Another changed mind: Kanan Makiya
I had read some of Kanan Makiya's writings before. But I'd never realized that he was another "changer." This interview with Makiya, appearing in a recent Democratiya, makes that clear. For anyone interested in "changers," it's a fascinating read.
Born in Iraq, Makiya grew up with somewhat of an outsider perspective, realizing at an early age that the Iraqi people were being fed lies by their own media. This was brought home to him for the first time during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, when, as a young man, Makiya heard the Arab media claiming victory right up to the point of defeat.
Shortly thereafter, Makiya went to MIT in the US, to study architecture. So he was actually, in some ways, a child of the sixties, like so many of us boomers. He describes what he experienced there:
Soon I had these two lives. I became very active in the [Vietnam] anti-war movement, which was burgeoning in the United States. And I was very active in supporting the emerging Palestinian Resistance Movement. I passed through the Nationalist Palestinian groups and I ended up in the Marxist one. All of this happened very rapidly. Within a span of a year I became a Marxist and was attracted to Trotskyist politics. The great influence on me was Emmanuel Farjoun, a member of the Israeli Socialist Organisation, Matzpen. He was also a student at MIT, much older than I. He had enjoyed a socialist training from day dot having grown up in a left socialist kibbutz. It was a revelation for me to meet an Israeli who was critical of his own society. He explained a) basic socialist principles which, of course, were completely new to me, and b) the nature of Israeli society, which was also a revelation for me. We became very, very close friends, almost brothers, for the next twenty-five years. (We fell out over the Iraq war but that's another story. That's sad, very sad.)
(Readers of this blog can no doubt empathize with the "story" encapsulated in that last sentence.)
This was an unusual set of influences, indeed, for an Iraqi--although perhaps not so very unusual for an Iraqi exile. Makiya later lived in England and became a Trotskyite political activist. The war in the 70s in Lebanon gave him pause, and led him to experience a troubling cognitive dissonance, which he "solved" by using a pseudonym to write:
The left insisted [the civil war in Lebanon] was not a sectarian war. That was troubling to me but I had no other set of categories. In fact, the Palestinians were now behaving very badly, like little Mafia's inside Lebanon. I used to write in the journal called Khamsin, which was a journal of Middle Eastern socialist revolutionaries, edited by Moshe Machover in those days...I used to write articles critical of the Palestinians, even though I was basically working with them. I wrote under a pseudonym, Muhammad Ja'far, in those days. A tension was building up between the way the Middle Eastern world was, to my eyes, and the way our categories described it. The two didn't match.
Another turning point for Makiya was the Iranian revolution, in which he saw the left's aims betrayed and shattered as the mullahs took power (this part of his story somewhat resembles that of Azar Nafisi). The Iran-Iraq war was another blow; Makiya saw it as a senseless exercise in slaughter.
By this point his change was almost complete:
I was now totally alienated from my previous world view. I thought it didn't describe the world I was now in.
Makiya had made political activism the core of his life. So this sort of dislocation was especially profound for him. He threw himself into the writing of a book about the troubles in Iraq under Saddam. As background, he started to read more, and discovered there was a whole world of knowledge out there that had somewhere been neglected during his lengthy education in some of the finest educational institutions of the world:
The writing of what became The Republic of Fear took six years. I had returned to England. It was probably the 6 most wonderful years of my life, in some senses. Nobody knew I was writing this book, except 4 or 5 friends. My parents didn't know until they discovered by accident, but that's a long story. I discovered writers I'd never read before, above all Hannah Arendt. Also Isaiah Berlin, John Stuart Mill, Hobbes: very basic texts that I'd never read. I had spent weeks and months studying Capital and Theories of Surplus Value but I had never read John Stuart Mill! This was the lopsided education that we all had. These basic texts I discovered, as I was writing Republic of Fear, became very important to me. They changed my whole way of thinking about politics, though they didn't change certain underlying values. I discovered liberal politics. Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism, in particular, gave me a model of how to understand, for instance, the Ba'ath front organisations.
