Iraq: Past, Present, and Pivotal Future

Iraq: Past, Present, and Pivotal Future
Hassan Mneimneh, (June 25, 2020)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Hassan Mneimneh is Principal at Middle East Alternatives in Washington DC. He is a Scholar at the Middle East Institute and Contributing Editor at Fikra Forum at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

He was previously Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and Director of the Center for Global Engagement at the Institute for American Values. Between 1999 and 2008, Mneimneh assumed leading functions at the Iraq Memory Foundation, the Iraq Foundation, and the Iraq Research and Documentation Project.

Mneimneh specializes in the affairs of the Middle East, North Africa, and the wider Islamic world with a particular emphasis on radicalism and factionalism. In previous capacities, he has focused on the significance of socio-political and cultural developments in the MENA region to US and European policies; assessed civil reaction to radicalizing tendencies in Muslim societies; and studied the evolution, record, and prospects of radical Islamist formations worldwide. He has written, in English, Arabic, and French, on political, cultural, historical, and intellectual questions concerning the Arab and Muslim worlds.


Robert R. Reilly:


Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, the director. I am delighted today to welcome back as a Westminster speaker one of our very best, and absent for far too long. I speak of Hassan Mneimneh, who is principal at Middle East Alternatives in Washington, DC. He is a Scholar at the Middle East Institute and Contributing Editor at Fikra Forum at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

By the way, you can subscribe to Fikra Forum complimentarily, and I encourage your reading of this publication because it contains some of the most incisive analyses of the Middle East, and of what it publishes I find Hassan Mneimneh’s the most penetrating analyses, so I pass that on for your consideration. Hassan was previously Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and Director of the Center for Global Engagement at the Institute for American Values.

More pertinently for the subject which Hassan is going to be addressing us on today is his considerable experience in Iraq. Between 1999 and 2008, Hassan Mneimneh assumed leading functions at the Iraq Memory Foundation, the Iraq Foundation, and the Iraq Research and Documentation Project. I will only add from my own perspective that he greatly contributed to the production of a documentary series of the victims of Saddam Hussein’s regime and helped fashion a one-hour television show that became the second most popular in Iraq on Al Iraqi Television, particularly during the Ramadan period, which of course is when in the Muslim world television gets its highest viewership. This was a singular accomplishment.

Hassan Mneimneh specializes in the affairs of the Middle East, North Africa, and the wider Islamic world with a particular emphasis on radicalism and factionalism. He has written, in English, Arabic, and French, on political, cultural, historical, and intellectual questions concerning the Arab and Muslim worlds. He will now address us on the subject of “Iraq: Past, Present, and Pivotal Future.” Thank you.

Hassan Mneimneh:


Thank you so much for your kind words and really it is an honor and a privilege for me to be associated with the Westminster Institute for this presentation but also in particular with you, what you have been in terms of supporting American values, universal values through your diligent work, helping Iraqis rebuild their information operation in particular after the fall of the dictatorial regime. Indeed, what I am going to be talking about today is Iraq as it stands, Iraq as it was, and Iraq as it could be, it is Iraq past, present, and pivotal future.

What I would propose to you is the following: that the rise of the new Iraq is naturally conditioned on its ability to successfully face its economic, administrative, and geo-strategic challenges but also, maybe even more importantly, to address, manage, and reform its political culture, its historical legacy, its religious heritage, its national identity, and its place in the world. While the immediate paramount importance of concrete concerns (safety, livelihood, employment, health, education, environment, food security, water security, and other issues, other salient issues that impose themselves) cannot be questioned, a new Iraq will succumb to the recurrent and incessant hard challenges that it faces if it does not achieve cultural security. The problem faced by Mustafa Kadkhimi, the new Prime Minister of Iraq, in many ways a paradigm shift of being Prime Minister of Iraq, is evidently structured. He has to face all of the structural issues that are listed and many more, but it is also culture.


I will start by addressing the present, I will move to the past, and then to the future. Evidently, talking about Iraq, we have to talk about the economy of Iraq. This is the major problem that it is facing today. What we have to admit is that seventeen years after the fall of the dictatorship, we have to say that Iraq as a viable economy has been a failure. This is a hard admission on the part of the Iraqis in particular, but it is a necessary one.

Iraq in the course of the past close to two decades has continued to rely on a rentier state model. It has one commodity that it sells, oil, and not even refined oil. And on the basis of the revenue of that commodity, it tries to manage in turn. Well, it has not managed it well.

The problem we are facing here even in terms of the economy is the problem of false nostalgia. You do have people in Iraq saying the current state of affairs, which is so bad, has to be compared and contrasted with the industrial advancements that Iraq had witnessed in the decades under dictatorship in the ’70s but mostly in the ’80s, and even in the ’90s under harsh sanctions, claiming even that the autarky that Iraq tried to reach was basically an indication that maybe dictatorship is the way to go. We hear such voices unfortunately on social media repeatedly. There is a glorification of the dictator. There is a glorification of the period that was.

