Thursday, December 16, 2004

Blog interview: Steven Vincent - "Women’s rights is the Achilles heel of Islamofascism" 

In the first of what will hopefully become a regular feature on this blog, I decided to tackle Steven Vincent and ask his some question. Steven has spent four months traveling through Iraq meeting its ordinary and less ordinary people; Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, poets and housewives, mullahs and feminists, insurgents and activists. The result is his excellent new book of reportage, "In the Red Zone: A journey into the soul of Iraq", now available from all good bookstores as well as from the publisher at a special price (for my review of the book, click here).

Steven has also started his new blog, appropriately called
In the Red Zone - make sure you check it out and blogroll it - it will provide a great, often first-hand perspective, on the events in the region.

As I was unable to travel to New York, and Steven couldn't make it down to Brisbane, the magic of the internet did the trick, although I do hope to meet him in person in the future.

Your journey from the arts beat in New York to the terror beat in the Sunni Triangle is an unusual one. Please tell my readers how you came to spend four months traveling through Iraq.

First off, Arthur, let me say it's a real honor to appear on your site. And while I'm at it, let me wish you and your readers happy holidays.

As for how I ended up in Iraq, it's a four syllable answer: 9-11. From my rooftop on Manhattan's Lower East Side - about two miles from where the World Trade Center used to stand - I watched United Airlines Flight 175 fly into the South Tower. Right then, I realized America was at war and I wanted to participate in the conflict and defend the values I held precious. Talk about the "call of destiny" sounds corny, but I felt it, I felt summoned to do something. When my artist friend Steve Mumford traveled to Iraq in April, I knew I had to do the same. That fall, I packed my bags and flew to Amman, and hired a car to take me across the desert to Baghdad. I returned in winter and spring of this year.

In your journey through Iraq you choose, as you say, not to embed yourself with the army, but with the Iraqi society. What sort of experience has it turned out to be? As a result, how different is your perspective on Iraq to that of foreign reporters who are either holed up in Baghdad or follow the troops around?

As a freelancer coming from the oblique angle of the art world to a war zone, I had no connections, no assistance, no big-name reputation and not much money - in other words, little more than curiosity and some New York street smarts (and, apparently, luck). I figured I'd put those deficits to advantage - force myself to take risks, hazard extra dangers, go where reporters weren't. And that meant not embedding myself with troops, as most journalists were doing, but moving among the Iraqi people.

As an experience, "embedding" myself in Iraqi society was exciting, frightening, depressing, inspiring - not to mention unbelievably maddening (those were usually my Baghdad days - a more unlovely city you've never seen). The basic emotional tone was something I can't quite put words to - a sort of thrilling despair, I guess. Thrilling, because I was living an adventure; despair, because the people I was writing about were not.

As far as comparing my perspective to other journalists' - well, I can tell you one difference: I support the liberation and reconstruction of Iraq and consider it an essential part of the War against Islamofascism. In my mind, the question was not should we have invaded, but are we going to succeed? The point of view of many reporters - especially foreigners - is framed by the first question, and their doubts permeate what they see and write. This, in turn, lends negativity and defeatism to many reports, and a tendency to grant the "insurgency" more, and the Coalition less, legitimacy than they deserve. This is why I had one advantage not working for a major news organization - I was freer, I think, to draw my own conclusions.

Over your four months of travel through Iraq, has there been one moment, one experience that for you encapsulated the reality of the post-liberation Iraq?

My friend Nour. I dedicate a whole chapter of "In the Red Zone" to this woman, who, in my mind, embodies the hopeful and tragic aspects of Iraq. She's a beautiful twenty-something moderate Muslim who works in Basra (she has asked me not to reveal her last name or where she works for fear of retaliation from religious paramilitaries). She was my guide, interpreter, friend and protector during the several weeks we spent together in the southern Iraqi city. We interviewed everyone from radical clerics to newspaper editors to the Catholic Archbishop--and we were even suspected of being spies by the head of Coalition counter-intelligence.

Through Nour, I learned what it is like to be a women in Iraq: a nightmare. Nour's three brothers dominate her life - they once beat her when she attempted to marry without their permission - while in public, strangers scrutinize her every move to make sure she acts "respectably." The psychic claustrophobia is agonizing. Not only that, but she once spent 11 months imprisoned for making anti-Saddam remarks. When she told me this, I collapsed into tears - I knew what happened to women in the dictator's prisons.

Now, this won't come as a surprise to you, Arthur, coming as you do from a former police state - but Nour had a deep hunger for democracy that made me feel ashamed for taking my own liberties for granted. She would ask me endless questions about the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment, and so on. To her, democracy and moderate Islam was her path to freedom - both from the religious fundamentalists, and the "ignorant tribal men," as she put it, who made women's lives such hell. I worry about her constantly. When I hear people argue that the Coalition should leave Iraq, I imagine what our withdrawal would mean for Nour, and the thousands - perhaps millions - of other Iraqis who share her faith in America and its allies.

