Steven Vincent authored In the Red Zone almost a year before he was murdered in Basra, Iraq. When I read about his death, I knew I had to read the book. A freelance journalist (actually a former art critic), he wrote articles from Iraq that were published in the National Review and The New York Times, among other periodicals. Unlike other journalists, he wasn’t whisked between safe zones in armored convoys. Instead, he rode unarmed with Iraqis, staying in their hotels and getting to know them first-hand. Though the book draws conclusions, it’s much more of a personal reflection than a political commentary. But those personal reflections and experiences revealed to me just how complicated and fascinating Iraq is.
Except for the Kurdish-controlled parts of northern Iraq where U.S. support is strong, everywhere Vincent went Iraqis told him they were thankful Saddam was gone but they hated U.S. troops and wanted them to leave. As Vincent explains it, the Iraqis are a proud people who are ashamed that they didn’t overthrow Saddam themselves and are even more ashamed about what the presence of the troops says about them: they can’t rule themselves.
The problem with Iraqi self-rule is that Iraq is a fractured country. I was already somewhat familiar with the major fractures: the independent, secular Kurds, the minority Sunni Muslims (largely former Baath party members), and the majority Shia Muslims, once oppressed by Saddam. But the fractures run even deeper. Families form enclaves, withdrawing so much into themselves that something like half of Iraqi marriages are between first or second cousins. This isolation reduces the sense of community; while many Iraqis keep the interior of their homes spotless, they allow garbage to pile in the streets, thinking nothing of constant littering.
That fractured condition allows radical religious leaders (or thugs hiding behind a religious name) to vie for ascendancy. Once they gain power these groups usually demand the rule of Islamic law, which oppresses women, stifles journalism, and offers draconian punishments (such as death for conversion from Islam). Yet Vincent was ambivalent towards Islam. He often dressed as an Islamic Iraqi, once even saying the words that made him technically a Muslim (Vincent calls himself a lapsed Presbyterian) in order to gain the trust of his translator at that time. He visited a prominent Shia festival in order to learn more about the popular Shia version of Islam. But that Shia festival also showed him one dark side of Islam.
The Shia, long persecuted by Saddam, have little love for the Sunni Wahabbi Islamists associated with Al Qaeda. Because the Wahabbi think the Shia are guilty of blasphemy, they often make the Shia victims of their attacks. Indeed, while Vincent visited the town of Karbala for the Shia festival of Ashura, the Wahabbi attacked again. However, it seems to be the festival itself, not the attack, that most impressed Vincent.
Ashura shocked him. Expecting to see a celebration along the lines of Easter, he instead realized that it was a glorification of death and suffering. Many Shia cut themselves to commemorate the slaughter of the Battle of Karbala.
Something else felt immobile, too: the spirit of the whole festival.
All this devotion doesn’t lead anywhere, I realized. It seemed circular, repetitious. For all its religiosity, Ashura lacked symbols that lift the spiritual imagination beyond the Battle of Karbala. What it needed, I thought heretically, was an image of resurrection: Hussain rising, Christ-like, from the ashes of his failure and defeat.
. . .
At the same time, though, I began to wonder if the Christian motifs in Shia iconography weren’t exactly what they seemed: a desire to emulate Christianity and–in a case of flagrant shirk [blasphemy]–deify Hussain and Ali, transform them into Christ-like incarnations of God. Ashura could use such a myth. Lacking a sense of transcendence, the festival offered the Shia no catharsis, no symbolic redemption. And so, like trauma victims, the pilgrims obsessively repeated scenes of the Karbala massacre, reliving the agonies, the suffering, their religiosity growing increasingly overwrought.
In the Red Zone pages 110-111
Vincent thought the antidote to religious extremism in Iraq would be a secure democracy, but he was under no illusions about how difficult achieving democracy in Iraq will be. However, he met a number of remarkable Iraqis, who in their fearlessness in the face of true danger and their love for democratic ideals, gave him hope for the country’s future.
Sadly, one of Vincent’s revelations about the difficulty of achieving political freedom in Iraq seems almost prescient about his own fate. Having just finished a lecture to Iraqi journalists about the relationship between freedom of the press and democracy, he felt as though “something hadn’t clicked.”
Leaving the meeting room, a tall, serious reporter from al-Ahkbaar newspaper stopped me. In English, he thanked me for my talk, then added, “but you underestimate the problems we face here. You talk about freedom, but Iraqi journalists still are not free. If we go too deep into some stories, we will anger certain people–and they will kill us.”
The reporter’s words startled me, and I realized at once my mistake. Swaggering a bit in my role as an American journalist, I’d forgotten that there are dangerous forces throughout Iraq who do not want the media to investigate their activities. . . . How glib my comments about “being true to truth” must have seemed! How naive my emphasis on “proof” and “fairness”–particularly to journalists who could lose their lives in pursuing those ideals! Too late, I remembered something Yussef told me: “In Iraq, freedom of the press is a freedom that must be carefully applied.”
I apologized to the young man for my oversight and thanked him for reminding me of how fortunate I am to be an American journalist. Taking constitutional protections for granted, I had stressed to the Iraqis the necessity of press freedom to democracy without noting the opposite: that without democracy, without the almost instinctive commitment of millions of Americans to principles of a free and responsible citizenry, true journalism (and many other occupations) would be impossible.
In the Red Zone pages 158-159