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Why They Don't Want Democracy

IRAQ

May 25, 2003|Milton Viorst | Milton Viorst is the author of "In the Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam." His most recent book is "What Shall I Do With This People? Jews and the Fractious Politics of Judaism."

WASHINGTON — Iraq's Shiites, 60% of the population, most of them fervently religious, have stunned U.S. officials who gave us the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Not only do they reject our occupation, but they also dismiss the Western-style democracy that we were assured they would welcome.

It took hardly more than recent full-color pictures in newspapers and on television of Shiite men flagellating themselves until blood streamed from their flesh to make the case that we are dealing with people we don't know. Ironically, Hussein's regime had barred self-flagellation as barbaric. For believers, his fall did not mean freedom to adopt a constitution and elect a parliament; it meant freedom to suffer the stings of whips for a martyr who died 13 centuries ago and to demand an Islamic state.

When communism died at the end of the 1980s, Vaclav Havel, the poet who became president of Czechoslovakia, declared that "democratic values slumbered in the subconscious of our nations." His words suggest that these nations waited only for the sunshine of spring to awake to the democracy that had lain dormant within them. Indeed, societies liberated from communism, including Russia, navigated the currents of Western values to adopt democratic systems, though they sometimes perilously scraped the rocks. So did the European countries delivered from fascism after World War II -- Italy and Germany, then Spain and Portugal.

But democratic values do not slumber in the subconscious of the Islamic world. Free elections threaten to bring religious extremists to power in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and even Turkey, which has been working at democracy for nearly a century. Were free elections held in Saudi Arabia, fanatics would surely triumph. In 1992, elections brought Algeria to the edge of Islamic rule, triggering a civil war that still rages. Given the substantial divisions in Iraq's population, and the power of religion within its Shiite majority, free elections there would probably produce the same outcome.

Years ago, I asked an elderly philosopher in Damascus, Syria, to explain the difficulty the Arabs have in mastering democracy, and he answered, ruefully: "The Islamic world never had a Renaissance." What he meant, I later understood, was that the steps toward secularism that Western society first took in mid-millennium are yet to be taken -- or, at best, have been taken only hesitantly -- within Islam.

The seminal notion that the Renaissance introduced to the West was that mankind, not God, is at the hub of the social universe. It held reason as important as faith, and urged men and women to claim responsibility, free of clergy, for their own lives.

Under the influence of texts from ancient Greece, Muslims in their Golden Age considered and rejected these ideas before passing the texts on to Europe. After triggering the Renaissance, the ideas led, over quarrelsome centuries, to the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. While Islam remained wedded to desert tradition, Europe created a civilization imbued with a sense of individual identity, in which men and women asserted rights apart from those of the community. These ideas, for better or worse, became the foundation of the secular culture that characterizes Western civilization today.

Religion by no means disappeared. Instead, it was redefined as a personal bond, a relationship of choice, between the individual and God. The redefinition made Westerners comfortable separating worship from the state. True, segments of the Catholic Church, Orthodox Jewry and evangelical Protestantism still question this arrangement. But the secular idea constitutes the foundation of mainstream Western values. Without it, democracy -- and the civil society that, along with the press, supports it -- would be impossible.

This process has largely bypassed Islamic society. Muslims like to say that "Islam isn't just a religion; it's a way of life." What they mean is that there is no barrier between faith and the everyday world, between what is sacred and what is profane. It is not so much that Muslims are more pious than Westerners. It is that the imperatives of the culture impose limits on diversity of outlook, whether religious or social. These imperatives suppress the demand for personal identity, leaving believers with little tolerance for the free and open debate necessarily at democracy's core.

Ironically, Hussein's Baath regime once promised to introduce Iraq to secularism. It went further than any other Arab state in emancipating women, curbing clerical power, promoting literature and arts and advancing universal literacy within a framework of modern education. Its tragedy is that these seeds of democracy were subsumed under the world's most brutal tyranny, crushing their human potential. After 1,400 years of Islamic conservatism and 25 of Hussein, there is little likelihood that a disposition to democracy slumbers in Iraq's psyche.

From President Bush on down, officials who are presiding over the rebuilding of Iraq would be wise to remember that the values at our system's heart have been a thousand years in the making. No doubt Iraq's Shiite majority is happy at Hussein's downfall, but American lectures on the virtues of replacing him with democratic rule fall on uncomprehending ears. So much must first be done to lay a groundwork of individual freedom and responsibility, values that Iraqis must willingly embrace. At the moment, the majority is more comfortable with the familiar idea of Islamic government. Would that it were otherwise, but the administration's vision of a Middle East reshaped by Western democracy, starting with Iraq, is naive and, moreover, delusive.

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