The problem of this vision, in addition to it basically misrepresenting the advancements that Iraq had made in the ’80s and to a certain extent in the ’90s by being run by the dictatorship instead of ones despite the dictatorship, is that it also ignores the fact that these advancements all were set in the context of the regime priorities. The regime’s priorities were survival, so any advancement that Iraq was able to achieve, the regime was willing to let go instantly in order for it to survive.

This is why, actually, the sanctions that were imposed on Iraq need to be reviewed and revised because in more ways than one to sanction a dictatorial regime is to invite that regime to be even more in its imposition in basically passing the sanctions on to the audience to try to lose, but make the society lose more. In any case, so that is in need of review, but we need to understand that any advancement that was in the course of those two decades were for the survival of the regime, for militarism, clearly, because any so-called scientific advancement was solely for the purpose of more weapons, more tools of war, etc., including Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), including basically pursuits that ended up being beyond wasteful, actually, inviting the world community to step in.

And the third element of the previous period was cronyism – survival, militarism, and also cronyism – in the course of which only people close to the regime were able to really benefit, so the previous model is not one to be emulated, but the current model is clearly one that did not work. It did not work because it was a problem mainly of a reliance on the rentier state model, basically, that had one commodity, but also an abuse of governance.

One can point actually to Iraq suffering in the course of the past decade-and-a-half of deep corruption, but beyond corruption we are talking about kleptocracy. Corruption is when you try to basically move around the system in order, for example, whether through contracting or whether through extracting undue fees and funds from the public, you try to enrich yourself, but the kleptocratic system in Iraq was such that basically, by following the rules, the established rules you can basically enrich yourself as a member of the political elite and this is exactly what happened. So Iraq suffered and still suffers.

The current prime minister has basically announced that his order of business number one is to try to dismantle this huge edifice of kleptocracy that there is, but this edifice is there today. We have to admit that this is why Iraq, despite that the fact that it being objectively a very rich country, is in effect in bankruptcy because the kleptocratic system effectively, if we use here the model of a cow, sustainable corruption, sustainable kleptocracy, is one that basically makes the cow for its own advantage.

Well, Iraq went from a situation in which that cow was made into a situation where that cow was being bled for the advantage of the political class all the way to becoming slaughtered for the advantage of this class, which is clearly an untenable model and this is where we have it now, crashing. It is not at all kind of the chances, the possibility of Iraq lifting itself from this mess is not very high, but this is the challenge that is facing the prime minister today.

If it was simply a question of an economic model that is extremely shortsighted, one of a rentier state, a governance model that is thoroughly unsustainable, one of kleptocracy and beyond milking into bleeding and slaughtering the cow, which is the nation here or at least the nation’s resources, if these were the only two challenges, one would have said that these are very difficult challenges and I do not envy any attempt at trying to rescue the nation from them.

Unfortunately, they are only half of the major challenges that face Iraq today. The other two are evidently terrorism and Iranian hegemony. Here again, the tendency today in Iraqi social media is to try to dismiss terrorism as an artifact of foreign intervention. It is the U.S. that funds ISIS presumably and all sorts of other mythologies that are in circulation. I will talk about that a little bit more later on, but it is important to underline terrorism is both an Iraqi local production and a primary Iraqi export other than oil I guess, and this is not something to be bragging about. I am talking here about the local production and the global exchange because yes, Iraq did import for example from Saudi Arabia the rigidity of the Salafi school of Islamic thought that ultimately the terrorists in Iraq were able to expand on and make of it the extremely harsh jihadism that they promote. But actually, the Islamic State as a global phenomenon is to a large extent an Iraqi-centered Islamic State, and this is something that I think is important for Iraqis to face down the line.

The other side of the equation is because you have terrorism, which is largely Sunni Islamist terrorism, has to be basically underlined that it comes as a counterweight or a counter balance in terms of the horrors that you are faced with with Iranian hegemony. Here we are talking about the overwhelming weight of Iranian penetration in Iraqi society, which remains to be assessed, but there is no question about it, that it is extremely difficult for Iraqis to proceed without finding a way to if not completely excise this influence, this penetration, at least to reduce it to a manageable level, and this is again actually in terms of the current prime minister, who keeps on underlining his intent to do it.

