Everyone who looks at Iraq sees a nation divided between Shia, Sunni, and Kurd communities. But an equally fundamental division – one that has contributed as much to the ongoing insurrection as sectarian strife and opposition to the American-led military occupation – is the widening gap between Iraq’s rich and poor.
When Iraq was liberated, most people, especially the poor, began to hope for a charismatic leader who would save them from the bitter reality of daily life. Raised in fear, they had no idea how democracy could apply to their society, or how human-rights groups and other civic organizations could help shape the future.
Soon enough, Iraq was faced with a new social divide. On one side stood people who understood how to operate in a democracy, attain power, and realize their ambitions. They learned to speak the language of democracy, gaining money and influence in the process and enlisting independent organizations to defend their rights and privileges.
On the other side, however, remains the vast population of powerless Iraqis, including widows and divorced or abandoned women with no one to provide for them and their children. For these people, democracy and human rights mean nothing. They are ignorant, poor, and sick. Victimized by an educational system that collapsed over a decade ago, they have few skills that can help them find employment in Iraq’s blighted economy.
During Saddam’s reign, no effort was made to raise living standards for the poor. I have visited the huge slums of Iraq and found families living in homes with barely a roof to cover them, with infestations of insects everywhere, and with raw sewage seeping under their doors. Day or night, they live in darkness. Needing nothing more than food, decent housing, and the possibility of a job, these families wait for death, dreading the cries of their starving children.
When I met the women who live in those houses, they showered me with questions: will democracy give us food and houses? Will democracy stop men from beating their wives? Will it give citizenship to our children? Will it give us the right to divorce the husbands who abandon us?
My answer to all of these questions was “yes.” Yes, democracy will give you the right to live in a decent house, the right to learn and work, and it will give citizenship to your children and make you equal with your men. But you have to work hard and make every possible effort in demanding your rights. They replied: “Saddam taught us for 35 years how to be jobless, silent, and fearful. What can we do now?”
In these destitute areas, where most Iraqis live, people are prey to bitter temptations. Many are beyond the reach of political or government leaders. They fall easily into violence, theft, and sabotage. Poverty drives some to take money in exchange for acts of violence, abetted by the lure of a false heroism that they were not able to act upon during Saddam’s long reign. Poverty has exacerbated the trauma of Iraq’s violent history of wars and atrocities, which has desensitized people to killing.
Though conditions in Iraq today are drawing many young men toward violence, I am convinced that we need only to provide decent jobs and housing to save them. Jobs, in particular, will help young people to create new lives through serious work. We must not use no-work jobs to disguise an army of unemployed. We must give people jobs that allow them to make a contribution to rebuilding the country.
By nature, every individual seeks to prove himself as a useful person in his or her society. But the culture that Saddam created convinced Iraqis that political connections are the only way to gain authority, money, and knowledge. Overcoming such sentiments will take time and a vibrant economy, which means that a new Iraqi government must have limited power, allowing the private sector to grow while encouraging widespread understanding of democracy and human rights.
Religious groups are ready to contribute to this process. We can also rehabilitate the technocrats who served under Saddam, so that they, too, have a chance to serve their country. Last but not least, we must provide loans to poor families to help them build a respectable life.
Above all, the government must spare no effort in convincing poor Iraqis of the value of democracy and freedom, and how important the constitution is in realizing their aspirations for a better life. This will not be easy to achieve in a country where many people consider breaking the law an act of heroism.
But we Iraqis have also learned that power should not be concentrated in a few hands, and that establishing justice requires fighting all forms of corruption. If the constitution is to operate as the guarantee of democracy, freedom, and security, poor Iraqis must learn to make that fight their own.