While your book is primarily about the Iraqis and their experiences and stories, there are a few Westerners that appear on the pages of "In the Red Zone". Hardly any of them come across as people I would like to have a drink with. Please tell us a bit more about what the Iraqis themselves call "the people of the Slogans".

That's what my Iraqi friends called the anti-war and anti-Coalition activists they met in Baghdad. "I always feel like they are talking in slogans," my poet friend Naseer told me. They also called the activists "The 'Oh, my God' Club." This was a running joke based on an anti-sanctions march my friends witnessed before the war. As the marchers passed by, an American woman turned to the TV cameras and shrieked, "Oh my God, what are we doing to the children?" My friends found her carefully-staged "concern" hilarious - they couldn't tell the story without doubling up with laugher.

One of my greatest surprises in Iraq was the contempt many younger people had of Western leftists. They ridiculed "human shields" who suddenly vamoosed out of Baghdad when it became clear a war was really going to take place - or activists who tried to enlist them in pro-Palestinian causes (Iraqis hate the Palestinians because the Baathists showered such largesse upon them). But the worst, the absolute worst, were the "humanitarians" who claimed that the U.S. was as bad as Saddam. This deeply pained my friends, not because they particularly loved America, but because the activists had no conception of Iraq's suffering under the dictator. "They should examine their moral consciences," Naseer would grumble.

You subtitled your book "A journey into the soul of Iraq" and in many ways the picture you paint of that soul is rather bleak. The Iraqi people emerge affected by the legacy of their tribal past, their religious environment, and not the least the scars of three decades under a brutal dictatorship. How does a nation and its people overcome such a bitter legacy? What are the prospects of Iraq becoming in short to medium term what we would think of as a "normal" society and "normal" country?

Imagine children whose father physically and emotionally abused them for years. Now imagine that the authorities jail the father and tell the children they're free to live their own lives. Theoretically, they are free, but the traumas of their past will still haunt them, limiting and afflicting their freedom. That's the condition of most Iraqis. As if that weren't bad enough, add in the regressive pull of tribalism and reactionary Islam, and you have a very bleak psychic picture indeed.

How will Iraqis overcome this legacy? It will begin with time and a slow restoration of their sense of nationhood, citizenship and even personal self-esteem. Victories will help: curbing terrorism, managing a successful election, writing a Constitution, building a strong economy. In this way, the Iraqis can work through the humiliation and trauma of being raped by Saddam. Then, the real work will begin: to throw off the shackles of tribal Islam - or the fusion of archaic Bedouin customs and religious fundamentalism. Tribal Islam is a black hole that consumes the best energies of the Iraqi people and helps foster the despair and homicidal martyrdom we witness in the country.

Where we can help - aside from eradicating the paramilitary death-squads - is work to liberate women. Women's rights is the Achilles heel of Islamofascism. Liberated women, contributing their energies to Iraqi culture and society will do much to bring the nation into the modern world, as well as heal the anguish that lurks in its soul. As I say, a thousand Nours would transform that nation overnight.

The big question for Iraq is, I guess, how many Nours are there, and will they be able to overcome all the powerful vested interests that don't necessarily want to see Iraq become a normal, democratic, modern country?

That's one of a handful of major questions facing Iraq. I don't have an answer. Still, I'm optimistic - there are many, many women like Nour who possess the intelligence, spirit and desperation that compels any revolutionary to act. Opposed to them, however, are patriarchal interests entrenched in tribal traditions and religious law. The Nours of Iraq can't fight these interests head-on, direct combat only causes these regressive forces to entrench themselves deeper. (Already we hear the mullahs cry that "feminism" is a "neo-conservative plot to undermine Islam.") The women's revolution has to gather force indirectly - through law, the media (including bloggers!), public opinion, human rights observers, civil libertarians and - perhaps most importantly--an improving economy: globalization means women's rights. We're talking a slow evolutionary process here. Look at it this way: in the 1950s, hardly anyone could have expected that civil rights would sweep the American south or that apartheid would end peacefully. And yet, a generation later, both miracles took place. It can happen.

In many ways, the overthrow of the regime was easy; rebuilding Iraq is not. Has the Bush Administration been too optimistic? What do you think should have been done differently?

The neo-cons were much too optimistic. I can't fault them, because I was too optimistic, as well. We failed to take into account two aspects of the Iraq people. One is the humiliation they experience over the fact that it took the U.S., and not their own efforts, to topple Saddam. The other is the tribalism that lurks just below the surface of Iraqi society. Both are problems whose solution lies in an improved economy. Money is a balm that eases people's shame, and a corrosive that erodes the bonds of tribalism.

But the Bush Administration made some terrible mistakes. Not enough troops, to begin with - and not enough military police to do the kind of constabulary work hunter-killer Marines are now doing. More troops and more MPs would have helped stop the looting. I can't stress how disastrous and demoralizing the pillaging of Baghdad was to Iraq. Not only did it damage the country's infrastructure and destroy many buildings, it weakened Iraqi faith in the U.S. Imagine if your police department suddenly stopped pursuing criminals - how much respect would you have for them? I remember an Iraqi man clutching my arm and pleading, "If you're going to occupy our country, occupy it!" Others said we could have stopped the plunder had we publicly hung a few looters at the beginning of the disturbances - which gives you an idea of the Iraqi sense of justice.

