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Shiite Extremists Aren't the Whole Story in Iraq

May 29, 2003

Re "Why They Don't Want Democracy," Opinion, May 25:

Milton Viorst assumes that all Arabs think alike and, thus, that all he needs to do to explain the situation in Iraq, if not the whole Middle East, is to quote a grand total of two -- count 'em, two -- opinions from residents of the region. Would any Westerner generalize our own culture in this manner? Would Viorst ever suggest, based only on the observation that a majority of Americans claim some affiliation with Christianity, that to understand "the Western mind" we need look no further than the preachings of Jerry Falwell? And yet somehow the fact that 60% of Iraqis accept the label "Shiite" is proof that every last member of that group -- and beyond that, every last Muslim, and beyond that, every last Arab -- is a self-flagellating religious fanatic. Thus the possibility that any of these people could ever understand democracy is neatly dismissed in one sweeping act of stereotyping.

What is most striking is that Viorst can cling to these prejudices even given the current reality of Iraq. In light of all the postwar tumult there, how can he assert that even the Shiite majority is a monolithic, single-minded force, not to mention the Sunnis, Kurds, secular Iraqis and countless other groups that are vying for the right to populist, democratic expression?

Bryan Collinsworth

Claremont

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Any explanation for the success of Islamic fundamentalism cannot be divorced from the existence of Israel as a nation that was founded on secular and socialist ideals but has become increasingly religiously defined in intent and purpose. Nor can it be understood in the absence of the role the U.S. has played in propping up secular, pro-Western (values identified by Viorst as "democratic") dictators like the shah of Iran.

Jenny Sharpe

Los Angeles

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Viorst argues that Islamic civilizations lack the secularist doctrine that paved the way for democracy in the West. He writes, "The seminal notion ... 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."

Viorst has garbled the central point of modern democratic doctrine. The real point is that for humans to claim responsibility for their own lives, humans must have a central religious faith that humans in general can understand God's will. God's will is for humans to love their neighbor and to not do to others what is hateful to themselves. Reason is just a tool for the implementation of these imperatives. But God is still at the center, being the source of these imperatives.

Larry Selk

Los Angeles

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