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.)
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).
The confirmation hearing in the Senate for Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, was painful to watch because it displayed the tomfoolery, pretense, self-righteous know-nothingism, and embarrassing lack of contact with reality that dominate the landscape of America’s broken democracy. It was like watching a Nebraska ordinary Joe set upon by circus freaks– a phalanx of moral midgets, stalking cat-men, vicious lobster boys and ethical werewolves.
Those who regretted that Hagel seldom stood his ground, often just deflected persnickety questions, and sometimes was made to recite the catechisms of Neoconservative orthodoxy, should remember that what is important in Washington is willingness to conform orally, regardless of what one actually believes or how one acts. Hagel might agree to look like he is being pushed around by his former colleagues, for the sake of their face and his. He won’t agree actually to be pushed around once he is in office.
At one point a caller called in from London with a rambling statement, who made an argument that there is a double standard, with the US and its allies free from international law on things like possessing and using nuclear weapons, whereas other countries are held to stricter standard. He said that this unequal application of the law was clear in that Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, had been convicted of war crimes in Darfur by the International Criminal Court, but Israeli leaders, who had committed war crimes against the Palestinians, had been held harmless. He went on rambling, complaining about alleged war crimes the Sri Lankan government committed against the Tamil Tigers, then the host asked him for a question and to finish up. When Hagel responded, he began by saying he agreed with the caller’s point. It is obvious to me that he was agreeing that there had been a double standard, and he later said it should be overcome with regard to nuclear disarmament by the US and Russia taking the lead to reduce stockpiles. The caller had a thick accent and it wasn’t even clear that Hagel understood everything he said in his rant, much less meant to agree with it. Is Cruz saying that Hagel was agreeing about Sri Lanka, too?
Cruz insisted that Hagel should have disagreed with the caller about Israel having committed war crimes, given that Jews were victims of war crimes. Cruz is a truly bright and energetic man, with a Princeton education, who clerked for Rehnquist. He knows very well that he is lying about Hagel. And he knows that Israel is guilty of plenty of war crimes. He managed to make Hagel deny this obvious fact, however. Cruz’s performance underlines the importance of Christian Zionism in reinforcing the crackpot conviction in the US senate that it is impossible ever to say anything slightly negative about Israeli policy (the only country in the world so exempted).
Ironically, Cruz’s implausible grandstanding occurred on the same day when, as the New York Times headline put it, “U.N. Panel Says Israeli Settlement Policy Violates Law ”
Ah, and then there is Lindsey Graham, the Red Queen of the Senate (who is the essence of the pedantic governess and asks through-the-looking-glass questions like: “Divide a loaf by a knife: what’s the answer to that?”).
The reason that was a dumb resolution is that terrorism is defined in the US civil code as the deployment of violence by a non-state actor against civilians for political purposes. Since the Revolutionary Guards are a kind of Iranian national guard, they are not a non-state actor. They are therefore not a terrorist organization. They may deploy terror, but it is state terror. (The senate also said they were terrorists because they were guilty of killing US troops in Iraq. First of all, there is no evidence that is true. Second of all, killing troops is not terrorism, it is an act of war). Graham’s position is illogical and makes a hash of any reasonable definition of terrorism.
Graham wants to pile on illogical charges against Iran and its institutions in order to force the US into a war on that country, which is 3 times more populous and much more geographically vast than Iraq. Because, like, Iraq went so well, I guess.
The irony, of course, is that Graham is himself part of the Israel lobby, and there he was intimidating Hagel for complaining about having been intimidated!
All the congressmen and senators know that the Israel lobby intimidates them or tries to, on a daily basis. Ernst Hollings complained, “you can’t have an Israeli policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here.” AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the de facto foreign agent of the Israeli government in the United States, which gets away with not having to register as such because it has bought off or intimidated Congress. 22-year Illinois veteran of congress Paul Findley has also complained about this. And, just read former AIPAC lobbyis M.J. Rosenberg regularly to get the inside scoop on how AIPAC pressures Congress, including against the president. As Graham knows, there is a whole book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt about the Israel lobbies, which will soon be supplemented by further publications documenting all the … intimidation. The Israel lobbies work by threatening to give money to a rival in the next primary or election. Since races in many districts are close, and since there is no wealthy, organized lobby for the Palestinians or Arabs, it is crazy for a US politician to risk AIPAC’s ire. AIPAC doesn’t always win, and recognizing its effectiveness as a lobby is not to buy into the bigotted notion of Jews secretly controlling Gentiles. In fact, denying that the Israel lobby exists is not only willful blindness, it is itself a form of anti-Semitism, since such a denial depicts Jews as inherently unlike Cubans, Armenians, Indians, Latinos and all the other ethnic groups that lobby Congress.
