Please tell us a little about yourself.
I am an author who specializes in social analysis. I began my studies in London, where I studied sociology, philosophy and economics. In the end, though, I fell in love with sociology and therefore began to focus on sociology of religion, comparative religion, sociology of knowledge, political sociology and anthropology.
I have been living in London for about 15 years. I resided in Lebanon from 1969 to 1973, and then moved to Iraq for a short period. After this period, I returned once again to Lebanon, which was in the midst of its civil war, and I was shocked to discover that Beirut had lost its beauty.
So you lived under Saddam’s regime for a short period?
Yes, in the early 70s, when the Iraqi government nationalized oil production between 1972 and 1973. It was an era of relative stability, during which the country enjoyed a certain degree of freedom and openness, and the flow of oil wealth increased dramatically. However, this happy interval quickly gave way to a period of brutality and oppression.
How do you explain the short honeymoon period between the political Left and the ruling Iraqi Baath Party?
When the Baath Party first came to Iraq, its membership was very small. It was a conspiratorial party that relied on a small clique within the armed forces and that hid behind nationalist claims. However, as we later discovered, the top leadership was based on tribal identification. In other words, the power of the party stemmed from those invisible to the urban elite: people from small towns and hamlets.
From Tikrit, for example?
Yes. Tikrit cannot be considered a city because its residents represent the remnants of very traditional tribes. Modern nationalist ideologies were relatively new and, therefore, were greeted with skepticism. Due to this lack of support for these new ideologies, the party returned to tribal loyalties to maintain cohesiveness and to consolidate its power through its control of the armed forces. The timely explosion of oil wealth facilitated the Baath’s plan to radically change Iraqi society.
They were enabled to dominate economically?
The government’s annual income exploded to about 30 billion dollars; consequently, the government embarked on a course of unprecedented development. The army grew to 430,000 men, the armed forces increased to eight times their original size. Internal security agencies increased tenfold. The administrative arm of the party had the power to buy off a substantial portion of the middle class, particularly the educated professionals, the skilled workers and the intellectuals. Eventually, the party’s determination to maintain total control became clear with its claim that civilian and military government employment was a right reserved for members of the Baath Party. Party members and their children even monopolized university admissions. The party also began to take over social organizations, including labor unions, which were historically leftist, and student, women and youth organizations.
Really, the Baath Party dominated the whole society. Consequently, the party began to feel omnipotent and embarked on a mission to eradicate their political opponents. Members of the party destroyed Kurdish political organizations, the Left, most of the Shiite Islamic political groups, and, finally, the rest of the Arab Nationalist Movement. The Baathists destroyed the civil organizations that formed the basis of civil society in Iraq and that had historically created the vibrancy of Iraqi society. Ultimately, they began to boast about the staggering growth of party membership. For example, Taha Yassin Ramadan, a member of Saddam’s inner ruling circle, claimed in a speech that party membership had reached 1.7 million. However, it was a known fact that the party organization was very hierarchical and that the quality of the general membership was mediocre.
As a result of oil wealth and tribal hierarchies, the state was able to destroy the civilian faction of the Baath Party. The state then began to establish a model of government similar to that of Germany under Hitler’s rule: the single-party system. Subsequently, the state dominated the economy as well as social and cultural production, thus becoming the largest employer. This new position of power allowed the state to reap unbelievable benefits. Additionally, a period of nationalist conflicts arose during the era of the Cold War in the 70s. The conflict-ridden times encouraged many countries to try daring new policies in the economic sphere, as seen in Iraq’s decision to nationalize its oil. Conditions were ideal for these economic risks, and soon after Iraq took this measure, the shah of Iran and leaders in Saudi Arabia expelled foreign companies from their countries as well. These actions made oil wealth a coercive power in the hands of state authorities, and tribalism soon replaced the torn remnants of the previous society.
Despite all this, under the Baath Party’s rule, Iraqi society did not show any indication of being tribal; it was perceived as militaristic and even modern.
That is correct. Between 1968 and 1978, the official discourse centered on modernism, socialism, progressiveness, development, etc. These were all modernist concepts. Even the idea of the single-party state led by one leader was a leftist concept. However, this was merely a front, as the ruling elite had always been tribally based. This emphasis on hierarchy and tribal loyalties allowed the Baathists to internally purge the party of any rivals. Even when Saddam was technically second in command, from 1974 to 1978, he was the real leader of the country; President Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr was practically powerless to remove him. Saddam succeeded in maintaining his position of power despite opposition from traditional party leadership.
Saddam and his supporters had to confront traditional party leadership?
Tribal loyalty is purely patriarchal; priority is always given to family members, as one’s brother is always seen as preferable to an outsider. Thus, when Saddam began to appoint his brothers and cousins to desirable posts in the army and to leadership positions within the party, some people objected. Confrontations ensued, and they led to a campaign of executions in 1979, which marked the transformation of Iraq from a single-party to a tribal-party state.
Do you think that the ruling Baath Party would have been as dictatorial without oil wealth?
The Baath Party would have been less oppressive without oil wealth because it would necessarily have depended more on popular support.
Why did the rest of the Arab oil-producing countries, despite their immense wealth, refrain from following Saddam’s example?
The other countries were more traditional and tribal; the system of patriarchy was more established. Iraqi society was more modern and diverse. It had more organized civil organizations, such as labor unions and political parties, and, thus, higher potential for conflict. In other Arab countries, the ruling elites were the traditional local leaders, whereas in Iraq, a modern society existed, complete with modern classes, including strong middle and working classes alongside a wealthy class. The society also consisted of diverse nationalities and religions. We are a modern society. Also, the oil wealth was comparatively smaller in Iraq than in neighboring countries. Though oil wealth was large enough to allow the rich to live extravagantly in Iraq, the country only had a per capita annual income of $4,800, even at the height of its oil wealth. However, other Gulf states, such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, benefited from a per capita income as high as $28,000.
Iraq was a diverse, traditional Fertile Crescent society. The situation in Iraq also differed from that in the Gulf states in that the Gulf states had no reason to resort to oppressive measures, and the population had no reason to protest against the state. The opposition in Iraq was militant. The Kurdish rebellion cost the Iraqi army approximately 15,000 casualties in 1974, and the Iraqi Communist Party boasted of nearly 50,000 members. The government in Iraq was closer to that of Germany under Hitler in the 1940s than to those of other Arab states.
Don’t forget that Germany was industrialized for almost 200 years before Iraq was, and industrialization, as you know, is a cornerstone of modernity. Also, as Professor Theodore Hanf has mentioned, Germany before Hitler was democratic.
I remind your readers that we had a half-century of democratic rule in Iraq before Saddam.
But the period after the overthrow of the monarchy was not exactly democratic; it was single-party rule.
That is correct; however, under the monarchy, Iraq had a free parliament and press as well as multiple political parties. Moreover, political reform did not begin with the British occupation of Iraq. Rather, cultural reforms first began half a century before the arrival of the British. Madhat Pasha, an Ottoman ruler, is one of the spiritual fathers of the modern Ottoman constitution, which was adopted in 1870. Pasha introduced the idea of limited monarchical powers and modernized trade and industry. He also developed an electoral system in which Christians, Jews and Shiites chose their own representatives. This form of parliamentary system was present in labor unions, as well. The Sunnis were an essential part of the system because they ran the state.
In your opinion, is there a possibility that Iraqi Jews will return to Iraq?
I cannot imagine that the Iraqi Jews who left either voluntarily or forcefully will return at this point in time, but it is too early to discuss this question seriously. Regardless, though, it is important that Iraqi Jews still consider themselves Iraqis, whether they live in Israel or in any other part of the world. They still speak Arabic, eat Iraqi food and listen to Arabic music, though their children will have mostly assimilated to their new homes by now. I have no doubt that there will be some measure of a Jewish return to Iraq at some point in the future. There is a rumor that the Israelis have been buying land and houses in Iraq, but it is merely that: a rumor, and one that is being spread by the supporters of the previous regime.
The Arabic version of this interview appeared in An Nahar newspaper. The English translation, with permission of the author, is published exclusively in Al Jadid.
Translated from the Arabic by Faisal Tbeileh
This interview appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, No. 50/51 (Winter/Spring 2005).