Iraq's Jihad: Past as Prologue

We are now in the middle of a full—blown Jihad, that is to say we have against us the fiercest prejudices of a people in a primeval state of civilization.

Gertrude Bell, Baghdad, Iraq, September 5, 1920

The carnage in Iraq continues——much as Bell described 85 years ago——despite Saddam Hussein's removal, and capture, along with many of his former high ranking administrators.  And this bloody contemporary "insurgency" is also a jihad—waged by jihadists of two ilks: Al Qaeda types (like Zarqawi) united with so—called "secular" Baathist jihadists. This is hardly surprising as Baathist Arabism is deeply rooted in Islam, and bears no resemblance to Western conceptions of secularism. (Other than perhaps Saddam Hussein's expensive 'secular' wardrobe—as Fouad Ajami once uttered on live television, doing his best Saddam impersonation, to a stunned Dan Rather: 'You wear pants...I wear pants!').

Indeed, the very founder of the Baath Party, Michel Aflaq, was a Greek Orthodox Christian who converted to Islam, and declared emphatically, 'Islam is to Arabism what bones are to the flesh.' (For an enlightening discussion of the Baathism is secularism canard, see this blog by Professor Frank Salameh  , Monday May, 9, 2005, 'The Myth of Arab Nationalism'). The Baathists just added another incendiary element to Iraq's long brewing cauldron of sectarian strife, which was so apparent during the British attempt at statecraft during the 1920s, through early 1930s.

It is edifying to review that experience through the writings, and unfulfilled hopes of the British diplomat, Gertrude Bell. One wishes that a careful reading and thoughtful discussion of Bell's detailed analyses were a required exercise for all our policymaking elites and chattering classes. Regardless, Bell's narrative sounds eerily familiar as the cast of characters—from the 1920s, versus the present—seems quite literally frozen in time: Shi'ites led by the very same Sadr family; irredentist Sunnis educated in the Wahhabi tradition; Kurdish 'separatists'; and the indigenous, pre—Islamic community of Assyrian Christians, soon to be preyed upon, primarily by their traditional Kurdish Muslim enemies, joined by the other Muslim communities.

Fond Foolishness Redux — Iraq Through Gertrude Bell's Prism

Gertrude Bell (1868—1926) was a brilliant archaeologist and explorer, who traveled extensively in the Middle East, later becoming a British intelligence officer and diplomat in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Due to her unparalleled knowledge of the Middle East, Bell was made part of the delegation to the Paris Conference of 1919, and worked subsequently with British officials attempting to create the modern state of Iraq from three disparate ethnic and religious vilayets (i.e., Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra) of the collapsed Ottoman Empire.

Bell, perhaps the most important female Civil Servant in the entire British Empire during this period, also persuaded Winston Churchill to appoint Faisal, the recently deposed King of Syria, as the first King of Iraq. Her letters written from Baghdad, excerpted below, were originally published in a compilation, 'The Letters of Gertrude Bell', [Volume II, New York, 1927]. Bell's brief, worried comments about the Assyrians foreshadowed their terrible plight, within seven years of her death.

In the last years of her life, Gertrude Bell created, and was the first Director of the Baghdad Archaeological Museum; she died in 1926, and may have committed suicide. Bell's utopian dreams for Iraq, what the historian Elie Kedourie termed her '...fond foolishness...thinking to stand godmother to a new Abbasid Empire...',  went unfulfilled. Indeed, one of her worst fears was realized: Muslim violence directed against the Assyrian Christian minority.

The 1930 Anglo—Iraq treaty under which Britain withdrew all its forces from Iraq by late 1932, deliberately excluded any guarantees for Assyrian autonomy or protection. The Assyrians concerns were trivialized, and their appeals condemned as inflammatory, as evidenced by these statements of the British High Commissioner for Iraq, Sir Francis Humphreys:

Too much importance should not be attached to local sectarian dissensions, the explanation for which was often  to be found in some purely trivial matter or incident... reports [i.e., of potential threats to the Assyrian community] can only serve to excite religious animosities, to estrange the Iraqi government, and to unsettle the Assyrians themselves, whose hopes of future welfare depend upon their being merged into the body politic of Iraq, being accepted as loyal subjects of King Faisal, and living in peace with their neighbors...

Thus were the Assyrians sacrificed to Britain's Muslim Arabophile policy. On August 11, 1933, less than  a year after the British withdrawal, the 'new' Iraqi armed forces, aided by local Arab and Kurdish tribesmen, began the wholesale massacre of Assyrians in the Mosul area (Simel, Dohuk). The carnage was described in a contemporary chronicle believed to have been written by Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII, a Cambridge University graduate and Patriarch of the Church of the East:

The inoffensive population was indiscriminately massacred, men, women and children alike, with rifle, revolver and machine gun fire. In one room alone, eighty—one men from the Baz tribe, who had taken shelter... were barbarously massacred. Priests were tortured and their bodies mutilated. Those who showed their Iraqi nationality papers were the first to be shot. Girls were raped and women violated and made to march naked before the Arab army commander. Holy books were used as fuel for burning girls. Children were run over by military cars. Pregnant women were bayoneted. Children were flung in the air and pierced on to the points of bayonets. Those who survived in the other villages were now exposed day and night to constant raids and acts of violence. Forced conversion to Islam of men and women was the next process. Refusal was met with death. Sixty five out of ninety five Assyrian villages and settlements were either sacked, destroyed or burnt to the ground. Even the settlements which existed from the year 1921 and who had no connection in any way with the trouble were wrecked and all property looted by Iraq army and tribesmen.

