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What Iraq Means To Muslims

I must be on somebody's list in Minnesota. I get daily and often several times daily e-mails from the North Star state. From the Democratic Farmer Labor Party, which has an intriguing history having once been dominated by the Communist Party until Hubert Humphrey and Gene McCarthy came along. From Al Franken's campaign. And from various public commentators on the contest between Norm Coleman and Franken. I am not neutral in this campaign, having contributed a thousand bucks to Franken's race.

But I am troubled that Franken and many of the other Democrats running for office are locking themselves into a(nother) war they do not want, and it is the war in Afghanistan. Last night in a debate among the three candidates for the U.S. senate seat Franken said that the greatest threat to the country was Al Qaeda. Now I understand and sympathize with the yen to go after the Taliban. I assume (but do not know) that after 9/11, had Al Gore not been cheated out of the White House in Florida the previous fall, he probably would have sent troops to Afghanistan with the precise mission of cutting off the head of Al Qaeda and dismembering its body. But Al Gore was not president. And from that "not" stem many present-day mysteries and tragedies.

The fact is that the Iraq war is progressing quite steadily. The tribes have vanquished their own militant Sunni ultras.  The Shi'a clerisy has smothered its own Sad'rist flanks in the south. Sectarian bloodshed has not entirely stopped. But it is not a daily occurrence. It seems that the people have themselves rebelled against their own fratricide. The Kurds have constituted their own autonomous region. Is all this attributable to General Petraeus and his honorable troops? Well, much of it is. And much of it also to Maliki who used to be treated as a joke. No longer.

You may recall the wan corollary joke about how what Iraq needed was a President Karzai. You don't hear that anymore, and not just because Maliki has shown his mettle and metal. So it would be tragic were the Democrats to continue to criticize the beginnings of the war just when its intensity is subsiding and many of its aims are being met. Moreover, the seemingly reflexive yen for an expanded war in Afghanistan, meaning more troops and more money, is bound not to be fulfilled. The American people don't want it, and the triumphant Democrats won't pay for it. Yet Afghanistan is where Al Qaeda is headquartered. And Pakistan is from where Al Qaeda's smuggled equipment and warriors are dispatched. Barack Obama is, in fact, quite right about Pakistan, not a nation and hardly a state, Jinnah's dream metamorphosed into not a fantasy but a nightmare. 

It is the wilds. Like Afghanistan. You cannot grasp how different these territories are from the places even adventurous visitors go. At least, you cannot grasp what Afghanistan is and is like unless you've read Rory Stewart's stark travel narrative in The Places in Between. It is not Stewart's subject. But one of the features that differentiates countries A and P from Iraq is that Iraq is Arab. A neo-imperialist (I mean this as a compliment), Rory Stewart is the modern day Wilfred Thesiger who knew Iraq like no one else did, as one can tell from The Marsh Arabs. And the tribes of the peninsula from Arabian Sands. And the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan from Among the Mountains.

But back to Arab Iraq and the mystery and magic of Arabic. Of the Muslims of the world, the Arabs are the chosen people. The Koran was given to them as revelation in Arabic. Muslims are summoned to prayer in Arabic.  If they are altogether illiterate they are illiterate in two languages, their own and the holy tongue. Those who speak the holy tongue hold a special status. Which is at least one reason why Iraq counts to the Muslims, as Pakistan does not and as Afghanistan also does not. For fanaticism to be dealt a blow in Iraq is to have been dealt an enormous blow. 

An Arab country means more to the Muslim world than a non-Arab country. Most especially, then, the people of Iraq speak Arabic.