With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

What Does Kanan Makiya Think Now About the Iraq War?

In the deluge of death tolls that flood the headlines from Iraq, it is quite possible that few outside of academic circles remember just who Kanan Makiya is; even fewer may be more than dimly aware of his Iraq Memory Foundation . As such, HNN has decided to present a refresher of sorts on the man, the history of the project and its current state.

Kanan Makiya is currently the Sylvia Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University. An Iraqi-expatriate, Makiya left Baghdad in 1967 to study architecture at M.I.T. He later earned an additional degree from the London School of Economics.

Writing under the pseudonym, Samir al-Khalil, Makiya published Republic of Fear in 1989. The book, ignored at first, was the only work at the time that attempted to reveal the history and character of Saddam Hussein and his Arab Baath Socialist Party. After Saddam invaded Kuwait pundits and US government leaders began to turn for insights to Makiya, who became a kind of cicerone for the uninitiated into the horrors of Saddam's Iraq.

Makiya shed his pseudonym at a public forum hosted by the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard University in 1991. He decided to reveal his identity after Saddam began slaughtering innocent Shia and Kurds, who had been encouraged by President George H.W. Bush to stage a revolt and were then abandoned to their fate. Thousands were killed, attacked from the air by Saddam's helicopters, which the US had mistakenly agreed to allow him to continue flying after the war. On occasion some Shia were dropped from those same helicopters to their deaths. Sickened, Makiya urged Bush to depose Saddam and put an end to the Baath Party. The president declined, fearful of the destabilizing consequences. Saddam, against the odds--and the predictions of many experts--survived.

Following the war Makiya went on to publish, The Monument in 1991, Cruelty and Silence in 1993, and most recently a historical fiction, Dome of the Rock in 2001. Cruelty and Silence reflects the bitterness Makiya felt in the wake of the Persian Gulf War. The book's purpose, he said, was to

Pit the words of Arab and western intellectuals of my generation, many of the left, against all these Iraqi words about violence and cruelty. The point was that between the two sets of words there was a chasm. The intellectuals offered rhetoric about 'nationalism', 'Imperialism', 'the Crusades', and so on. The focus of the book was about the rhetoric that the war had generated and the chasm between that rhetoric and the reality. Between these two realities - the words of the intellectuals and the words of the victims - was a yawning gap. 1

The book was awarded the Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book published in English on international relations in 1993. But not everybody was pleased. The late Professor Edward Said ridiculed the book and lambasted its author in a searing critique:

Most of what Makiya wrote in the book was, in my opinion, revolting, based as it was on cowardly innuendo and false interpretation, but the book, of course, enjoyed a popular moment or two since it confirmed the view in the West that Arabs were villainous and shabby conformists. It seemed not to matter that Makiya himself had worked for Saddam or that he had never written anything about the Arab regimes until his Republic of Fear, until, that is, he was out of Iraq and done with his employment there. He was hailed here and there in America for being a brave man of conscience and for having defied the self-censoring practice of Arab intellectuals, but this praise was usually heaped on Makiya by people who had no knowledge of the fact that Makiya himself never wrote in an Arab country or that whatever meager writing he produced had been written behind a pseudonym and a prosperous, risk-free life in the West.2

When asked in an interview how he responded to Said and other critics Makiya said: "I've reached a point where I don't even bother to reply to such critics. They are just not serious people any more; they are expressions of failure, inactivity, and irresponsibility, rather than critics of substance and with serious ideas."3

In addition to writing books, Makiya became an activist. In 1992 he convened the Human Rights Committee of the Iraqi National Congress, a transnational Parliament then based in Northern Iraq. He also collaborated on two films for television; Saddam’s Killing Fields won the Edward R. Murrow prize for Best Made for Television Documentary on Foreign Affairs in 1992.

Little more was heard from Makiya during the years Saddam clung to power in the 1990s. But in 2002 the State Department asked him to participate in “The Future of Iraq Project.” Hopes were high that Iraq could be transformed. The report he and a handful of others prepared was called, The Transition to Democracyin Iraq. The preamble stated:

Once the regime of Saddam Hussein is removed from power, Iraq can be remade out of the ashes of decades of brutality, domestic and foreign wars, nightmare weapons, and near total economic collapse. Such an extraordinary event calls for extraordinary measures and procedures. Iraqis abroad, who are in a position to act, are morally obligated to do so and to do so fast. It is in that spirit of great urgency and responsibility, that this report has been put together.

In an interview with Democratiya Makiya said that he agreed to participate “[a]fter it became the American position to democratize Iraq [around August 2002].” Despite criticism, he insists that he doesn't regret his support for the American war against Saddam in 2003:

I, like many others, made many mistakes of evaluation, of judgment. But I don't know how to look anybody in the face today and say that because things have gone wrong since the liberation, that it was therefore wrong to get rid of an extraordinary tyranny like [the one] we suffered under in Iraq. An exceptional tyranny, even by the terrible standards of the Middle East.

Despite the ghastliness of the Iraq War aftermath Makiya remains focused on establishing the Iraq Memory Foundation, an institution that grew out of his work at Harvard in 1992. The goal of the foundation is to archive the records of terror left by Saddam so people never forget the evil he and his henchmen did. Makiya hopes that by looking backward he can help Iraqis move forward.

With a team of 15-30 people, of which 2 interned at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., the project has digitized over 11 million documents from Saddam’s Baathist government. The records include, among other things, execution orders, accounts of interrogation and torture, and the names of informants. Additionally, 150 testimonies from individuals who suffered under Saddam have been recorded on film (the videos range in length from 6 to 8 hours). Making up the final component of the project is a collection of art. At a lecture recently at Stanford which I attended Makiya provided a short presentation of the artwork, which depicted images of suffering and death. It felt like something that would have sprung out of a real world manifestation of George Orwell’s 1984.

The Foundation is Makiya’s answer to what he calls the “Issue of Remembrance” in the Arab and Muslim world. According to him no effort has been made by an organization in the region to institutionalize and thereby catalog and ensure the memory of intra-Arab and Muslim violence. In other words memory is often over written or allowed to be forgotten. Makiya believes that by putting together the trove of documents, art, and testimony that he and his associates have collected Iraqis can find a new identity. The memory of suffering can become a binding force for the nation. The project's website states:

The ultimate rationale behind the Iraq Memory Foundation (MF) is that the truth can help heal a society that has been politically and physically brutalized on a large scale. Citizens of a new and free Iraq have whole new identities to forge. And identity is memory.

The statement echoes something the late Arthur Schlesinger wrote in an op ed in the New York Times this past January:

It is useful to remember that history is to the nation as memory is to the individual. As persons deprived of memory become disoriented and lost, not knowing where they have been and where they are going, so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.

While the foundation has been granted the use of the infamous Crossed Swords Monument and parade ground in Sahat al-Ihtifalat in central Baghdad, there is little chance a museum can be created in the current environment. The situation being what it is, Makiya told his Stanford audience, the foundation is attempting to achieve its goal of creating a new Iraqi identity by releasing short videos featuring victims of Saddam's terror; these are being shown on Iraqi television. The broadcasts are the second most popular program in Iraq.