The American military’s present struggle in Iraq against a well-armed insurgency refutes the pre-invasion claims by the Bush administration that Iraqis would greet American forces as liberators, according to Ruhi Ramazani ‘54, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia’s Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics and one of the nation’s foremost experts on Middle Eastern affairs. Speaking to members of the Law School’s Business Advisory Council at a dinner in Caplin Pavilion Oct. 3, Ramazani said it should have been no surprise that such “unrealistic assumptions” would turn out so tragically wrong given the historical record and cultural reality of the Middle East.
To understand that reality, Ramazani reviewed the history of the region, from when it was the cradle of the world’s most progressive civilization during the Middle Ages to today where Western civilization is clearly the most developed and dominant.
Ramazani described stagnation in Middle Eastern society and culture—a region seemingly frozen in time. This stagnation is compounded by factors that fuel resentment against the West: the region’s past colonial experience with the British and the French, and the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Further, Iran—one of the most populous countries in the Middle East and perhaps the most democratically inclined with 25 million people in the reformist movement—resents being included with North Korea and Iraq in President Bush’s “axis of evil.”
“The combination of cultural stagnation on the one hand… and on the other the interventions, liberations, and occupations by foreign powers have poisoned the well in terms of attitudes toward the West in general,” said Ramazani.
Iraq itself is an anachronistic colonial structure built without any social or cultural commonalities that would help keep it together. Ramazani recalled how the British created what came to be known as Iraq, an artificial state carved out of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. From 1920 until the Baathist revolution in 1958, three British-supported monarchs ruled. After the revolution, Saddam Hussein took control of Iraq, continuing a thousand-year tradition of authoritarianism in the Middle East, where power resides either in a monarch, a military regime, or in Hussein’s case, a personality cult.
“Certainly, there was a state of Iraq, but there really was no nation in the state of Iraq,” said Ramazani. “Iraqi society was fractured from day one when the state came into existence.” Ramazani cited the Sunni, Shia, and Kurds as the major players, but noted that Iraq today has some 100 different tribes. The loyalty of the Iraqi people is first and foremost to their family, then to their religion, sect, or ethnic community—not their nation. “Whenever Iraq has been so-called ‘stable’ it has been largely because [Hussein] held this fractured society together by authoritarian control,” said Ramazani. “When we removed Hussein by invasion, we removed that glue and all those differences and divisions revived. They are still with us and will continue to be with us for a long time to come.”
Ramazani recalled the looting that broke out soon after American forces entered Baghdad and how Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said it was because the Iraqis now “have freedom.” Ramazani disagreed. “They were looting because Iraqis have looted whenever there has not been a strongman to hold order…. Not understanding that kind of culture, we feel betrayed somehow that an Iraqi celebration of liberation didn’t happen, and that instead we have this tenacious insurgency which has so far cost us billions of dollars, the lives of over 1,000 American soldiers, and…it’s impossible to know how many thousands of innocent Iraqis have died. And we have no end in sight.”
But Ramazani doesn’t conclude that America’s problems
in Iraq stem solely from a flawed understanding of Middle Eastern culture.
As a scholar of Middle Eastern affairs who immigrated here 52 years
ago to attend the Law School and then teach at the University, Ramazani
turned to the writings of Thomas Jefferson to see what he would have
thought about exporting democracy to Iraq. “There is no doubt
that in our American political culture an aspiration to spread democracy
or liberty has been there ever since the birth of the American republic.… That
aspiration is part and parcel of American history and culture. Therefore,
Jefferson would have said there is nothing wrong with us spreading
democracy. But the truly vexing question is, how? I came to one conclusion….
Thomas Jefferson would have said—without the shadow of doubt—liberal
education. He considered education the true antidote to tyranny; education
the true opposite of oppression; education and our technology of today
the true weapon against terrorists. Not coercion, but education. In
his memorable words, ‘enlighten the public generally, tyranny
and oppression of mind and body will vanish like the evil spirit at
the dawn of day.’”