War in Iraq: Karbala - a gap in understanding                                                                                    Posted 11th May 2013

The "liberation" of Iraq continues to develop strange connotations, like a word that doesn't translate too well into Arabic.  Early in April, American marines were puzzled by how easily they could pass through the Karbala Gap without significant resistance.  Late in April, up to two million Shi’a Muslims marched on a holy pilgrimage through Karbala, probably spilling more blood in a peaceful demonstration than was spilled in the military advance through the Gap.  Many of the pilgrims were cutting their heads with swords to commemorate the martyrdom of one of their most revered figures, the Prophet Mohammed's grandson Hussein.  He died in the seventh century of the Christian era.

The reason for the ease of the American advance becomes clearer.  The Shi'ites will shed their blood on their own terms, which relate more to the seventh century than they do to the 21st.  Let the coalition forces do what they think they're doing.  The Shi’a Muslims will march behind them and transform a coalition victory into one of their own.  Their banners said: "Bush Saddam" and "Down USA" and "no to America, no to Israel, yes to Islam".  Kathem al-Nasiri, a cleric who was among them, said: "We want to establish an Islamic Shi'ite state, the same as what happened in Iran."

Lt General David McKiernan, commander of US ground forces in Iraq, said: "This is probably a little bit of democracy in process right now here in Iraq."  Jay Garner, the retired American general in charge of the reconstruction of Iraq, said: "I think things have gone incredibly fast and I think they've gone a lot better than has been portrayed."  This is like no expression of democracy I have seen before.  If this is better, somebody tell me what worse would be in relation to what the coalition thought they were achieving.

The Shi'a Muslims are a majority in Iraq.  In his book Millennium, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto wrote: "In Sunni, as in Protestantism, a written revelation, a Book, is sufficient channel of communication.  In Shiah, as in Catholicism, a human agent is interposed: the Imam, ‘specially chosen by Allah as bearer of a part of the divine being’.  Yet, whereas in Christendom the book-venerators have splintered uncontrollably into innumerable sects, while the priest-venerators have stuck together, in Islam Sunni has remained a well disciplined and homogeneous faith, while Shiah has been fissile, riven by charismatic claimants, messianic movements and subversive secessions."

Welcome to the new Iraq, where yesterday's clumsily simple intention can turn into today's nightmare of complexity.  This is hardly surprising.  What is surprising is that America and Britain don't seem to have foreseen with any kind of clarity the enormity of the problems the arrogance of their mission would create.  They doorstepped a culture and forced their way in, like pushy Hoover salesmen who haven't bothered to establish if the residents have carpets.  You want what we have to sell, they told Iraq: democracy. Perhaps they should have done more research into the market potential for their product in Islam.

Democracy as it is understood in the west has never gone over big in Islam. The proof of this is in history.  The reasons for it are implicit in the faith itself.  Islam is an autocratic religion, descending indivisibly from the prophet.  From its beginnings it has tended to make no clear distinction between government and religion.  It has no equivalent for one of Christianity's central tenets: "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things which are God's."  Caesar, who he?  In Islam all things are God's.

Yet it is surely out of the existential dialogue across that gap between the religious and the secular that western democracy was born.  It was a slow gestation.  The early autocratic tendencies of the church were modified bythe demands of the state.  The direction of the state was influenced by the persistent presence of the church.  In the course of this long troublesome marriage the authority of religion has yielded more and more space to the secular rights of the individual.

This continuous modification of the significance of the faith, cutting it like a cloth to suit the changing philosophy of the times, has never happened in Islam.  The Prophet's word is final.  The Islamic world-view was completed by the time he died. Hence, the ability of the Shi’a Muslims in Karbala to relate with dramatic directness to the seventh century.

Western democracy has grown slowly out of western thought.  Before there was the democratic state there was the democratic state of mind.  Such a history of contentious secular thought is not central to the traditions of Islam. One illustration of the different ways in which the two cultures have developed lies in their attitudes to the book.

Islam could claim to be the basis of a literate and cultured society when Europe was still struggling out of the Dark Ages but its culture was never a challenge to its origins in the Koran, more a fulfilment of them.  With the arrival of the printing press, Europeans did become in a profound sense the People of the Book. What Gutenberg was really printing was access to independent thought.  Subversive ideas had found a way to travel everywhere and lodge secretly in people's minds. The Bible would become one book among many.

The Koran has never lost its absolute primacy in Islam.  Most other books will simply extend its significance or embellish it.  Literature as an independent examination of individual lives and inner feelings, as it has been used in the West, has no long tradition in Muslim culture. Novels, for example, hardly appear in Arabic literature before the 20th century.  Autobiography is almost unknown.  The secular curiosity about other ways of life which has been one characteristic of western literature finds a very faint echo in Islam.  A report on Arab Human Development published under the auspices of the United Nations in 2002 estimates that the number of books translated into Arabic since the 9th century is about 100,000 - "almost the average that Spain translates in one year".

Given all of these circumstances, I would still suggest that the invasion of Iraq, nominally successful or not, remains a desperately ill-advised venture.  Whether or not you believe that democracy is such a wonderful modern convenience that every country should have one is not the point here.  The point is that it cannot be effectively achieved this way: by gate-crashing an ancient culture and briskly rearranging the political furniture to make it look more like your place.

No wonder that progress through the Karbala Gap seemed easy.  It was obviously part of a cultural ambush, one which has left the belligerent crassness of two western powers completely surrounded by problems they hadn't the humility to foresee.

  e-mail: william.mcilvanney@personaldispatches.com                                                                    © William McIlvanney