Thursday, April 01, 2004

Unconquerable Hate

One response to the Mogadishu-like mutilation of civilian contractors ambushed in Fallujah, in the heart of Iraq's Sunni triangle, would be to pull American troops out entirely, an event eagerly awaited by some in the Shi'ite majority, the same ones who have been asking the US for permission to constitute and arm their militias. Just a month ago, 182 Shi'ite worshippers were massacred outside mosques in Karbalah and Baghdad on the holy day of the Ashura. Not a stone would be left on stone in the heartland of Iraq's former ruling elite, filled with men of whose sense of entitlement is only exceeded by their ignorance, were they not guarded by US forces.

Deeply conservative and anti-American, Fallujah has a population of some 200,000, all of whom are members of Islam's mainstream Sunni Muslim sect. Some subscribe to radical interpretations of Islam, finding behavior by American troops like raiding homes and detaining men in front of wives and children as deeply offensive. "Fallujah is a very, very complex place," said Lt. Col. Brian Drinkwine, the senior U.S. officer here. "Every time you peel back a layer you are faced with a new set of problems."

Karl Zinmeister of the American Enterprise Institute, who visited Fallujah and Baghdad last year, captures some of the toxic atmosphere in Sunni triangle at a meeting between US officers and imams that he personally attended. Note that these men were from Southern Baghdad and not from Fallujah.

Two of the most inflammatory imams in southern Baghdad--Sheik Akram of the Mekkad al-Mokarama mosque, and Sheik Riyad of Abu Bakr--have been summoned to appear before Col. Fuller. Despite being called to the police station on Wednesday and read the riot act by Lt. Col. Haight, both imams repeated thinly veiled threats against Coalition forces in their latest Friday sermon. Something has got to give.

The U.S. commanders don't know exactly where the imams live, and aren't sure they will show up for today's meeting, though Iraqi Police have been dispatched to each mosque with a summons. Finally, perhaps a half hour late, they arrive. Sheik Akram wears a kind of dished turban on his head, and a floor-length cream tunic. In two long meetings where I have a chance to observe him, Akram strikes me as a deceiver, and a bit simple. His eyes shift rapidly and he often shrugs his shoulders and cracks pained satirical smiles. Sheik Riyad, chubby and dark-bearded and wearing a white shawl over his head and shoulders that always holds an exquisite little crease where it falls above his nose, is brighter but even less transparent. He is openly haughty, arrogant, and dripping with disdain. ...

Dodging, rationalizing, and backpedaling when forced to, Akram and Riyad are skating at the brink of arrest for inciting violence. But American officers throughout Iraq are striving mightily to avoid such detainments. They are bending over backward to show respect for imams, mosques, and the Muslim religion, so as not to feed paranoia that the U.S. presence in Iraq is part of a crusade against Islam.

But since it is Al Qaeda's policy to precipitate civil war in Iraq and America's goal to hold it together, the Sunnis in Fallujah will be safe from massive reprisal for the present, though the perpetrators of this recent outrage are living out their last hours. Yet even if the challenge can be met without destroying Fallujah it is uncertain whether it can be accomplished without destroying Fallujah's culture. In a wider sense the ritual dragging and meathook hangings, the passing out of sweets and cold drinks to celebrate the death of the infidel are things not confined to Sunni triangle. The West Bank festivities after September 11, the famous scene of Palestinian youths holding out their bloodstained hands in almost sexual ecstasy as they tear a Jew limb from limb, or troops pursuing Islamic rebels on a Philippine island seemingly littered with detached heads poses an existential problem for Western democracy. They are the 21st century equivalents of finding the crematoriums of Auschwitz and Dachau or being forced to watch, with unaverted eyes, the wholesale extermination of a Chinese city under the banner of the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. They leave us wondering whether there are ideas on earth which cannot claim the protection of tolerance and democratic space.

Yet here lies the last danger. Our hand is stayed by fear that the Thing is waiting to transfer its malevolence to us. It has lost the field, but still hungers after our souls. 'Smite us', it says, 'and come to prayer; come to Islam'. Militarily impotent, it has retreated within its herd and built around itself a wall of unconquerable hate, daring us to enter its cave. Here it lurks safe from bullets, for in the end a culture can be displaced only by another culture. The West cannot win the Global War on Terror until it rediscovers the wellsprings of its own belief, until it sends out teachers alongside soldiers, until it finds the courage to judge Islam, or certain Islamic sects, by a higher standard. Only if it rediscovers what it found, then lost, after Nuremberg can it save itself and save Fallujah.

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
-- Satan, in Paradise Lost