Faisal Devji, Professor of Indian History, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford
The second instalment of the war on Iraq began 20 years ago this month. The US, which led the offensive and was joined by more than 35 countries, including the UK, Australia, Poland and several others, launched this war on a false pretext: to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). That a UN inspection team found no proof of WMD in that country did not stop the invasion ordered primarily by then US president George W Bush and zealously backed by then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.
It was later proved that there were no WMDs in Iraq, but the US and its junior partners took delight in deposing and capturing its president Saddam Hussein, a former ally of the US in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, and sent him to the gallows three years later.
The Middle East and neighbouring regions saw a major churning since this invasion, which was considered by many as a violation of international laws. Launched on March 20, 2003, it led to endless violence and sectarian conflicts in the region and beyond, all ravaged by continual wars. Iraq was under attack earlier in the Gulf War of 1990–1991, by a US-led, 35-country military coalition in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Iraq invaded Kuwait accusing the latter of violating its border and stealing its oil worth billions of dollars.
Oxford University professor Faisal Devji, who specialises in Islam, violence, globalisation, and South Asia, talks to Open about how the Iraq War, which formally ended with the withdrawal of US troops in 2011, changed the world. Iraq and neighbouring countries would soon face another war after America’s pull-out, starting at the end of 2013 with the Islamic State (ISIS) occupying several of its cities until December 2017. Peace is still elusive in the region.
What do you think is the impact of the Iraq War on the world and the Middle East?
In addition to being illegal and disastrous for the people of Iraq, the war had three major consequences. The first consequence, following the removal of Saddam Hussein’s violent regime, had to do with the shift of power from a Sunni minority to a Shia majority, which provided an opening for Iranian influence in the country. The second consequence, which proceeded from the war and the change in power it caused, was the emergence of ISIS from American prisons in Iraq and the decline of Al-Qaeda.
And the third consequence, likely the most important, was that the war became an opportunity for a Euro-American remaking of the international order outside the UN and international law. It failed, but in doing so discredited both the UN and international law, setting a precedent for the current war in Ukraine. This is also, among other things, an opportunity for the West to remake global order. But this time, the rest of the world is not on board as it had been in the early years of the ‘War on Terror’.
How do you look back at these 20 years of global politics? How did this invasion change Islam as a political movement?
In the last 20 years, we have seen the fragmentation and dismantling of Islam along with the international order itself. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the emergence of Islamic liberalism or modernism, which sought to build democratic societies in the Muslim world after independence from colonial rule. During the Cold War, Muslim politics was dominated by fundamentalism or Islamism, whose vision of the Islamic state or republic was modelled on the period’s ideological states, both on the left and the right. And in the post-Cold War period, in which ideological states have been replaced by neoliberal ones, Muslim societies, too, have been roiled by highly individualized forms of militancy for which collective ideology and indoctrination are irrelevant.
Newly emerging forms of Muslim political action, such as the protests of the so-called Arab Spring, the anti-CAA protests in India, or the current demonstrations in Iran, no longer include Islam in their repertoire, even if many of their participants are practising Muslims.