Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

21 December 2007

More on Iraq’s Future


My last post set out an optimistic projection of Iraq’s future, based on an encouraging report in last week’s New York Times. Just a few days after that story appeared, the Washington Post published a darker report on roughly the same developments.

The Post’s story differed from the Times’ in three respects. Rather than focusing on the new sense of freedom and pride among Iraqi Shiites, the Post stressed deficits in civil infrastructure. For example, it mentioned an open sewer near the Imam Ali Shrine, ignoring the Shrine’s surpassing beauty or the pride local residents take in it. The Post also reported Shiites’ increasing disillusionment with rule by Imam—including some fake imams having no real religious education. Finally, it implied that the public’s loss of faith in such towering religious-political figures as al-Hakim and al-Sistani threaten instability, perhaps even a renewal of intra-Shiite civil war.

We can dismiss the Post’s distaste at the open sewer as the nasal sensibility of a Western reporter, perhaps a rookie. Open sewers are ubiquitous in third-world and many second-world countries. The reporter never bothered to enquire whether this particular sewer was a fixture of that part of town or a product of the devastation of war. The more serious content of the Post’s story reflects important opportunities as well as dangers.

Shiites’ increasing distrust of religious leaders is a good sign, not a bad one. Solving real problems of secular society requires different skills than interpreting religious scriptures—whether from the Bible or the Koran. It is healthy and inevitable that political leadership would shift to people who have secular political skill.

Religious leaders in Shiite Iraq took the reins of civil leadership by default. For three decades Saddam ruthlessly suppressed, if not terminated, any Shiite civil leader with the temerity to challenge his tyranny. Only religious figures could maintain the freedom of action, education, public visibility and wide circle of contacts needed to foster social cohesion and continuity. The mosque was the only place to hide.

Now, with the dawn of real political freedom for Iraq’s Shiites, non-religious leaders can emerge. Their emergence is natural, healthy, and inevitable. It just takes time.

This evolution is especially important in Shiite Iraq. Real religious leaders there never wanted to take the political reins. They reluctantly filled a vacuum left when Saddam was deposed and the Shiites broke free.

Iraq’s brand of Shiite Islam stresses this point. It recognizes a religious doctrine called “quietism,” which holds that imams should influence politics only indirectly, through moral and spiritual leadership. Iraqi Shiites’ greatest living religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, propounds this doctrine. I have suggested that, under the right conditions, his quietism might evolve into an Islamic doctrine of separation of mosque and state, ultimately producing the sort of liberal democracy and free scientific inquiry that characterized early Protestant Europe.

Two things might impede this healthy evolution. First, if Shiite Iraq’s current religious leaders retain the reins of civil leadership too long, political power might seduce them. Second, the longer the vacuum of non-religious political leadership continues, the more charlatans with little religious training will disguise themselves as imams to achieve political power. The firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr is an example of that trend, and the Post’s article cites others. These trends could end up corrupting of both religion and politics—the very disaster that separation of mosque and state seeks to prevent.

How can we avoid that disaster? The answer is simple: we must encourage Iraqi Shiites to elect their own secular leaders in a free and open political process as quickly as possible. That is why I see only two “benchmarks” that really matter in Iraq: (1) reducing our own casualties and (2) holding local, provincial elections. We seem to be achieving the first benchmark; now it’s time to think about the second.

It’s ironic, but Dubya’s blundering strategies might have stumbled upon a practical way to realize one of his grand objectives: bringing real democracy to the Islamic Middle East. Conditions in Shiite Iraq today are absolutely unique. The most respected Shiite religious leaders have a nascent doctrine separating mosque and state. Iraqi Shiites’ sudden release from decades of tyranny and a millennium of Sunni oppression create fertile ground for democracy. Our own role in that release gives us a residuum of gratitude and goodwill. If we use the remnants of that credibility—as well as our military power—judiciously and intelligently, we have a chance to establish the type of model society of which we have been dreaming.

In order to reach that goal, we must do two things. First, we must get over our irrational fear of Shiite Islam. It is a peaceful faith. The virulent strains of Islam that promote terrorism and threaten world stability—Wahhabism, Sufism, and Al Qaeda’s new (takfiri) form of warrior’s Islam—all come from the Sunni side. In contrast to violent jihadism, Iraqi Shiites offer quietism and the possibility of real separation between mosque and state. Iraqi Shiism is much like black Baptism in our own country, a peaceful religion that sustained oppressed people during their harshest trials.

Second, we have to get over the notion that Shiite Iraq’s destiny is to become a vassal state of Iran. That will happen only if we let our fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Iran’s Shiism is rapidly becoming a religion of the lower classes, which demagogues like Ahmadinejad can (and do) manipulate for political purposes, including jingoism. Iran is using terrorists and their twisted religion for political purposes, in order to achieve regional hegemony. In contrast, terrorists like Al Qaeda are Iraqi Shiites’ enemies, and Iraq’s Shiites know it. Iraq’s Shiism is still a genuine and universal religion, now only tenuously connected to politics, which sustained an oppressed people and gave them hope. It has the potential to permit secular politics to arise or, as Jesus said, to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

So if we really want to foster liberal, secular democracy in the Islamic Middle East, there is no better place to do so than in Shiite Iraq. And there is no better time than right now, while al-Sistani still lives.

The stakes are enormous. Muslims constitute nearly one-quarter of humanity. Religious conflict involving Islam has made the Middle East a tinderbox that could ignite war at any time. As nuclear technology proliferates, the risk of nuclear conflagration increases, with one-quarter of humanity taking sides. The only prophylaxis is less militant religion, more pragmatic government, more democracy, and better separation of mosque and state.

Najaf holds the key. We should forget about our grand pipe dream of a unified, “kumbaya” Iraq, which millennial grudges make unrealistic. Instead, we should focus our diplomatic efforts, our military influence, and our remaining political credibility on the healthy and rapid development of Shiite Iraq. What better counterweight to Iran’s hegemony and pseudo-religious demagoguery than a thriving, democratic, peaceful and freely religious Islamic state right on Iran’s border?


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