Iraq Crisis and its global implications for Muslims:

A ten-minute invited talk for University of Victoria workshop on

Responding in Iraq: Mobilizing Our Community for Humanitarian Action

Dr. Arif Babul

University of Victoria

April 16, 2003

(Note to readers: this draft text was prepared for verbal delivery and has not been edited. Please do not cite or quote without permission of the author)

To set the stage for this discussion, let me first briefly summarize the reaction of the Muslims around the world to the Iraq Crisis. Given the rich diversity of cultures, ethnicities, languages, geographic location and most important of all, interpretations of Faith that characterize the world’s billion Muslims, I usually avoid generalizations that reinforce the commonly held misperception of Muslims as being part of some monolithic collective.

Nonetheless, in this particular instance, it is safe to say that most of my fellow Muslims are extremely apprehensive, anxious and even conflicted. They are deeply worried about the implications of the dramatic swing towards unilateralism on the world stage. They are deeply pained by the uneven application of social justice by the dominant powers, and the suffering that this is causing to ordinary Muslims. And they are suspicious that what we are witnessing is the beginning of a new era of colonialization, in which Baghdad is just the first step in the march to Damascus, Tehran, Islamabad and eventually, Mecca.

Even the [quote] "liberated" Iraqis share in this mistrust. For a liberated people, their response seems remarkably muted. We have all seen images of people dancing in the streets when the American forces moved into Baghdad a week ago. However, what is especially noteworthy is the number of people involved. For a city of 5 million, the number shown celebrating was embarrassingly small. After all, it was not that long ago that we viewed images of thousands upon thousands celebrating, for example, in the streets of Romania at the downfall of the Ceausescu regime.

To understand the origins of these sentiments, it is important to realize that the Iraq Crisis cannot be treated in isolation. For more than a hundred years, the governments and the peoples of the Muslim World have been treated as pawns and proxies, first by the English and the Russians as part of their Great Game, and then by the Americans and the Russians during the Cold War. Populist representative governments have been deposed in coups organized by foreign governments, in favour of "dependable" strongmen and Royal Houses. Many of the regimes that we find so abhorrent today were in fact installed and supported by external forces, and in some cases, the arrangement continues till today.

In fact, focusing just on the recent crises: The lack of concerted effort in bringing about a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Afghan War, the now-Iraq War, the recent threats against Syria and Iran, the unbalanced coverage in Western media that seeks to accentuate only the negative aspects of the current struggles afflicting Muslim nations – in essence, contributing to the demonization of Islam as a violent, backward religion – and the worrisome blanket attack on the civil rights of Arab and Muslim minorities here in the West post 9/11, and the sense of humiliation and violation that that has entailed – All of these are leading many Muslims to wonder whether what we are witnessing, contrary to all denials, is indeed a "War against Islam".

This perception, if allowed to continue, will have grave consequences. Already, the perceived sense of injustice, of powerlessness, threatens to radicalize moderate Muslims of all stripes, both here in the West as well as in the East. These, however, are the very people that we need to support, encourage, and give voice to.

Emerging modern Muslim nation states are caught in the throes of a fundamental struggle, the ramifications of which ought not to be underestimated. This is the struggle between, on one hand, movements seeking to forge what can be best described as "pluralistic civil societies" that draw their strength and inspiration not only from Islamic ethical paradigms but also from local conditions, histories and traditions, and on the other, supporters of an extremist interpretation of Islam – of the kind that we saw manifest in Afghanistan – who are typically intolerant of all but their own narrowly defined version of Islam, and would like nothing better than to "cleanse" the world’s billion Muslims of their distinctiveness – by violent means, if necessary.

The civil wars in Tajikistan and in Afghanistan, the radicalization of countries such Pakistan – and even the September 11th terrorism – were and are by-products of this "struggle".

The ascendancy of the radical strands – the most virulent form of which is associated with Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia – is partly due to the support and nurturing it received during the Cold War. Not too long ago, this movement was cultivated, even welcomed, as an ally against communism, and its unsavoury features were conveniently ignored. Today, this movement is disrupting Muslim communities all around the world – including here in North America.

In light of this, the fundamental challenge – as far as Iraq is concerned – is whether the international community, has the will, the dedication, – and most important of all, the wisdom - to establish the enabling conditions for the emergence of a civil society that is grounded in the religious and historical traditions of the Iraqi people, that recognizes the ethnic and religious diversity of Iraq, that is firmly grounded in the principles of pluralism and tolerance – all guaranteed by a fair representative system of governance that is capable of continuous renewal.

I would like to very clear that although these ideals may seem similar in spirit to the kinds of ideals that underpin our societies here, "the devil is in the details". It is quite likely that the manner in which the tensions between the Rights of the Individual and the Rights of the Society are negotiated may turn out to be different from how we have resolved them here. What I am trying to emphasize is that foreigners cannot dictate the details of the kind of society that emerges; they must necessarily be worked out by the Iraqis themselves, forged out of the conditions and needs particular to Iraq.

In the struggle to stem the spread of Extremism and promote the emergence of stable civil societies, Iraq is an especially important test case. It is country with an astounding diversity, both ethnic and religious: We have Turks, Kurds, Persians, and Arabs; we have Christians, possibly surviving pockets of the ancient community of Iraqi Jews, and of course, Sunni and Shiite Muslims. And among the latter, there are Arab Shiites and non-Arab Shiites. The kinds of relationships these different groups will form are difficult to predict. Admittedly, the Iraqi population is highly educated, and has a rich and noble history; however, it is not clear – at the moment – whether the principles that underlie a "pluralistic civil society" will take root in Iraq any more easily than in Afghanistan.

The successful birth of a civil society in Iraq could prove to be an important milestone towards marginalizing the Extremists, and such an outcome would – in the long term – prove to be extremely positive for the many heterogeneous nations across Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It will greatly strengthen Central Asian countries like Tajikistan and Afghanistan in their struggle to do the same. It is likely to have profound implications for states like Syria, where a Shiite government rules over a majority Sunni population and for Iran, which itself is struggling to establish a "modern representative civil state" within the context of its own historical, religious, and ethnic traditions.

Success, however, will not come easily. Chaos, civil unrest and inequity works to the advantage of the Extremists and I fully expect the Extremist movement – especially that in the neighbouring Saudi Arabia – to try to play the spoiler. The Iraqi society – like that in Afghanistan – may require years of careful nurturing by all of the international community.

I very much hope that the Canadian Government and Canadian NGOs are in the forefront of this effort. Canada and Canadians are trusted. Canada command tremendous international respect for its commitment to social justice, peace-building and multilateralism. In this context, I would like to applaud the Federal Government for its courageous and principled stance in favour of multilateralism during the present crisis.

Canada’s successful on-going experiment in multiculturalism is being noticed. We have managed to establish a rich, vibrant pluralistic society. We have learnt how to negotiate our respective differences in a peaceful and tolerant fashion without sacrificing our ancestral and communal identities. As a Canadian Muslim, I call upon my government, on my fellow Canadians who are Muslims – in fact, on all of us – to take a leadership role in sharing our collective experiences and insights on the international stage.

We have before us the beginnings of a great tragedy or a unique opportunity.

Thank you.