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A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Historical Drivers of Modern Day Developments in Iraq (Juan Cole Interview)

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Another good explanatory piece, this time on Iraq, via an interview with Juan Cole:

Bassam Haddad, a prominent Syria specialist at George Mason University, interviewed me this fall for the new web radio program Status Hour , on the Middle East. Do check out the range of important interviews already up at the site.

My own audio interview is here. For those who like to read, I am mirroring below the transcript kindly made by Zachary Cuyler at Status Hour. . .

Bassam Haddad (BH): Good afternoon. We have with us here Professor Juan Cole, who has been able to give us some time during his lecture tour—which seems to be consistent and constant. We would like to ask Professor Cole about a few things that are happening now in the media and in the region, starting with the question that is on everyone’s mind, and that is: What is happening in the region right now, in terms of the basic drivers—what would you consider are some of the basic drivers that are producing the outcomes we are all watching on television and listening to on the radio, and so on?

Juan Cole (JC): The post-war governments of the Middle East tended to be Arab nationalist governments. They were deeply influenced by the Soviet model, even though they were not communist regimes, but they called themselves socialist. There were enormous state sectors, public sectors. You know, it was not to the extent of the East[ern] bloc. A place like Hungary probably was ninety-five percent state-owned, the economy. Egypt was probably half, Syria more. In comparison, Nehru’s socialist India was never more than twenty-five percent of the economy, [the] public sector.

So these were socialist states, and their premise was that the colonial powers and often indigenous rulers in cahoots with the colonial powers had produced extremely unequal societies, and had produced societies that were not characterized by healthy social statistics. They were largely rural, villages, they were largely illiterate, the countries lacked infrastructure, they lacked very much in the way of factory production. They were still, for the most part, agricultural and dependent on primary commodities. And these post-war, anti-colonial, anti-imperial states attempted to bring their populations forward. They established mixed school systems, they established high schools, universities, and they really did succeed in making most of the population, at least of the younger generation, at least literate.

And then they did state-led industrialization: they committed resources to making sure that there were factories producing things, substituting those locally-made commodities for international imports.

And then the 1990s came, and the Soviet model collapsed, and Soviet patronage disappeared, and enormous pressure was applied by Washington, London, and Paris on the states of the Middle East to privatize their economies and reduce the size of their public sectors. And in the process of privatizing, new billionaires were created, so it was a little bit like the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the oligarchs in Russia. And neoliberal policies where market mechanisms were instituted, started to substitute for some of the public sector enterprises. But, as we know from Eastern Europe, there are right and wrong ways to privatize, and in the Middle East the state elites engaged in insider trading, they used their advantages to create crony billionaire classes, and because the state elites were not representative. Typically, they were what is called in the Middle East a shillah, or a clique. The inequalities that grew through the 1990s and 2000s excluded often the majority of people living in the country, and those inequalities—regional, ethnic, sectarian, and so forth—they hurt people, they hurt the ability of young people to get jobs, their futures seemed blocked. So you had a lot of regional protest, a lot of labor protest, and what seemed as though they were sectarian protests. But I am arguing that sectarianism was really invoked as a way of objecting to the concentration of wealth in a few hands of a particular social group.

BH: Thank you. Surely, this is not what you would hear in mainstream circles, whether media or academia, sometimes, regarding these political economy factors that are drivers. How do you think someone might respond to this and say, no, this is strictly a cultural issue and what you’re saying is some [. . . sentence ends]. They might even say some Marxist, leftist jargon from a time gone by.

JC: If it is cultural, the culture hasn’t changed that much, so why were these ethnic and sectarian conflicts not big in the 1950s and 1960s? If you go back and read the US State Department cables about a place like Iraq, Shi’i Islam almost doesn’t appear. And concerns about instability owing the Sunni-Shi’i conflict is almost completely absent from those cables of the 1960s and 1970s. The big concern is the strength of the communist movement, the ways in which there were conflicts between poor peasants and big landowners. Now, it may be that sometimes the poor peasants were Shi’a and the big landowners were Sunnis, but that was not ethnicity that they were fighting about, it was the distribution of land and wealth. We saw in Iraq in the 1950s enormous numbers of landless laborers had grown up and maybe 2-3,000 families owned the lion’s share of the good land in Iraq. So the big conflicts were over political economy and I think that has continued.

But whereas in the 1960s and 1970s, it was unusual for those conflicts to be reworked into sectarian or other kinds of primordial identity conflicts, over time this became a fruitful tactic for entrepreneurial politicians. Once you have two groups that are fighting over distribution of material goods—for jobs and resources—it becomes an advantage for politicians if they can mobilize one of the groups against the other on identity grounds.

I think the reason that political economy is not taken into account is that you have to know something fairly serious about economics to understand it, you have to know something serious about the history of these societies in the last fifty years. And, frankly, a lot of our journalists are not trained either in economics or history, or certainly of this region.

And so what is easiest is to fasten upon surface characteristics, though we have the trope of the age-old hatreds. They did this in the Balkans when the Croats and the Bosnians started fighting with each other in the 1990s and the journalists in the United States often attributed it to age-old ethnic hatreds. But the fact is that there is very little difference among the languages. Serbo-Croatian is basically a single language and the big difference among them was religion—the Croats were Catholic and the Bosnians [Muslim] and the Serbs are Eastern Orthodox but almost nobody practices religion so that cannot possibly have been very important. And, in fact, if you look at the history of that region, there was some trouble in the mid-19th century, but for the last hundred years or so, there really had not been much in the way of ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia. So there is a tendency to essentialize, to see primordial identities as somehow eternal, unchanging, and then as productive of constant conflict, whereas none of those things is true. So I think there is a lack of attention to history, to the fluidity of identity over time. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 November 2014 at 8:53 am

Posted in Iraq War

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