Before the end of August, 1933, 3000 Assyrians were murdered, and thousands more displaced.

Bell's letters, specifically, her complaints about Shi'ite fanaticism, including the very same Sadr family lineage that Coalition Forces are dealing with today, the Sunni fanaticism of clerics trained in Saudi Arabia, Kurdish "separatism", and the vulnerability of the Assyrian Christian minority — reveal an unchanging dynamic — confirmed by the current experience following Saddam Hussein's removal. Thus, over eight decades later, Gertrude Bell's elegant prose still reveals a keen understanding of the irredentist forces which continue to grip Iraq, shaping present events.

Baghdad, January 4th, 1920

...And this country, which way will it go with all these agents of unrest to tempt it? I pray that the people at home may be rightly guided and realize that the only chance here is to recognize political ambitions from the first, not to try to squeeze the Arabs into our mold and have our hands forced in a year —— who knows? Perhaps less, the world is moving so fast —— with the result that the chaos to north and east overwhelms Mesopotamia also.

Baghdad, March 14, 1920

It's a problem here how to get into touch with the Shiahs, not the tribal people in the country; we're on intimate terms with all of them, but the grimly devout citizens of the holy towns and more especially the leaders of religious opinion, the Mujtahids, who can loose and bind with a word by authority which rests on an intimate acquaintance with accumulated knowledge entirely irrelevant to human affairs and worthless in any branch of human activity. There they sit in an atmosphere  which reeks of antiquity and is so thick with the dust of ages that you can't see through it —— nor can they. And for the most part they are very hostile to us, a feeling we can't alter...There's a group of these worthies in Kadhimain, the holy city, 8 miles from Baghdad, bitterly pan—Islamic, anti—British...Chief among them are a family called Sadr, possibly more distinguished for religious learning than any other family in the whole Shiah world....I went yesterday [to visit them] accompanied by an advanced Shiah of Baghdad whom I knew well.

Baghdad May 20, 1920

Meantime our Nestorians (Assyrians) are going back to their country which is all in Kurdish hands and far from anywhere we can help them. 6000 left last week. I look upon it with the gravest apprehension. I think the men ought to have been sent first to prepare the way and I fear there will be some awful disaster. If there is, we can't acquit our own conscience.

Baghdad, June 14th, 1920

We have had a stormy week. The Nationalist propaganda increases. There are constant meetings in mosques where the mental temperature  rises a great deal above 113. The extremists are out for independence, without a mandate. They play for all they are worth on the passions of the mob and what with the Unity of Islam and the Rights of the Arab Race they make a fine figure. They have created a reign of terror; if anyone says boo in the bazaar it shuts like an oyster. There has been practically no business done for the last fortnight....

Baghdad, August 16, 1920

And now I'll tell you about the revolution. The committee of ex—deputies co—opted at the beginning of the week a number of people among whom were 4 of the leading extremists. On Wed. these 4 all refused the invitation and at the same time the police gave warning that there was to be a monster meeting in the big mosque next day, after which a procession through the town was to be organized. It would undoubtedly have led to disturbances and that was the object desired. For the extremists have seen the ground cut under their feet by the formation of a moderate constitutional party round the committee of ex—deputies and they have no card left but an appeal to the mob. The police were therefore ordered to arrest the 4 leaders. I think they must have bungled the matter for they only got one, the others got away to Kadhimain and are now, I hear, in Najaf. Orders were then issued forbidding the holding of meetings in Mosques, together with a curfew —— no one to be out in the streets after 10 p.m. The combined effect has been excellent as far as Baghdad is concerned. The town has returned to its normal life and I think there is scarcely anyone who doesn't breathe a sigh of relief. Most of them asked why it wasn't done sooner but I think that A.T. has behaved with great wisdom in the matter. He has waited until it was clear that if the agitation was allowed to continue the town would be given over to rioters —— most of those who attended the mosque meetings were riffraff of the worst sort —— and there he has struck for the protection of public security...The worst news is that Colonel Leachman has been ambushed and killed on his way from Baghdad to Ramadi. He was holding the whole Euphrates up to Anak single handed by means of the tribes, troops having all been withdrawn, and we don't know what will happen in those regions...

Baghdad, September 5, 1920

The problem is the future. The tribes don't want to form part of a unified state; the towns can't do with out it. How are we going to support and protect the elements of stability and at the same time conform to the just demand for economy from home? For you can't have a central government if no one will pay taxes and the bulk of the population won't pay taxes unless they are constrained to do so. Nor will they preserve a sufficient amount of order to permit of trade...