Senator John McCain then attacked Hagel for having predicted that the surge or troop escalation ordered by George W. Bush would be a huge mistake. The Iraq War was fought under false pretenses (that the Saddam Hussein regime was two years from having a nuclear weapon and had big stores of biological and chemical weapons, and that it was behind the 9/11 attacks and trained al-Qaeda in the use of chemical weapons– all of these pretexts for war being wretched, bald-faced lies). The Neocons promised McCain’s committee a short inexpensive war of $60 billion, over within 6 months. Instead it turned into a quagmire that cost thousands of American lives and some 33,000 badly injured veterans who lead diminished lives. McCain was a cheerleader for the war, then a skeptic, then a cheerleader, and now he has decided that the troop escalation was a success.
If the ‘surge’ was a success, it was a minor one in a vast and pockmarked terrain of abject failure. But there are plenty of reasons to question the David Petraeus narrative of a successful surge. In Baghdad, the horrible civil war that killed tens of thousands in 2006 gradually subsided through 2007 mainly because the Shiites ethnically cleansed Sunnis from mixed neighborhoods. The US troop escalation was complicit here because it disarmed the Sunni neighborhood militias first, exposing them to night-time attacks by the still-armed Mahdi Army and Badr Corps. I have talked to Iraq vets who were on the ground and saw this process unfold with their own eyes; they say everyone knew that was what was happening. The turning of Baghdad into a largely Shiite city, while it tamped down violence, could hardly be called a big success (it had been about 50/50 Sunni and Shiite in 2002 before the Americans came).
The big news from Iraq these days is precisely the continued discontent of Sunni Arab Iraqis, some of them (like the Abu Rishas) from families that had joined the Awakening Councils. They are demanding increased stipends for their service under Petraeus, demanding that hundreds of Sunni Arab youth arrested arbitrarily be released, demanding that the stigmatization of Sunni Arabs and the barring of them from public service be ended, and demanding that the pro-Iran, pro-Syrian, Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, step down.
So the “surge” didn’t account for the decline of violence in Baghdad, and its Awakening Councils created as many problems as they solved, and created expectations that continue to roil Iraqi politics and perhaps threaten a break-up of the country.
Sunni Arab tribes in Falluja (presumably branches of Dulaim) on Saturday demanded that the government turn over to them within 7 days the troops who fired on protesters on the outskirts of the western city of Falluja, killing 6 and wounding 19 on Friday. Otherwise, they say, they will declare jihad on government troops. The protesters came from a nearby village and were attempting to join a demonstration in downtown Falluja, but were blocked by an army road block. When the protesters began throwing stones and water bottles, and then advanced on a police care, attempting to set it ablaze, the troops began firing live ammunition, first in the air and then at the protesters. The army says that the protesters tries to set a police care afire.
The mistake of the al-Maliki government was to attempt to prevent people freely from coming to Falluja for a peaceful demonstration in the first place. A second error was to use troops who had automatic weapons and live ammunition, instead of riot police with rubber bullets.
The killings of unarmed protesters has worsened al-Maliki’s crisis. Protesters in Falluja say they will camp out in the city square until their demands are met, and similar protests and small tent cities are popping up in Ramadi, Baquba, Samarra and other Sunni Arab urban centers. Many of them are now saying that al-Maliki must step down, and that they will camp out until he does (thus echoing tactics deployed by Cairo protesters at Tahrir Square in 2011).
During the past few weeks, Sunni Arabs have been regularly demonstrating against the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Initially they were demanding the release of Sunni Arab youth who they assert were falsely arrested. They also wanted an end to ‘debaathification’ or the exclusion of members of the Baath Party from public office (Sunnis were disproportionately prominent in that party). Al-Maliki has released hundreds of prisoners, but has not reached out to leaders in the Sunni-dominated provinces in an attempt to bring them back into the Iraqi mainstream. Because there are also Sunni Arab guerrilla groups who engage in massive terrorism, the Shiite government of al-Maliki views the whole Sunni Arab population as dangerous and as perhaps running interference for the terrorists. (I suppose there is an analogy to the view the British took of Catholic neighborhoods in Northern Ireland during the troubles; but the British were better about trying to develop community policing methods).
