Building Never-Never Land

Okay, after savaging the pro-war left a couple of days ago I think its time I set about courting a bit more controversy and shooting another sacred cow along the way, even if I do it in a rather more considered manner.

Q. In this whole escapade that is Iraq, what is the one assumption that almost no one ever questions, no matter what side of the debate they’re on?

A. That whatever else happens, democracy can only be good for the Iraqi people.

Well is that necessarily true? Is democracy really what the Iraqi people need and will it really benefit them as much as everyone supposes or are we merely projecting our own values and ideas into a situation we don’t really understand because it makes us feel better?

Now before everyone starts reaching for their keyboard to start composing a political/philosophical defence of the principle of democracy lets be clear that where I’m going here is not down the road of some sort of study in comparative government nor am I about to attempt a general polemic against democracy. The question here is not ‘is democracy a good thing?’, or ‘is democracy a better system of government than a totalitarian dictatorship or a absolute monarchy?. No, the question I want to pose is one that is specific to Iraq’s present circumstances.

‘Is democracy the right way to go about building a nation state?’

As a starting point we need to get a bit of background under our belts, both in terms of what is a nation state and how one comes about and also about the formation and foundations of present day Iraq.

What is a nation state?

Probably the best description I can find comes from the ever reliable Wikipedia, which defines the nation state as follows:

A nation-state is a specific form of state, which exists to provide a sovereign territory for a particular nation, and derives its legitimacy from that function. In the ideal model of the nation-state, the population consists of the nation and only of the nation: the state not only houses it, but protects it and its national identity.

Before going on to note:

A nation-state is typically a unitary state with a single system of law and government. It is almost by definition a sovereign state, meaning that there is no external authority above the state itself. Dependent territories of any kind are not considered nation-states, until they achieve independence. The nation-state implies the parallel occurrence of a state and a nation. In the ideal model, they coincide exactly: every member of the nation is a permanent resident of the nation-state, and no member of the nation permanently resides outside it. In reality this is unusual, not to say impossible. That does not mean that there are no nation-states, the ideal has influenced almost all existing sovereign states, and they can not be understood without reference to that model. It also explains how they are different from their predecessor states.

This contrasts with the kind of states which preceded the advent of the nation state which were defined almost exclusively in relation to the ruling dynastic house of the state, the prevalent model being a monarchical state, the boundaries of which were defined by the extent of the territory ruled by the King, Emperor or, in the case of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan. Factors which tend, these days, to define a common identity amongst groups of people, e.g. ethnicity, religion, language tended not to get much a look in – the archetypal non-nation state tended to be a multi-ethnic empire, although there was usually some advantage to belonging to the same, usually dominant, ethnic group as the ruling house.

The nation state is a relatively recent innovation, one which dates, depending on your preferred perspective, either to the rise of European nationalism, and particularly ‘Romantic Nationalism’ in the late 18th and early 19th Century or to the mid 17th Century, albeit in a rather limited way. This confusion arises out of the question of whether nationalism, which in its full flowering is very much a 19th Century concept, and the idea of a common national identity are synonymous – if you believe they are then nation states like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United States of America and France, all of which emerged before the concept of nationalism took hold are a kind of hybrid, a step on the road to the nation state but ones which were not fully realised until their sense of common identity evolved into a sense of nationalism. This, for me, is rather too literalist a view; one that’s too limited in its notion of what it is that makes for a common identity and its understanding of where and how the common identity required for nationhood forms. It also ignores, in a fairly typical piece of Eurocentric conceit, that nation states developed outside of Europe, in South America, independently of the main strands of European nationalism.

Whatever your take on the disputed origins of the nation state it remains the case that a nation state is defined by reference to its people who, so the model assumes, will share a common identity. Common identity in central to and, in fact, a prerequisite for successful nation building. Its also its biggest complication and not only is there no single way to develop such a common identity but the various options which could be used as a basis for a common identity are often contradictory and a source of conflict.

