Blood And Memory: The Cycle Has Started

Blood feuds flourish where family ties are strong and the rule of law is weak. Add the righteousness of competing faiths along with fierce memories of ancient wrongs and you have the makings of savage, seemingly endless conflicts from Northern Ireland to the Balkans, the lake regions of Africa to the arid Holy Land. And Iraq--well, Iraq is in a class by itself: a breeder reactor where explosive hatreds were both incited and contained by Saddam Hussein's brutality, only to become an uncontrolled chain reaction after the U.S.-led invasion liberated both the country and its vendettas. Arab culture cannot be solely blamed for the furies that have been unleashed in Iraq since 2003. But it guarantees they will not be soon, or easily, tamed.

The tradition of "an eye for an eye" is so ancient and dangerously ingrained among the desert Arabs that 1,400 years ago the Qur'an called on good Muslims to forgo vengeance in order to expiate their sins. But the old codes of honor remained, and in the most troubled parts of Iraq today, increasingly, they prevail. When governments cannot or will not protect the people, then families, clans, tribes, gangs and militias will. (Indeed, among the Shiites of Karbala, gang rule has a history as old and complex as the mafia in Sicily.) As these groups gain strength, the central government and its modern institutions weaken further.

Honor can be a noble virtue, of course. Well into the last century, many Europeans found the Arabs' sense of dignity chivalrous. T. E. Lawrence wrote admiringly of a tribesman riding alone to certain death against Turkish troops who had massacred his family. The knightly virtues of the 12th-century Sultan Saladin were revered by many of the Crusaders who fought him. But medieval concepts of honor can be twisted hideously in the modern world, whether to justify the "honor killing" of women and girls, or the slaughter of "infidel" Westerners in New York and Washington. The Qaeda ideological tract that opened the way to September 11 was called "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner." Osama bin Laden still exhorts his followers to wage jihad against "Crusaders."

In the 1960s, soldiers and dictators of the Arab world had imagined they were integrating their societies into the West, leaving behind the rule of clans, the dogmas of faith. Saddam Hussein's Baath Party grew out of that trend. But the 12-year embargo of Iraq after his disastrous 1990 invasion of Kuwait eroded the façade of modernity. People reverted to dependence on tribes and mafias for their economic survival.

Enough vendettas have since been launched in Iraq to keep its communities at each other's throats for years. And America's role in spawning them guarantees that memories of the conflict will long outlast our presence on the ground. Iraq's Arab neighbors already fear that many among their vast populations of young people--humiliated by the stagnation of monarchy, dictatorship, occupation and defeat--will seek dignity through violence just as young Iraqis are doing. They will call it jihad, of course, even if the spirit that moves them is more akin to Crips and Bloods than to the Qur'an. And they may well create more chaos than the region has seen since the days of Saladin.