that's the crux, and some non Muslim is going to find that attractive even if they don't care about the Islamic prohibition on its own terms, then you have to explain precisely what a ban on interest achieves by way of realizing some ethical principle, and how that is actually put into practice by Islamic banking. Telling me LIBOR and identical risk profiles are good enough aint gonna do it. You can't argue formalism on the one hand, and then ethics when the customer base starts to shrink. Pick a side.
Finally, this has nothing to do with my book, which is on the Iraq constitution, but my publicist insists every blog post has to have a link to it. So fine. Here it is.
As I was engaging this past weekend in the major continuing indulgence in my life, American football, and in particular, the big Ohio State Michigan football game this past weekend (referred to in common parlance as The Game, much as New York is referred as The City, meaning compared to it, there is no game, and no city, as the case may be), there was much talk of the 40th anniversary of one of the more famous iterations of The Game, when the two teams tied and a vote was taken by the league in which the two teams compete, known as the Big Ten Conference, to crown Ohio State the champion of the conference and send it to play in the championship game against the winner of a West Coast Conference, known as the Pac 10 Conference (at the time that was it's name).
What I found truly fascinating was the manner in which the vote was received by the Michigan faithful, as a betrayal and an outrage, so much so that the Michigan coach to his dying days would sputter in anger if the 10-10 die in 1973 was raised. Ohio State fans, in an even more telling fashion, point less to the process by which Ohio State was anointed and more to the result. That is to say, they will argue that Ohio State was playing in Michigan, was ranked higher, was more likely to win the championship against the Pac 10, did in fact win against the Pac 10, and the like.
Rendering this interesting is that it is a perfect example of the limits of the democratic process. The idea of a vote as a means to engender legitimacy in this particular arena failed miserably. In fact, that whole democratic process was scrapped soon thereafter in favor of other means of tiebreakers, among them who had been last to the final game, who had a better overall record, and other, similar, statistical measures. (Matters have changed again, for reasons well beyond the scope of this post). And democracy did not fail because Michigan was upset that it lost, everyone is disappointed when they lose a tiebreak, but it was because they never accepted the legitimacy of the result, and indeed Ohio State does not point to the process as somehow creating the necessary legitimacy but refer to other factors to justify it.
Contrast this to a presidential election, where certainly the matter would be different entirely. Nobody who defends Obama as being the legitimately anointed president does so on the basis of the fact that he is in fact a better choice than Mitt Romney, and no Romney faithful would question the legitimacy of Obama as president on the grounds that he is a worse president than Romney would have been. The matter makes no sense at all. Surely it is the process that creates the legitimacy--there was a vote, it took place, and Obama won. Some may not like the result but most do accept it, and even the crazies who don't accept it find some specious reason that at least sounds in democratic process--the rules require that only a natural born American can run, for example.
So what is the difference? Why does a vote fail so spectacularly in sport where it succeeds in politics? The reason, I'd posit, is that the better team in sports is almost something of a truth claim, and one does not put truth claims to popular vote. The idea that you determine the "best" team by virtue of a vote seems entirely unseemly, effectively determining athletic merit by virtue of a popularity contest.
Now of course you do have to find a way to break the tie that is clear, if we are not every year to have fits of outrage. We could identify some random indicium that breaks the tie by identifying the "better" team (average margin of victory over the season, for example) and collectively pretend that it does indeed always point out the better team and thereby accept the result. We could tie the result into a more primal notion of fairness (he who went last doesn't get to go in a tie, because everyone should have a turn). Or we could admit and embrace the randomness and flip a damn coin. I think sports usually favors the first because it brings us furthest away from sports nihilism, where we more or less admit the whole damn thing is pretty random and stop caring so much whether the bouncy ball hits the rim and goes inside the metal circle or outside it. But if you adopt the religion, then any of them work and are in fact used in different contexts.
What does not work is a vote, because the better team is not necessarily the more popular team, and that's a rather core tenet of sports. 'Just win, baby' goes the Al Davis mantra, it does not matter who likes you, what matters is you "win", and there is some sort of process to select the victor that does not depend on how well liked you happen to be.
Eight hundred words, and not a one yet on Islamic law, you say. Well, I suspect something of the same leads more than a few of us who believe in secular rule to be somewhat suspicious of Islamist commitments to democracy, still, after all these years. I recognize, of course, that we have come quite a way since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and nobody can credibly pretend that every Islamist movement is led by a proto-Ayatollah Khomeini and the end of democracy is nigh. And I know some are fond of saying that an Islamist party has never been popularly elected and permitted to rule in the Arab world peacefully. Hence when they come to power in Sudan, for example, or nonArab Iran, it is through revolution or coup rather than democratic election. (AKP does not count, there's nothing Islamist about them, they're more secular than the Republican party is). The claim is not actually true in its entirety. Islamists lead Iraq's government, they led Egypt's for a while, and Hamas does rule the Gaza strip after an election, even if it was the Israeli, Fatah and American preference that they not be "permitted" to do so.
