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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