Iraq’s Arabian Nights

Let’s Talk Opinion: Iraq — a showcase for a broader Middle Eastern problem?

Events in the Middle East appear to be a common theme in current events. Whether it is a new war, a new dictator, or new abuses of human rights, Middle Eastern politics does not go out of fashion.

After the terrorist attacks of the 11th of September, 2001 and with the consequent attack on Iraq by U.S. and British forces, the Middle Eastern question became increasingly difficult to avoid. The string of revolutions that have brought the region to a near-standstill in the past few years, put the region under international scrutiny once again.

With Syria in the limelight, it appears that Iraq has taken a back seat in world news. That is not to say that all is well on the streets of Baghdad.


On the 5th of December, 2013 “Iraq returns to Saddam-era number of executions as the country fights terrorism,” reports Colin Freeman in Baghdad. In breaking news earlier today Iraqi officials say 2 bombings kill 4 people north of Baghdad

These are not the type of developments hoped for and promised by those who – in the name of freedom and democracy –  “liberated” Iraq.

To bring light to modern developments in that region, sometimes it pays to look back through history and ask to what extent this mess is one of our own making. Here is a question to consider:

What were the consequences of British imposition of Private Property and tax-in-cash policy on traditional society in Iraq?

Having obtained the Mandate over Iraq in the aftermath of the First World War, Britain was expected to build a strong State and strong institutions to support it, in preparation for Iraqi self-rule. They have failed in both respects.

The creation of an efficient way to tax the population in order to sponsor their own occupation took primacy. In order to tax, the British had to identify the owners of the land to be taxed – thus ensued the introduction of a western conception of Private Property, formerly alien to much of the region.

Before the interference of British and French Imperial rule in the Middle East, most land was owned and worked in common. As the Imperial powers needed to fund their occupation, they imposed a system of private property by declaring small notables and village leaders to be the owners of the land. What is more, the taxes were to be collected in cash, not in percentages of crop.

In the name of efficient administration and effective taxation, they destroyed traditional Middle Eastern society, alienated peasants from their lands and pushed tens of thousands into abject poverty, deeply entrenching “liberal” inequalities within Iraqi society.

The result was an even more unjust and unequal society than the one it had replaced. With the introduction of private property in the Middle East, people departed from seeing themselves as members of small organic communities to being individuals in a competitive and corrupt world, breading even greater inequalities, avarice and corruption. The use of money, rather than crops for exchange, only exacerbated these inequalities.

Unlike the Western States, the State in Iraq is a true Leviathan. The colonial legacy left a fairly weak State, but the subsequent rulers were quick to expand their powers. While in the West civil society had the necessary institutions to keep the State in check, the segregated communities within Iraq had little chance of achieving the same.

The State during Saddam’s rule had absolute power over its subjects, was feared by all and few risked rising against its might. It acquired great despotic power, lacking, on the other hand, what Mann calls infrastructural power: the power to reach into society and control their livelihoods and loyalty effectively.

As the Iraq example proves, having a modern state structure imposed from above can only result in a war of all against all. Sounds familiar?

So… What conclusions may we draw from the above?

  • The introduction of Private Property in the Middle East resulted in the disintegration of traditional society and entrenched greater inequalities.
  • The colonial legacy of a centralised State resulted in the institution of a Hobbesian Leviathan in Iraq, a brute that a diffuse civil society could not counter.

The question remains whether a new Iraq can counter these shortcomings. Will it be possible for a divided Iraqi civil society to keep the State in check and ensure that it does not succumb to pre-war abuses?

Furthermore, given that the current plight of Iraqi society was at least in part the outcome of external involvement in the region, what can be done at an international level to strengthen civil society in Iraq?


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17 thoughts on “Iraq’s Arabian Nights

  1. Honestly, this is the first I have heard on this subject. I’m not sure that it has been (or very much of it) on the news here in the U.S. By your article, what is happening is not necessarily what is the best for their country. But, I think “almost” anything would be better than the evil dictatorship they had before we entered their country.

    • Iraq has been out of the news for a while now, but the country is still struggling. I am certainly no supporter of the Sadam regime or anything that regime did to its people, but I think that we often search for the cause of strife within that country without considering what lead to it in the first place.
      So I wanted to give a little glimpse into the past in order to throw light on what is going on at the moment. Civil society in Iraq continues to be divided and weak. Sadam has been removed, but the State is as much of a capacity today as it ever had to perpetrate the kind of abuses the West hoped to eliminate by interfering.
      I do not have a solution to the problem, but I do think it is a problem.
      Thank you for your comment. Appreciated.

    • Joy, our country likes to “turn off” things once we “move past it.” While I agree we had the “right” to invade Iraq, regardless of whether there were bio weapons, I think Iraq is probably “worse off” in that more deaths are mounting. This blame should not be placed fully on the soldiers of Britian or America, however, as it has been proven that these different groups in Iraq have always hated eachother. Always.

      • I apologise in advance for intervening in this conversation. Just wanted to make two points.

