Zarqawi Letter And Fear Of Democracy

Zarqawi Letter and Fear of Democracy

Matthew Yglesias asks at his thoughtful blog:

“Something a bit curious in the (purported) Zarqawi letter:

[I]f we fight them [Sunni Arab policemen working for the new Iraqi government, I think, the context isn’t 100% clear to me], that will be difficult because there will be a schism between us and the people of the region. How can we kill their cousins and sons and under what pretext, after the Americans start withdrawing? The Americans will continue to control from their bases, but the sons of this land will be the authority. This is the democracy, we will have no pretext.

Would a hardened terrorist killer really refer to the regime against which he’s fighting as “democracy” and speak of his own movement’s need for a “pretext”? That doesn’t sound at all like a person convinced of his own rectitude. Of course, perhaps that just means that the author of the letter isn’t convinced of his own rectitude, but that seems to cut against everything we think we know about the psychology of terrorism. One possible explanation is translation error. Or rather, not “error” per se but some kind of ambiguity in the text where the translator is projecting his own take on the situation into the translation.”

Cole replies: The problem lies with the translation, which is insufficiently attentive to the rhetorical strategies of the author, and which is trying (admirably) to hew very close to the Arabic text. But Arabic style depends on allusion and implying things much more than Englisn.

Here is my rendering of the passage.

“When the Americans withdraw from these regions, and they have already started doing so, and their place has been taken by these agents [the Shiites], and by those who are fatefully connected to the people of this land, what will our situation be if we fight them [the Shiites] (“and it is necessary to fight them”)? There will only be two possibilities before us.

1. We could fight them. This step is attended with difficulty because of the gap that would open up between us and the people of this land, for [they will say] how could we fight their sons and nephews, and with what justification?– given the [apparent] withdrawal of the Americans, [even though in actuality they are] the ones who [will] guide the reins of affairs via their hidden bases; and [the Shiites will say], “Isn’t it right that that the children of this land are the ones who rule over affairs with experience? This is the advent of democracy!” After this, there will be no excuse [for violence].

2. Or we could pack our things and seek another land, as is the repeated sad story of the arena of jihad . . .”

That is, I believe the author is employing rhetorical devices, such as imagining what the Shiites will say and adopting their “voice” temporarily. Arabic did not classically use punctuation to make these distinctions, depending on style and syntax, and the author does it the old-fashioned way. The phrase “this is democracy, coming,” is not Zarqawi’s sentiment, it is what he imagines the Shiites will be suckered into thinking by those wily Americans, who will still actually be running things. The translation misses these nuances; it is typical of US government translation of Arabic texts in just not being very satisfactory for any but the most basic purposes. Because Doug Feith excluded most real Arabists from the CPA, the few who are there are probably worked to death and under severe pressure.

I may eventually make an attempt to translate the whole document (the CPA has posted only the second half), but it is difficult and time-consuming, and I may not get to it for a while.

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