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The Democratic Hopes of Iraqis

The escalating violence in Iraq gives a bleak impression of that country’s prospects. Sectarian conflict seems to be increasing on a daily basis, with militias massacring hundreds of Sunnis and Shiites solely on the basis of their religious identities.

Yet it would be a mistake to think that this bloodlust represents widespread sentiment among Iraqis. While neither American nor Iraqi security officials have yet found a way to tame the militias, the Iraqi public is increasingly drawn toward a vision of a democratic, non-sectarian government for the country.

In 2004 and 2006, I was involved in conducting two nationwide public opinion surveys in Iraq. Contrasting the findings of these surveys demonstrates that over the two years when sectarian violence has increased, Iraqis increasingly view their fate in a national, rather than communal, context.

Over this period, the number of Iraqis who said that it was “very important” for Iraq to have a democracy increased from 59% to 65%. These same Iraqis saw a link between an effective democracy and the separation of religion and politics, as under a western system. Overall, those who responded that they “strongly agree” that “Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were separated” increased from 27% in 2004 to 41% in 2006. Particularly significant were increases from 24% to 63% during this period among Sunnis and from 41% to 65% among Kurds. Opinion on this question within the majority Shiite community remained stable, with 23% strongly agreeing in both 2004 and 2006.

Similarly, the survey found declining support for an Islamic state. Between 2004 and 2006, the number of Iraqis who said it was “very good to have an Islamic government where religious leaders have absolute power” fell from 30% to 22%. Declines occurred in all three leading ethnic communities: from 39% to 35% among Shiites, from 20% to 6% among Sunnis, and from 11% to 5% among Kurds. There was some increase in the number of Shiites who thought that there should be a strong religious element in national laws, the majority still opposed this.

Nationalist sentiment is also increasing. Asked whether they considered themselves “Iraqis, above all” or “Muslims, above all,” the 2006 survey found that 28% of Iraqis identified themselves as “Iraqis, above all,” up from 23% in 2004. In the capital, Baghdad, the center of so much sectarian violence, the numbers were even more impressive, with the share of the population who saw themselves as “Iraqis, above all” doubling, from 30% to 60%.

By contrast, similar surveys in other Arab capitals find a decided tilt toward a Muslim identity. In Amman, Jordan, the most recent figure is 12% who put their national identity ahead of their Muslim identity. The figure is 11% in Cairo, Egypt, and 17% in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Curiously, in Tehran, Iran, the choice is markedly in favor of Iranian, rather than Muslim, identity. Among residents of the Iranian capital, the share of “nationalists” soared from 38% in 2000 to 59% in 2005.

At the same time, Iraqi attitudes show a strong reaction to daily violence. Between 2004 and 2006, the proportion who strongly agreed that life in Iraq is “unpredictable and dangerous” increased from 46% to 59%. The change was felt in all communities, rising from 41% to 48% among Shiites, from 77% to 84% among Sunnis, and from 16% to 50% among Kurds. At the same time, the surveys found little support among any of these three major groups for sectarian conflict.

The violence has had a major effect on Iraqi attitudes toward foreigners. By 2006, distrust of Americans, British, and French had reached 90%, and attitudes toward Iraq’s neighbors were also tense. More than half of Iraqis surveyed said that they would not welcome Turks, Jordanians, Iranians, or Kuwaitis as neighbors. These feelings, it appears, are directly related to the violence gripping Iraq, and the role of foreigners in the country’s perilous security situation.

So it appears that Iraqis are showing greater attachment to their national identity and are supportive of a non-sectarian approach to government. These are the basic traits of a modern political order. Among Sunnis, the decline in support for an Islamic state is most dramatic, and may have significant ramifications for the ability of religious extremists to recruit among them.

Although Iraqis remain angry about the violence in their country, this anger has not undermined their sense of national identity. At the same time, they appear to be holding onto important democratic values. The key question, of course, remains whether these values can be translated into a peaceful reality.