Sunday, June 01, 2003

Freund on Abdel Karim Qassim
On Tuesday, May 27th, Michael cited signs of "a resurgence of sympathy" for Abdel Karim Qassim, the nationalist leader of Iraq who was overthrown by the Ba'thists in 1963. Rehabilitating Qassim, wrote Michael, allows Iraqis to discredit Saddam's regime as well as the Americans. Michael added that because Qassim was a secular nationalist, "support for him could be one way people have of showing their rejection of an Islamic Iraq."

But those now reexamining Qassim include Americans, too. Eric Davis, for example, is the Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University. He has been rummaging through Iraq's modern history, seeking evidence of Iraqi civil society that might serve as the foundation of a liberal future. As Davis argued in a recent paper distributed by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, "Qasim's fate offers many lessons for the current situation in Iraq."

Davis credits Qasim with being "the only ruler of modern Iraq who eschewed sectarian criteria in ruling the country. His refusal to exploit sectarian divisions for political ends, his focus on social justice, such as the need for land reform, and his own ascetic lifestyle made Qasim the only truly popular leader since the founding of the modern state." On the other hand, "his authoritarian rule, however non-violent, gradually isolated him from the citizenry, facilitating his overthrow in 1963."

Davis is obviously not interested in rehabilitating Qassim. Both in his paper and his recent book, Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq, he seeks to disprove what he calls "two misperceptions of Iraqi politics and society": that ethnic conflict is endemic to Iraqi, and that Iraqis lack a tradition of civil society, cultural tolerance, and political participation. Qassim is for him a moment in modern Iraqi history, to be understood in the context of anti-British efforts, mixed feelings about Pan-Arabism, the post-Ottoman rise of professions, contending political parties, even the Free Verse movement of the 1950s.

At best, a renewed Iraqi interest in Qassim may support Davis' general argument, since it suggests the vitality of the civil-society tradition he is defending. At worst, it may be whitewashing a prior authoritarianism. At a minimum, it suggests that Iraqi history is now a factor in that nation's immediate future, and that ever more people -- Iraqis and others -- are vying to assign that history meaning.

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