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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

first part: the story of da'wa

Distance posses spatial, temporal, cultural and even personal modes. The anthropologist Edward Hall, working in the vein of ecological epistemology that had its origin in studies done for the air force on air fighter and bomber crew reactions, even suggested a science of the near and far: proxemics. Newspapers and tv deal in various degrees of false proximity, which in itself is not a bad thing: after all, illusion surrounds even our most personal acquaintanceship with people and events Like the lovers in Max Ernst’s version of the kiss who wear bags over their heads, even at our closest we never quite know how far away we are.

But …as LI has pointed out with the tedious industry of a woodpecker tearing through the bark of a tree at 5 a.m. outside your window – the problem with the Media coverage in Iraq is less about the good news and the bad news as it is about dealing in a self-created false proximity, omitting major parts of the news that simply don’t fit the American worldview – or at least that worldview shared by the NYT, Fox News, and your local banker. In that worldview, American-like political figures are always important in whatever country they inhabit, and are always movin’ on up. The ordinary people of Iraq are to be sought out and interviewed, occasionally, and even polled: this much is true. But what they say and do is never to be considered in the background of how they actually view things. It is, rather, a phantasmagoria of isolated man in the street stories that occupies a decent interval between interviews with American experts and properly vetted Iraqis.

So it isn’t surprising that the American media has been completely blindsided by the power accrued by the Shi’ite Islamicist parties, and they have still not told us, almost a year and a half after the first elections in Iraq, who these people are or where they come from. For instance, the NYT regularly tells us that Muqtada Al-Sadr is a big supporter of the current Iraqi prime minister, Jafaari. What it doesn’t tell you is that the very party through which Ibrahim Jafari came to power, the Dawa party, that was founded by one of Sadr’s cousins back in the fifties. Three years into the war, and I doubt one American in twenty five has even heard of the Dawa party. Every day you read and hear amazing stories about Islamofascists, or Islamicists, and it has become a wearisome commonplace among the belligeranti to bemoan the alliance of the left and Islamic radicals; meanwhile, the big success story in the Islamic radical world has been propelled by U.S. troops and U.S. money beyond the dreams of any Marin County hippie scion. The very party that seeded Hezbollah in Lebanon is the party that U.S. soldiers defend, today. The often expressed idea that the “good news” in Iraq is that violence only embroils a central region is silent about the causes of the southern regions peacefulness: the biggest takeover of territory by a Islamic fundamentalist group since the taking of Afghanistan by the Taliban has occurred there. From the point of view of LI, the comedy of the situation – the Tartufferie of the belligerents, the stirring up of American nativists about Iran (of all places) as we support with might and main the extension of a moderated version of Khomenei’s dream – is predictable. Ignorant armies clashing by night is our definition of slapstick. In articles about American foreign policy, you will always stumble over elevated references to Wilson or Kissinger. Forget them. Think Three Stooges.

LI is, of course, a public service kind of place, so in this post we thought we’d give our readers a timeline of the Dawa party, militants of which the U.S. has been attacking in the vain hope that they can call back the forces that we have unleashed. As LI has often said, the status of the Americans in Iraq has been one of increasing irrelevance since the battle of Najaf in 2004 – since then, the Americans have been used as a tool by various sides, and coddled in their illusion that they have control of a situation they have neither the means nor the intelligence to manage.

So, for the happy few: The history of the Dawa party as I’ve been able to gather it from various sources, with especial mention going to Rodger Shanahan.