Whether he is going to be able or not is really questionable given that Iran ultimately accepted his ascent to the prime ministership maybe as a concession on their part in recognition of the state of their influence in Iraq given that the success of the American policy of engaging Iran in a stranglehold in economic warfare to force it to change behavior, but also another reason Iran might have tolerated the choice of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as Prime Minister is because it knows it has enough assets positioned in the country to be able to sabotage whatever he tries to engage in, and therefore we should have no illusion that the intent of al-Kadhimi to simply restore Iraqi sovereignty and Iraqi independence, effectively, is going to be an easy one if at all.

These four major challenges are like the impossible or at least the extremely difficult set of challenges that face Iraq today: an economic model that does not work, a governance model that needs to be scrapped because it is based on the theft of public resources to a kleptocratic arrangement, terrorism, which despite the fact that it has been curtailed, but we know well that what has been successful so far is being able to basically defeat them tactically and not necessarily in a strategic final way, and finally and actually probably as important as the three together is the Iranian overwhelming weight in Iraq.

So these are the problems and if it were just for this, I would submit to you that these are the problems of today, Iraq faces basically an existential problem, but I would add to this and actually make it almost as a prerequisite to be able to succeed in facing those challenges beyond the immediate, beyond the temporary. They need to re-conceive Iraq. This is not theoretical, this is not about culture as a high commodity, this is about everyday life. What I would suggest to you is the following. To a large extent, Iraq over the past many decades has not suffered from a decline as much from an induced one, a forced one, therefore let us call it a declination, meaning it did not decline as a result of conditions that are random or conditions that are external to it. There has been really an effort at forcing Iraq to decline.

Now it is very kind of convenient for well-meaning Iraqis, well-meaning people in the Middle East, but also people with ideological agendas to agree with that statement and point the finger to the party that is presumably responsible, call it colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, neo-imperialism. Well, I would suggest and this is something I am glad to say that many in the region are engaged in actually a similar way of looking at the question. This is without denying that external elements influence it, external elements pushing enhance a direction or another, but the primary problem that has been faced in Iraq and in the region (Iraq is really almost like an archetype for the region), has been not colonialism, not the outside, but reductionism, the inside.

What we have faced in the course of the past century is a work in progress, which is the appropriation of modernity. The region in its self-awareness, in its self-definition, and Iraq once again is kind of a leading model, a leading example in that, has basically had an incomplete and unachieved (actually a partial) appropriation of modernity, and as a result, the effects of reductionism on political culture have been devastating.

What I submit to you is the following: what we have is the notion of unity, unity across the board, the many ideologies that ended up successively dominating the narrative in Iraq, and dominating therefore politics in Iraq, and leadership in Iraq and across the region, insisted on unity. But unity here was perceived as normatively formative. In order for unity to be achieved, there needed to be sort of an eradication of differences rather than an embrace of difference as well.

So the individual was subsumed into the nation. The individual is just an atom, representative of the whole, which is the nation, so instead of the focus being on the citizen, the focus for example became on the nation. How do we define the nation here? We have had a number of iterations, a number of different characterizations, but nonetheless, in the end in these different characterizations the individual was always viewed as basically a pawn or a unit in unity, and therefore the focus is on the nation. But then as a result of this reductionism, the nation itself gets subsumed or gets to be represented by the party, and therefore it is no longer about the nation, it is about the party that embodies the nation.

And as a further stage of reductionism, the party itself gets reused, gets subsumed, in the figure of the leader, so the leader embodies the party that embodies the nation that represents the individual, and the individual is lost. And it becomes so the measure of success, the measure of progress, the measure of prevailing becomes to the extent that the leader has survived, the leader has basically been elevated to a theós.

This is what was Arab nationalism. Arab nationalism might have started as a way of trying to get some cultural pride. Soon enough it evolved from that to producing the Ba’ath. The Ba’ath produced Saddam, and Saddam produced the dictatorship and the terror and the death that we saw across Iraq up until the fall of the regime. But again the same pattern exactly we are not talking here about an antithesis, we are talking about another production of the same pattern, which happened with Islamism.

So again, irrespective of the fact that to start with an Islamic political expression is already exclusive of non-Muslims. But even then, even if we condone that unforgivable exclusion, we are still talking about a proposition that reduces the Muslim to just a peg in a unity that needs to be basically focused upon, and that unity gets to be embodied by the organization, whether it is Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, and then it is the survival of the leader and the survival of the leadership at least is what matters.

I am proposing to you that when we talk about the need to challenge political culture in Iraq is to move away from the reductionism that has basically produced what in Iraq has been in dominant currency to the notion of the state of its citizens, to the notion of basically valuing the individual.

I will get a little bit more into it, but what I need to talk about is that in addition to that there needs to be a renegotiation, a re-discussion of the place of Iraq in civilization, and I do not mean the place of Iraq in Islamic civilization. I do not mean the place of Iraq in Middle Eastern civilization. I mean the place of Iraq in the global civilization that we have today. It is interesting to see that for example while in the West very often there is the sense that the antiquity of Western civilization is Greek and Roman.