We are now in the middle of a full—blown Jihad, that is to say we have against us the fiercest prejudices of a people in a primeval state of civilization. Which means that it's no longer a question of reason....The unthinking people, who form the great mass of the world, follow suit in a blind revolt against the accepted order. They don't now how to substitute anything better, but it's clear that few things can be worse. We're near to a complete collapse of society —— the end of the Roman empire is a very close historical parallel. We've practically come to the collapse of society here and there's little on which you can depend for its reconstruction.

Baghdad, October 10, 1920

All the Nestorians (Assyrians)  have been moved from Ba'qubah to a camp under the hills 16 miles or so from Mosul with the idea of getting them back to their own country. But it's now far too late in the year to think of their marching through the hills and as far as I can learn the local Kurds are all determined to oppose them to the death — not being wishful to give up their property which they have meantime annexed. It's not a cheerful prospect.

Baghdad, November 1, 1920

Oh, if we can pull this thing off; rope together the young hotheads and the Shiah obscurantists, and enthusiasts like Jafar, polished old statesmen like Sasun, and scholars like Shukri —— if we can make them work together and find their own salvation for themselves, what a fine thing it would be. I see visions and dream dreams....

Baghdad, November 29, 1920

We are greatly hampered by the tribal rising which has delayed the work of handing over to the Arab Govt. Sir Percy(Cox), I think rightly, decided that the tribes must be made to submit to force. In no other way was it possible to make them surrender their arms or teach them that you mustn't lightly engage in revolution, even when your holy men tell you to do so...

Baghdad, December 18, 1920

The Council is aware and Sir Percy has constantly impressed upon them, the vital need of getting down to the formation of a native army to relieve ours. No Govt. in this country, whether ours or an Arab administration, can carry on without force behind it. The Arab Government has no force till its army is organized therefore it can't exist unless we lend it troops. Mesopotamia is not a civilized state, it is largely composed of wild tribes who do not wish to shoulder the burden and expense of citizenship...

January 30, 1921

...I had them to dinner tonight . It was the most interesting and curious dinner party I ever gave. Besides the two Najdis I had Major Easdie, Saiyid Muhi ud Din and Shukri Eff. Al Arusi. The latter is one of the finest figures in Baghdad. An old scholar who comprises in himself all knowledge as such is understood by Islam —— he teaches Mechanics, using the Hadith (traditions of the prophet) as textbook and other sciences by like methods ——a true Wahhabi, he neither drinks nor smokes...He found in Wahhabi Central Arabia the land of his dreams and looks upon it as the true source of all inspiration and learning....So we sat down to table...Shukri...hanging on Ahmad Thanayan's words while the latter described the immense progress of the extreme Wahhabi sect, the Akhwan (brotherhood), in Najd...Ahmad with his long sunken face lighted up by the purest spirit of fanatical Islam. 'The Imam, God preserve him, under God has guided the tribes in the right way,' —— 'Praise be to God,' ejaculated ?Shukri — "They are learning wisdom and religion under the rules of the Brotherhood,'—Shukri Eff: 'God is great,' — "Not that they show violence,' — "Ahmed Effend. 'God forbid.' — 'No such things happen among us as happened in Europe with the Inquisition and with Calvins' —(I must tell you incidentally that the Akhwan when they do battle kill all wounded and then put the women and children of their enemies, who are also infidels else they wouldn't fight the Akhwan, to death....)

May 29, 1921

I'm thinking of going to Sulaimaniyah at the end of the week for a few days —— to Kurkuk for a couple of nights and so on by motor. Sulaimaniyah has refused, on a plebiscite, to come in under the Arab Govt. and is going for the present to be a little Kurdish enclave administered directly under Sir Percy....The population is wholly Kurdish and they say they don't want to be part of an Arab state...

June 12, 1921

We can't continue direct British control though the country would be better governed by it, but it's rather a comic position to be telling people over and over again that whether they like it or not they must have Arab not British Government....

June 23, 1921

I'm told that Naji Suwaidi is in favor of a mandate rather than the proposed treaty, because a mandate gives us more authority! Faisal wants a treaty I know, so probably that's the way it will work out, and for my part I think it's quite immaterial. You can't run a mandate without the goodwill of the people, and if you've got that it doesn't matter whether it is a mandate or a treaty, but what rejoices me is the fulfillment of my dream that we should sit by in an attitude of repose and have them coming up our front door steps to beg us to be more active...

August 28, 1921

We have had a terrific week but we've got our King (Faisal) crowned and Sir Percy and I agree that we're now half seas over, the remaining half is the Congress and the Organic Law...It was an amazing thing to see all Iraq, from North to South gathered together. It is the first time it has happened in history....

NOTE: I would like to thank Hugh Fitzgerald for kindly bringing to my attention 'The Letters of Gertrude Bell', [Volume II, New York, 1927], and also providing me with all the specific excerpts I have used save for the two letters regarding the Nestorians (Assyrians), i.e., the letters of May 20 and October 10.

Dr. Bostom is an Associate Professor of Medicine, and the author of the forthcoming The Legacy of Jihad, from Prometheus Books (2005).