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Hubris v. Humility

What Dostoevsky Can Tell Us About Iraq

A week before General David Petraeus reports on the troop surge in Iraq, one-time backers of the mission are lining up to declare it indefensible. Like them, I assumed that the Bush administration would properly plan for the peace. I was wrong. Maybe, though, not all is lost. In essence, Iraq is about the timeless battle between freedom and security, a theme explored in such literary masterpieces as Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Looking at the war through this lens, we can learn not only why Iraq went wrong, but how democracy might still be reconciled with religiosity.

In The Brothers Karamazov, one of Dostoevsky's characters pens a poem set in sixteenth-century Spain during the height of the Inquisition. There, we meet the Grand Inquisitor, a cardinal modeled after Torquemada, one of history's most sadistic torturers. According to the Inquisitor, liberty is not the great universal desire that President Bush has proclaimed it to be. In fact, he says, freedom scares people. Haunted by the fear of taking responsibility for choices, and taunted by a feeling of inadequacy, human beings will readily abdicate their agency to a dictator.

If the Inquisitor is right, it is no wonder that democrats and secularists have less appeal to Iraqis than do sectarian politicians and tribal warriors. The stated intent of this war--to defeat tyranny--is thus made moot.

Worse, the Inquisitor's dim view of human nature implies that the liberation of Iraq never had a fighting chance. Humans, he insists, instinctively yearn for "miracle, mystery, and authority." These are exactly the elements of Shiite Islam that Iraqis now rely on to escape the impossible expectation of building a civil society overnight. Miracle, mystery, and authority are all bound up in Shiite Islam's hidden imam, the spiritual guide who inexplicably disappeared hundreds of years ago and will return one day to rid the world of corruption and injustice. Why should mortals strive to create the conditions that only a Messiah can achieve? Far more rational to let chaos reign, precisely so that the Messiah will have an incentive to appear sooner.

Still, is the Grand Inquisitor right about human beings? Is it inevitable that we are weak, fatalistic, and self-loathing? Enter Christianity's Messiah. Early on in Dostoevsky's tale, Christ comes to Spain. As the townsfolk recognize him and begin flocking to his side, the Inquisitor has Christ arrested and thrown in jail. There, he berates Christ for sacrificing opportunities to attain worldly power. What was the Son of God thinking when he went along with his own persecution? The Inquisitor heaps contempt on Christ's refusal to get down from the Cross and flex his immortality. But because Christ says not one word in his personal defense, the Inquisitor has to come up with arguments from his victim's perspective. It is our first clue that cruel individuals can loosen up if their anger is met with restraint--a direct challenge to the Inquisitor's cynical view of human beings.

And therein lies an insight into why Iraq so quickly devolved from a dance with freedom to a struggle for survival. Despite being accused of playing God, President Bush has never been all that serious about emulating Christ. What a shame. In Dostoevsky's story, Christ exercised moral rather than military authority, and thereby revealed the strategic wisdom of non-violence. Where it could have safely bothered to boast soft power, the Bush administration has instead indulged in the most heinous--and needless--spasms of torture. The White House has spoken like Jesus Christ yet acted like the Grand Inquisitor.

To be fair, the Inquisitor would have never given ordinary Iraqis the vote. Washington did--and then some. Iraqi prosecutors determined what pieces of evidence would convict Saddam Hussein. Iraqi politicians resolved how and when to mete out justice (also defining for themselves the meaning of justice). And Iraqi clerics got their way in making Sharia the main source for the country's laws.

All of which prompts questions about the responsibility shared by Shiites for the Iraq imbroglio, and whether the example set by Christ should also apply to them. That thought is not as preposterous as it sounds. Muslims regard Jesus as one of our top-tier prophets. In his public letter to President Bush last year, no less an Islamist than Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, described Christ as "the great messenger of God," invoking his name several times. Propaganda, to be sure, but there is more to it than bombast.

The self-control shown by Dostoevksy's Christ before the sadistic Inquisitor mirrors a central feature of classical Shiism: humility. For 1,400 years, Shiites have been championing freedom of thought, conscience, and worship as a statement of defiance against the Sunni concentration of power. Defeated mercilessly on the battlefield, Shiites built an epic narrative around loss, hardship and tragedy. It is a narrative that reminds believers to remain humble, for dissent keeps tyrants in check--Ayatollah Khomeini's later perversions of this story notwithstanding.

If they embrace this traditional Shiite identity rather than Iran's steroidal strain of it, Iraq's leaders could undertake a real revolution. They could begin to replace the tribal imperative of honor, which motivates the Middle East to save face, with the prophetic message about saving their societies from abuse of power--a cause to which the Muslim masses everywhere will relate. In such a context, and in the court of world opinion, Sunni insurgents would hang themselves.

This lesson echoes Dostoevsky's tale. In the closing moments of it, Christ's composure vaguely unsettles the Inquisitor's certitudes. He speculates that Jesus resisted vain displays of righteousness because he wanted individuals to follow him without intimidation or obligation. In other words, freely.

Imagine the revelation: An honest brute glimpses the possibility of choice triumphing over force. Surely this is a victory for those who have faith in the nobler side of human nature. Perhaps, then, there is hope for Iraq. Perhaps democracy can be rescued from stridency.

But until General Petraeus can convince us otherwise, the Grand Inquisitor troops on.

By Irshad Manji