Sunni radicals hit Baghdad Tuesday morning on the anniversary of the beginning of the US war on Iraq, killing over 50 people in attacks on soft targets (shopkeepers, pedestrians) in Shiite areas of the capital. They were signaling their continued die-hard opposition to the new Iraq, which is dominated by Shiite political parties, in which Sunnis have been deeply disadvantaged. In recent months, massive crowds in Falluja, Ramadi, Mosul and other largely Sunni cities have staged an Iraqi spring protest, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom they accuse of neglecting their interests and continuing to make large numbers of arbitrary arrests of their sons.
The US public was always carefully protected by its media from full knowledge of what the US government did to Iraq. The networks had a rule, of never showing blood. They almost never showed wounded Iraqis with bloody bandages. Of course, they never showed dismemberment (bodies blown up, unlike in Hollywood movies, don’t just pile up whole). Since Arabic satellite t.v. showed such images every day, the Arab world and the US saw two different wars on their screens. US media almost never interviewed Iraqi politicians (magazine shows like 60 Minutes very occasionally took up that task). Frequently, Pentagon talking points were swallowed whole. Propaganda about ‘al-Qaeda’ and Zarqawi being responsible for “80%” of the violence was used to hide from Americans that there were both Sunni and Shiite resistance movements against American occupation, and that they were Iraqis and widespread.
Many excellent reporters risked their lives to get compelling stories from American-occupied Iraq, but often appear to have faced resistance from editors back in the US. It was to the point that when I wrote one of my all-time most read pieces, “If America were like Iraq, what would it be like?” readers told me that it came as a revelation because it gave them a sense of proportion.
The US created a power vacuum and exercised a pro-Shiite favoritism in Iraq that fostered a Sunni-Shiite civil war. At its height in 2006-2007, as many as 3,000 Iraqis were being killed a month by militias. Many showed signs of acid or drilling or electrical torture. The Baghdad police had to establish a corpse patrol in the morning to collect the cadavers. How many Iraqis died as a result of the US invasion and occupation will never be known with any precision, but I think 200,000 would be the lower minimum. Since three to four times as many people are typically wounded as killed in conflict situations, that would suggest that as many as one million Iraqis were killed or wounded, some 4% of the population.
The US rounded up some 25,000 Iraqis at the height of the conflict, and their Shiite Iraqi government allies held another 25,000. The vast majority were Sunni Arabs. This 50,000 were in a vast gulag at any one time, but tens of thousands circulated through this system. Many were arbitrarily arrested, for simply being young men in the general vicinity of a bombing or other guerrilla activity. Very large numbers were tortured. US troops sometimes committed excesses. One national guard unit was known for laying down suppressive fire whenever a bomb went off in their vicinity. This tactic ensured that they killed Iraqi pedestrians after a market bombing. US troops sometimes shot drivers who did not know English and could not understand commands to slow down at checkpoints. How widespread actual atrocities were is always difficult to gauge in the fog of war. There were atrocities committed by US troops.
At the height of the conflict probably some 2.5 million Iraqis were displaced from their homes, fleeing elsewhere in the country. I’d now revise down the estimates of those displaced abroad, but likely there were at least half a million of them, and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimated them as more like 1.5 million. Many of these 3-4 milliion people, some 1/6 of the population, are still displaced and permanently lost their property, suffering a decline into poverty. Proportionally, it would be like 50 million Americans being forced out of their homes to take refuge in tents and slums elsewhere in the country or in Mexico or Canada.
The US destroyed the Iraqi state. It dissolved the army. It is not true as Bush apologists say, that the army was anyway gone. If they had offered soldiers money to show up at their barracks and report to their sergeants, they would have, for the most part. It still is unclear who exactly got rid of the Iraqi army and why. Jay Garner, the first proposed US viceroy in Iraq, suggested that the Bush administration was afraid that a Baathist army devoted to socialism and a strong state would get in the way of their plans for an Eastern European style “shock therapy” in the country. (One of the many motivations for the invasion of Iraq was to further destroy the socialist model for global south economies). Of course, some elite units were heavily Sunni Arab, but they could have been integrated. Instead, they were fired and sent home (it was even threatened that they would not even get pensions). Some of them joined the guerrilla resistance.
