The press coverage of Iraq’s surprise victory in the Asian Cup final was — as Ernst Bloch might have put it — full of utopian sentiment. The win was, admittedly, a remarkable achievement, but one that hardly accounted for the sheer exuberance of the outpoured emotion that followed. Some other factor was at play here, of that one could be fairly certain — but what?
Unfortunately, the Western journalists covering the event leapt to the most obvious answer, and thereby repeated the fundamental error with which the ongoing débâcle of modern Iraq began. Could it be, it was everywhere reported, that this victorious team, in all of its ethnic diversity, will act as the prototype for a future Iraq? Rather than simply being a welcome, albeit meaningless, diversion from the brutality of day-to-day existence in Baghdad, Basra or Kirkuk, could this victory in fact bear the seeds of a democratic Iraq-to-come?
In other words, the euphoria generated by Iraq’s victory was immediately interpreted as an expression of latent democratic enthusiasm, a defiant embracing of life and culture over against the sadistic designs of terrorists and other religious extremists. This interpretation was given additional weight by the accompanying footage of celebrations on the streets of Baghdad that were eerily similar to those images of popular jubilation following the overthrow of Saddam in April 2003.
The message of this reporting is obvious, if naive. Left to themselves, free from the interference of jihadists and dictators, the Iraqi people will spontaneously form benevolent collectives, much like a football team. This is just another version of the deluded belief — one of the core beliefs that motivated the United States’ war effort in the first place — that the people would adopt recognisably democratic forms of social life, once released from Saddam’s oppressive régime.
But as the scenes of celebration shifted from those of middle-aged Iraqi men dancing outside their favourite coffee houses, to the more familiar images of gun-toting thugs and hoodlums with flags proudly draped over their young shoulders, it was hard not to feel that this win represented for the Iraqis something different altogether. It was a display of Iraqi pride that was somehow consonant with the violence that continues to brutalise the nation.
And so, while the media waxed lyrical over this hope-filled example of Iraqi fraternity, what was missed was the sickening connection between war and sport in the cultural politics of the Middle East. Both are expressions of the central Asiatic value of honour — an extreme form of respect, a kind of libidinous concern for one’s public reputation. And insofar as honour lay at the heart of Islam itself — primarily Allah’s honour, and derivatively of Muslim men — it represents a profound aggressiveness inherent to Middle Eastern life.
The Western invasion and occupation of Iraq was an affront to this honour. And so, however unlikely it might seem, victory in a regional football competition was received as a very public display of Iraqi honour in full view of the meddling, unwelcome intervention of Western forces. As one fan put it, this victory means "leave the Iraqis by themselves [sic], because they can do it by themselves. They proved it just now."
The pre-invasion assumption that removing Saddam Hussein would liberate the Iraqi people failed to recognise that the problem is the Iraqi people themselves. Confronted now by the escalating tragedy of a nation ravaged by fratricide and uncontrollable violence, one cannot but marvel at the pertinence of the reflections of Iraq’s last actually functioning king, Faisal I. In 1933, shortly before his death, he wrote:
"There is still — and I say this with a heart full of sorrow — no Iraqi people, but unimaginable masses of human beings devoid of any patriotic ideas, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever."
After the assassination of the adolescent King Faisal II in 1958, Iraq was plunged into a decade of tribal hostility. However unpopular it might be to admit this fact, Saddam succeeded remarkably in suppressing the forces of chaos in Iraq and presided over a fairly bloody peace for nearly four decades. Without Saddam, Iraq has merely reverted to its primordial chaotic state. As George Packer put it, "Iraq without the lid of totalitarianism clamped down has become a place of roiling and contending ethnic claims."
This sentiment is, quite simply, a modern paraphrase of Thomas Hobbes’ infamous indictment of the human instinct in his Leviathan;
"Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man."
According to Hobbes (who Daniel Dennett describes as "the first socio-biologist"), humanity is rare among animals in its natural incapacity to organise itself peacefully.
The function of the political regime — the terrifying ‘Leviathan’ of which Hobbes speaks — is to exercise such power over the inherently recalcitrant subjects that a peaceful order is imposed under which the arts, science and industry may flourish. Politics then, for Hobbes, is a direct response to the problem of the masses as such.
In our time, when it has become commonplace, trendy even, to rail against the atrocities of state, when the greatest fear is political overreaching — whether it be totalitarianism, federalism, right up to the ecclesiastical assertion of the primacy of the magisterium over individual conscience — perhaps the one truly radical act would be to reassess our pseudo-leftist faith in the people. This, of course, would not be the last word, but it would be an important step toward a long overdue analysis of the banal politico-social form we call democracy.