Ignorance, Cognitive Dissonance, and al-Sadr

Re-emerging publicly on Friday May 25, 2007  for the first time since he went underground 4-months ago, Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr journeyed in a long motorcade from Najaf to the adjacent city of Kufa where he delivered a fiery sermon before 6,000 worshippers. "No, no for Satan. No, no for America. No, no for the occupation. No, no for Israel," he intoned-and his audience obligingly repeated-at the opening of this address. Al-Sadr then demanded that U.S. forces leave Iraq, and called upon Sunni Muslims to join his Shi'ite followers in fighting the American occupiers. "To our Iraqi Sunni brothers, I say that the occupation sows dissension among us and that strength is unity and division is weakness...I'm ready to cooperate with them in all fields." He was also critical of the nascent Iraqi government's inability to provide basic services.

While his major rival, Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, was recently diagnosed with lung cancer and is undergoing treatment in Iran, it was speculated that al-Sadr, backed by Iran, may have returned to parlay this Iranian support into efforts to consolidate his own power in Iraq. Al-Sadr's strategy hinges in part on his apparent belief that inevitably (and soon) the U.S. will reduce its troop strength, leaving behind a vacuum in Iraq's security and political power structure that he and his followers can fill. He is also said to believe that Iraq's current al-Maliki government may collapse in the near future because of its failure to improve security, public services, and the economy.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe's comments on al-Sadr's reappearance -- punctuated by the cleric's belligerent sermon -- can only be characterized as bizarre and delusional. Johndroe opined -- without any apparent attempt at deliberate irony --   that al-Sadr's diatribe somehow  indicated a desire "to play a positive role inside Iraq."  Added Johndroe,  "He [al-Sadr] has an opportunity to be a part of the political reconciliation process. We'll see if he and his followers participate."

Fifty years ago (1957), social psychologist Leon Festinger published his seminal analysis, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, in which he observed
[P]ersons are not always successful in explaining away or in rationalizing inconsistencies to themselves. For one reason or another, attempts to achieve consistency may fail. The inconsistency then simply continues to exist. Under such circumstances-that is, in the presence of an inconsistency-there is psychological discomfort...The existence of dissonance [inconsistency], being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance [consistency]. When the dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance...Cognitive dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction just as hunger leads to activity oriented toward hunger reduction.
Johndroe's views on Sadr's re-emergence epitomize such cognitive dissonance, exacerbated by our policymaking elites' ongoing, inexcusable ignorance of regional Islamic history and culture, most notably the well-documented role of the very same Sadr lineage in Iraq's religio-politics. For example, Mr. Johndroe and equally uninformed policymakers across the political spectrum should read (certainly now, albeit so belatedly) Gertrude Bell's letters written from Baghdad (especially those composed between 1920 and 1926), which were originally published in a compilation, The Letters of Gertrude Bell (2 volumes, New York, 1927), and are now available to all, online.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was an archaeologist and explorer, who traveled extensively in the Middle East, and subsequently became a British intelligence officer and diplomat in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Due to her unparalleled knowledge of the region, 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. 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 overall narrative sounds disquietingly familiar as the cast of characters -- from 1920, versus the present -- seems quite literally frozen in time despite the passage of almost 90 years. She describes the Shia religious elites [circa March 14, 1920]  led by the very same Sadr family, as,
...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....
Despite Bell's own utopian dreams for Iraq, what historian Elie Kedourie aptly termed her "...fond foolishness...thinking to stand godmother to a new Abbasid Empire...",  at least she -- unlike our contemporary U.S. policymaking elites -- possessed a very clear understanding of events unfolding before her. Regarding their predilection for unadorned nose-counting democracy, Bell observed [November 1, 1920] that led by Saiyid Hasan al Sadr, the Shia rejected establishing true democratic institutions, maintaining,