The US also destroyed the public sector, dissolving state-owned companies and creating massive unemployment, especially in Sunni provinces such as al-Anbar, which naturally emerged as among the most violent centers of resistance.
Most damaging of all, the US backed the ‘debaathification’ program championed by Shiite politicians like Ahmad Chalabi, which actually involved firing some 100,000 Sunnis from government jobs (even, often, fairly low-level ones) and then giving those jobs to members of the Shiite parties that were coming to power. As late as 2010, the debaathification commission was trying to interfere in the parliamentary elections. This massive piece of social engineering did more than anything to fan the still-burning flames of sectarianism, since it awarded material benefits on the basis of ethnic and sectarian identity. You can’t do much about your ethnic and sectarian identity. If you were punished for belonging to a party, you could change parties. But the Sunnis in particular weren’t allowed to escape their former political history (many Shiites who had been Baath Party members escaped punishment). If you’re punished for being who you are, and it is signaled that that will go on forever, then you might be tempted to turn to violence.
The vaunted ‘sons of Iraq’ or ‘awakening councils’ program that the US adopted from late 2006 involved organizing what were essentially pro-American Sunni militias to fight radical Sunnis. The Shiite government did not want these some 100,000 armed Sunnis left behind as a problem. It declined to give most of them employment as the Americans withdrew. It actually prosecuted some of them for their former guerrilla activities (before they switched teams and joined the awakening councils). Not only were they often left unemployed, but they no longer had the command of military force to protect themselves from reprisals by the radicals.
The political system the US imposed on Iraq is a one-chamber parliamentary system. It has been demonstrated by political scientists in societies with a structural minority, this system virtually guarantees frustration and violence (Sunni Arabs are probably like 18% of the population, Shiites 60%, with the rest Kurds, Turkmen and a dwindling number of Christians). Assuming Shiites can get their act together (not a foregone conclusion), they can always dominate the government. The prime minister in Iraq faces few de facto checks on power, assuming he or she can avoid a vote of no confidence. PM Nouri al-Maliki stands accused by his rivals of making the military and security forces his personal fiefdom and using them for his own purposes.
Iraq’s broken political system has what is more or less a permanent hung parliament, since the Sunnis, Kurds and two major Shiite factions can never for very long unite behind a particular prime minister. There is no relief from this political gridlock on the horizon.
The US actually stole billions from Iraqi petroleum receipts, which is illegal in international law, using it to badly administer the country and possibly just embezzling large amounts of it. More billions of US taxpayer funds also went missing. Most reconstruction efforts were poorly suited to the local conditions and most of that effort and money were wasted. Iraq needs 14 gigawatts of electricity generation but has only 9 gigs (the government keeps promising that new plants will open this year). Much of the country lacks potable water and people are forced to drink sewage. Half of the country’s physicians were forced abroad in the last decade, and many Iraqis still have to seek medical care outside the country.
The war was illegal in international law. Since the US had no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq, likely there would have been an Iraqi spring in 2011 and the regime would have been prevented, as in Libya, by US air power from putting it down with military force. The regime would have been gone, but by the Iraqi people acting unitedly, instead of by a foreign imposition that championed one ethnic group over others. The outcome would surely have been more stable. The worst thing was, the whole nightmare was unnecessary.
As the tenth anniversary of the launching of the Iraq War approaches, I’ll be making some comments about the episode at this blog, which for the years 2003-2010 intensively covered events in Iraq. A decade is long enough for some things to become clear.
The first set of issues I want to discuss has to do with the harm the war did to the United States. Coming into 2003, the US enjoyed a great deal of sympathy and solidarity from the rest of the world (including Iran) over the al-Qaeda strikes of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the US was widely seen as an international bully. The hard-nosed realists of Washington, of course, don’t care how the country is perceived. But the poor opinion translated into an unwillingness to help out with the Iraq project, a project far too large for the United States to handle on its own. And no, El Salvador wasn’t able to help that much. Moreover, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, public discourse in the US moved toward greater decency. Some of that achievement was lost because of war propaganda against Arabs and Muslims.
1. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq harmed the US in bringing into question its basic competency as a world leader. Almost everything the US did in Iraq was a disaster. It could not even get the stated reason for the invasion right, as it turned out there was no nuclear, biological or chemical weapons program. It looked dishonest, bumbling. It went into the war having no plans, and the plans the Bush administration made on the fly were mostly poorly thought-out and doomed to fail. It fell into search and destroy as a tactic for counter-insurgency, with the same results as it had had in Vietnam– it caused resistance to swell. Billions were wasted on reconstruction projects that assumed Iraqi know-how and equipment that they did not have, and which could not therefore be maintained even if they were completed. The US tried to run in English an Arabic-speaking country that had been deliberately isolated and cut off from the world by sanctions, without any basic understanding of Iraqi culture, customs, beliefs or ways of life. The pro-Israel Neoconservatives high in the administration blackballed (as insufficiently pro-Israel) Arabists who volunteered to go help and left the Coalition Provisional Authority blind.
Basically, the world is always looking around for a team leader and a consulting group that is known for competence and for getting good results. After World War II, the US was for the most part that country. Being the world’s team leader turns into respect, cooperation and, ultimately, confidence and investment. If the US came to most of the world today with a group project, it likely couldn’t get the time of day from them. The United States is deeply diminished in world counsels.
2. The post-World War II generation wanted to erect an international order that would forever forestall Nazi-like aggression against neighbors on the part of world powers. The Greatest Generation therefore forged a UN charter that forbade aggressive war, allowing hostilities only if a country had been attacked or if the UN Security Council designated a country a danger to world order. Iraq did not attack the US in 2002 or early 2003. The UN Security Council declined to pass a resolution calling for war on Iraq, especially after the ridiculous circus act of then Secretary of State Colin Powell before the UN laying out a self-evidently false and propagandistic case (which provoked gales of laughter in the room). The United States has irrevocably undermined that structure of international law, and any aggressor can now appeal to Bush of 2003 as a precedent. Indian politicians of the right wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party instanced the Bush doctrine when they wanted to go to war with Pakistan. (Wiser heads prevailed, given that Pakistan has nuclear warheads). The US has loosed a demon into the world, of the war of choice.
3. The Iraq War revived al-Qaeda’s fortunes and prolonged its life as an important actor. With the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 and the scattering of al-Qaeda after Tora Bora, the movement was on the ropes. Internal critics lambasted Usama Bin Laden for destroying the movement by foolishly attacking the United States. But the brutal Bush occupation of Iraq and the US favoritism toward Shiites and Kurds created a Sunni Iraqi backlash. While most Sunni Iraqis were and are fairly secular-minded, a small minority gravitated to al-Qaeda as a model of resistance against the US, leading to the creation of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ and similar groups. The fringe of Libyans who attacked the US consulate in Benghazi last September included activists who had fought US troops in Iraq, and who otherwise would have lacked the training and motivation to hit the consulate. Iraqi al-Qaeda affiliates in turn have now fostered Jabhat al-Nusrah in northern Syria. Without the American occupation of Iraq, al-Qaeda would likely have dwindled into insignificance.
4. The US permanently lost its chance to achieve a two-state solution. The Clinton administration had come very close in 2000 to achieving a permanent solution to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Like the Clinton economy and budget surpluses, however, the Bush administration completely undermined its predecessor’s achievement. Distracted in Iraq, Washington dropped the ball on Palestine. Permanently. It allowed the Israelis vastly to increase the number of settlers on Palestinian land grabbed illegally in 1967. It undermined the elected Palestinian government of 2006 and subsequently collaborated in an evil and creepy blockade of the civilian population of Gaza. The slogan of the Neoconservatives, that the road to peace in Jerusalem lay through Baghdad, was either profoundly dishonest or profoundly stupid on their parts. It was in any case profoundly untrue. A deep gulf has opened between the US and all the other members of the UN Security Council on Israeli policy, as well as with the European Union. The US is widely hated by the rest of the world for daily getting up in the morning and screwing over millions of Palestinians. That its bizarre malice toward the displaced and oppressed Palestinians comes on top of the catastrophe it wrought on Iraq makes it look all the more monstrous to much of the globe. It is highly unlikely that Israel can survive for more than a few decades as an Apartheid state, which is what it became while the Bush team was obsessed with Baghdad.