Inherent in the practice of nation building is therefore not only the process of forging a common identity but also the process of suppressing or expelling identities which don’t fit in with the preferred route to nationhood – usually by the use of violence, repression and social engineering. It’s often forgotten, in England at least, that creating the British nation state involved the wholesale destruction of the Scottish clan system following the Jacobite rebellion, the wholesale and deliberate Anglicisation of the Scottish and Irish aristocracy and the colonisation of Ireland, and Ulster in the particular, with loyal Scottish protestants, displacing the Catholic Irish in the process. Building the United States of America, likewise, required the widespread destruction of the varied cultures of its indigenous population, a process which was still going on up until very recently through the practice of forcing Native American children, often by removing them from their families entirely, to attend ‘Missionary’ schools which would give them ‘a good Christian upbringing’ – a practice which has also been used to devastating effect by the Spanish, in South America, by several European nations during the colonisation of Africa and as recently as the 1960’s in Australia. Lets also not forget that the people of the United States have had cause to dispute the nature of the common America identity amongst themselves, leading to the American Civil War of 1861-65. It’s also largely forgotten that France, up to an including the period of the French revolution, was by no means possessed of a common identity either. Regional variations in culture and language were, in pre-revolutionary France, so pronounced that a peasant born barely 30 miles from Paris could barely make themselves understood on visiting the capital. In fact, much as it is tempting to point to the French revolution as the beginning of French nationhood, its effect outside of Paris and France’s other major towns and cities was very limited – The real architect of the French nation was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, a despot and arch-imperialist, who forged modern France out of his own imperial pretensions by standardising everything from its administration and language to its legal system under the Napoleonic Civil code, imposing a uniform and dominant ‘French’ culture in the process.

What history tells us about the process of nation building is that, with very few exceptions, that process leads invariably to a conflict of identities which is resolved only when a single identity achieves dominance. Exceptions to this rule are extremely rare. Switzerland is one, in fact the only one in which a consensual civic identity has formed the foundations of a nation state. Japan, due to is almost total isolation until the middle of the 19th Century, is arguably another although this is primarily a result of it having more or less dealt with the question of identity during its imperial phase, long before making the transition to becoming a nation state, and was not accomplished without it own acts of repression, the subjugation of the indigenous Ainu population being, in many respects, similar to the subjugation of the Welsh and subsequent destruction of the Welsh culture by the English during the reign of Edward I.

What history also tells us is that democracy and the idea of a common identity founded on civic values is rarely strong enough to sustain or force through the process of building a more or less cohesive nation. Few, if any, nation states are founded successfully on the principle of democracy and a common civic society without this being supported, fully, by a common identity derived from another source. This is because democracy, which supports and encourages the development of society based on diversity and plurality is fundamentally at odds with the process of nation building which demands the development, in its initial stages, of a homogeneous and dominant monoculture. Only when a nation state has succeeded in finding and stabilising its common identity are the conditions absolutely right for democracy; prior to that democracy tends to be divisive and to work against the process of defining the nation’s common identity by legitimising, even from the minority position, identities which diverge from and conflict with the common identity upon which the nation state is being built.

Nation building by purely civic means and on the basis of a common civic identity is, therefore, rarely successful; other than in the case of Switzerland it success is generally predicated on there being a lack of competition from other means of defining identity. In the United States the development of its civic identity and, therefore, its nation state was supported both by the liberal political philosophy of the enlightenment and by the colonist’s rejection of the idea of a uniform religious or ethnic identity, an extremely rare event in itself as, by and large, religious and ethnic identities tend to carry far more weight with a defined population. One can also point to a small number of former British colonies; Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which have had the benefit not only of developing from an established civic nation, the UK – although the road to nationhood in this country did not begin with it civic identity but with its religious identity derived from the reformation and refined by Puritanism – and, again, a lack of competition from other identity markers like ethnicity and religion.

Why a civic identity should be seemingly so weak in the face of competition from other potential common identities is a function of the extent to which an identity is perceived to be either personal/natural or ideological/artificial. Generally speaking there exists a distinct hierarchy of identity, one in which the strongest tends to be ethnicity, followed very closely by – and under the right conditions even superseded – religion, then culture with the weakest being the state, ideological and civic identities. The state-based identity treats the nation and the state as being entirely synonymous as in Italian Fascism or the Turkish nationalism of Attaturk. Communism could also be argued to be a state-based identity however this ignores its internationalist leanings and is, therefore, better thought of as an ideological identity even though, in practice, it has typically resulted in the creation of a strong and, by varying degrees, repressive state.