It may be that al-Maliki’s support for Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad is among the grievances driving the prptesters to come out. Many Sunni Arabs in northers and western Iraq are supporting the Syrian rebels.
Many Sunni Arabs feel cheated because the Iraqi Party, which they largely backed, got the most votes in the 2010 parliamentary elections. But it was still a minority in a divided parliament and it was al-Maliki’s Islamic Mission (Da`wa) Party that was able to form the government by creating a coalition with more than 51 percent of the seats.
One of al-Maliki’s coalition partners in fall of 2010, the Sadr II Bloc of Muqtada al-Sadr, has withdrawn from his cabinet and denounced his government as dictatorial, and although it is strongly Shiite, it is supporting the Falluja demonstrators. Muqtada al-Sadr condemned the killing of the demonstrators, but called on them to pursue peaceful protest and to exercise self-restraint in their continued confrontation with the government.
theoretically, al-Maliki could, in accordance with the constitution, be removed from power by a parliamentary vote of no confidence. If he lost the backing of more Shiite groups and of the Kurds, his government could fall, which is what many Sunni Arabs are now seeking.
In speeches on Saturday, some in Falluja asked who the Iraqi army serves, implying that it has become a tool of Shiite Iran.
There are more Middle Eastern Christians than ever before, and they are poised between emergence as a new political force in a democratizing region and the dangers to them of fundamentalism and political repression. The arguments you see for Christian decline in the region are mostly wrong. If we count the Christians in the Arab world and along the northern Red Sea littoral (Egypt, the Levant, Iraq and the Horn of Africa to the borders of Ethiopia) they come to some 21 million, nearly the size of Australia and bigger than the Netherlands. (This figure does not count the large Christian expatriate populations in the Gulf emirates or Christians in Iran and Pakistan). They are important in their absolute numbers, which have grown dramatically in the past 60 years along with the populations of the countries in which they live. If the region moves to parliamentary forms of government, they may well be coveted swing voters, gaining a larger political role and louder voice than ever before.
In fact, despite all the hype about the rise of Islam in Europe, Muslims in that continent have on the whole much less potential influence than Christians in the Middle East. About 5% of the French electorate is Muslims, the largest proportion in Europe. But Christians are 10 percent of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and 22 percent of Lebanon. Even in Israel, they are 2 percent of the population, a little less than the percentage of contemporary Italy that is Muslim.
Among the biggest dangers to Middle Eastern Christians in 2012 were these:
1. Israeli occupation has made life in East Jerusalem and the West Bank increasingly unbearable, spurring emigration abroad of Palestinian Christians, who once made up 10 to 20 percent of the Palestinian population. Because they are Christians, these Palestinians may find it easier to get visas to the West.
2. The Syrian civil war has displaced or endangered many Syrian Christians, who make up between 10 and 14 percent of the 22-million strong Syrian population. At the upper estimates, there are as many as three million Syrian Christians. There are allegations that Christians have been targeted by hard line fundamentalist militias, but most probably suffer from the same difficulties other Syrians are facing.
3. Iraqi Christian expatriates in Syria are also in trouble. Before George W. Bush invaded Iraq, there were about 800,000 Christians in a population of 25 million, or 3 percent of the population. Some 400,000 are said to have emigrated, mainly to Syria (and about 10,000 to Lebanon), as refugees. But now many of those who went to Syria are returning to Iraq. Inside Iraq itself, some Christians say the situation has improved for them to the point that they are committed to staying in the country rather than emigrating.
4. The newly enacted fundamentalist constitution in Egypt and the power of the Muslim Brotherhood president, Muhammad Morsi, poses dangers to Egyptian Christians. It is alleged that hard line Salafis attempted to intimidate them from voting against the constitution in this month’s referendum. On the other hand, Egyptian Christians have clearly been invigorated by the new press and political freedoms in post-Mubarak Egypt, and are gaining an important set of political voices.