5. The US, which once prosecuted Japanese generals for water-boarding, and which had laws against torture and against assassination, became an international symbol of torture pornography when some of the Abu Ghraib photographs of the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners were released. I talked to a US embassy official charged in the middle of the last decade with upbraiding Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov for his use of torture; the diplomat knew that Abu Ghraib had pulled the rug out from under him.
6. The motives of the US in attacking Iraq were presumed by the rest of the world to be getting that country’s petroleum on the world market. That the most powerful country in the world might just fall upon any victim it chose alarmed other nations and provoked their suspicions. China all of a sudden wanted an aircraft carrier group. Those already inclined to see the US as imperialist, like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, were were given proof they were right. Iran’s insistence on maintaining a nuclear enrichment program, even a non-military one, certainly has to do with the deterrent effect of nuclear latency (knowing how to quickly throw together a warhead). The Brazilian nuclear submarine program is aimed in part at protecting its natural resources from being summarily looted by Washington.
7. The long Iraq War did much more than the 9/11 attacks to promote Islamophobia and to make promoting hatred and fear of Muslims a common political tactic by American politicians, especially on the Right. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s had for decades succeeded in stigmatizing openly racist speech in public. TV and radio personalities have even had to resign for speaking in a prejudiced way. But after all those years fighting Muslims in Iraq, the US establishment has decided that it is all right to bring back the language of bias when speaking of Arabs and Muslims, thus debasing our American values, which proclaim that all men are created equal and all are endowed by their Creators with certain inalienable rights.
8. The Iraq War allowed Iran to rise as a regional power, so that a Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut political axis was created. This alignment is visible in the Syria conflict, with Iran and its allies attempting to prop up Syria’s ruling elite (which adheres to the Alawi sect of Shiite Islam). This Iranian geopolitical dominance exacerbated sectarian conflict throughout the region, with militant Sunnis striking back at ascendant Shiites, contributing to a destabilization of the region.
9. The financial cost of the Iraq War to the US will rise over time into the trillions. This cost derives in large part from the need to treat the thousands of Iraq War veterans who were injured by roadside bombs, and who have damaged limbs, spines and/or brains. Some 33,000 vets were injured seriously enough to go to hospital, a number seldom mentioned when the over 4,000 soldiers killed are eulogized. (Dead and wounded contractors are also seldom mentioned).
10. If the Iraqi government does ever manage to get its act together enough to produce substantially more petroleum, that will hurt green energy by lowering the cost of hydrocarbons, and so will contribute to ever more global warming. The US would have been much better off with high oil prices, encouraging consumers to move to electric vehicles powered by solar panels and wind. The oil men who plotted out the invasion of Iraq were attempting to put the price of oil back down to $14 a barrel, according to Rupert Murdoch. They failed, but whatever success they had is bad for the world.
A more upbeat treatment by the Associated Press turns out to depend on an old 2009 opinion poll, which isn’t exactly good social science. Wasn’t that like 4 years ago? And even then 20% of Iraqi youth wanted to emigrate, which AP thinks is an optimistic sign! (Young women are less likely in Arab society to want to live abroad than young men, and if the 2009 sample included both sexes, that would help account for the difference with the 2011 poll. But also, things just aren’t getting better with regard to the political and security situation and basic services, and two years of more despair will change the poll numbers.)
As we approach the ten year anniversary of the launching of George W. Bush’s war on Iraq, it is worth my pointing out that I concluded even before the war began that the main rationale then given for it, Iraq’s alleged nuclear weapons program, was a fiction. I was following the inspectors which Bush had briefly let into Iraq and then abruptly pulled back out in early March when they weren’t finding anything. And I was following Muhammad Elbaradei, then head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who looked into the Judith Miller NYT/ Bush administration allegation that Iraq had ordered centrifuges and aluminum tubes for nuclear purposes and found that these were unsuited to such a program. I pointed out that Bush had gained the authorization for the war under false pretenses.
The administration went on claiming that the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were there in Iraq somewhere for months after they had invaded the country and could inspect it further at will.
Bush apologists often later said that all the major Western intelligence agencies had come to the same conclusion about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. But in fact French military intelligence dissented, and most of the others were heavily dependent on the US for information. In any case, if I could come to this conclusion before the war based entirely on open sources, then intelligence analysts ought to have been able to.