For the Greeks themselves and therefore for the Romans, who looked up to the Greeks as, if you like, a frame of reference or as their cultural origins, for the Greeks themselves the frame of reference actually included Mesopotamia and Egypt. But in this case let us focus on Egypt. I mean one can think for example of the Hellenistic period of Berossus in particular and his highlighting of that, but even if we go beyond that, the issue here is that it is not uncommon for intellectuals in the West to recognize that the seeds of Western civilization are in Sumeria, are in early Mesopotamia. After all, semiotically we are all still framed by this early Mesopotamian, early Sumerian norms, whether our hour, which is sixty minutes, or our week, which is seven days, or our zodiac, etc. Semiotically we are framed, but beyond.

I mention all of this just to say that there is a need in Iraq to re-appropriate its own history and this is happening, this is not a novel idea for Iraqis. I mean I am mentioning here a lot of current Iraqi attempts at this, in this direction, not ones that seek to isolate in order to create internal narratives of dispute, meaning we are the descendants of x while you, my Iraqi neighbor of another clan, sect, or religion are not. No, I am talking about what is clearly the case, an Iraq has been part of the global civilization, and needs to be restored in the minds, in the culture of Iraq today, even the political one, into that level.

So here in terms of the themes I am mentioning we can have two, small, very quick case studies. One is a case study in reductionism. I mean keep in mind the Iraqi flag of pre-1990, the flag of Iraq prior to the Gulf War, had three green stars in the middle of these stripes of red, white, and black. These are pan-Arab colors and these stripes date back to one of many attempts. I mean they get reinterpreted all of the time, but one of many attempts at Arab unity again in that push for reductionism.

Well, in the course of the Gulf War Saddam Hussein added the two words “Allahu Akbar” to the flag with his own handwriting, and through multiple iterations that actually we can point to almost as kind of reducing the flag more and more. The flag of Iraq today still carries Saddam Hussein’s religious words, “Allahu Akbar,” despite the fact that the stars have been removed, but the colors remain the same.

I am mentioning here that we have not been able to get out of the reductionist mindset that lead to this flag. The missed opportunity in mind as a non-Iraqi but as someone who looks with extensive love and admiration to Iraq is the missed opportunity of the Rifat Chadirji flag. Rifat Chadirji is a renowned architect from Iraq who died recently, a theorist, but not just of architecture but notions of culture he proposed that flag that outraged many in Iraq.

This flag is in more ways than one Rifat Chadirji’s attempt at relinking Iraq not just to its deep history and not limiting it to basically the phases of its history that have been called by the reductionists in past phases, but I think missing that opportunity is something to look at as an indication of how reductionism remains basically in the Iraqi culture and maybe it is also talking about the flag.

I mean Iraq has and had even more so a substantive Christian Iraqi population that at least was not totally in comfort with the flag since Saddam added Allahu Akbar. What I find amazing is that this community, especially in church events, replaced Allahu Akbar with Allahu Mahaba, God is love, which is a Christian statement but nonetheless it is kind of compatible with all religious denominations in Iraq. The issue here I am mentioning it just to say there is negotiation even within reductionism that ought to be recognized, and this negotiation is in the direction of a certain Iraq as basically heir to a culture far larger than what reductionists would like to see happen.

So another case study which is of extreme value (and I would suggest to you that it is a defining moment in recent Iraqi intellectual history) is Kanan Makiya’s Republic of Fear. Here what we have for the first time maybe not just in Iraq but across Arab culture is an attempt through this book that Kanan Makiya published anonymously to start with actually, he took a pseudonym, but later on he acknowledged it. It was an attempt to try to find the roots of self-destruction in one’s self as oppose to assign the destruction that has suffered in society, in politics, in culture to the other outside.

Kanan Makiya’s book, the Republic of Fear, was an eye-opener for many Iraqis. Actually, it was published in the ’80s, but it really shaped a generation of Iraqis that only today are beginning to assume a position of power. The generation before, which in some cases shared, in some cases disputed, Kanan Makiya’s self critique of Iraq, is now apparently, hopefully actually, yielding to the new generation that looks at matters from a perspective that is far less dogmatic and far less reductionist.

The cultural change that is needed – and this is part of the challenge that faces Mustafa al-Kadhimi in the next phase – is therefore not just one that is limited to notions of addressing the big, concrete challenges, but also in particular how to help transition Iraq from elements of a mindset that are really, basically far destructive at least obstacles to fall elsewhere. What we are talking about is a transition from a mode of patriarchy to citizen sovereignty.

