Social Glimpses of Modern Iraqi History by Iraq's preeminent social scientist, Ali al-Wardi, is probably the most important work done to explain the Iraqi mind, and how and why it ticks. I recently stumbled upon my notes from when I first read vol.1 several years ago, and thought I'd share them, so here you go! But remember, there's no substitute for treading the whole 6 volumes.
The first volume of the book deals with the period from the beginning of the Ottoman era until the mid-eighteenth century. This period was characterized by two regional dynamics that had a deep impact on Iraq: 1) the competition for Iraq between Iran and turkey and the subsequent sectarian violence, and 2) the waves of nomadism coming from the desert. The author uses three hypotheses to analyze how the regional influences produced a number of unique social trends that remain visible in Iraq’s society until this day. The trends are: the dominance of sectarianism over nationalism, reliance on intercession, the dominance of nomadic morals, hostility towards governments, and resentment for individualism.
The Regional Forces
The Iran-Turkey rivalry and sectarian conflict: During the Safavid era, Esfahan became the capital and center of Shia scholarship. After the Safavid Empire collapsed, Kerbala replaced Esfahan in that role, until the end of the 18th century when Najaf became the new center, and it remains so today. Iran, once turned Shia, started to have significant influence in Iraq. A unique social situation emerged in Iraq; while the Shia were mostly Arabs, their scholars were mostly Iranian. The Iraqi society was confused and torn between Turkey (to which the government answered most of the time) and Iran (with which most of the people had strong religious ties). With the rise of the Safavid dynasty Iraq became a battleground for the Safavid and Ottoman empires for over three centuries. The fact that the first endorsed Shia Islam while the second endorsed Sunni Islam led to sectarian conflict in Iraq growing to unprecedented levels. The author points out that sectarian conflict in Iraq existed since the early day of Islam. During the Abbasid caliphate there were clashes between Sunni and Shai district in which many were killed, homes were burned and shrines desecrated. The conflict peaked when conflict erupted between Turkey and Iran.
The last nomadic wave: The last nomadic wave during the Ottoman era was harsher than any of the previous ones because: 1) Ottoman conquest came after the Mongol and Tatar invasions, which were the darkest and least civilized periods in Iraq’s history. Governments cared most about conquest and tax collection rather than of construction or establishing law and order. Town dwellers had to resort to tribal fanaticism and nomadic ways to protect life and property. Other reasons include: 1) the general weakness of the Ottoman Empire by the time it invaded Iraq, 2) the Empire’s rivalry with Iran which kept it busy and further encouraged the tribes to wreak havoc, and 3) deadly plagues and breakouts of diseases affected Iraq almost once every decade under Ottoman rule; because disease was deadliest in crowded population centers, the effect was devastating in towns. As a result, the population of professionals and craftsmen shrank below the level necessary to sustain a civilized society.
The Three Hypotheses
1) The clash between civilization and nomadism: Desert produces nomadism whereas fertile land produces civilization. Therefore Arab homeland has been a battleground for nomadism and civilization since the beginning of time. This clash was most stark in Iraq, the “land of Cain and Abel” in the words of Toynbee. The longest period during which nomadism prevailed in Iraq was the most recent starting with the fall of the Abbasid caliphate and lasting for over six centuries. During this time three quarters of the population answered to tribal hierarchy and adhered to values like tribal fanaticism, ghazo [raid for loot], revenge, honor killings, etc. The other quarter who lived in towns were not so different deep inside either, although they looked different in the way they dressed, ate, or built their homes. A city dweller often exhibited fanatical connections to his neighborhood, just like a nomad did to his tribe. The instinct among nomads for ghazo is stronger than that for work and production. They prefer quick gains through treachery or violence over slow, long-term gains through building skill and reputation. Nomads will leave one type of ghazo only if they found a more lucrative one. The author attributes the rapid spread of Wahabism—with its takfiri ideology that legitimizes killing and confiscating the possessions of non-Wahabists—among nomadic tribes of the peninsula to this particular trend.