“It appears to be the case that Iraq simply has no nuclear weapons program. Al-Baradei of the IAE[A] has swept the country with Geiger counters and cannot find evidence of such a thing. The program once employed 12,000 scientists, so it could not easily be hidden if it existed. The evidence given last summer and fall by US officials, including President Bush, included: 1) satellite photos showing expansion of buildings at a site once used for the program; 2) documents showing Iraqi purchases of uranium from Niger; 3) Iraqi purchase of aluminum tubing that might be used in centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium. Al-Baradei visited the buildings and found that they were now devoted to some other use and their expansion had nothing to do with nukes. The Niger documents were closely examined and found to be forgeries. The aluminum tubing has the wrong specifications for use in a centrifuge and was purchased for making conventional missiles. The case for an Iraqi WMD program in the nuclear area has thus now completely collapsed. Since it was the nukes that were truly scary (rightwing commentators kept saying Saddam might give a suitcase bomb to al-Qaeda, never a likely scenario), not botulism or mustard gas, one wonders if the Congress would have authorized the President to go to war if it had known there were no nukes. The Niger documents turn out to be clumsy forgeries, raising questions about whether Bush, Cheney and others who depended on them were attempting to deceive US public opinion and that of the world.”
I was there. And “there” was nowhere. And nowhere was the place to be if you wanted to see the signs of end times for the American Empire up close. It was the place to be if you wanted to see the madness — and oh yes, it was madness — not filtered through a complacent and sleepy media that made Washington’s war policy seem, if not sensible, at least sane and serious enough. I stood at Ground Zero of what was intended to be the new centerpiece for a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the invasion of Iraq turned out to be a joke. Not for the Iraqis, of course, and not for American soldiers, and not the ha-ha sort of joke either. And here’s the saddest truth of all: on March 20th as we mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion from hell, we still don’t get it. In case you want to jump to the punch line, though, it’s this: by invading Iraq, the U.S. did more to destabilize the Middle East than we could possibly have imagined at the time. And we — and so many others — will pay the price for it for a long, long time.
The Madness of King George
It’s easy to forget just how normal the madness looked back then. By 2009, when I arrived in Iraq, we were already at the last-gasp moment when it came to salvaging something from what may yet be seen as the single worst foreign policy decision in American history. It was then that, as a State Department officer assigned to lead two provincial reconstruction teams in eastern Iraq, I first walked into the chicken processing plant in the middle of nowhere.
By then, the U.S. “reconstruction” plan for that country was drowning in rivers of money foolishly spent. As the centerpiece for those American efforts — at least after Plan A, that our invading troops would be greeted with flowers and sweets as liberators, crashed and burned — we had managed to reconstruct nothing of significance. First conceived as a Marshall Plan for the New American Century, six long years later it had devolved into farce.
In my act of the play, the U.S. spent some $2.2 million dollars to build a huge facility in the boondocks. Ignoring the stark reality that Iraqis had raised and sold chickens locally for some 2,000 years, the U.S. decided to finance the construction of a central processing facility, have the Iraqis running the plant purchase local chickens, pluck them and slice them up with complex machinery brought in from Chicago, package the breasts and wings in plastic wrap, and then truck it all to local grocery stores. Perhaps it was the desert heat, but this made sense at the time, and the plan was supported by the Army, the State Department, and the White House.
Elegant in conception, at least to us, it failed to account for a few simple things, like a lack of regular electricity, or logistics systems to bring the chickens to and from the plant, or working capital, or… um… grocery stores. As a result, the gleaming $2.2 million plant processed no chickens. To use a few of the catchwords of that moment, it transformed nothing, empowered no one, stabilized and economically uplifted not a single Iraqi. It just sat there empty, dark, and unused in the middle of the desert. Like the chickens, we were plucked.
In keeping with the madness of the times, however, the simple fact that the plant failed to meet any of its real-world goals did not mean the project wasn’t a success. In fact, the factory was a hit with the U.S. media. After all, for every propaganda-driven visit to the plant, my group stocked the place with hastily purchased chickens, geared up the machinery, and put on a dog-and-pony, er, chicken-and-rooster, show.
In the dark humor of that moment, we christened the place the Potemkin Chicken Factory. In between media and VIP visits, it sat in the dark, only to rise with the rooster’s cry each morning some camera crew came out for a visit. Our factory was thus considered a great success. Robert Ford, then at the Baghdad Embassy and now America’s rugged shadow ambassador to Syria, said his visit was the best day out he enjoyed in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commanding all U.S. forces in Iraq, sent bloggers and camp followers to view the victory project. Some of the propaganda, which proclaimed that “teaching Iraqis methods to flourish on their own gives them the ability to provide their own stability without needing to rely on Americans,” is still online (including this charming image of American-Iraqi mentorship, a particular favorite of mine).
For them, the US is a 900 pound behemoth that can boss the world around with its high-tech military at will. Their foreign policy is to shoot first and ask questions later, to cowboy it all alone, to never have regrets and never question American supremacy. They believe in a civilizational hierarchy, with Americans at the top of it, and for some of them ‘Americans’ means white Americans.
They strongly supported the illegal US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and many opposed the 2011 US withdrawal from that country. McCain admitted that some of the pettiness toward Hagel derived from grudges over his break with George W. Bush: “There’s a lot of ill will toward Sen. Hagel because when he was a Republican, he attacked President Bush mercilessly, at one point said he was the worst president since Herbert Hoover, said the surge (of U.S. troops in Iraq) was the worst blunder since the Vietnam War, which is nonsense, and was anti-his own party and people.”
I think Herbert Hoover was a very fine president compared to George W. Bush, and so does McCain. That is, McCain privately agrees with Hagel on this issue, and is slamming him in part because he is guilty over his own inability to live up to his ideal of party loyalty. As for Bush’s war on Iraq, the crackpot notion that the entire enterprise was anything but an epochal failure that left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and millions displaced, and gave al-Qaeda a new lease on life, should be laughed out of the Senate.
Hagel’s ideas on foreign policy are pragmatic and cautious, and sane. The real reason that he had a hard ride in his confirmation was that the looney tunes Tea Partiers and Neoconservative dead-enders want to keep alive the insane options as long as they can, the dream of striding in camel boots and khaki through the halls of an abject Islamabad, the dream of reducing Iran to a less prosperous version of the Congo, the dream of erasing the Palestinians altogether, the dream of total and absolute global dominance.
Their sense of innate superiority makes them unable to look about a broken-down America, its treasury looted of trillions by crooked financiers, its 30,000 significantly wounded Iraq War veterans needing trillions in health care over the next decades, its bridges falling down, its school students illiterate in mathematics and science, its factory jobs shipped abroad by scheming corporations, its minorities increasingly denied the right to vote, and its industry spewing 5 billion metric tons of hothouse gases into the atmosphere annually, threatening to wipe out New Orleans and Manhattan with artificial sea level rises.
There is enough to do at home, without small men from small states dreaming of world conquest. Hagel knows this, and so they smeared him with their slime.
Pope Benedict XVI’s suprise announcement on Monday that he plans to resign at the end of this month marks a potential generational change in the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. His successor has an opportunity to revive the breakthroughs of the Second Vatican Council in promoting inter-religious dialogue, and repairing the Church’s troubled relationship with the Muslim world. Roman Catholics and Muslims live side by side in much of the world, and there are Roman Catholic orders and individuals who have devoted a great deal of time and energy to good relations between the two. One thinks of the White Fathers in Algeria, for instance.
Although he backed down on some of his positions, Pope Benedict roiled those relationships with needlessly provocative and sometimes offensive statements about Islam and Muslims. His Regensburg speech contained inaccuracies and tried to position the European Roman Catholic tradition as the golden mean between the soulless atheism of modern science and the backward fanaticism of Islam. He initially opposed Turkey’s entry into the European Union, imagining Europe as essentially Christian, though he later moderated that view a bit. (Europe was settled by human beings some 45,000 years ago; Christianity is only 2000 or so years old and until fairly recently Christians were a minority there. Lots of religions have been practiced by Europeans, and the majority of them nowadays is probably secular unbelievers.) Islam may have arrived a few centuries later than Christianity, but European Islam has a 1300-year history on the continent, and not a minor or inglorious one (the way European history is written and taught often leaves out the Muslims of Iberia and those of the Balkans, giving a truncated view of the continent’s religious diversity).