I share with you here an anecdote that to me has remained relevant throughout. I went to Iraq after the fall of the regime. A driver took me from Jordan to Baghdad and we got to talk a lot. In the course of talking to him he mentioned to me, “Yeah, I can see that really Saddam Hussein was very harsh and he was actually very unjust in many cases. However, he was a father. He was a harsh father. He was maybe an unjust father, but now we are without a father.”

This notion of patriarchy, this notion of thinking of the leadership, thinking of the political leadership as being a frame of reference in a family model, is actually dominant across the region. This is not limited to Iraq. It is not even limited to the region, but it is contrary to the whole notion of citizen sovereignty, that ultimately the prime minister, the president, is the public servant, he is not the father.

And this transition from patriarchy to citizen sovereignty is one that is difficult and it takes a lot. For example, what we currently have is part of the protests in Iraq is demands on the part of university graduates to have employment. They want guaranteed employment, so in addition to patriarchy basically having to move toward citizen sovereignty, moving from paternalism and this sense of entitlement to this father figure, to the state, toward a culture of individualism and empowerment. I mean the idea is that it is not just that the state is not the father, the state is not the mother, the state is not supposed to be the party that provides the employment.

It is supposed to frame the conditions that allows you as an individual to basically innovate and create and be empowered to seek happiness, seek wealth, seek fulfillment. So this is a major cultural shift that remains actually a work in progress at the very best. We have seen that there are lots of Iraqis who are pushing in the direction and among them actually is the prime minister, but the bulk of the culture remains in the mode of that. Even if that were to happen later on, you cannot drop us mid-way. We need employment now and then let us change the culture, which is a fair point.

The third element which requires a serious reconsideration in political culture in Iraq is to transition from the perpetual sense of victimhood to a sense of self responsibility. This cannot be equated to basically promoting impunity or diluting accountability. These are two facets of the same pattern of progress. Very often in Iraq and across the region it is narratives of historical victimhood that dominate, but as a result there is an erosion of trying to address the issues at hand, and this is exactly I think what Kanan Makiya has called for facing, and I think he was on point. This is a question not just for Iraqis, but for everyone in the region; the notion that self responsibility and the responsibility of one’s own society, one’s own family, one’s own heritage, one’s own tradition to the situation that we are in.

And finally, another element that actually is crucially important for the Iraq of the future to work on is the whole notion of moving away from the logic that assumes that because it is a rentier state, because we are getting the funds basically from selling oil, it is a zero-sum game. If you get more, I get less. If Iraq basically transitions to a productive mindset and to a productive economy, well, we can start thinking about basically a win-win mindset that might end up helping Iraq position itself not only where it should be as a leader in the Middle East, but also beyond that to regain its place in the world community, a place that it has been denied by dictatorship, by war, and by terrorism, and lately by Iranian hegemony. I will stop at that, and Bob, I will be happy to take your questions.


Robert R. Reilly:

Hassan, thank you very much for that very illuminating talk. I know that your efforts in Iraq and Kanan Makiya’s were to fight Saddam nostalgia immediately after the fall of the regime because of chaos obtained after the fall, and people were already becoming nostalgic. Therefore, that very powerful one-hour television program that you produced called Overcoming a Legacy of Evil, and as part of it [there was] Steven Spielberg-type interviews with victims of Saddam and as you know he was an equal opportunity persecutor.

And the hope seemed to be that this enormous fund of suffering in Iraq that was across denomination, across tribal boundaries, would mend the Iraqi people and would bring them together for this new endeavor, this new chance that they had for a constitutional government, so it is disturbing to hear you say that Saddam nostalgia is still there. In a way it reminds me of what we hear from Russia, that there is a great deal of Stalin nostalgia. In fact, it reputedly exists among the majority of the Russian population. How big an obstacle is that to the endeavor that you have just outlined?

Hassan Mneimneh:

I think we ought to take it seriously, but we do not need to assume that it is a long-lasting obstacle if dealt with properly. I mean let me here underline the fact that very often it is not a re-nostalgia. It is a false nostalgia in the sense that it is always kinds of selectively retrieving elements that can be presented in a good light, and ignoring the major elements that are horrific. But it is not even this.

Very often it is meant to be a provocative assault on another. For example, there is unfortunately a deep factionalism in some segments of Iraqi society, and therefore this factionalism, the Saddam meme if you like, is recycled in order to provoke, in order to insult on the basis of recalling the nemesis of the other rather than the hero of the self. There are quite a few, whether they pretend to be nationalists, in an Arab-Iraqi sense mind you, they may even pretend to be pan-Arab nationalists, but their concerns rarely go beyond the Iraqi horizon, but those may try to elevate Saddam into a figure of historical leadership.