The strongest identities, in terms of nation building, are therefore those which are felt most personally by members of the nation, the ones which are perceived to be an intrinsic part of the individual, and by extension, national character. With very few exceptions – the USA being one – these are also the identities which engender the greatest sense of both personal and collective history and which, therefore, largely pre-date the European enlightenment. State, ideological and civic identities, by contrast, are very much products of the enlightenment and offer a far weaker and more abstract sense of common identity.

What this means in terms of the theory of building a nation state is that not only that it will work effectively only where there is a common identity but where, in turn, that common identity is one of the stronger, pre-enlightenment personal identities or where more than one of those identities combine and work together. Conversely where two of more of these potential common identities come into conflict and, in particular, where an abstract post-enlightenment identity comes into conflict with one of the stronger identities, i.e. ethnicity or religion it is difficult, if not impossible to build a common identity…

… other than by means of force.

This, in particular, is where the civic identity based on democracy runs into real problems when it comes to nation building as in the absence of a solid and consensual common identity it is almost impossible to obtain support sufficient to legitimise the use of force to maintain social order with the result that either social order within the state dissolves leading to chaos and civil war or, alternatively, a single faction, typically but not always the military, seizes control of the state in order to re-impose order turning the state into a dictatorship. The worst case scenario in terms of the latter arises where the faction which seizes control not only identifies itself with one of the identities which was previously vying for the position of becoming the common identity of the nation but also sees itself as being diametrically opposed to any of the other identities within the state, a situation which results at the very least in severe political repression but which can also lead on to acts of genocide, particularly where divisions are based on conflict between ethnic identities.

In general terms, this is why nation building in the post-war, post-colonial era is often so unsuccessful and has seen so many states which were set up as democracies by their former colonial ‘masters’ fail, collapsing into civil war and/or despotism.

Where does all this leave modern day Iraq? Not very well situated as it happens.

Iraq, like many of the states of the Middle East in and around the area of the Arabian peninsula, did not exist until the 20th Century. Up until the end of World War I, Iraq was not one but three separate provinces of the Ottoman Empire; Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, an arrangement which broadly reflects the religious and ethnic divisions of Iraq in the modern day – such arrangements, which were deliberately drawn up to reflect areas of common ethnic or religious identity were entirely commonplace in imperial non-nation states as they tended to make such areas rather more easy to govern.

Following World War I, Iraq became a British Mandate – the British League of Nations Trust Territory of Iraq – until 1932 when it was granted independence as one of two Hashemite Kingdom’s set up by Britain in the Middle East; the second one being Jordan, then called Transjordan, which remains an independent state and one of Britain’s closest allies in the region, today. It should be noted that the Hashemites had no historical territorial claim to Iraq later than than the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 AD which brought an end to the Abbasid Caliphate, rather the Hashemites controlled the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia under the Ottoman Empire until the collapse of its power in 1917, following which the Hashemite leader, Husain ibn Ali ruled the Hejaz as an independent state, declare himself King, until 1924. The Hashemites were finally expelled from the Hejaz after it was annexed by their chief rival in the Arabian peninsula, a tribal warlord named Ibn Saud, the founder of the House of Saud, which has ruled Saudi Arabia since this same period.

Hashemite rule in Iraq lasted until 1958 when it was overthrown by a popular revolution, installing a left-wing, pro-Soviet military government. This was, in turn, overthrown some ten years later by the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party of which Saddam Hussain become the leader in 1979 resulting in the inevitable Stalin-style purge of his political opponents.

As should be obvious from this brief history, Iraq not only has no history of democratic rule whatsoever but also no real history of having developed or even of having tried to develop a common Iraqi identity of the kind which would sustain it as a unified nation state. Throughout its entire existence as an independent entity, the identity of its people as Iraqis has been enforced upon them by, in the first instance, a British supported monarchy and, since the 1950’s, by an all-powerful and controlling state.

In terms of trying to build a viable nation state out of Iraq, the last ninety or so years might just as well have not happened at all.

Instead of moving towards a common identity Iraq, as it is today, is little different from what it was under the Ottomans, three largely separate and distinct provinces, each of which has it own sense of common identity which is different from and conflicts with the others, a situation which has been made even more confused by the Ba’athist’s Al Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the north of Iraq, a component of which was a deliberate policy of ‘Arabisation’ in the region which has since been characterised as an attempt at ethnic cleansing.

So what we have today in a country made up of three large self-identifying groups and competing groups, ethnic Kurds – who are also Sunni Muslims – Arab Sunni Muslims and Arab Shi’a Muslims, placing the two most powerful determinants of identity, ethnicity and religion, into a three-way conflict.