The address is more complex and subtle than the press on it represents. But let me just signal that what is most troubling of all is that the Pope gets several things about Islam wrong, just as a matter of fact.
He notes that the text he discusses, a polemic against Islam by a Byzantine emperor, cites Qur’an 2:256: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Benedict maintains that this is an early verse, when Muhammad was without power.
His allegation is incorrect. Surah 2 is a Medinan surah revealed when Muhammad was already established as the leader of the city of Yathrib (later known as Medina or “the city” of the Prophet). The pope imagines that a young Muhammad in Mecca before 622 (lacking power) permitted freedom of conscience, but later in life ordered that his religion be spread by the sword. But since Surah 2 is in fact from the Medina period when Muhammad was in power, that theory does not hold water.
In fact, the Qur’an at no point urges that religious faith be imposed on anyone by force. This is what it says about the religions:
‘ [2:62] Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians– any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. ‘
The idea of holy war or jihad (which is about defending the community or at most about establishing rule by Muslims, not about imposing the faith on individuals by force) is also not a Quranic doctrine. The doctrine was elaborated much later, on the Umayyad-Byzantine frontier, long after the Prophet’s death. In fact, in early Islam it was hard to join, and Christians who asked to become Muslim were routinely turned away. . . The pope was trying to make the point that coercion of conscience is incompatible with genuine, reasoned faith. He used Islam as a symbol of the coercive demand for unreasoned faith.
But he has been misled by the medieval polemic on which he depended.
In fact, the Quran also urges reasoned faith and also forbids coercion in religion. The only violence urged in the Quran is in self-defense of the Muslim community against the attempts of the pagan Meccans to wipe it out.
The pope says that in Islam, God is so transcendant that he is beyond reason and therefore cannot be expected to act reasonably. He contrasts this conception of God with that of the Gospel of John, where God is the Logos, the Reason inherent in the universe.
But there have been many schools of Islamic theology and philosophy. The Mu’tazilite school maintained exactly what the Pope is saying, that God must act in accordance with reason and the good as humans know them. The Mu’tazilite approach is still popular in Zaidism and in Twelver Shiism of the Iraqi and Iranian sort. The Ash’ari school, in contrast, insisted that God was beyond human reason and therefore could not be judged rationally. (I think the Pope would find that Tertullian and perhaps also John Calvin would be more sympathetic to this view within Christianity than he is).
As for the Quran, it constantly appeals to reason in knowing God, and in refuting idolatry and paganism, and asks, “do you not reason?” “do you not understand?” (a fala ta`qilun?)
Of course, Christianity itself has a long history of imposing coerced faith on people, including on pagans in the late Roman Empire, who were forcibly converted. And then there were the episodes of the Crusades.
Another irony is that reasoned, scholastic Christianity has an important heritage from Islam itself. In the 10th century, there was little scholasticism in Christian theology. The influence of Muslim thinkers such as Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) reemphasized the use of Aristotle and Plato in Christian theology. . . Finally, that Byzantine emperor that the Pope quoted, Manuel II? The Byzantines had been weakened by Latin predations during the fourth Crusade, so it was in a way Rome that had sought coercion first. And, he ended his days as a vassal of the Ottoman Empire.
The Pope was wrong on the facts. He should apologize to the Muslims and get better advisers on Christian-Muslim relations.”
Pope Benedict later said that Byzantine Emperor Manual II’s views of Muhammad and Islam were cited for illustration and were not his own.
“Pope: Manuel II’s Views of Muhammad are not My Own Muslim Brotherhood Optimistic about end of Crisis
Pope Benedict said on Sunday that the quote he had cited from Byzantine emperor Manuel II, which said that the Prophet Muhammd brought only evil and conversion by the sword, did not reflect his own views.
“I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims . . . These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought. I hope this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with mutual respect.”
Although there were protests in Iran and some scattered acts of violence, mostly in already-violent areas, this statement seemed to mollify some Muslim leaders.