But it really is mostly trying to deal with this false nostalgia. I think it is extremely important not to let that history of persecution, which is dramatically different from if you like your run-of-the-mill dictatorship, not to let it slide, not to let it be forgotten, but the issue here (it is important to tie it to it) is that the horrors committed by the Saddam regime have continued after the fall of the regime by the horror committed by the Islamic State, and in some cases by the reactions to the Islamic State.

So one cannot simply talk about the period of the dictatorship as if we have witnessed the end of the horrors that Iraqis face. And therefore it is important ultimately the original impetus of trying to self-critically address that period is important to revive it while not limiting it to that period, to include within it what has happened since.

I think this is the first time again, without here putting too much responsibility on the shoulders of a prime minister that is trying to first immediately lift Iraq from the many holes that it is in, but to address that whole issue, the fact that you have grievances of a cultural, historical type in addition to grievances that are about suffering and deep suffering. I think this is why I am suggesting to you that saving Iraq entails addressing it structurally but also culturally.

Robert R. Reilly:

Hassan, you know Mustafa al-Kadhimi very well. Could you speak to his background and personal qualities that may enable him to deal with and perhaps overcome what seems to be insurmountable difficulties?

Hassan Mneimeh:

Well, yes to an extent without betraying any privacy issues, but I will tell you the following about him for sure. From my perspective as someone who has known him, has worked with him, and who actually prides himself on being a friend of his, I would say that this is a principled man who has sacrificed a lot to get where he is as Prime Minister of Iraq while he did not need to be. He did not need to sacrifice. Basically, he has never been part of that circle of kleptocrats. Actually, I think he would challenge anyone to basically try to reveal any kind of corruption or anything associated with him.

This is someone who starts from a conservative background, gradually embraces a very (I would say) compatible combination of patriotism and universalism. This is someone who values Iraq above all, but does not ignore (quite the opposite) – puts human rights and human values front and center as his vision of Iraq. This is why I suggested in my remarks that he might constitute a paradigm shift in being a new prime minister in Iraq because this is not just about a new generation.

The generation of those who were young during the Iran-Iraq War and therefore witnessed it, but not as participants, witnessed it from the sides and then were not in leadership positions in the course of the ’90s leading to the fall of the dictatorship, but nonetheless participated as they could as foot-soldiers if you like in that effort. Mustafa is one of those, so he has lived the Iraqi experience of being under brutal dictatorship, of resisting the brutal dictatorship, but he was not affected by the ideological burdens that are faced by the generation that just passed, of having to accommodate, having to adjust, having to rework their ideological legacy in terms of the Iraq of today.

He comes to the new Iraq with a fresh out look that is very humanist, very universal, and therefore one can expect him in terms of personal capacities, personal qualities to do the right thing, to make the right choices. But it goes beyond the personal, it goes beyond the individual. There is the limitation of what is possible and basically the test for Mustafa is what comes next in terms of how he is going to be able to do with the realities on the ground.

Robert R. Reilly:

I guess part of the question, Hassan, is how appealing to the Iraqi people is that humanist perspective that Mustafa al-Kadhimi has?

Hassan Mneimneh:

I would say today the judgement of Mustafa is not on the basis of his – if you like – philosophy, it is on the basis of the steps that he takes. A recent poll that I had a look at indicated that contrary to what you saw happen in the past, he has a solid majority, a two-third majority of people who approve of the steps that he has taken. But actually I am not sure about the methodology of this poll in terms of asking about philosophy, but I would suggest from just following Iraqi social media, that that humanist, patriotic, universal kind of outlook, one that does not ignore Iraq at all, quite the opposite, Iraq is still front and center.

But nonetheless, it is a universal framework, a global framework in terms of values, which is shared by a large portion of those who protested the failure of the new Iraq in the form of these demonstrations, which were targeted by Iranian proxies, and hundreds of protestors were killed. And therefore while let us not be happy with his ability to deliver because Iraq is effectively bankrupt, and many of the protestors were basically demanding their fair share of the wealth that is no longer there, but this proved that indeed they are right. It is their fair share, but it is not with him for him to be able to dispense it, so they may not be happy with some of the measures that he takes, but nonetheless I would say that this is the first time the dictatorial regime has witnessed a government that is actually understood by society, that it is trying to engage in steps for the benefit of this society on the basis of a vision that is not factional and that is not sectarian.

Robert R. Reilly:

You mentioned patriotism and that was going to be my next question. How strong is it as a source upon which Mustafa al-Kadhimi can draw, keeping in mind those demonstrations in Basra and elsewhere that were directed against exactly the Iranian hegemony about which you spoke earlier? Is that of sufficient strength that he can call upon it to achieve his ends?