Makiya's book, when published, languished in obscurity. Only Iraqi exiles were interested it, and it would have died rather quickly had not Saddam invaded Kuwait.
Suddenly, Makiya was discovered as an expert. He achieved some noteriety by suggesting, in the New York Review of Books, no less (brave man!) that the allies should march all the way to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam. A predictable firestorm ensued among his leftist friends as Makiya stepped out of the circle dance. You probably already know the story:
The previous good wishes that had been passed in my direction from the left ended. I was viewed as a complete traitor. I was called a 'quisling'. But my position [that the uprisings should be supported and Saddam should be deposed] was a logical continuation of the changes that had taken place in my thinking during the course of the writing of The Republic of Fear. The be-all-and-end-all of politics was removing this dictatorship in Iraq. Abstract considerations—such as the categories 'imperialism' and 'Zionism'—became totally secondary in importance to the removal of dictatorship.
Makiya then settled down to write another book about Saddam's Iraq and the extreme cruelty of his reign. Entitled Cruelty and Silence, it didn't quite meet with the reception he expected:
In writing that book, I was naïve. I had thought that I would simulate a debate in the circles I had come from. There was no debate or dialogue. I thought that the weight of the words of the victims would make the case. All you had to do was read the first half of the book. As it turned out, most of these intellectuals only read the second part of the book and the references to themselves. I was naming names, you see. I couldn't just write general abstractions. I was pitting words against words. Two sets of words had to clash with one another. So I named names. That upset people no end, and there was a huge backlash. The book was blasted by the very people I thought I was opening a dialogue with. I realise now how naive that whole approach was.
This particular passage, describing Makiya's surprise at the unpersuasiveness of the facts and arguments he offered--including his former friends' and colleagues' unwillingness to even listen or hear him out, and the viciousness of the responses of some of them--is of great interest to me. I shared that experience, at least in a very small way, when I first tried to speak to my friends after my "change." No doubt some of you have shared it, too. But to Makiya it was a central part of his life and work, and the fallout was severe.
Alan Johnson [interviewer]: And there was character assassination. You were personally attacked.
Kanan Makiya: Oh, it was the beginning of a terrible period. After that book came out in 1993 I was actually depressed for a couple of years. I couldn't write anything. But this hostile reaction was not an Iraqi reaction. I was buoyed up by that fact.
Obviously, Makiya was ultimately able to recover and to write and work again.
I've concentrated here on Makiya's personal story of political change. But the entire interview is well worth reading, although it's a long one. Here, for example, is Makiya on the topic of whether Islam is capable of reform (a topic discussed recently on this blog, here):
Missing, at the moment, are the clerics who will fight from within and make their argument not in the way I make my argument (from western texts, general texts of human rights or from someone like Hannah Arendt), but from within the religion itself...That this can be done in Islam I have not the slightest shadow of a doubt. The nature of scriptural texts is that they are infinitely malleable.
I sincerely hope Makiya is correct on this point.
Lastly, Makiya has the following to say about the attitude of Europeans in the lead-up to the Iraq War:
...much of the strength of the hostility of the Jihadi movement, and of the forces that have made life so horrible in Iraq, came from the silence of Europe. Europe has a lot to answer for. It's not even that it was half-hearted. They fell in completely with the language of the non-democratic Arab regimes. They bought their line and they seemed to stand for the same things. They undermined entirely the values of the operation. Europeans knew that the United States was not going to permanently occupy Iraq. Deep down the smarter Europeans must have known it wasn't just about oil. It was - rightly or wrongly - a way of changing the traditional western attitude towards the Arab Muslim world. It was an end to the support for autocratic and repressive governments....Europe was justifying and supporting the foundations on which these repressive regimes stood.
I'm very much looking forward to Part 2 of the Makiya interview, due to appear in the March/April edition of Democratiya.