Saturday, April 08, 2006

Nation-building in Iraq

'Whatever it may ‘be’ or have been in Europe, nationalism in a [postcolonial] context, has always been the language in which the power struggle between coloniser and colonised for domination or self-determination operated, functioning as a concept through which a cluster of specific issues and grievances were brought together and politicised. As long as the power structure is there, you can put anything into it that you like (such as the variable constituent elements of nationalism). That power structure, however,...was rarely a simple binary. The colonial power may have been relatively coherent…but anti-colonial opposition was typically fragmented and various, and came from different quarters and classes that were in turn often competing with or opposed to each other. The key issue was therefore to push the struggle to such a pitch that lesser differences would be set aside in the cause of the greater difference...The solidarity of that revolutionary moment before independence would then subsequently move on to the other power struggles of any society’s political life. To women’s liberation, for example. Or to socialism.'

- Robert Young, Postcolonialism: an historical introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001) - which by the way is a brilliant 500 page romp through postcolonialism and the latest in a spree of yummy purchases.

This just provoked lots of thoughts. Nations are 'built', to the extent that they are, in the solidarity of that revolutionary moment, when it looks like the imperialist invader will never be pushed out unless everyone sets aside their differences and puts up a common front. In the case of Iraq, that moment has passed - or never came. There was a brief moment of Shia-Sunni cooperation, but now that everyone knows that the Americans will leave - are dying to leave (mid-term elections and all) - politics in Iraq has already moved into the postcolonial phase without any shared sense of national identity having been forged between different groups. (This is strongly suggested by the fact that virtually all the violence now is Iraqi-on-Iraqi, while occupier-casualties have fallen to an all time low.) Paradoxically, if the Americans had postured as if they were staying indefinitely, a much stronger and more coherent sense of Iraqi national identity might have developed (though in opposition to the occupiers obviously) and that might have given the country a shared foundation of some sort on which different factions could have competed for power/resources - i.e. politics as usual could have taken place.

What this means for US foreign policy should be clear enough. Historically, the most successful way to build a nation from the outside, has been to make them hate you. A lot.

Nations are 'built', to the extent that they are, in the solidarity of that revolutionary moment...

that, or they're built/rebuilt/reinforced against a percieved internal threat to the nation from within, in the aftermath, with a potentially narrower definiton of the national community & what it means to belong to it. Not sure if Turkish nationalism can be properly categorised as "postcolonial" (though it does share a lot of the dynamics, in the sense that the central birth-of-the-nation narrative is that ofthe 'war of liberation' against the Entente/Greek occupation, and in the sense that today it is still fueled by a strong paranoia about outside attempts to occupy/dismember the nation). But after the liberation struggle itself ended, you see this increasing discourse of threats from within: minorities must be assimilated or expelled, and it's in opposition to their presence that the 'nation' must unite.

c.f. also hindutva, I guess. I think you're right that Iraq's on a different path. had it not been for the (sunni) insurgency, I imagine a more general Arab-Islamic Iraqi nationalism (posited in opposition to both the occupation and the Kurds, in their own right as well as 'clients' of the US) might have emerged.

ps: i envy your book-buying spree. although i will no doubt reap the benefits in months to come.
also you should really read this Anthony Shadid book, esp. for the description about how the language of perception of the US presence in Iraq changed very early on, to a vocabulary based on the metaphor of Palestine. Helped along by the fact that the US itself used the word 'ihtilal', not realising that the word has hella bad connotations (british in iraq, israel in palestine) in arabic popular discourse.
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