Hassan Mneimeh:

It is positively an element that he can call upon, that he is calling upon, and absolutely he could rely on that. Let us be clear about it, and this is important for a non-Iraqi audience, for a Western audience. There has been a narrative that really has been almost dogma in the Western media, even in Western scholarship at times, that Iraq is an artificial country that was put together back one hundred years ago after the Great War, the First World War. And Iraq really is made of three major ethnic groups; Sunni Arabs, Shii Arabs, and Kurds.

And as a result we have even politicians, including if I am not mistaken the Vice President Joe Biden who have suggested, ‘well, let us be done with it and divide Iraq to those three identities’. And we have even witnessed, for example, a certain level of autonomy in Kurdistan of Iraq, and therefore even Kurdish nationalists have insisted this is the spark of something bigger because the Kurds were the largest national group that was ignored in the aftermath of the First World War.

I am not at all here dismissing the death of Kurdish nationalism, a sense of Kurdish identity, quite the opposite, but I would suggest to you the following: these are multiple facets of a population across Iraq that has really a high degree of mingling. For example, among the Sunni Iraqis you will find many of Kurdish origin. Among the Kurdish-speaking Iraqis you will find clans and tribes of Arab tribal origin. Sunnis and Shiis, the intermarriage rates prior to the war was at the point where basically, we are talking in urban settings, wherever they are together, the intermarriage rate is such that it is really one community.

So these realities are not fixed in stone to talk about Sunni, Shii, and Kurd. These are a reflection of an immediate history while if you will take the longer trends within Iraqi history, you can find basically threads that continue from the times of Sumer up until today, threads of behavior, of values, of patterns that are there, and therefore we have here the possibility of really reviving, highlighting the commonalities. It is there. I mean the differences between the various communities in Iraq is really at the level of surface and ritual, not at the level of society. I think many in Iraq today are not only aware of that but are relying on that in order to tell those who have tried to box them in communitarian, sectarian and factional entities that we are not you. I mean too bad for you, your ideology took over your vision of the world. Our ideology is not yours. Our vision is one of nation in the patriotic sense, not in the folk sense, and humanity. And this is something that is seen throughout.

This is – without being expressed the way I am expressing it necessarily, although some have done a far better job expressing it – but this was the reason why for many to say do not try to sell us that Shi’i bond between Iran and Iraq, we are Shia and proud to be, but we are not only Shia, we are Iraqis and we have far more in common with our Iraqi next door, whether Shia, Christian, Mandaen, Shabak, whatever he is, than with Iranians, not that we do not have connections with Iranians, we have plenty, but the connection you are trying to promote is one with an Iranian regime, not with an Iranian population that is actually on a continuum with us. So we have a certain maturity at the level of the new generation that was not there really amongst ideologues.

And yes, the new government of Iraq has to rely on it in order not just to highlight and enhance the sense of patriotism, but it is the patriotism that ought not in any way be one that looks at the other whoever this other is, whether it is Iranian, Saudi, Israeli, Syrian, Turkish as being basically the enemy. The enemy ought to be basically backwardness, the enemy ought to be poverty, the enemy ought to be the threats to the environment and the threats to peace.

The enemy ought to be the coronavirus. I did not even mention this, but clearly I mentioned the standard challenges. Here we have COVID-19 also not having felt in Iraq the way it could still get to be, but these are the real enemies, and I think there is a certain consciousness, a certain awareness at the level of the new Iraqi generation that ought to invite the older Iraqi generation that is more stuck on ideology to basically step aside and let the new generation own its present in order for it to own its future.

Robert R. Reilly:

Hassan, your mention of Sumer spurred a painful memory about the first national newspaper that was begun in Iraq in 2003 after the fall of Saddam by the great dean of Iraqi journalism. Was it Hassan Alawi? It was called Sumer. It was brilliant.

It was a brilliant newspaper that aimed to achieve that sense of national unity based exactly on the grounds that you have just articulated and I remember Kanan Makiya going to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head to try to reverse his decision to shut that newspaper down. Unfortunately, he could not be dissuaded and that was a lost opportunity.

But not to dwell on that, I would like to close with a question raised by your very profound analysis of the cultural issues, the cultural framework. In the West there was a similar period of patriarchal government, which was called the divine right of kings, in which the king presented himself as the father of his people, and his subjects were his children and he was to exercise patriarchal authority over them. They could not disobey the father, the father was above the law, etc.

And then there was a secular expression of state absolutism in the teaching of Thomas Hobbes famous book Leviathan that comports perfectly with what you were describing, that the individual does not exist as a person outside of his membership in the state. He is totally subsumed by the state.

Now, in the West luckily there were older traditions in Christian political philosophy, going back to the Middle Ages, to fight these ideas, that no, no, actually, the people are sovereign. Sovereignty is invested in them, not in this king, and there is a requirement for their consent, and so forth. So after a period of struggle, we saw the development of democratic, constitutional government.

