Last month marked the third anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussain. Few now doubt that the invasion was the culmination of a long-held plan on the Americans’ part, and that the intense international politicking of the months leading up to the war, with the talk of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and links between Saddam Hussainand al-Qa’ida, UN resolutions and weapons inspectors, was no more than a process designed to justify the invasion. This was recognised by many at the time, even in Western countries other than the US, with France, Germany and Russia highly cynical of the US’s statements and plans, and widespread opposition to the war in European countries, including the only ones whose governments supported the invasion, namely Britain and Spain.
Three years later, Bush’s bravado seems no more than a distant memory, and even many of the American newspapers and commentators who acted as his uncritical cheerleaders in promoting the case for war have turned against him. The real reason for this change of tone is clear enough: it is not that they have realised the error of their ways, although a few commentators have issued mea culpas admitting to their contribution to the war, but that the strategy that they backed, despite the ample evidence that it was based on outright lies, has turned out to be a total disaster. The turn of mood against Bush in the US has more in common with rats abandoning a sinking ship than of enlightened commentators recognising the fact that they had been misled themselves and in turn had misled others.
Two points are particularly interesting. First, many of these commentators remain reluctant to criticise the Iraq war in public, despite the fact that it is obviously a complete disaster; instead, aware perhaps of their own role in the creating the mood for war, they prefer to ignore Iraq as though the reality of the situation is so obvious that it merits no comment, and focus their attacks on Bush on other issues instead, particularly domestic issues such as the economy and healthcare. Second, many of the same commentators and newspapers are now uncritically joining the Bush administration’s campaign against the Islamic Republic of Iran, despite the obvious parallels with the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. Whether the campaign against Iran is seen as the next stage of the neo-cons’ long-established strategy, or as a desperate attempt to distract attention from the fiasco in Iraq, the fact is that it is founded on no more solid ground than was the campaign against Iraq. That should be obvious to anyone with the wit to look back at the Iraq process with an unjaundiced eye; but it seems to be too much for most of the US’s famously independent press to grasp. The conclusion that the US’s power elites are capable of imposing any view of the world they want on the American public is a sobering one for anyone who shares the ideals of democracy and freedom that the US claims to embody and uphold.
Muslims, too, can take little satisfaction from looking back at the build-up to the war in Iraq and how events have unfolded since the invasion. There were plenty of Islamic movements and leaders, barely three short years ago, who positively welcomed the US’s intervention, suggesting that US military power was the only way of getting rid of Saddam Hussain, and that the Islamic movement would be able to take over once Saddam had gone. Few were open to warnings of the risk of working with the US. The approach would have been dubious and dangerous even had they not allowed themselves to be manipulated and divided by the US in the politicking that followed the invasion. There was a small window of opportunity, after the fall of Saddam, before the US established new political structures to replace him, when Iraq’s Islamic movements could have acted together on a common platform and demanded the end of foreign occupation as a prerequisite for political progress. For a few short months in 2003, as Sunnis in Fallujah (and elsewhere) exchanged messages of support and solidarity withShi’is in the south of the country, as Iraqis everywhere continued to resist American troops, not in support of Saddam but in order to try to gain control of their own destiny, there was the potential for unity and the transcending of sectarian differences and agendas. This proved short-lived, as Iraqi Shi’ah groups in particular opted for collaboration with the occupiers, instead of opposition to them. This was particularly disappointing to Muslims around the world because some of the groups and leaders in question had close links with Islamic Iran, raising hopes that they might have a broader and longer-term vision.
The key lessons for Islamic movements from the disaster that is Iraq are simple to articulate but hard to realise. The first is that there is no circumstance in which cooperation with the USor other Western powers can be a shortcut to political success. Any strategy that is acceptable to the enemies of Islam must by definition be unacceptable to the Islamic movement. The second is that the unity of the Ummah must be maintained at all costs. Any strategy that is unacceptable to any part of the Islamic movement, for any valid reason, should be unacceptable to all. The only acceptable and correct way forward is the one on which all Muslims can agree without any qualms about its being acceptable in principle.
Time and again Islamic movements make the same mistakes. Yet history shows, in Iraq and elsewhere, that there can be no shortcuts to success in pursuit of the goals of Islamic movements. Compromising with the forces that oppose the rise of Islam, whether they be Western troops and occupiers, or secular and anti-Islamic Muslim dictators and political establishments, has never achieved anything but the discrediting of the Islamic movement. Those who had high hopes for Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussain have had their hopes dashed. They were, in truth, distant and unrealistic hopes in any case, given the US’s interest in the country and the divisions within Iraqi society.
All the Islamic movement can do in Iraq is adapt to the new reality of US occupation and a collaborating government, and once again adapt a long-term approach to the problems that exist there. The first step must be, as it always must be in a country like Iraq, the withdrawal from sectarian conflict and the setting aside of sectarian differences. If those who claim to be committed to an Islamic future in Iraq cannot achieve even so little as that at this stage, the country’s future is grim indeed.