Iraq’s recovery is being held back by a lack of visionary leadership, the US’s neglect of building up the Iraqi state, and a legacy of socialist and police-state-era legislation, a former Iraqi ambassador said. Lukman Faily, the former Iraqi ambassador to the US, said Iraq lacked sufficiently capable “Founding Fathers” who understood what was required to build a state, away from their ethno-sectarian background.
He made his comments in a speech to launch his report Social Harmony: An Iraqi Perspective at the London School of Economics last month. In his report he called for more areas of overlap and dialogue between the three pillars of Iraqi society: state, religion and culture. He said he did not wish to discuss particular politicians, but added that he was finding it “difficult” to find the right leaders to accommodate the challenge of leading Iraq to a more stable future.
He said that the problem was not the individuals so much as structures such as the “destructive” quota system that denied voters quality. He added that the political system was rigid and prevented creativity from developing, which was why he had decided to leave the government. “Parties are not democratic,” he said, where they had had “the same leaders since 1980.”
However, it would be pointless to form a new party in what he called “this unhealthy environment”. Mr Faily, who served as ambassador to the US (2013-16) and formerly Japan (2010-13), criticised the American powers governing after their 2003 invasion for making a “major strategic mistake” by focusing on “nation-building, not state-building,”.
“[The Americans] tried to help us define what nation was about: we have yet to find out what nation is about. We don’t have that relationship [with one another], it’s been fractured. It doesn’t mean that Iraq was not a nation at one time, but the current nation of Iraq is fractured. ISIS tried to systematically destroy the fabric of that,” he said.
Mr Faily also said that Iraq’s statute books needed “cleansing” of laws that hindered the development of a healthy democracy and economy. He said: “We have thousands of legislations … that are to do with the police state. We need to cleanse ourselves of that. “We have hundreds of legislations we need to get [in] order if we’re after a market economy. “We need … a much [more] vibrant parliament, much productive, efficient parliament than we have now. That can only be done by having the … desire for the rule of law,” without which current levels of violence would continue “for a long, long time”.
He said the parliament passed laws too hastily but was too divided over the fundamental issues of the national narrative to function well. Stressing he was speaking as a private citizen, he added: “The current decision-making process in Iraq is ineffective and certainly [there is] a danger of people feeling that ‘democracy produces chaos and therefore I don’t want a democracy’.” But he said other actors had to be included in the transformation of Iraq.
“You cannot change the state in Iraq without serious discussion with the religious establishment,” he said. “The same is true with the tribal leaders. Without having that dialogue, the state alone cannot manage the change.” He said it was a problem that the state, the religious establishment and the tribal leaders all believed they had the power and the authority to change society by themselves.
Asked how to bring state, religion and culture into harmony, he said it was important not to introduce legislation without considering the religious and social aspect of it. He described as “detrimental” and “insensitive” a law passed last year that forces children of parents who convert to Islam to automatically become Muslim, but added that it would probably not be implemented.
He said the legislation had been introduced “without due consideration” for its impact on Iraq’s minorities and to “score political points, trying to be more royal than the king”. He traced the roots of Iraq’s current self-destructiveness and the tendency to look for “saviours” to its experience of dictatorship and its “heritage of strongmen”.
He said Iraqis “still don’t understand the nation-state model” and had unrealistic expectations of their leaders. Dictatorship “systematically destroys the fabric of society, their own wishes and desires”, making it “hypocritical, self-centred, short-sighted”, he said, adding that the longer a society endured a dictatorship, the more destructive that society became – “and that’s the problem we have … the biggest problem we have in Iraq is that people don’t want to tolerate the other,” he said.
“Society still does not think that the problem is within itself; it still thinks the problem is in the other. I don’t think enough soul-searching has taken place.” By contrast, he insisted: “Democracy gives us the tools we need for harmony.” Asked whether Iraq should adopt a model of sectarian-based governance based on the Lebanese model, Mr Faily replied categorically: “Power-sharing destroys democracy.”
And asked whether Iraq should be divided, he said that such a process would only create more problems. “The country is crucial within itself and the region. Issues in the south are to do with good governance, they are not ethno-sectarian,” he added. He concluded his presentation saying Iraq’s journey back towards social harmony was “a marathon” that would require hard work and collaboration.
Abigail Frymann Rouch is a journalist specialising in religious affairs and the Middle East. She has just gained a Master’s in Middle Eastern studies from King’s College, London. Abigail has reported on the migrant crisis from Greece for The Independent, and has had work published in The Telegraph, Marie Claire, the Irish Independent and Deutsche Welle.