A Muslim Brotherhood official in Egypt initially said that the statement was a clear retraction and sufficient as an apology, but apparently under popular pressure, he backed off that stance slightly, saying that the Pope hadn’t actually clearly apologized, though he had taken a good step toward an apology. But the Brotherhood clearly was looking for a way to defuse the crisis, and that it initially latched on to the Pope’s relatively impenitent remarks so eagerly, shows that it is eager to see things calmed down. The Egyptian MB thought the controversy was now likely to subside, and I hope they are right about that . . . ”
Another issue was Benedict’s views on Turkey in the European Union. I argued that Wikileaks showed a dramatic change in his position on this issue over time, toward neutrality and openness to the possibility. I wrote at the time:
The problem is that, while the article on this matter is clear and largely accurate, the headline: “Pope wanted Muslim Turkey kept out of EU” is grossly incorrect.
In 2004, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) spoke out against allowing Turkey to join the European Union. This position was not that of the Church as a whole. Indeed, a cable from that year says that “Acting Vatican Foreign Minister equivalent Monsignor Pietro Parolin told Charge August 18 that the Holy See remained open to Turkish EU membership.”
Contrary to what The Guardian implied, then, it seems clear to me that until he became pope, Ratzinger’s views on Turkey were not reflective of Vatican policy, and after he became Pope his stance changed dramatically in Turkey’s favor.
Ratzinger and others were, in 2004, attempting to have the European Union acknowledge the Christian roots of Europe, and they were afraid that Turkey’s accession might make that declaration less likely. (Since so much of European history (including all the Greek philosophers, Jewish thought on social justice, Irish and Norse mythology, the lives of the Roman emperors until the 4th century CE, not to mention the long centuries of Arab Spain and the Muslim-dominated Balkans) happened outside a Christian framework, this position seems to me invidious.
That the Vatican remained “open” to Turkish membership even after Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope is clear from a subsequent cable. The remaining reservations expressed by Vatican officials derived, at least as presented by Parolin, not from worries about the ancient Christian character of Europe, but concerns that Turkey’s human rights record needed to be reformed before it was admitted. From the Vatican’s point of view, Turkey’s Christians were badly mistreated, and their condition was just short of open persecution.
On becoming Pope, Benedict appears fairly rapidly to have changed his earlier hard line position, to the point that his nuanced neutrality on the issue of Turkish accession to the EU could be misunderstood by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodogan as wholehearted support. The “pope expressed his hope for ‘ “joint Christian and Muslim action on behalf of human rights” and emphasized his hope that Turkey would be a “bridge of friendship and of fraternal cooperation between the East and West.” ‘ By 2006, as well, the US was hopeful that Pope Benedict could be a positive force for Turkey integration into Europe.
Those hopes were not realized. Pope Benedict declared the Vatican officially neutral on the Turkey issue, since the Vatican is not an EU member state. The State Department cable speculated that “The Vatican might prefer to see Turkey develop a special relationship short of membership with the EU.” But if the Vatican was declining to push for this point of view and was actively neutral, this private wish is irrelevant in the world of diplomacy. If your official stance is neutrality, then that is your public position and others cannot abrogate it for you.
I see these cables as the evolution of Cardinal Ratzinger from a key Vatican official concerned with ideology to a pope aware of his global responsibilities, who backed off opposition to Turkey joining Europe and declared a studied neutrality on the issue even while admitting pros (Turkey could be an interlocutor for largely Christian Europe with the Muslim world) and cons (for Turkey to join without implementing religious freedom would endanger this key value for all EU states).
That is, my reading of the documents and the evolution of the Ratzinger position leads me to a conclusion precisely the opposite of the one implied by the Guardian’s headline. In fact, you only wish the Christian Right in the US was as capable of mature reflection on such issues and as willing to be pragmatic as this Pope.”
Pope Benedict clearly learned a great deal over time and moderated some of his initial, provocative stances. He thus established a trajectory toward, if not better, then less turbulent Roman Catholic-Muslim relations. His successor could usefully go further, back to the Vatican II spirit:
” The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”
I don’t think Pope Benedict began by agreeing with very much of the above, but over time he seems to have grudgingly accepted the wisdom of some of it. It is a passage that had a profound impact on me in my youth, and I hope the new pope revives this tradition of reformist theology. It is how the one billion Roman Catholics and 1.5 billion Muslims can hope to go forward together in the 21st century.