This month marks the seventh anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The invasion was no surprise of course; it was preceded by months of international politicking as the neo-con Bush administration tried to build international consensus for the war. Before that too, the US had been waging a soft war against Iraq for over a decade, and many commentators had predicted that the US would use the attacks on New York and the Pentagon in September 2001 as the pretext for finally invading. Despite this context, however, Muslim reaction to the invasion was mixed. For many Iraqis and others who had been victims of Saddam Hussain’s rule, including Iranians, Kuwaitis and other Arabs, the dominant response was joy at the defeat of what had been an exceptionally brutal and repressive regime. For other Muslims, perhaps more detached from the immediate situation in Iraq, happiness at the end of Saddam’s rule was overshadowed by the awareness that another Muslim country was coming under US occupation, and that Iraq’s future was likely to be as difficult as it had been under Saddam.
Muslims have watched subsequent events unfolding in Iraq with horror. While most attention worldwide has been US-centric, focussing on the political problems of the Bush administration, Muslims have paid more attention to the problems of Iraq’s long-suffering people. On the one hand, they have faced the ruthlessness with which the US dealt with all resistance to their occupation, symbolised by the near-genocidal assault on Fallujah in 2004, comparable to anything Muslims have suffered in Bosnia, Chechnyaand Palestine, and the images of the treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, comparable to the worst excesses of the Saddam regime. On the other has been the total failure of Islamic movements and leaders in the country — Sunni and Shi‘i alike — to provide the sort of wise and principled leadership required in the difficult situation created by the US invasion, and the country’s subsequent descent into a period of sectarian warfare that has deeply scarred the country.
This is not the place to attempt a detailed analysis of the events in Iraq after the US invasion, although a critical alternative to the dominant narrative established by the US and world media is sorely needed. However, it is worth remembering a few key points. Perhaps the most important of these is that there was an initial post-invasion consensus among all Iraqis that the fall of Saddam had to be followed by a united stand against US occupation, based on a common desire for genuine independence and a new state based on the principles of Islam shared by Muslims of all schools of thought. This consensus was encouraged by the fact that the most credible Iraqi opposition forces were those based in the Islamic State in Iran, a fact that became clear to all in the meetings of Iraqi opposition leaders convened by the US in the run-up to the invasion.
This consensus was broken when some Iraqi leaders fell for the temptation of office offered by the US, encouraged also by the demonstration of US ruthlessness at Fallujah and the hope of finding a better alternative for Iraqis. The fact that the US deliberately established its political institutions on the basis of sectarian political identities ensured that the consensus broke on sectarian lines, with Shi‘is largely opting for cooperation with the occupation powers and Sunnis sticking to the path of military resistance. With absolutely no support for their jihad from any other source, it was perhaps inevitable that many Sunnis would fall under the influence of the salafi-jihadi ideas of many of the foreign mujahideen who came to Iraq to support them. Unfortunately the rabidly anti-Shi‘i attitudes of these salafi-jihadis proved incendiary in Iraq’s delicate communal situation, turning anti-occupation militancy into escalating sectarian terrorism against the country’s Shi‘i majority. After the bombing of the Askariyyah Shrine in Samarra in February 2006, attempts by some Iraqi leaders — Sunni and Shi‘i alike — to resist the rising tide of sectarian violence on all sides proved futile, and there followed a period of madness that may now have abated, but which has caused lasting damage to the fabric of Iraqi society, quite apart from the tragedies of countless human victims. Meanwhile, the hopes of the early post-invasion period are little more than a distant memory held by a few Iraqis.
It may be true to say that even those who viewed the US invasion in 2003 with more scepticism than hope could not have imagined how bad things could get. Nonetheless, it is essential that the Islamic movementlook back over events, however unpleasant, and draw certain lessons from them. The key ones are perhaps threefold: first, that expecting anything good to come for Muslims from any action of the US is naive to the point of self-delusional. However bad Saddam was, the idea that the Iraqi Islamic movement could benefit from the US’s toppling of him was bound to be disappointed. Second, the capacity of Muslim leaders to fall victim to the manipulations of our enemies should never be underestimated. The history of the Islamic movement offers few if any examples of Islamic leaders entering into any sort of cooperation or compromise with un- or anti-Islamic forces, and succeeding in turning the situation to their advantage. The unfortunate reality is that when it comes to political deceit and manipulation, our enemies will always be more skilful and successful than we are. And thirdly, we must never underestimate the danger of sectarianism within the Ummah, and the damage that it can do.
The Islamic movement and the Ummah have, unfortunately, a long record of making the same mistakes over and over again; but if even some Muslims learn these simple lessons from Iraq’s suffering in recent years, perhaps some little good may come from it, insha’Allah.
Iqbal Siddiqui publishes a personal blog, A Sceptical Islamist: http://scepticalislamist.typepad.com.