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Devout Democracies

Self-rule in the Middle East will have a religious component, but that doesn't mean it won't work

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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SUICIDE BOMBING POSSIBLY ASIDE, a comparison of Afghanistan and Iraq ought to calm American nerves about the political evolution in Mesopotamia. What doesn't really bother us in Afghanistan-the participation of devoutly religious Muslims in the political process-shouldn't bother us elsewhere. We may view Afghanistan with the bigotry of low expectations: Since Afghans have been calling themselves mujahedeen, holy warriors, for nearly three decades, and political Islam has been swirling through the Afghan bloodstream for even longer, we don't expect their political system to be all that secular. That Afghans, who have developed a certain penchant for making personal and political differences a casus belli, can sit together under one roof and scream but not shoot is an achievement for the new parliament. However imperfect, this is the birth of tolerance. For Americans and their European allies in Afghanistan, and for the Afghans themselves, watching ultraconservative turbaned men, veiled women, and opium--enriched warlords rub shoulders with expatriate suits and ties and women showing hair and a bit of a female form is a very good beginning.

We should have, mutatis mutandis, similar expectations in Iraq. Iraqis, we were told by a long list of Iraqi exiles, journalists, and scholars, are much less fervent believers. On the Shiite, Sunni, and even Kurdish side, this assumption of rather advanced secularization was misplaced and, more important, harmful to our understanding of how democracy would take root in Iraq. We should realize that in Mesopotamia, as in Afghanistan, democracy will be either made or broken by men and women of serious, not particularly reformed faith-not by secular liberals, Muslim progressives, or "moderates" (probably best defined as Muslims who act more or less like ordinary faithful Christians). All of the explicitly secular and moderate candidates did rather poorly in Iraq's national elections on December 15, even though the United States, with the Central Intelligence Agency in the lead, probably poured a small fortune into helping their cause. One can feel considerable sympathy for the liberal Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, who recently gave an analytical cri de coeur in the New York Times, dissecting all the reasons we should fear Iraq's new constitution, with its fissiparous potential. It is, without doubt, a flawed document. One can easily wish for a little less federalist enthusiasm on the Shiite and Kurdish sides.

And one can wish for more vigorous checks and balances. As the late, great historian Elie Kedourie once speculated, Middle Eastern countries, in their earlier democratic moments, might have done much better if they'd used America's presidential system rather than Europe's parliaments as a model. A strong executive constantly checked by strong legislative and judicial authorities might have kept the Middle East's homegrown and imported authoritarian impulses from dominating. Such a constitutional setup today in Iraq would probably improve the odds of surviving sectarian strife.

Furthermore, when one scans the Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish communities, one isn't particularly inspired by the Iraqi founding fathers. For a secular, liberal Iraqi like Makiya, things are not good. But they are far from hopeless. The Islamic--Iraqi identity on the Shiite side still seems quite solid: From the most secular to the most religious, the nationalist component has not been subsumed. It is possible that it could be: The savage battering of the Shia by Sunni holy warriors and insurgents could make the Shia think of themselves first and always as Shiite, and therefore less willing to compromise with Sunnis, who fear being impoverished in a federalist system that would effectively deny them future oil revenue. Something like this almost happened in Lebanon, when the ideas and foot--soldiers of Iran's very Shiite Islamic revolution struck Lebanon after decades of Christian and Sunni Lebanese neglect and abuse of the Lebanese Shia, even worse Palestinian oppression of the Lebanese Shia, and the Israeli invasion in 1982. In Iran, the revolution and the 1980--88 Iran--Iraq war engorged the Shiite side of the Persian brain, altering temporarily the complex balance that makes the Shiite--Iranian identity.

But we're not quite there yet in Iraq. We will unquestionably see a federalist Iraq-at a minimum the Kurds will guarantee this. And the Shia have now understood that federalism checks centralized power, which has historically brutalized them. (Until the Shia become more self--confident as a community-and they still appear fearful of the Arab Sunnis' greater martial prowess-federalism will retain strong appeal for them.) But the language of the Shia still seems overwhelmingly Iraqi in content and tone. For anyone raised in the 1980s on militant Shiite Islamist thought, Iraq just doesn't do it. Compared with Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps at their most fervid, the young radical Iraqi cleric Moktada al--Sadr seems like a pretty prosaic nationalist. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa party, the two oldest Shiite religious parties, don't seem at all ready to give up on the idea of a nation that incorporates and compromises with Arab Sunnis. Abdul al--Aziz al--Hakim, the leader of SCIRI, may have many sins, but he is not a fanatic. SCIRI's likely parliamentary chief, Adel Abdel Mahdi, is a thoughtful man who absolutely doesn't want to push Iraq into civil war.

And there remains the huge fact of the Shiite population in Baghdad, which would be excluded from any Shiite semi--autonomous zone in the south. Baghdad is a majority Shiite city. And it simply cannot be compared to any other city in Iraq-certainly not impoverished and broken Basra, the other possible pole of Shiite urban influence. (The impoverished Shiite south of Iraq actually reminds one of Afghanistan.) For the foreseeable future, the centripetal power of Baghdad will remain. The exclusionary, defensive, federalist impulses of the Iraqi Shiite community, which Makiya rightly fears, can go only so far before they provoke real, paralyzing Shiite resistance from Baghdad. If for no other reason, the Baghdad Shiite factor will likely guarantee sufficient tolerance toward the Sunnis for democratic progress to continue.

An Afghan parallel again has value. Despite the strife and civil war that fragmented loyalties, the Afghan national identity is still alive. The stress placed on it during the '70s, '80s, and '90s was greater than what the Iraqi Shia endured under Saddam. It would be hard to overstate the pulverizing of Afghan national sentiment during the dark years of war and the Taliban's rule. By comparison, the Iraqi national identity for the Sunni and Shiite Arabs remains much denser. Yet in Afghanistan today the national identity is unquestionably congealing and gaining strength. National compromises among the main groups-Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Shiite Hazara-will probably be excruciatingly difficult to achieve, but the growing nationalist impulse makes one believe these compromises, however imperfect, are achievable. (All sides, for example, will likely agree not to seriously molest poppy production and the opium trade.)

But what again is critical to remember-for Afghanistan and Iraq-is that the democratic compromises will happen because devout, even militant, Muslims make them happen. If you look at Afghanistan's new parliament and what will be the composition of Iraq's first proper legislature, it is the so--called religious parties (or religious personalities, in the case of Afghanistan's highly individualistic politics) that will conduct this experiment. They are the best reflection we have of the popular will, which desperately wants some kind of democratic alternative to brutal tyranny and internecine strife. Even for the Arab Sunnis of Iraq, who are obviously wedded to the idea of being the ruling elite, the democratic appetite should not be casually dismissed. For them, December 15 was probably a turning point.

Iraq and Afghanistan as liberal beacons in the region never really made much sense; as democracies in which devout Muslims wrestle through difficult questions about the proper relationship between God and man, they can have much more impact in the Middle East, where religion is like oxygen. Afghanistan and Iraq are at present the Muslim world's two most important democratic laboratories. They are not causes for despair. On the contrary, for devout Muslims who are trying to introduce concepts of popular sovereignty into political philosophy, both nations are-and the word is used correctly-progressive. This may be hard for many secularized or disbelieving Westerners and Middle Easterners to swallow-"We have gone to war for this?"-but in the context of Middle Eastern history, we should be both hopeful and proud. The real question for us now is the one posed to me in Kabul by an Italian officer, who despite his soft manner had the martial spirit of a U.S. Marine: "Will the United States run? If you do, we all will."

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.