In many ways, of course, it's impossible to quickly reverse the consequences of past mistakes - is there anything we can do better at the moment?

Send in more troops? Kill more Islamofascist terrorist and homicidal martyrs? That would be a start. But actually, I'm uncomfortable with too much second-guessing, especially since I'm here and not there. But I will say this: what we can do as free people is support the Iraqi resistance. By that I mean the people fighting the paramilitary death squads: the Iraqi police, National Guard troops, politicians, judges, bureaucrats, businesspeople and every last person who votes on January 30. They are the true "resistance." And by "support" them, I mean maintain a firm resolve to see Iraq through to a better place. Not everyone agrees with me, of course. But think those who oppose the war should think hard about their position. Look, for example, at the slaughterhouse Falluja became under the rule of the Islamofascists. Multiply that across Iraq and you'd have an idea what withdrawal from the country would entail. We cannot abandon the Iraqi people. What can we do better at the moment? Grasp a sobering thought: the fate of the Iraqi people is in our hands - and, for better or worse, ours is in theirs.

The big question is, once the election takes place - as it hopefully will in January - what's next for the country? It seems likely that the Shiites, who constitute the absolute majority of the population and arguably are the most organized and most united of the three main ethnic groups, will control the National Assembly. In your book you express some unease about their ability - or willingness - to play by democratic rules. What can we expect: civil war, Shiite dictatorship, a push for more federalism?

About the Shia, my thinking has evolved since I wrote the book. I feared - and still do, to some extent - their propensity toward rebelliousness, alienation and a kind of perfectionism that defeats practical action. But seeing how well they've conducted themselves in the run-up to elections - really, everyone owes Ayatollah Sistani a debt of gratitude - that I've begun to think that maybe they can rule the country with a reasonable amount of fairness.

Islam - or more specially, Islamic law, or shari'a - poses a problem. In the same way that the North defeated the South in the Civil War, but lost the will to bring full emancipation to formerly enslaved peoples, I fear we will see a stable government take root in Iraq, and then wash our hands of the country. Left behind will be women - Islam's slaves - languishing under misogynistic shari'a laws. What is the point of shepherding Iraq to "democracy" if 60 percent of its population - that's 16 million people - remain in bondage?

The Kurds want nothing to do with the Shia's conception of shari'a, one reason why they are pushing hard for a federal system granting them minority rights. Whether the Shia will accommodate this - so far, their leaders have given mixed signals - is the next test. Assuming elections take place - and I am reasonably confident they will - look for the next controversies to break out when the new Parliament sits down to write a constitution. Will they base federal districts on ethnicity (pleasing the Kurds) or geography (pleasing the Shia)? How great a veto power will the Shia give minorities? Will the Shia insist on shari'a for the entire country? These issues could rend the country apart. But, of course, its not easy formulating rules for governance - anyone at the time probably would have given you ten to one the American colonies would fail to set aside their squabbles and write a Constitution.

What's next on the cards for you? Are you planning to go back to Iraq?

Yes, assuming - insha'allah - the country stabilizes and I can move around with relative freedom. If not, I'll head for Afghanistan - or further east, where oil, Islam and Chinese interests intersect. Wherever I go, however, it will be in the Muslim world. Like the cry of muezzin at sunset, with a crescent moon gleaming over the minarets of a mosque, there's something about dar-al-Islam that captures the imagination, and won't let go.

Most people thought that the Great Game for the control of influence in Central Asia ended with the dissolution of European empires, but it certainly seems to be back on. What do you think might happen in the region over the next few years and what do you think the impact of the liberation of Iraq and Afghanistan will have on the state of play?

If you laid a map of oil regions in the Middle East and Asia over one showing American bases and military presence in the War on Terror, you'd find they roughly overlap. Coincidence? I don't think so. Under the rubric of fighting terrorism, it seems, the U.S., is moving assets into the Caspian and Central and South Asian regions in anticipation of Chinese penetration of that region in search of oil. American and the PRC are unfortunately on a collision course - similar to Britain and Germany before World War I. Once again, the Islamic world will find itself the playing field between two competitive civilizations. What I hope is that the liberation of Iraq, Afghanistan and (I anticipate here) Iran will, in the long run, create enough good will for the U.S. - especially among the Shia' to give us allies in that dangerous corner of the world.

Will you keep blogging as you travel?

I'm new at the blogging game, so at the risk of sounding like a shameless flatterer to a pro like you - I say, of course! Blogging is the future of news and communication, the ultimate counter-culture, right? I look forward someday to posting from the Torugate Pass or beneath the mulberry trees of Laub-i-Hauz. Insha'allah, as the locals say.

Steve, it's been pleasure talking to you. Godspeed on your travels, and I hope to read about them on your blog before I read your next book.

The good people at National Review Online have excerpted a chapter from Steven's book, dealing with the insurgents. You can read it


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