Labour Friends of Iraq
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February 15, 2005

David Hirsh on the need for clear thought

Marcia Saunders writes in a letter in today’s Guardian that the current situation in Iraq can be understood as a conflict between a ‘foreign army of occupation’ fighting a ‘national insurgency’. If it were all as simple as this, then of course solidarity with Iraq would simply involve solidarity with the ‘national insurgency’.

There are two problems. Firstly, nationalism is never as straightforward as it claims to be. Nationalism is an ideology that claims the existence of nations – groups of people whose interests coincide. And nationalists always claim to speak in the name of the nation, pretending that ‘national interest’ over-rides people’s other concerns – such as interests as workers, as women, as lesbians and gays, as Muslims, as Christians, as democrats. Sometimes, there are genuine national anti-colonial movements, where the political demand for national self-determination is one that is agreed by a large majority of the ‘nation’. Even in a genuine movement for national independence, there are different interests, identities and politics that all too easily get subordinated by those who claim to speak as the authentic voice of the nation. People outside such a nation also often recognise the sole legitimate authenticity of one voice that claims to speak for the whole. Whether it is to make solidarity or whether it is to demonise the movement, it is often convenient for outsiders to pretend that the nation is one single homogenous group – that is, to accept the story of those who claim leadership of the nation, and to accept the silencing of other voices.

All too often, the ‘nationalism of the oppressed’ has shown itself to be something much more ambivalent and dangerous as things developed – look at Robert Mugabe, look at the history of Jewish nationalism, look at Ba’athism itself.

The second problem is that the current situation in Iraq does not even approximate to this classical picture of the ‘national liberation struggle’. Even the three categories of Sunni, Shia and Kurd do not tell the whole story, since, of course, within these three groups there are also huge differences and political struggles. Our political and social identities are not defined by our ethnic or national group – why should we assume that this is the case for people in Iraq? Indeed, the project of progressive movements in Iraq is to fight for a politics that breaks out of simple religious, ethnic and national identifications. The ‘resistance’ is supported by a small minority of Iraqis. It is not a national liberation movement, but consists of a number of different militias, some based on the politics of Sunni supremacism, some are religious movements that claim that the only way to be a real Muslim is to seek state power for a version of Islam, some are based on a nostalgia for the Saddam regime, some are based on an idea of anti-imperialism – most are mixtures of the above.

The world in general, and Iraq in particular, are more complicated than the simple schemas of good (oppressed) nations and bad (oppressor) nations, imperialist and anti-imperialist forces. We have to abandon these simple old formulae and we have to think instead.

What is the best way forward, today, for those fighting for a democratic Iraq, for those fighting for a kind of democracy that transcends the rhetoric of the American Republicans?

What is the best way forward for the embryonic Iraqi women’s movement? How can Iraqis for whom ‘Sunni’, ‘Shia’ and ‘Kurd’ do not define their entire political identity have their voices heard? These are real and complex questions, being addressed by people who risk their lives to address them. They need solidarity from people in other countries, not tired old certainties. They do not need the kind of thoughtless and self-satisfied solidarity that gives political support and legitimacy to those who are trying to kill them – ‘the resistance’.

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