2) Social dissonance: The main reason for social dissonance in Iraq’s contemporary society is that modern civilization brought to Iraq ideas and concepts that contradict the social traditions that people grew up to. For example, equality, justice, democracy, nationalism and liberty do not conform with the values of fanaticism to the tribe or neighborhood, or other primeval loyalties that characterized the previous generations in the 19th century and continue to have deep influence in people’s psyche. New ideas come through schools, political parties, media, etc and people become familiar with them quickly because they fit the people’s aspirations or answered their grievances, however, this exposure is not accompanied by a parallel change in social traditions. When a person lives in an environment saturated with fanaticism, treachery and conflict, and then later grows to learn contradicting ideals, he finds that he must act along the former set of ideals at one time and then switch to the latter at another. In other words, he would be living two contradictory worlds; one of the ideals that he calls for in his speeches, and another of the reality he takes pride in. People can change their minds about ideas quickly—one great speech could resonate, but habits tend to linger and die slowly.
3) Dual personality: To have a dual personality is to act in contradicting manner without sensing or acknowledging this contradiction. The condition results when the individual is under the influence of two opposing systems of values of concepts. The condition is common among those who grow up in a strictly religious environment where preaching is abundant. When under the influence of preaching, the individual acts like a pious person but all that goes away once he engages in a neighborhood fight or his pride is challenged. Then he becomes a person who takes pride in acts of theft, treachery, rape and deceit. This old type of duality was common during the Ottoman era and was a result of the contradiction between religious instruction and local values. The modern type of duality originated from social dissonance. This type is more pervasive and obvious. The individual affected by this condition may be highly educated and even enthusiastic about modern ideas and concepts. But he tends to be harshly critical of others who oppose these ideas even though he himself acts against them every day. This duality is even more profound among politicians. They preach about the justice, equality and democracy but once they are in power they forget everything they preached and revert to primeval social connections to further their interests. The author points to what he calls a common mistake among Arab thinkers. He argues that the assumption that the society can combine the good things in modern civilization along with what’s good about social heritage is flawed. Because the two value systems are contradictory, a society cannot have modern institutions and rule of law while also maintaining the primeval connections that are the legacy of the nomadic past.
The Social Trends
Reliance on intercession: People believed that mortal life didn’t matter and that they had to focus on the afterlife. Therefore religious rituals and securing intercession from saints were paramount whereas ethics in daily life were ignored because the deity could forgive all sins if the right person interceded. The situation was such that the government oppressed the people, and the people oppressed one another, but all were confident that they would go to heaven with the intervention of their saints.
The dominance of nomadic morals: The morals of Iraqis under Ottoman rule were closer to nomadism than civilization due to the prevalence of nomadic influence. The desert adjacent to Iraq is perhaps the greatest source of nomadism in the world and there is no barrier isolating Iraq from its influence. Nomadic tribes were always ready to go to Iraq and live there, which was more often when the conditions were right, as in during wars and chaos, or whenever the government was weak and civilization was declining. When the tribes took over roads and threatened towns and villages, the people took up arms to defend themselves. This resulted in the spread of tribal fanaticism, revenge and ghazo among them.
Hostility towards governments: Two connected social phenomenon were evidence of the prevalence of nomadism during the Ottoman era; the declining population in Iraq, and the large size of tribes relative to urban population.Tribes—both agrarian and pastoral—made more than 75% of Iraq’s population. Those people were all under the influence of tribal fanaticism, and they didn’t recognize another way. They viewed every government with hostility, whether Iranian or Turkish. The tribes tended to even aid the winning army and loot the broken one regardless of their affiliation or ideology. City dwellers were slightly different in that they had three levels of fanaticism, or social sense of belonging, while the tribes had only one. The urban individual was first fanatical for his district against other districts. The second level was fanaticism for the town; when the town is under attack all districts unite against the aggressor. The third level is sectarian. This level appears when a sectarian matter surfaces, or when the country is invaded by another affiliated to one of the two sects. At times like that people forgot their district and town level rivalries and focused on the new threat. Sectarianism is therefore only a form of fanaticism based more on social affiliation rather than keenness on the faith and religious teachings.
Resentment toward individualism: The author argues that the society, under the influence of old local traditions cannot view the individual outside the framework of fanaticism to tribe, neighborhood or sect. This means that the society did not appreciate individualism, which is one of the foundations of modern civilization. If a person in position of power or service refused to cheat or engage in corruption to benefit a neighbor, a friend or a family member, he is considered ungrateful, cowardly, useless, etc. By contrast, a person who engages in nepotism and favoritism is considered a champion of his people. A person is not measured by his own personal good or bad traits. Instead, all of the familial, personal and tribal connections have to be considered in the evaluation.