The relatively successful election in Iraq is a major victory for democracy, but not necessarily for liberal reform in the Middle East.
This is an important distinction. The anti-democratic forces who tried to stop people from voting there were Sunni Muslim Arab terror groups, ranging from supporters of Saddam Hussein’s deposed dictatorship to followers of Osama bin Ladin’s extremist Islamism. Because Sunni Arabs, comprising less than 25% of the population, knew that they could not win a democratic election, many of their leaders urged a boycott.
By contrast, 75% of Iraq’s population is composed of Shi’a Muslim Arabs, who know that they will control the new regime, and Kurds, who want local autonomy. Thus, a vast majority of the population were sure that a democratically elected government would serve their interests and eagerly participated at the polls. Indeed, Shi’a Muslim clerics ordered their people – including women – to vote, warning that to stay home on Election Day was a sin.
But if high turnout, albeit based more on communal self-interest than belief in democracy, was the good news from Iraq’s election, the bad news is the leadership they chose, which is not democratically minded. Liberal reform parties that tried to transcend communal identities and appeal to all Iraqis did not do well. The victorious coalition follows Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who can be described as a moderate Islamist, but many of its members are extreme. In the future, especially without Sistani, who is 74 years old, the new regime could turn into a dictatorship.
This ambiguity in Iraq is a good example of the problem faced by Arab democratic reformers elsewhere. They have compelling arguments, but they lack large numbers of followers. Already, the reform movement has changed the debate in the Arab world, but it still faces a long road ahead.
For a half-century, reformers explain, Arab nationalist regimes have been a disaster, creating societies and economies that rank low by every statistical measure of development, while leading their countries into countless costly but fruitless wars and crises. At a time when democracy is spreading, they remain dictatorships.
But the most powerful alternative to the status quo are powerful Islamist opposition movements that have no real answers for these ailments and merely seek to impose another flavor of dictatorship. The terrorism generated by many of these groups is an increasingly large domestic threat that only further disrupts society.
Besides battling these more powerful Arab nationalists and Islamists, Arab liberals must deal with a wide range of issues, including the modernization or moderation of Islam, relations with the United States, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and women’s rights. In each case, they must decide whether to confront or endorse the sacred cows of nationalist and Islamist ideology. There are no easy answers.
Consider Islam. Proposing secularism – the historic approach of Western liberals – is political suicide. Calling for the modernization of Islam by permitting clerics to reinterpret its laws in light of contemporary conditions is more acceptable. But this also has a potentially dangerous drawback, too. After all, this is precisely what the radical Islamists have done by, for example, reversing the traditional Islamic opposition to suicide bombing.
The easiest strategy for liberals is to side with conservative Muslims who reject not only radical Islamism, but also political reform. In addition, many liberals, notably in Saudi Arabia, offer to work with the current regimes against the radical Islamist revolutionaries – an understandable response, but one that strengthens the authoritarian status quo.
There are few role models for a more moderate, contemporary-minded interpretation of Islam. Perhaps the most important is Tunisia’s educational system. There, students in the Islamic university also study the Bible, and the curriculum puts an emphasis on the most tolerant interpretation of Islam. For example, one final exam is built around having students use Islamic texts to write an essay showing that non-Muslims living under Muslim rule should be treated fairly.
In promoting democracy, liberals reject the argument used by today’s rulers that the first free election would be the last, because Islamists would win and establish theocratic regimes. Reformers insist that the vast majority of people support moderate solutions, or at least that radical Islamist groups would have to become pragmatic in order to compete for power and govern.
That case is not yet proven. January’s Palestinian elections were won by a relatively moderate leader because he was put forward by the ruling Fatah movement and Islamists boycotted the election. But in the Gaza Strip local elections soon afterward, radical Islamists who use terrorism won seven of the ten municipal councils.
What happens in Iraq will show how an elected Islamist-type government wields power. But the new liberal wave in the Arab world is reflected in media coverage that praised Iraq’s election and suggested that it might make a good model for other Arab countries.
There are many other small signs that change might be possible. All the Arab entries in an annual essay contest run by a Western agency used to focus on Israel’s alleged responsibility for all the region’s problems. This year, the writers unanimously made their theme the need to reform their own societies.
The liberal, democratic reformist movement among Arabs is here to stay. The battle will be long and difficult, and victory is not assured. But these groups have already become a major contender in the Arab world’s battle of ideas. Now they hope to become a factor in bringing about real change. The Iraqi election was an important half-step in that direction.