Robert Rabil: Iraqis Are Now Creating a Myth of Patriotism By Fighting the U.S. Occupation

Roundup: Historians' Take

Walid Phares and Robert Rabil, professors of Mideast Studies at Florida Atlantic University, in the WSJ (April 13, 2004):

Arising from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, Iraq comprised the three former provinces of Mosul, with its Kurdish Sunni majority; Baghdad, with its Arab Sunni majority; and Basra, with its Arab Shiite majority. The British favored the Arab Sunnis to rule Iraq. During Iraq's formative years, its Arab nationalists, mainly Sunnis, tried to forge an identity tied to an idea that Iraq was part of the wider Arab nation. They relied on the army and schools to forge a national identity. But Shiites and Kurds resisted this approach, partly because the army was led by stridently pan-Arabist Sunni officers.

Decades of brutal rule under Saddam Hussein have eroded much of the Iraqi "national" identity that was shaped in the 20th century. Since his fall, ethnic identity has played a much stronger role than ever it did in the history of modern Iraq, if only because every community has been striving to secure political space and clout in the emerging government of Iraq.

At the same time, the attenuation of a collective identity has confronted Iraqis with a need to recreate one. Religion is emerging as a powerful instrument for solidarity and as a source for a new national myth. Significantly, the Iraqis did not liberate their country for themselves. Even during the U.S. takeover of Baghdad, the army dissolved rather than turn against the Saddam regime. This deprived Iraq of a national-resistance myth, similar to French Gaullism, upon which a new identity could be constructed (and by which an inevitable sense of national inadequacy, even emasculation, might be dispelled).

French pride was salvaged by the fact that Free French died alongside Allied forces in the liberation of their country. This, along with the romanticized theater of liberation, created a national-resistance myth underpinning French honor. A modern example might be the 1971 liberation of Bangladesh, in which Bangladeshi guerrillas fought alongside Indian soldiers to oust the Pakistani army. Indeed, India's generals ensured that liberation had a Bangladeshi face. By contrast, the liberation of Iraq had no Iraqi face.

In the absence of a shared identity of resistance, religious solidarity could easily become the basis for many anti-Western Iraqis to create a new identity based on fighting the coalition. This explains the appeal of Muqtada al-Sadr's movement to radical Iraqi Sunnis and shatters the view that Sunnis will not collaborate with insurgent Shiites, and vice versa. Herein lies the danger for the U.S., especially if hostility against coalition forces becomes synonymous with a rehabilitation of Iraqi pride.

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