To make matters even more complicated there is also the influence and expectations of neighbouring states to be taken into account.

In the north the ethnic homeland of the Kurds, Kurdistan, is divided between Iraq and the Turkish Republic, a key strategic ally of the West in the region, member of NATO and, itself, under increasing internal pressure to move towards an Islamic rather than secular state. In terms of common identity and the idea of a nation state, the Kurdish preference would undoubtedly be their secession from Iraq and the formation of an independent Kurdish state, which would seem, at first sight, a feasible option were it not for the fact that this would undoubtedly result in the Kurdish population of Eastern Turkey seeking secession in order to join with the Iraqi Kurds to form a unified Kurdish state. Such a move would not only destabilise Turkey and its government, placing its own secular state at greater risk but also provoke an opposite reaction to Kurdish demands for secession in which the Turks decide to resolve the problem by annexing the Kurdish region of northern Iraq and incorporating it into a ‘Greater Turkey’.

In the south, the situation is equally confused. On might assume that the Southern Shi’a Muslim population’s natural ally is neighbouring Iran, a revolutionary Islamic state which, since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 has viewed, and been viewed by, the West with varying degrees of suspicion and downright hostility – and indeed its clerical leadership does to some extent look to Iran for it lead. However this is not such a clear cut situation as it might first appear and for all that the share a clear of identity with Iran in terms of religion, the war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980’s and, in particular, the ferocity of the conflict in the area between Basra and Abadan, centred of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, has left a legacy of mistrust and suspicion and a fear of reprisals which makes any idea that the two populations might join forces in a formal sense highly unlikely. It needs also to be remembered that as the largest of the three groups, the Shi’a Muslims have potentially the most to gain from the initial stages of democratic rule by virtue of sheer weight of numbers, which make them the most influential of the three groups even if it is insufficient of itself to give them overall dominance. The unanswered question with the Shi’a population is the extent to which they will be prepared to moderate their ultra-conservative religious values in dealings with the state sufficiently to accommodate the less conservative position of the other two groups.

In the middle of all this are the third main group, the Sunni Arabs, who were at least nominally the dominant group prior to the 2003 invasion, as it was from this group that the Ba’ath Party emerged and drew its support. The Sunnis have been, to date, the group least inclined to play ball with the process of nation building in Iraq for reasons which almost certainly include everything from lingering sympathies and support for the Ba’athists to a fear of reprisals with middle ground in their thinking being the suspicion that no matter what the new-look Iraqi state ends up looking like, they’ll be on the losing end of it one way or another. With competing self-identifying groups on either side, each of whom are, in their own way, pulling in very different directions the position in which the Sunni Arabs of Iraq now find themselves is many respects similar to the position of Germany following World War I in the sense that they have been stripped of their previous power and authority and are surrounded by enemies of their own making – the only difference being that no one ever expected Germany to build a single nation state and common identity in partnership with France and Poland, which the Sunni Arabs are expected to do in partnership with the Kurd and the Shi’a.

In short, you could not have chosen a worse set of circumstances in which to try to build a unified nation state than exist today in Iraq if you’d tried, especially if your goal is to create a democratic nation state based on a civic identity. As has all too often been the case in Africa, where state boundaries were for the most part drawn up by the colonial powers without, almost, any reference to pre-existing ethnic/tribal territories and long-standing rivalries, this is a recipe for instability and conflict from which a unified and stable democratic Iraqi state has little or no prospect of emerging. Indeed, as our experiences in Africa should have taught us, the most likely outcome of our latest attempt at nation building is likely to be civil war and the balkanisation of Iraq or the emergence of new ‘strongman’ leader, most probably from the military, to hold the the country together by the enforcement of a similar state-based identity and approach to that of the recently deposed Ba’athists. In terms of any democratic aspirations we might have for Iraq, probably the best we can hope for is a situation similar to that which has prevailed in countries like Pakistan and Nigeria which tend to flip-flop between democratic and military rule depending on the relative stability of the state during a particular period, with the military steeping in every time democracy becomes so troublesome and divisive that it is seen to threaten the integrity of the state and, of course, that if such a leader does emerge, that they are reasonably well disposed towards our interests and interested in a diplomatic relationship with the West.