So the question is within Iraqi, Islamic culture are there older traditions to which they can turn to break this patriarchal tradition, which as you know we have not discussed to what extent that obtains in tribal life and to what extent the notion of tribal allegiance still obtains in Iraq today, that can break that notion of patriarchy and restore or give a sense of the popular sovereignty and of the individual’s autonomy quite apart from the state? That is a tough one. That may be enough for another lecture.

Hassan Mneimneh:

I have to count on you, Bob, to ask me a question in the closing minutes that requires probably a series of discussions, but let me be clear. The trajectories of revolution of the relationship between church and state in the West, and religious thought in the East. These are different tracks. They have not followed. They are not in parallel. There is no linear path here or there in order to be able to identify the equivalence for some elements that basically enabled the Enlightenment in the West.

But I would submit to you the following and this is culturally important, that the tradition which is very much the scholastic tradition in Islam is representative of the Islam of the scholars of the Islam of the state. It may have been accepted in theory as representative of beyond by Muslims in their everyday life, but it was overwhelmingly not so in the end.

What I am pointing to here (again, this is a very wide subject) is that much of the concerns, much of the output of the scholastic tradition, of jurisprudence in the scholastic tradition and beyond jurisprudence, was how to deal with this overwhelming majority of Muslims that were not abiding by the vision that we have.

We do not have a theoretical formulation for that overwhelming majority that challenges the scholastic model, but we have an overwhelmingly practical demonstration that the challenge was there throughout. I am mentioning this just in order not to follow into the trap of basically assuming that if there has not been a formulation that highlights and focuses on the individual, therefore this is a missing link until it happens. Basically, we are in a deficit.

I would argue the following: when the Enlightenment reached the region, the scholastic institution was at an extreme unease while the overwhelming majority of the population was not. These ideas were not necessarily expressed explicitly, but they were not unknown to them. One can have a whole analysis on the basis not just of text but of movements, of manifestations that have happened throughout the region of how the ideas of the Enlightenment were not foreign to this region.

[But] not in their totality, I would argue up until today they are not completely assimilated. I would even argue that the intellectuals very often are many steps back compared to the general population in that regard. For example, conventional Islam – again, I am stating this in a very wide way – conventional Islam tolerated a lot of internal contradictions even at the scholastic level, and on the basis of these contradictions it allowed very little if you like harshness to be legalized.

Not that harshness did not happen, harshness happened throughout, but not necessarily as normative while the modern interpretations of Islam, which try to basically get away with inconsistencies, with contradictions, whether in order to create a liberal Islam or a radical Islam basically have enabled a pattern of reductionism.

Again, this is a conversation that can take a lot of time, but just to underline the following: from my point of view explicitly and the point of view of very many people implicitly at least, is that they are not going to wait for the scholastic institution, for the religious scholars to transcend what they have abandoned, what they have not done in terms of finding those foundations. They do accept the authority as a frame of reference, but it is one frame of reference among many. Other frames of reference include the nation, the state, society, the world community, and therefore when the frame of reference, which is religious authority, even if they are cherished, even if they are basically privileged, but when they fail, society does not have to wait for them. We have seen that even in Iraq, for example, with regard really to the outrage of the genocide, enslavement, and collective rape of the Yazidis. Where is the religious authority, not just in Iraq, across the Muslim world? Where are the religious scholars who have denounced that not as harmful to Islam, but as contrary to Islam? Non-existent, but does that mean that society is supposed to wait for these scholars to find the formula in order to graduate? No, society says well, on the basis of other norms, our common humanity, our basic adherence to values that are shared by everyone, we denounce it, and this is actually an act of self-liberation that people have implicitly taken. In a certain sense this has been the challenge that scholastic religious institutions across the region have failed, and that applies to Iraq. The Iraqi young people who transcend factionalism, sectarianism, communitarianism while not saying what I am saying, are effectively saying it. This is why it gives me and a lot of people a lot of hope to look at how we are talking about the maturity of a generation that has been in more ways than one short-changed because the previous generation has denied it a lot of what it is entitled to, but it is now ascending to a position of leadership. Let us hope for the best.

Robert R. Reilly:

Hassan, thank you very much for that. You did answer that question and condensed a tremendous amount in it. Perhaps at another Westminster talk I can entice you to expand upon that because at a certain point there would have to be an articulation of some foundation for them to proceed upon if the changes they wish for are going to be permanent.

Hassan Mneimneh:

Yes, but it is not necessarily religious.

Robert R. Reilly:

No, no, I did not mean to suggest that at all. So that is another program and I hope I can get you back to Westminster without this three or four year hiatus. And Hassan I thank you so much for joining us at Westminster Institute, and we hope to have you back again. Thank you.

Hassan Mneimneh:

Thank you, Bob.