Saif Al-Azzawi grew up in Baghdad and moved to the United States as a refugee in 2009. He now lives in Long Beach, California.
He grew up in Baghdad in a middle-class family. My father served in the Iraqi Air Force and often traveled internationally; my mother was a math teacher; my siblings all attended college. I graduated from the most prestigious high school in Baghdad before getting my degree at pharmacy school.
Most Americans don’t understand that Iraq used to be a modern, Westernized and secular country. From the 1930s to the 1980s, Iraq’s neighbors looked to it as the example. People from different Arab countries came to Iraq to attend university. The country had an excellent education system, great health care, and Iraq was rich — not the richest, but rich.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait, 24 years ago last month, the United States destroyed most of Iraq’s infrastructure during the Persian Gulf War. Bridges were bombed, along with power stations, railroads, dams and oil refineries.
In 1990, an embargo was imposed, which prohibited Iraq from exporting oil. Iraqis suddenly found themselves poor.
The notion of democracy is foreign to the Arab world. Although the West saw the “Arab Spring” protests as movements for democracy, they were really uprisings against various dictators, which are not the same thing. What we know is that for countless generations, we’ve lived in a hierarchical society. It’s not about individualism or personal freedoms. It’s about following your father, your family and your tribe. There’s no culture of respecting different opinions.
What’s happening in Iraq today is merely a continuation of the failure of democracy. And a failure of the United States to understand the psyche of Iraqis.
The people who might have been able to change Iraq — the educated, the artists, the moderates — began leaving in 1990, after the embargo was imposed and their comfortable lifestyles came to an end. People with connections fled to friends and family in other countries. Almost all of them left the country illegally.
It is [Saif’s] worst nightmare that an extremist group like the Islamic State has support in Iraq and, though it pains me to say this, the aftermath of the U.S. invasions has brought us to this point.
After the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, some even dared to dream that the country would become as rich as Gulf States like Kuwait. There was no Iraqi government in place for a long time and, for several months, life in Baghdad was free of bombings and attacks.
To make things worse, the U.S. dissolved the Iraqi army and started a process to remove those politically aligned with Saddam, which ended up taking jobs away from thousands of Sunnis and seemed like an unfair witch hunt. Add to these political actions poverty and a lack of basic services, and you end up with a deep, sectarian divide in Iraq that I believe led to the insurgency and the problems that exist today.
[Saif] despised Saddam, but he does not think an extremist group like the Islamic State would exist under Sadaam’s rule. Even if Saddam had gone crazy and killed a bunch of people, it wouldn’t be anywhere near the number who have died since he was overthrown. [Saif] see a civil war coming, and an Iraq divided into states.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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