5. In the new country of South Sudan, Christians form between 10% and 50% of the 8 million population (the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church each claim about 2 million believers in that country. Christians in the region may thus have gained a great deal of influence in a whole new state. Earlier estimates from the mid-20th century of only 10% Christian are probably out of date and do not take account of the large number of conversions since then). The challenges here are enormous, though. The partition of Sudan has not in fact led to social peace between the two, with continued confrontation over oil exports and saber rattling. (Sudan is inarguably in the Middle East, and I have hung around with South Sudanese and was surprised how many spoke Bedouin Arabic).
6. Christians are about 60% of the 6 million-strong population of Eritrea. They are Coptic Orthodox, the same as most Egyptian Christians. (Eritrea is not usually counted in as being part of the Middle East, but it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire and has substantial cultural and political relations with Yemen and Saudi Arabia, so it is as eligible as Sudan and Somalia). Eritreans suffer under authoritarian government and continued tensions with Ethiopia.
Christians in Iraq and Syria have faced challenges (as have the entire populations of those two countries) in the past year. Christians in Egypt are alarmed by the new political muscle of the Muslim Brotherhood. It would be easy to construct a ‘vale of tears’ kind of narrative of Middle Eastern Christianity in decline, since the communities face political turmoil. It is often alleged that the proportion of Christians in the region has declined, though it is not clear that this allegation is true on a regional basis.
This argument from a declining proportion of the population does not take account of the region’s amazing population growth. It also makes analogies from the small nations of Lebanon and Palestine, which actually have an unusual demographic profile.
It is controversial what proportion of Egypt is Christian, but it is probably around 10 percent. A lot of Christians live in rural areas where census takers may not have gotten a complete count. Egypt’s population is 83 million, so that would give 8.3 million Christians. There is no reason to think that their proportion in Egypt has declined (in fact they may be somewhat higher a proportion now than in the 19th century).
Egypt’s population in 1950 was about 20 million, at which time there were 2 million Christians. Because Egyptian Christians are substantially rural, they appear to have shared in the high population growth rates typical of global south farmers in the second half of the 20th century.
Today’s Christian population in Egypt, some 8.3 million, is roughly the size of the whole country of Austria! Allegations that 100,000 Egyptians have emigrated since the revolution in February 2012, and that most of these are Christians, are not to my knowledge substantiated, and they seem exaggerated. Even if there was something to the assertion, it isn’t a big dent in a population of 8.3 million.
If we went back to 1850, in absolute terms the number of Christians in Egypt and the Levant was tiny. 500,000 in Egypt, 150,000 in Lebanon and Syria together, 35,000 in Palestine, perhaps 45,000 in Iraq. That is 730,000. So in absolute terms, Egypt alone now has more than 11 times as many Christians as lived in the central lands of the Middle East 162 years ago. How is that a decline?
The argument for decline is usually made from Lebanon, where Christians were a bare majority in 1931, but are now something like 22%. But Lebanon’s population was about 800,000 in 1931, so Christians were 408,000. Lebanon’s population is now 5 million, and Christians inside the country are about 1.1 million. So with all the vast Christian Lebanese emigration abroad, to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, the United States, Mexico, etc. (with perhaps 6 million Lebanese-descended people in the New World), there are still twice as many Christians in Lebanon in absolute terms now as there were in 1931. And although it is consequential politically that Lebanese Christians are now less than a third of the adult electorate, they are hardly powerless. They dominate the presidency, the officer corps, and the business world, and they are split between allying with the Sunni Muslims and allying with the Shiites, which gives them influence as a swing vote.
Christian power in Lebanon comes in part from the country’s clan system and in part from its long history of parliamentary governance. For instance, it is important for the Shiite party, Hizbullah, to have Christian allies in the Biqaa valley. This principle holds true elsewhere. There is every prospect that as parties are formed and become important in contesting elections in Egypt, the 8 million Coptic Christian votes will be courted, and will make themselves felt in policy. Likewise, if Syria moves to a parliamentary system, the 3 million Christians there will be a force to be reckoned with in Syrian politics.
In Jordan, Christians are 10 percent of the 6 million strong population, or 600,000.
These are parlous times for Middle Eastern populations who are challenging older forms of government rooted in mid-20th century notions of nationalism, socialism and a leading role for the military. We don’t know how this story will turn out. The “Islamic winter” notion of the Neoconservatives (who were unhappy that the American public was identifying with rebellious Arab youth), however, is way too simplistic. The Muslim fundamentalists took a bath in the Libyan elections last July. The Nahda Party in Tunisia only got about 37% of seats in parliament and could only form a government in coalition with a secular party; they have renounced trying to put Islamic law or sharia in the constitution. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Morsi, won the presidency in June with only 51% of the vote, and his proposed constitution lost in the megalopolis of Cairo and only got a third of registered voters to go to the polls. Egyptian Christian billionaire Naguib Sawiris has founded a political party, and I very much doubt he plans to emigrate.
