An American Agenda for Iraq

Democracy Without Islam

Pornographic movie theater, Baghdad
Shiite religious leader Mohammed al-Fartussi has tried to ban pornographic theaters like this one on Al-Saadun Street in Baghdad (Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP).

The latest hiccup in American plans to control and exploit Iraq is the emergence of strong Islamist (Shiite) forces within the country. These religio-political forces are vehemently opposed to both the “secular” [Ahmad] Chalabi-led administration that Washington is trying to foist on them and a continued U.S. presence in Iraq. Their chants are “No to America!” and “Yes to an Islamic state!”

It is not so much the extremism of these views that alarms America as the fact that they are being echoed by the Iraqi people. A desire to be rid of America pervades Iraqi society; close behind it is the desire to bring the clerics into government. The reasons for this are obvious: a deeply conservative society, pent-up religious passions, a political vacuum (both the result of suppression under Saddam Hussein), and the humiliation of occupation. For now, Islam is the only avenue through which Iraqis can express their feelings and sentiments. The end result is equally obvious: If elections are held tomorrow, they will bring Islamists into power.

The Bush administration is well aware of the Islamist threat. If it comes to fruition, all America’s strategic planning for the region will come to naught. Instead of reaping the harvest of Iraqi oil and spreading Western values among Iraq’s neighbors, Washington will have to deal with a hostile regime in Baghdad that could lead others up the Islamist path. The Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 was non-Arab and too extreme to inspire the Arab world. An Iraqi Islamic revolution in the post-9/11 world would be an infinitely more attractive role model.

How to deal with this threat? Why, with threats of one’s own! First came the warnings to Iran not to interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs. These warnings are a futile attempt to curb Islamist sentiment—futile because post-Saddam Iraq’s Islamist fervor is not imported from Iran. It has totally indigenous roots. (They also reveal American frustration in Iraq: Unable to lash out at the clerics or the Iraqi public, Washington is venting that frustration on Iran.) Then comes U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s direct warning to the Iraqi people, saying, “If you’re suggesting, how would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: That isn’t going to happen.”

The significance of Rumsfeld’s warning is immense. What it does, in effect, is to deny the Iraqi people the very freedom and democracy that George Bush had promised them before the war. The message to the Iraqis is simple: “You can choose who rules over you, but only if your choice is pro-American and secular. You cannot choose a government that is anti-American and Islamist.” This is democracy with very long strings attached.

On a deeper, more philosophical level, Rumsfeld is denying the possibility that democracy and Islam can co-exist. Or rather, he is denying the value of democracy that brings in Islam. Rumsfeld is not the first Western leader to make this kind of democratic value judgment. In the Cold War era, the enemy was communism. Undemocratic leaders were tolerated, even welcomed, so long as they kept the communists at bay. In the post-Cold War years, particularly after 9/11, the enemy is Islam: All manner of despotic leaders and governments can be—indeed should be—supported if they keep the Islamists out of power.

There is no shortage of examples to illustrate this phenomenon. Start with Algeria. After years of military rule, the first democratic elections in the country’s history were held in 1991. The initial two rounds pointed to a majority for the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the National Assembly. The military junta promptly canceled the final round of voting, banned the FIS, and launched a campaign of brutal suppression. Its unquestionably undemocratic conduct was applauded by George Bush Sr. and, among others, the French.

Move east to Egypt. Hosni Mubarak succeeded Anwar Sadat in power more than two decades ago. He has “won” every election since then. This is a remarkable record for a democratic country but not so remarkable for a country that crushes the political opposition—predominantly Islamist—with ruthless use of state instruments of suppression. Yet Mubarak’s government is the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world (the largest being Israel, a country that unabashedly takes state suppression to new heights).

Move further east to Saudi Arabia. There have never been democratic elections—or even sham elections—in the desert kingdom. The House of Saud rules without question or apology. There is opposition to it within Saudi Arabia—Osama bin Laden can be considered the extreme tip of that opposition.

As in Egypt, it is strongly Islamist in character.

Far from encouraging these pro-democracy forces, Washington puts pressure on the Saudi authorities to take even stronger action against them. There are no calls for Saudi democracy coming out of Capitol Hill or number 10 Downing Street.

And finally look at Iran. For years Iran suffered from the folly and brutality of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. America’s relationship with him was so cozy it had its own people in the Imperial Palace to advise the shah. When a populist revolution led by the ayatollahs swept the shah off the throne, America responded with condemnation and sanctions.

Islamic rule in Iran has not been a model of democracy: There have been abuses of power and violations of human rights. But over the past decade Iran has moderated its policies and even established a tradition of democratic elections. Iranian democracy, though still imperfect, is way ahead of that of its Arab neighbors. Yet it is Iran, not Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Jordan, that faces the wrath of George Bush.

Now America looks set to make the same democratic “modification” in Iraq. If free elections will bring the clerics into power, then free elections can be dispensed with.

The Americans, of course, will not be so blatant in implementing this agenda. They will delay elections for as long as possible, citing security and stability as two overriding needs. They will tamper with the electoral process, seeking—like many dictators in other countries—a way to present the facade of democracy while maintaining the reality of absolute control. (Pakistani history is replete with such examples, the presidential referendum being the latest.) “Representative democracy” is the new catchphrase being bandied around for Iraq—a euphemism for “sham democracy.”

The irony is that every time governments attempt to crush popular Islamist sentiment, they actually end up strengthening and “fundamentalizing” it. Algeria is the perfect case in point. Denied the ballot box route to power, the moderate FIS became both extremist and (in reaction to state violence) militant. The tourist massacre in Egypt in the 1990s by Gamaa al-Islamiya came after the authorities stamped down on the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood. Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda might not have emerged if there were an option for political opposition in Saudi Arabia.

How will Iraqis react if the United States denies them the right to choose a government of their own if it suspects such a government is likely to be predominantly clerical? There is every indication that they, too, will resort to violence—witness the passion on display in Karbala last week. And since in Iraq it would be a foreign authority trying to stamp out Islamist politics, the Iraqi Islamists, having the added potency of nationalism, would fight back—unlike in other Muslim countries. The result would be more fighting, more humanitarian suffering, and—at the end of the day—a more extremist Islamic government in power in Baghdad.

Subverting or denying democracy is not the way to curb populist Islam. Like every other political ideology—socialism, communism, free-market capitalism, and neoconservatism—Islam as a political code has to be given the chance to prove or discredit itself. The yardstick for governmental success is universal: security, equity, justice, and development. Islam in power will either deliver security, justice, and development—in which case no one should have a problem with it—or it will be voted out by a disillusioned electorate.

The argument that, once in power, Islamists seal the ballot boxes (refuse to hold elections or leave power) has no basis in fact or logic. Islamic Iran has held presidential elections and elections to the Majlis [Parliament] every four to five years without fail.

How can it be right to hold back democracy today because of the unproven fear that, once in power, Islamists would do so tomorrow? Denying Islamists the right to contest elections both increases the allure of their ideology and drives them underground and toward extremism.

Islam that comes in through the ballot box is less dangerous and more liable to be moderated than Islam that comes in through violence and coercion. The United States has already failed to deliver on many of its prewar promises in Iraq.

It should not add democracy to the list.