        First, I’d like to say that personally, I don’t think that soldiers should ever be blamed for wars. They are doing their duty and following orders (I sincerely hope no one brings up Nazi Germany against this argument as it is too easy a point to make and I am sick and tires of hearing it misapplied).
        I am always appalled when protestors choose the funeral of a soldier to make their voices heard. This is what parliament is for. They are the ones who make these decisions, not the soldiers who die and/or are maimed and traumatised as a result, so there are better platforms for picketing on that count.

        The second point, I have to disagree on us having the “right” to invade Iraq.
        I will accept that there were many moral arguments made to justify it, but if we look at where international law stood at the time it was one of non-intervention when it came to the internal affairs of a state.
        I refer here the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that established the notion of territorial sovereignty as a norm of non-interference in the affairs of other nations, the so-called Westphalian sovereignty.
        No one intervened in Russia when they were attacking their own people in Chechnya. No one intervened when Britain were in an almost-civil was in Northern Ireland and so on.
        I think the West is inconsistent when it comes to this. In the end everyone still acts in accordance to the “whomever is strongest is right” when it comes to international affairs.

      • Vic, You make some excellent points. I believe international law is evolving in terms of the developing doctrine of the international community’s “duty to protect.” Witness certain civil wars, such as in the Sudan.

        However, this doctrine does have the potential for abuse, in that it can be the means of circumventing safeguards for international statehood.

      • Actually I refer to Desert Storm Vic. That “war” gave America the right to regulate Iraq. We stand by that.

    • I am a great believer in democracy as a means of organising society. I know none better.
      However – democracy equals power of the people, that to me implies that it cannot be something imposed from above or from without, it is something that the people themselves have to arrive at through struggle and determination.
      A society that arrives at democracy is then strong enough to withstand the encroachment of the State.
      This unfortunately is not the case for the Middle East. We did not trust them to get there themselves and I think it may cause further problems in the future.

      Thank you for your comment, Irene – always great when it moves the discussion forward.

      • Sometimes life gets in the way of commenting – sorry for my lateness in responding to you. Having lived in a tribal society that had a democracy as their political system I came to the realisation that democracy does not always work. This has ,in my eyes, been also shown to be the case in Iraq and Yugoslavia. Where you have a tribal mentality and tribal hatreds of longstanding the elected government tends to favour his clans folk, leading to dissension leading to civil war. It takes a strong leader (not necessarily a nice leader) to hold a country together where this is the case. Tito was that leader for Yugoslavia, Saddam in Iraq. What happens when they are removed – tribal warfare. I can remember seeing an Iraqi interviewed before Saddam was removed. He was talking about how there would never be religious conflict in Iraq because they lived peacefully side by side and there had been so much mixing by marriage it would never happen. What are we seeing now?
        I too believe in a democracy as being the best system but until some countries are better educated, have good freedom of speech and press and separation of government and legal systems, and religious freedoms I just can’t see it working for some. I agree with you – it has to come from the people at a time when they are ready.

      • Thank you, Irene and no need to apologise for the delay. Your comments are welcome whenever they come, and it is never too late.
        The case of democracy… ah yes. This is my current project and there is so much I could say on the matter, that I struggle to know where to begin.
        There is one argument made by a continental thinker, Cornelius Castoriadis, regarding democracy’s specific birthplace which I think is very close to what you said. He too believed that autonomous societies – that is societies that are open rather than closed, and where democracy flourishes – are, due to socio-historical development, to be found in the West. Can democracy flourish elsewhere? Possibly. I think on this point we are in agreement. It can only be the case where civil society strengthens and pushes for democratic reform from below.
        I had the advantage of studying it with a professor who is a specialist on Iraq and was actually one of the advisors called on by Tony Blair before the war. He advised against it. Clearly wasn’t listened to. One of the things that stayed with me, was the fact that Iraqis considered themselves to be exactly that: Iraqis first and foremost (at least during Sadam’s rule). Nationalism had strength and continued to gain strength in Iraq at that time, in part perhaps due to the wars against Iran in the past. The West overstated sectarianism when they first went in and I think their policy (was it again divide and conquer I wander?) exacerbated the problem after the war.
        To me the problem seems to be that – when there is an advantage to be gained from belonging to a tribe, especially in such uncertain times as these are for Iraq – then it is easy to change the narrative, and make division seem like a good option.
        It is a tough one. I have been thinking about this issue for a while. There are so many different strands to consider that I may leave it for a while and return to it in the future.
        Thank you for your comment, especially for the case of Yugoslavia. I tend to agree that a strongman in these particular cases was certainly key to maintaining some degree of unity.
        Warm regards,

      • I would argue here that it isn’t that we didn’t “trust them.” It is that there were actually some “smaller fractions” that want democracy to unseat others in power. The sad part about democracy is that it will never work if all the sides aren’t actively trying as well.

        Do we honestly think Democracy is working in America? Our government has been stopped and shutdown how many times? Our people bicker, split, and hate eachother over party lines. I would like to know where a “good” example of democracy currently is.

      • I would like to see that too, OM. This is part what I argue in my thesis, that modern democracy as it is comes very short of democracy as it ought to be – on so many counts in fact that it hardly deserves the label.
        Great comment. Thank you.

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