Politics & Policy

The Power of Shame

Why so many American's don't get the Sunni opposition.

EDITOR’S NOTE:This is the first in a five-part series of excerpts from In the Red Zone by Steven Vincent. Together they constitute Chapter 4, “The ‘Resistance.’”

The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not “insurgents” or “terrorists” or “The Enemy.” They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow–and they will win.

–Michael Moore

She was a Sunni Muslim, an attractive, thirty-something writer, one of the few women I met who eschewed a scarf in public. And she was overjoyed at the demise of Saddam. “I am so happy! Freedom at last! The world is open to me now!” she exclaimed during a small social function at an art gallery in Karada. “Can you recommend some American magazines I might send my writing to?”

I promised I’d draw up a list of suitable periodicals, then added–carelessly, for this was my first trip to Iraq–”You must not mind seeing American soldiers on the streets.”

The woman’s smile vanished. Her brow darkened and she shook her head. “Oh, no. I hate the soldiers. I hate them so much I fantasize about taking a gun and shooting one dead.”

Stunned by her vehemence, “But American soldiers are responsible for your freedom!” I replied.

“I know,” the woman snarled. “And you can’t imagine how humiliated that makes me feel.”

He was a short, intense, bespectacled lawyer from Baquba, who claimed he had connections with anti-Coalition forces in the Sunni Triangle. As we drove through the desert into Baghdad, “I hate your country,” he informed me. “Every time I see a U.S. tank I feel like it is crushing my skull.”

Less startled by this expression–for this was my second trip to Iraq–I asked the attorney the cause of his feelings. As if explaining the most self-evident thing in the world, he replied, “America is occupying my country–as a patriot, of course I must resist.” He fixed his wire-rimmed gaze on me. “Imagine if a foreign power was occupying America–wouldn’t you resist?”

I think of these people each time I read about violence in the Sunni Triangle, that one-hundred-mile area stretching from Tikrit to the north, Ramadi to the east, and Baghdad to the west. I think of similar Iraqi confessions of shame, resentment, or “patriotism” each time I hear of an American soldier or Iraqi civilian killed by an IED, mortar assault, or car bomb. I feel a simmering anger over the pointlessness of these attacks and those aspects of Arab psychology that cling to humiliation and rely on violence to satisfy grievances. And my anger burns hotter when I read comments from the Western media ennobling these murderous “insurgents” by calling them the “Resistance”–or, more horribly, the “Revolution”–ignoring the thousands of Iraqis who risk their lives every day opposing the nihilistic bloodlust of these men.

After more than eighteen months of fighting in Iraq, there seems to be no means of dealing with this insurrection. The Kurds and the Shia (renegade cleric Moqtada al-Sadr notwithstanding) have shown a willingness to negotiate over the future of Iraq–why not the Sunnis? What do they hope to gain from their “guerrilla” war against the U.S. and against the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi? More important, what factors in the Arab Iraqi character lie behind Sunni opposition to a democratic Iraq, and why can’t American politicians, military personnel and members of the media seem to understand them?

*******

Nothing is more humiliating to a man than to be the subject of another man’s authority.

–Arab proverb

We hadn’t considered it, those of us who supported the war. After all, it made no sense, it was unreasonable. And yet, the moment I spoke to that woman at the art gallery, I knew: even as they were being liberating from Saddam, Iraqis felt shamed by the fact that they couldn’t do the job themselves.

“If only you’d given us more time, we would have risen up and overthrown him,” a waiter at the Orient Palace lectured me a couple of days later. “It’s terrible, when I think of it,” a student at Baghdad University said. “A foreign army has to come across the world to free us from Saddam–who are we, then?” This sense of indignity, of loss of “face,” explained the ungracious gratitude many Iraqis evinced toward the U.S.–the “Thanks America, now go home” syndrome. How naïve we were to believe that they would greet our troops with flowers, as Dick Cheney so famously and wrongly predicted. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies explained in a report on Iraq’s reconstruction, “the United States should expect continuing resentment and disaffection even if the U.S.-led reconstruction efforts seem to be making positive, incremental improvements to the country according to quantifiable measures. In other words, the occupation will not be judged by the sum of its consequences, but rather qua occupation.”

In retrospect, it seems obvious. No one likes being beholden to another for his freedom. The Iraqis consider it incomprehensible that a people with a glorious Sumerian and Babylonian heritage and a country with rich natural resources had to rely on foreigners for rescue. “No wonder civilization began here,” said a teacher at the Shabandar café. “We have everything–food, water, oil, minerals.” This pride, however, has its negatives. Since Iraq today isn’t in much of a position to fulfill its potential, its people often project their sense of superiority outward–most notably on the United States–which only reinforces their sense of national disgrace.

Steven Vincent is a freelance investigative journalist and art critic living in New York City. He is blogging about Iraq at www.redzoneblog.com.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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