1. Founded in 1957 – although since it was founded at a time of intense nationalistic fervor and coups and counter-coups, it isn’t altogether clear that it didn’t exist before 1957. The Da’wa group - Hizb al-Da'wa al-Islamiyya – is, at the time of its founding, a group whose coordinates mesh with the general American Middle Eastern policy, which is all about a paralyzing fear of communism, and the mistaken idea that Nasserite Arabic nationalism is simply the puppet manipulated by the Russian spymasters. This meant that the Da’wa strongly supported the massacre of the so called communists, as well as the real ones, after the overthrow of the great Iraqi leader, al-Qasim – a man who could have lead Iraq to the kind of neutral stance India took. Alas, his coziness with the communists put the black spot on him. Anyway, to use Rodger Shanahan’s three phase schema, the first phase of the Da’wa party lasted until 1968. They grew under Iraq’s leader, Abd al-Salam 'Arif.
2. When the Ba’athists came into power in 68, the party developed a politics that built on the former military government’s statist economic policies, but turned against compromising with Islamicist groups. Of course, this was in the aftermath of the 67 war, which saw the failure of the Nasser model, but had still not seen the eruption in Iran. In fact, it is easy to see that the policies Americans favored in Iran, under the Shah, were being paralleled in Iraq, under the Ba’athists. From Shanahan:

“During the 1970s, the Shi'a journal Risalat al-Islam was shut down, a number of religious educational institutions were closed, and a law was enacted that obligated Iraqi students of the hawza to undertake national military service. The Ba'thists then began specifically targeting al-Da'wa members, arresting and imprisoning them from 1972 onwards. In 1973, the alleged head of al-Da'wa's Baghdad branch was killed in prison, and one year later, 75 al-Da'wa members were arrested and sentenced to death by the Ba'thist revolutionary court.(14) In 1975, the government canceled the annual procession from Najaf to Karbala (known as marad al-ras).”

Since the world exists to be made into an operetta, it should be noted that those who are most anxious to see the Shah’s descendents return to power Iran are most adamant about the U.S. support for the government of Iraq, which is led by those who, in spirit, were persecuted by the Pahlavis. Ah, musical chairs, musical chairs.

3. When finally, in 1980, Saddam Hussein proscribed the party, the leaders of the Da’wa went to various places – Iran, Syria, Lebanon – and met various allies and fates, all shaped by Da’wa’s fundamental Islamic politics. So three members of Da’wa were part of the founding of the Lebanese Hizbollah party. The indispensable Shanahan:
“The attraction of many members to Khomeini's concept of wilayat al-faqih, along with the desire to support the nascent Iranian revolution in the face of invasion by Iraq had repercussions for al-Da'wa. In Lebanon, the increasingly secular outlook of Amal after the disappearance of Musa al-Sadr in Libya, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and Amal leader Nabih Berri's participation in the 1982 National Salvation Committee, all conspired to force many Lebanese al-Da'wa members to seek more activist Shi'a political models. This is reflected in the fact that three of the nine delegates that founded Hizballah in 1982 were members of al-Da'wa.(30) In addition Shaykh Ibrahim al-Amin, Amal's representative in post-revolutionary Iran (and an al-Da'wa member from his Najaf days) returned to Lebanon and recruited many al-Da'wa members into Hizballah.”
4. In the period of the Da’wa diaspora, the major events are: the gravitational effect of the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war on the party, which caused some members to split off and go to SCIRI, and that still causes divisions within the party between those with varying degrees of loyalty to the supreme judgment of the clerics. It should be noted that, from an American perspective, in one way this doesn’t matter at all: the economic aspects of Islamicist philosophy have long shed the first, fine puritanical indignation at the devilish workings of money in the modern economic system. As the NYT approvingly notes, the head of SCIRI is a first water privatizer, and would be as eager to sell Iraqi oilfields to Exxon for a minimum cut of the loot as any American pawn globalizing in some Latin American country, to the glory and honor of freedom, liberty and the pursuit of profit, Citibank without end, amen. Yes, these people are people we can deal with – they will impoverish the millions in order to ship money to the U.S. to support our very Christian way of life – supersized, obese, and obscene as that may be – but the problem is that America is the world’s most neurotic country. It will insist on ignoring, for decades, some concrete reality – as, for instance, the reality of Iran – in the hopes that they can make policy around it.

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