The old Middle Eastern dictatorships often exploited Christians or subordinated them. The Christians were deprived of a voice and of the chance for autonomous political action just like everyone else. But now, they are potentially in a position to organize, speak out and vote as never before. And they are arguably more numerous in absolute terms than ever before. From the point of view of a social historian, these days could be the beginning of an unprecedented efflorescence of Christianity in the region– not Western-missionary, Christianity, not evangelicalism or fundamentalism, but Coptic Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, and other indigenous and ancient strains. There are no guarantees in life, but let us give them a chance, on this day when their religion was born.
The inability of the Syrian government to crush an 18-month-old revolutionary movement is putting increasing pressure on its neighbors. Not only have hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria poured into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, but political forces in each of those countries are having to choose sides and to reevaluate their choices over time.
The bombing in Beirut’s Ashrafieh neighborhood that killed security chief Wissam al-Hassan last week has widely been blamed inside Lebanon on the Shiite Hizbullah party-militia, which backs the current government of Najib al-Miqati. Angry Lebanese Sunnis of the March 14 movement led by Saad al-Hariri, who oppose the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and sympathize with their Sunni co-religionists in the Syrian opposition, have vowed to bring down the Miqati government. Miqati said Sunday that although he had thought about resigning, he has decided not to stand down.
Still, it remains to be seen if the Lebanese government can avoid falling, given the firestorm set off by the Syria conflict. The problem for Miqati and Hizbullah is that among their key coalition partners is Walid Jumblatt, the mercurial Druze leader, who is said to be turning against the Baath government of Syria. (Jumblatt has flip-flopped on Baathist Syria several times; it is alleged that Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had Walid’s father, Kamal Jumblatt, assassinated in 1977.) The Washington Post is even hinting that Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrullah is himself wavering on whether to continue to support Syria so strongly, given the possibility that it could mean the loss of the Miqati government and the political marginalization of Hizbullah inside Lebanon. I actually doubt that Hizbullah is wavering, given its strong alliance with Iran, which is backing al-Assad.
Likewise, the Syria conflict is spilling over onto Iraq, where the NYT alleges some Shiite fighters are going to Damascus to defend the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, holy to their branch of Islam, from possible destruction by hard line Salafis that have already targeted that neighborhood. During the Iraq War, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to Syria, and Shiite Iraqis congregated around the shrine. They have largely been ethnically cleansed by hard line Sunnis, seen as foreigners supporting the al-Assad regime, and there are concerns that Wahhabi-influenced Salafis might raze the shrine. (Saudi Wahhabis, like early militant Protestants in 16th-century Europe, are iconoclasts who despise the cult of saints, shrines and relics, insisting that only God is holy, and no intercession is possible with Him by third parties. Shiite Muslims, in contrast, are all about saints related to the Prophet Muhammad, and their tombs and shrines, and do believe they will intercede for believers.)
On Saturday, Sunni guerrillas unleashed a series of bombings and attacks on Shiite pilgrims and Shiite neighborhoods in Iraq. Although this tactic of attempting to foment Sunni-Shiite violence is by now 9 years old, it may be continuing in force in part because of the new struggle over the future of Syria. Syria’s Baath government is secular, socialist and nationalist, but the upper echelons of the Baath government and army are dominated by members of the Alawite minority, a form of folk Shiism. About 10-14 percent of Syrians are Alawite. The al-Assad government also has a geopolitical alliance with Shiite Iran and, increasingly, the Shiite government of Iraq.
The idea of a 4-day cease-fire in Syria’s ongoing revolution/ civil war during the Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God) was always a difficult proposition. Cease-fires work when two sides are exhausted and can’t see how easily to make further gains through fighting. That situation does not obtain in Syria– the ceaseless back-and-forth of guerrilla strikes and regime reprisal has been going on for over a year, and the revolutionaries appear to have gradually chipped away at the Baath government’s control of much of the country. When one side has the momentum, it simply makes no sense to have a cease-fire.