The Magazine

Democracy Anxiety

From the February 2, 2004 issue: Iraq's Shiites are nervous they won't get to vote; Americans are nervous about letting them.

Feb 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 20 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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IN THE MODERN MIDDLE EAST, much more than in the West, history is a living force. Denominated by faith, animated by folklore and daily language rich in religious allusion, and remembered overwhelmingly through military victory and defeat, Islamic history is an emotional keyboard for even the least educated and least faithful. When Yasser Arafat and his companions named his organization Fatah ("Conquest"), Muslims knew immediately the allusion to the 48th surah of the Koran, with its references to victory over the Jews and Arabs uncommitted to God's calling, and to the early imperial conquests that made Byzantine Palestine Muslim. Shiite Muslims, whose core identity is built upon the injustice done to them by the larger Sunni Muslim world, have this historical sense in spades.

The Bush administration, in the person of L. Paul Bremer of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, is now at odds with Iraqi Shiite history and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential cleric in Iraq, and probably the most renowned divine in Shiite Islam. The ambassador wants to transfer sovereignty from the Provisional Authority and its Iraqi Governing Council to a new Iraqi governing body chosen by caucuses controlled by the Provisional Authority and the Governing Council. This larger, arguably more representative, but unelected body would then control the political process leading to a constitutional assembly and national legislative elections. Ayatollah Sistani, however, wants direct elections for any provisional government, as well as for a constituent assembly. Beyond any modern education that Sistani may have had in Iran and Iraq--the great libraries of Shiism's religious schools are well-stocked with books about the Western tradition of one-man, one-vote--he certainly knows his flock's fate since Britain created Iraq from the ruins of the Ottoman state.

Simply put, Shiites everywhere have been cheated. By the Ottomans, British, Sunni Arab Hashemites, pan-Arab nationalists, Baathists, and the first Bush administration, which let them die by the tens of thousands when Saddam put down the rebellion following the first Gulf War. To make matters worse for the Shiites of Iraq, their country is the birthplace of Shiism, where annually the faithful commemorate (except when the Sunnis wouldn't let them) the mother of all shortchanges, the defeat and martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, the son of the Caliph Ali and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims loyal to an Umayyad caliph in Damascus--the folks who would later be called Sunnis--won the day, and kept on winning for 1,300 years (minus a few, usually short-lived, Shiite triumphs).

The Ashura celebrations of Hussein's martyrdom that occurred not long after the fall of Saddam Hussein produced a palpable political quickening throughout Iraq's Shiite community. As one cleric later remarked to me, in the spring of 2003 when the Shiites beat their chests in mourning for the betrayal of their imam, they were really saying the centuries of cheating had come to an end. For him, a democratic system in Iraq would ensure that no conspiracy of forces would ever again hurt Shiites. The age of taqiyya--the historic Shiite disposition toward dissimulation in self-defense--could finally end, and Shiites could live as normal men, that is, as Sunnis. Though the understanding of democracy among Iraq's Shiites, especially among the clergy, is more sophisticated than that, at heart this is the wellspring of their democratic sentiment and goodwill toward the United States. Sistani's commitment to the Bush administration's effort to midwife democracy in his country rides on this simple conviction. The more complicated America's blueprint for democracy in Iraq--and the caucus system envisaged by Washington isn't easily grasped by American officials, let alone Iraqis--the greater the risk Sistani will abandon the project. Keeping it simple greatly helps to check the historical sense that betrayal is near.