...only that they wanted a government elected by the people and that nothing else was of any use...They offered no [further] suggestions and remained obdurately hostile.
When 8-months later [July 20, 1921] Shi'ite wishes went unfulfilled, Bell documented the predictable leading role played by Saiyid Hasan al Sadr's son Saiyid Muhummad (described  as "a tall black bearded ‘alim with a sinister expression") in fomenting sanguinary unrest throughout Iraq:
...he [Saiyid Muhummad] leapt into an evil prominence as the chief agitator in the disturbances. In those insane days he was treated like a divinity. Shi'ahs kissed the robe of men who had touched his hand. We tried to arrest him early in August and failed. He escaped from Baghdad and moved about the country like a flame of war, rousing the tribes. It was he who called up the Diyalah [Diyala (Sirwan)] tribesmen and caused all those tragedies of which Mrs. Buchanan's story * is one. His next achievement was on the upper Tigris. In obedience to his preaching the tribes attacked Samarra but were beaten off. He then moved down to Karbala and was the soul of the insurgence on the middle Euphrates. Finally, when the game was up, he fled with other saiyids and tribal shaikhs across the desert to Mecca [Makkah] and came back, under the amnesty, with Faisal [later installed by the British as Iraq's monarch].... You never know what Shi'ahs are up to.
Recently, John Bolton, former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and Security, and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., made these candid observations  about the fecklessness of policy decisions in Iraq:
If we had said shortly after that statue (of Saddam) came down in Baghdad, "Here are the keys to the Green Zone, Iraqis - you have our best wishes and whatever support we can give as we are packing up and leaving, or at least moving out of Baghdad," then I think public opinion in our country might be different...Having overthrown Saddam, we had an obligation - it was a short-term obligation - to provide security until some kind of government of Iraqis could have gotten back up, for us to hold the reins for a short time for them to start forming a government.

But the notion that America had to occupy Iraq or guarantee the country's security for a protracted time, or indeed indefinitely: I just think that's a mistake
In essence U.S. policymakers have repeated the misplaced utopian efforts of Gertrude Bell and her British colleagues, compounding this error -- as illustrated in Mr. Johndroe's distressingly ignorant and delusional statements -- by being utterly devoid of Bell's understanding of the irredentist Iraqi culture.

Leon Festinger and his associates (in Festinger et al. When Prophecy Fails 1956) chronicled  the story of a Chicago housewife, Mrs. Marion Keech, who had mysteriously received messages in her house as "automatic writings" from alien beings on the planet Clarion, which revealed that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21. Reflecting the degree of commitment to this fanciful notion, the group of believers, headed by Mrs. Keech, had taken concrete behavioral steps -- they had left jobs, college, and spouses, and had given away money and possessions to prepare for their departure on the flying saucer, which was to rescue the group of true believers. However by 4:00 A.M. on the appointed day -- Festinger and his researchers who infiltrated and studied Mrs. Keech's group -- observed  that she and her followers were sitting in stunned silence. When a few attempts at finding explanations failed, Mrs. Keech began to cry. However by 4:45 A.M. another mysterious message by automatic writing was sent to Mrs. Keech. It stated, in effect, that the God of Earth had decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm had been called off: "The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction."

The brutal complexities of Iraq demand strategies informed by a serious, intellectually honest understanding of the local jihadist culture-both Shi'ite and Sunni-and an end to the ongoing cognitive dissonance of our policymaking elites "interpreting" daily events, if we are to avoid a real cataclysm.

* From additional letters by Bell, we learn about Buchanan's plight: [Sep 13, 1920]  I saw this morning Mrs Buchanan, the woman whose husband was killed 3 weeks ago in Shahraban [Miqdadiyah]. The whole of the tale I sent you about that business was quite untrue. The affair was over in a couple of hours and the Levies melted away when the tribes attacked. Mrs Buchanan saw her husband killed and was then taken to the house of the mayor where she was kindly treated according to their lights. She can scarcely speak a word of Arabic and has been through the most terrible experience. She has a child in England - and I fancy not a sixpence to live on. ...[October 10, 1920] She is very pretty and attractive and helpless, about 25 with a baby at home. As far as I can make out they neither of them had anything in the world and as they "invested" all their savings in jewels for her which were all stolen she hasn't a penny. She is suffering a good deal from nervous shock, and no wonder...

Andrew G. Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad and The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism.