Monday, March 31, 2008

Power in Moslem States & Societies

The process of creating a state is long and uncertain. A society that has learned to cope well with its environment may have a state that has been so well developed that it appears to be in equilibrium. A society under stress, in contrast, may have a newly emerging state structure/political process. For the latter case, the traditional state-centric approach of political science will not suffice to understand political processes. In the latter case, the state is in flux, its structure is emerging, and its power may well be significantly less than that of other entities in the society (e.g., militias, clans, tribes, corporations, political parties). When foreign leaders interact with the emerging state under the assumption that a state is a state and states are the organizations with a) power, b) legitimacy, c) decision-making authority, they do so at their own peril.

For the purpose of argument, I will make the following assertion: Iraq is not a state.

This assertion is of course more or less true depending on the exact date. The Iraqi state is in the process of being created. At present it no doubt has more of the attributes of what we normally think of as statehood than it did two or three years ago, but if one simplifies the issue to a “yes or no” question, then at present, it seems still to be more accurate to think of Iraq as a society and nation that lacks a state. Iraq is obviously a society because the population exists and interacts; it is also arguably a nation because most of the population appears to self-identify first of all as Iraqi, though the post-invasion pressures have probably weakened such self-identification. It does not, however, yet appear to have what Westerners usually think of when they refer to a “state.” The ability of al Sadr not only to resist successfully in Basra this week but to persuade soldiers and police to join his forces is the most recent piece of evidence.

To the degree this is true, it raises some serious implications:
  • What is the significance of making an agreement with the official Iraqi government?
  • Would it be more effective for a country wishing to influence the Iraqi people to make an agreement with the official Iraqi government or with some other entity?
  • Is there any single entity in Iraqi that can plausibly claim to represent the population?
    If not, how many entities must be consulted to “make an agreement with Iraq?”

If Iraq has a state, then other actors will assume that it makes sense to support efforts by that government to impose itself by force. If, in contrast, Iraq is viewed as a society struggling to create a state but one that currently does not have a state, then logic suggests a totally different approach – working for consensus among all the major power centers. This is of course a vastly more difficult approach and one that cedes power to Iraqi society. An outside power may well be able to exert significant influence over a single institution, particularly if that institution is modeled after Western states. It is far less likely to be able to do so vis-à-vis half a dozen highly heterogeneous groups.

This situation is one of the common patterns seen throughout Moslem societies contributing to the rise of an Islamic political fault line:

  • In the case of Iraq, the lack of a modern state structure might mean negotiating with a Sunni party with its own militia and organs of local government, a Shi’ite party that controls the official government, a separate and competing Shi’ite party with its own militia and organs of local government, and a Kurdish autonomous government.
  • In the case of Lebanon, it might mean negotiating with multiple Christian and Sunni groups, as well as with Hezbollah.
  • In Palestine, it might mean negotiating with Fatah, Hamas, and perhaps even other groups.
  • In Somalia, it might mean negotiating with both the recognized but weak “government” and with the Islamic Courts Union.

But a short time later, it might also mean including some new group because to say that the state remains immature and ill-formed is another way of saying that power centers in society are in an unusually rapid state of flux. Moreover, to the degree that other states focus on interacting only with an immature and unrepresentative state to the exclusion of significant non-state power centers in society, they may well provoke still more instability.

For any who wish to deal effectively with such societies, it is critical to make the correct assumption—either that, in practical terms, those societies do or do not have an institution that effectively constitutes a “state.” To classify all non-state actors in a society that lacks a modern state structure as illegitimate and define them as enemies is simply illogical.

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