The Republics of Fear

Sunday 14 November 2010
By Adel Al Toraifi

In the late 1980s, an Iraqi author, writing under a pseudonym, published a book entitled “Republic of Fear”, which focussed on the reign of the Baath regime in Iraq. The author used an alias for fear of reprisals from Sadam Hussein’s intelligence forces. The Iraqi leader had just ended an eight-year war with Iran, and was boasting of victory in a delusional manner.
A few months after the book was published, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and his radical regime encountered opposition from international troops. Yet, instead of ousting the dictator leader by force, international efforts were limited to accepting his withdrawal, and imposing international sanctions.
Author Kanan Makiya republished his significant book in 1998, but this time under his real name, at a time when the US and British governments were considering a military strike, in response to the violations of Saddam Hussein’s regime. At the time, war did not materialize, yet five years later, the George W. Bush administration decided to carry out military operations, thus invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. As time passed, the invasion transformed into one of the bloodiest phases in the history of Iraq, with unprecedented violence based on sect, race, and secret intelligence, in a country that was ruled with an iron fist for over four decades.
During the past few years, there have been incidents of murder, assassination and bombings in every location. Iraq has turned into a republic of fear, perhaps more so than during the Hussein era. In the 1980s, the regime could sentence any of its opponents to exile, along with his family and even his entire neighbourhood, if he escaped from the capture of the security apparatus. Yet today innocent civilians disappear, or die in mass bombings, on a scale that has not been witnessed throughout history. It is true that suicide bombings take place in Western, Arab and Muslim countries, yet this is nothing compared to what happens in an endless cycle in Iraq.
Last week, a terrorist group committed a massacre against Iraqi Christians, and before the victims’ blood had dried, further bombings occurred amongst civilians, in districts with a Shiite majority. This news is sad and tragic, and if you look at a number of countries in the region, you would see that the expansion of terrorist organizations, in every Arab and Muslim country, is beyond imagination. Nevertheless, Arab officials still cast doubt, in the statements they issue, about the role of Islamic extremism, or they tend to attribute what is happening to foreign conspiracies, as was the case in Yemen recently.
From the 1960s until the late 1980s, Arab and Western intellectuals and writers used to believe that the region’s problem with terrorism and violence was down to leadership, and certain ruling regimes. They believed that if Arab regimes were fairer and more peaceful, and ultimately more democratic, then their states would not have transformed into republics of fear. This interpretation is somewhat correct, but it is incomplete. The Iraqi model serves as proof that the problem does not lie in a lack of democracy, but rather in a deeper illness within these societies, causing them to turn towards uncontrolled violence. There are crises of identity, religion, and values, which are deeply rooted within these societies. Without confronting such crises, it would be impossible to break this vicious circle of mindless violence.
Politicians in our region refuse to face this truth, either because they seek to avoid the cost of recognizing and rectifying such crises, or because they are also unable to comprehend them, due to the fact that their perception of the world is a direct result of their social upbringing. Who can face his society and tell them that the identity they assume is not consistent with the modern world, or admit to them that their conception of religion, and the way they practice it, leads inevitably to extremism and violence. Who could tell their society that the values which they pride themselves upon are in fact a barrier, hindering their acceptance of basic contemporary principles such as human rights?
Left-wing intellectuals have argued extensively that a regime like that of the Islamic Republic [of Iran] is democratically superior to its Arab neighbours, because it holds periodical elections, and has institutions that provide public representation. Yet the truth of the matter is that Iran is no different from other regimes in the region, even the previous Iraqi regime.
In an article entitled “Iran: the Fear Republic”, published by the Guardian newspaper on 21 January, 2010, Iranian scholar Mahdi Khalaji says: ” Iran’s clerical regime governs by a simple formula: he who is the most frightening, wins. ‘Victory by terrifying’ is a trope that is present in many of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s speeches. Indeed, it is a reliable guide to his political philosophy.” Khalaji is right, as some countries in the region govern in accordance with the principle of fear. We may also add that extremist organizations also adopt such similar policy, though in a more criminal manner, as the promotion of fear is a fundamental terrorist goal. Oppressive regimes use fear as a tool to tighten the grip on their own security, whereas Islamic extremist groups use terrorism to illustrate their presence, and as a means of ‘salvation’ for their sick-minded followers.
However, it is crucially important to recognize the fact that the crisis does not lie in ruling regimes only, but first and foremost within society. In his distinguished analysis of the Iranian Revolution, Said Arjomand indicates that the Iranian Revolution was never a revolution of ideas – in the manner of the French or American revolutions – but was a public protest incited by a variety of reasons, some of which were contradictory. He argues that the Iranian Revolution could have been suppressed had the Shah not been ill and weak, and refused to confront it by force.
Arjomand emphasizes that the fall of the Shah led to the revolutionary forces assuming power, and that this fall also led to the dissolution of institutions, relating to the state and the army.
Following a struggle between different groups, causing demonstrations and violence, the Mullahs achieved victory by force, and through adopting a policy of religious intimidation. According to Arjomand, the nation subsequently suffered a state of confusion and dispersion, and did not know what it wanted. (The Turban for the Crown, 1988)
Such a state of dispersion and loss was observed by author Kanan Makiya, who recently commented on the current Iraqi situation. In the interview he gave to Asharq al-Awsat on 18 March 2010, Makiya said “We have not solved this problem. I am not talking about our generation, your generation, or my father’s. Rather we are talking about the current generation which operates in the Iraqi political arena, namely the entire political layer that has emerged since 2003. This is a new layer in Iraqi politics, where the old spectrum of politicians has been replaced by a new one, with new faces and characteristics as a result. There are exceptions, but what they share in common is that they do not know what they want; they are not self-confident.”
Societies in the Middle East are experiencing the same problem, for they do not know what they want, and are experiencing a state of dispersion and loss. It is natural that a conflict of identities, religions, and values, would eventually lead to a fierce clash. There are regimes of fear, and societies of fear. Inside each there are those who intimidate, and those who are intimidated. Even history and culture, to which one may resort, are also based on fear and intimidation. As we witness all this happening, some people wonder: where did all this devastating fear come from?

About altoraifi
Al Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla, the leading Arab magazine. A specialist on Saudi foreign policy, he is recognized as a commentator and participant in televised programs for CNN, NBC, BBC and Al-Arabia TV. Awarded the post-graduate International Conflict Prize 2008 from Kingston University for outstanding work, Mr Al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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