Democracy without choice
By Ehsan Ahrari
Now that the Iraqi constitution is finalized, we know that Islam will have a
central place in it - that is providing the document is approved in a
nationwide referendum on October 15. Meanwhile, the American media are going
out of their way to find Iraqi secularists and others to footnote their own
apprehensions about an Islamic Iraq.
But Iraq has always been an Islamic country, when one looks at it from the
perspectives of the faith of its people. Its path to secularism was tied to the
nefarious legacy of Saddam Hussein. Besides, if it were to become a democracy,
it should reflect the religious preferences of its people, as much as the US
reflects the religious preferences of its own Christian majority.
Whether a government based on Islam will remain democratic is also a matter of
choice for the Iraqis. But if Iraq were to deviate from its path to democracy,
Islam is not likely to be the sole cause for it. In a highly contentious polity
like Iraq, there are
ample and intense contradictions and tensions that would sabotage it.
When President George W Bush sent his troops to topple Saddam Hussein, his
objective was not to establish democracy in Iraq. Rather, it was ostensibly to
find the weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which even the Central Intelligence
Agency knew did not exist.
In the heat of the embarrassment and humiliation of not being able to locate
the WMD, as an afterthought, introduction of democracy became the rationale for
invading Iraq. Bush came up with an elaborate speech about transforming the
Muslim Middle East, as if he was planning that all along. The implicit aspect
of that goal was that Western secular democracy would be introduced (or
imposed) on the Iraqis.
The American frame of mind is that Western secular democracy is so "natural"
and "humanistic" in orientation that the whole world should experience it,
regardless of the cultural proclivities or requirements of the different
regions of the world. Each country of the world, according to this thinking,
should have its own corps of "founding fathers", dedicated to the promotion of
something akin to the first 10 amendments of the US constitution (aka the Bill
That is as much of a noble idea as it is impractical, for it leaves little room
for the priorities and preferences (ie, choices) of the people of different
parts of the world. The very impracticability of this notion deprives it of the
very objective that it is trying to promote. If democracy is the promotion of
popular choices, shouldn't the people of each country make a choice about the
modalities (ie, specifics) of what their version of democracy should contain?
The American answer to this question appears to be a resounding "no", as long
as those choices include assigning primacy to Islam in Iraq.
Regarding Islam, there is a profound reservation (if not a fear) in the
official community of the US, since it draws its cues on that issue from its
intellectual community, which is convinced that Islam is antithetical to
democracy. The American intellectual community invariably points its finger at
the current Islamic governments and says, "Well, how many of them are
democratic?" They are right, but only partially.
The world of Islam doesn't love democracy, because democracy as a form of
government has been sabotaged from within, and was not advocated from abroad.
Dictators and kings ruled various countries without any fear that their regimes
would be depicted as illegitimate because of the absence of democracy. In
addition, they created powerful and repressive security apparatus (which, in
the Middle East, are known as Mukhabirat) to nip all aspirations for democracy
in the bud. Those autocrats also created a corps of Islamic scholars who were
ready to conjure up fatwas (religious rulings) that provided them the
Islamic basis of legitimacy.
The Western powers of each era also found it convenient to deal with corrupt
autocrats of the Middle East, rather than transacting their business with
democratic governments, which would have opted to pursue different sets of
policies, based on the will of the people. Even the US, the main international
proselytizer for democracy, also created a legacy of preferring to deal with
dictators throughout the cold war years, and even after the end of that era. It
was only in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on its territory that the
Bush administration concluded that the absence of democracy in the Middle East
was also one of the causes of the rising wave of terrorism.
Once democracy became an anathema to the world of Islam, autocrats like the
late King Fahad of Saudi Arabia could make a silly statement to the effect that
democracy was not part of the culture of Islam. The sad part was that he was
neither challenged in the West, nor in the East.
If Iraq were to become a democracy, it is for the Iraqis to decide whether they
want Islam to have a primary role within their polity. Even if Islam is given a
primary place in their political system, only then various aspects of it -
human rights, rights of minorities and women, etc - may be debated over a
period of decades. As a result, we are likely to see the emergence of equality
on those issues.
The American champions of democracy never pause long enough to recall that
their own country was anything but a democracy when the constitution of 1787
was promulgated. Why can't we expect similar types of imperfections from the
Iraqi constitution and expect for it to be corrected with the passage of time.
Critics will immediately jump up and down and say that Iraqi democracy that
assigns primacy to Islam is bound to become a religious dictatorship. Well,
history doesn't contain too many "inevitables". Thus, it is silly to harp on
such suppositions as predestined facts.
So, the right approach for the US is to let Iraqis decide what role their
religion will play in the new Iraq. Let them seek, through a series of trial
and error, the right path to democracy. They don't want to create a
Jeffersonian democracy. Let them create Islamic democracy. It may not exist in
the imagination of the Western know-it-all experts on Iraq. But it is likely to
evolve in that country over time, if given a chance.
Ehsan Ahrari is an independent strategic analyst based in Alexandria, VA,
US. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. He is also a regular
contributor to the Global Beat Syndicate. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.