What actually hasn't happened, what has yet to happen, completely and entirely, is an Islamist government being popularly elected in a democratic process and then ceding power to a secular alternative after losing a subsequent election. It's fair to point out that Islamist groups tend not to lose elections in our part of the world. Yet they can become unpopular after they start to rule, see Hamas and the Brotherhood alike, and the reaction tends to be to close down and avoid addressing the obvious democratic realities staring them straight in the face. Morsi did not build an inclusive government it is true, though Obama's cabinet is not "inclusive" either, it's left of center, as is his right being the popularly elected president. Yet if tens of millions took to the streets to demand some sort of change, as happened in Egypt, more than appeared to demand Mubarak's ouster, I don't know, I think a sensible leader finds some damn thing to do to bring down the temperature and coopt the opposition. You certainly don't just keep repeating you are the president and refuse to listen to anyone else, as Morsi did, and as Maliki does in Iraq. Maybe that doesn't justify a coup, but it certainly doesn't make a secularist leap for joy as to the democratic commitment of the Brotherhood or Maliki's Da'wa.
And even if you concede, as I state forthrightly in my book, that there is a normative commitment to democratic rule that is genuine, serious and underappreciated among Islamist groups, you wonder about its extent. Yes as I point out in my book the Sadrists for example have grown quite adept at democratic politics and I do think that even as they can be part of ruling coalitions they can be part of opposition ones. But they're running against other Islamists really. Their core commitments lie untouched. Even if a secularist wins, it will be in coalition with religious groups, and that will preclude interference with core commitments.
But will an Islamist group actually cede power to a secularist opposition that seeks not to permit same sex marriage (not politically possible in our part of the world) but take vigorous action against those who commit unspeakable vigilante acts of violence against homosexuals? Will it allow a free speech law that does not permit outright defamation of Islam's most sacred symbols but at least allows vigorous theological debate that is so often shut down on the Arab street on the basis of ludicrous claims of apostasy? It is one thing to oppose Qur'an burning. A majority of Americans think flag burning should be illegal after all, and only a fool would attempt it on a public street, constitutionally protected or not. As a proud Muslim who thinks himself devout enough even if the Brotherhood might disagree, I certainly have very low regard for Qur'an burners. But it is another thing entirely to prohibit the publications of an author who indicates that preIslamic poetry was made up in the post Islamic period to emphasize the importance of Mecca which in fact was a minor stop on a trade route. If you ban the latter, your society is deeply, fundamentally intellectually fettered.
I don't know. I worry there are limits to their commitments. Because even if a Brotherhood stalwart says to me he'll accept an electoral result even if it means that heterodox Islamic views might be more respected than he deems warranted, it sounds to me like Bo Schembechler at Michigan saying he'll accept a vote to decide who goes to the Rose Bowl this year. I think if he says that "this guy knows how the votes will line up and it's purely instrumental to him, as soon as he realizes he might lose his commitment to this vote thing will go out the window. he can't believe the better team is picked by vote." And I fear the same as to the Sadrists or the Brotherhood.
I don't mean I know what the Brotherhood is thinking, or the Sadrists for that matter, or what they will do in any given situation. I lack any epistemological certainty of course, and by no means do I think there is any alternative or any normative position I can take as a committed small l liberal small d democrat but to let them participate and take them at their word. Still, I'm nervous, because I can't see how they can really, truly subject all of their truth claims to popular vote coherently, and haven't seen any evidence that they do.
As is obvious, I've been away from this blog for a while now. My many thanks to my many legions of fans who have written with concern for my welfare, and my many apologies to the commenters, critical or supportive, whose comments I have not posted due to my absence. I assure all that I am well, but between the purchase of our first home (as opposed to a condo), the birth of a son, and my appointment as Research Dean here at Pitt, I've been a bit overwhelmed this past year. I did get some course relief for the Research Dean part of things, but I decided to take that in the spring, meaning this fall has been particularly harrowing.
But things are settling into a new form of normalcy and I do expect to be making reasonably regular contributions henceforth. Honestly.
First, however, the promised Iraq Constitution book is finally out! With the University of Chicago Press, so you can buy it directly from their website or from Amazon. Hardcover, paperback, electronic, whatever you prefer. And the links are on the sidebar in case you decide to purchase it later.
Here's a description from the jacket:
Then many families will resent the judiciary interfering in their most private of affairs. Perhaps the wife has a problem that leads the husband to take another wife. Yet he is fair, and capable of supporting more than one. But he would disdain the fact that he or his wife would become the subject of inspection or investigation. So he accepts deprivation and oppression of his self to remain with his sole wife without purpose or profit, so induced rather than to go to the court and to disclose the secrets of his house. Hence the limitation of mulitple [marriages] in this manner or another results in interference of the judiciary in the right to contract, and the destruction of the human will of the man and the woman alike.Now there is some implicit sexism in some of this, and I will return to that shortly, but I want to leave it aside for now, for the passage could well stand without it. For now, render the example that of a woman who wishes to take a second husband if you like. The point here is that Dr. Kubaisi is outraged by the idea that the state would dare to tell consenting adults who wish to form a multiple union that they are not permitted to do so unless they undertake some form of rigorous inspection. It is, to Dr. Kubaisi, a state restriction of a basic human freedom.