Of all the errors made by the West the one that will prove to be the gravest in the long run will be the one that derives from our greatest and, since World War II, most consistent conceit, the idea that we can take states like Iraq, artificial states which we created during the the colonial era and which lack the coherent sense of common identity necessary to form a stable nation state, and create democracies from them out of nothing.

If we put aside our political and cultural prejudices for a moment and consider only what history teaches us, it should be obvious that the history of the formation of nation states and nation building is not the same history as that of democracy but rather the history of the military and/or political ‘strongman’, the dictator and the despot, of Bonaparte, Bismark, Stalin, Tito, Mao Tse Tung, Mugabe, Salazar, Nasser, Idi Amin and a whole host of others…

…including Saddam Hussain.

If you supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 then somewhere along the line you’ll have told yourself that whatever other reasons there may have been for that invasion, it will all work out for the good in the end because at least the Iraqi people will have gained democracy and the right of self-determination , which they didn’t have before. Indeed, the more it became apparent that the reasons we we told we had to go to war, the alleged threat posed by Saddam Hussain to neighbouring states and the stability of the region, we a work of total fiction, the more you’ll have come to rely on the idea that democracy will be good for them to justify and explain your position.

On the other hand, If you’ve read and understood this article in full, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll be starting to wonder whether that particular argument is just a bit of ‘reach’ and whether, in long run, the best that Iraqi people can hope for down the line is a relatively benevolent dictator, by dictatorial standards; one in the mould of a Zia-ul-Haq or Pervez Musharraf, someone who is no less a strongman but at least fairly pragmatic in their use of force and repression – in which case this piece has done its job…

…and if not, I’d be interested to hear your arguments as to how and why Iraq will be any different from all the other failed and semi-failed attempts at nation building through democracy that have gone before.

  • I have to wonder if moves towards an independent Kurdistan would be subject to less opposition if the area that the Kurds claim as their ethnic homeland didn’t happen to also include the lions share of the possibly the largest field of light crude oil left in the world.

    A better model for nation building in Iraq would probably be something like the United Arab Emirates, where there is no democracy but citizens possess a high degree of freedom of speech. The UAE is more a loose republic of local kingdoms (the old shaykdoms in this case) than a single nation, with most of the power residing with the local Emirs. When the borders of the UAE were recognised, they had all been drawn up around the traditional and ancestral tribal boundaries.

    The UAE may not fall into the ideal western democratic model for building a new Iraq, but it’s possibly the most stable country in the region and one that was amenable enough to the Western position that it sided the allies in the 1991 Gulf War. Given that in many arab countries the life of the average citizen revolves entirely around his or her local sheikh, it would be more pragmatic to recognise that and work with it than attempt to enforce an artificial construct.

  • Theo

    “the only difference being that no one ever expected Germany to build a single nation state and common identity in partnership with France and Poland”

    Hmm, but it can be done -the EU is a step in that direction- it just took a mere fifty years.

  • Unity

    “but it can be done -the EU is a step in that direction- it just took a mere fifty years”

    But under an entirely different set of conditions – the Marshall Plan and, subsequently the EU, was a very different response to the risk of further German aggression than the Treaty of Versailles. The former supported the reconstruction of the German nation state (within the limits of it being partitioned and the creation of East Germany), the latter sought to limit it.

    Your reference to the EU is, however, extremely pertinent, for reasons I’ll develop in an another post on this general subject.

  • Given the three territorial/ethnic/divisions you mention in your article, it would seem possible that a very loose federal republic might be possible, in which the federal apparatus deals with external security and other issues, and oversees the continuing constitutionality of the government of each of the three regions.

    The model for this might be the Swiss Confederation, or the modern EU. In the “EU model”, the federation would encompass currency, regional aid, defence, freedom of movement, and very limited legislation. The legislation would probably be passed in a similar manner to the EU – a federal parliament and council of regional governments – to accommodate the possibly of differing legal traditions including different commercial traditions. For example, one of the regions might want to allow proper debt structures, while the federal apparatus might be able to standardise sharia-compliant secured debt/equity hybrid arrangements such as sukkuks. They might find things easier than the EU because the EU has to harmonise what is already different; by contrast, the federated entities of our fantasy Iraq (and do be assured that this is almost pure fantasy) might start out with single a commercial code, and other codes of laws, with the freedom to adapt them to a large degree individually, as well as the ability to amend the parts that they want to remain uniform.