With this past weekend’s elections in Iraq, the question of peace and democracy in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries has been the topic of discussion and debate from news talk shows to editorial pages to coffee tables.
The Potomac School, as part of a lecture series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the school, hosted a forum titled “Democracy in the Middle East,” covering the finer points and problems that may arise between now and when the newly elected government takes power in Iraq. The forum featured a panel of researchers and experts in the field of Middle East tensions.
George Will, author and Pulitzer Prize winner, opened the remarks of the Jan. 26 morning with an explanation of why he’s happy to be a pessimist.
“Most of the time you’re right, and you’re pleasantly surprised when you’re wrong,” he said. In that context, he said he was positioned to be the wet blanket of the group, asking if democracy were actually possible in all places and at all times.
When the United States was formed, for example, strong, clear leaders emerged to provide the leadership, government and structure needed to create a democratic government as desired by the people, he said. “Iraq, like any country, can be said to be three people away from democracy: George Washington, James Madison and John Marshall,” he said.
In addition, democracy is not something that is simply voted into existence. It is an evolving entity that is constantly being reshaped and re-formed. “Remember that Jim Crow in the South after the Civil War was also a democratic policy,” he said. “Who really believes Iraq is easier than Alabama?”
“THERE HAS BEEN LIBERTY from the beginning. It is deeply rooted in Bible stories which center on what happens to the human will,” said Michael Novak, an author, former ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and winner of the Templeton Prize for Religion. “The history of liberty is coincident with the history of Christianity and Judaism. People once thought that democracy would be difficult in some Muslim countries but we’ve seen, in the 20th century, some democracy thriving in Muslim countries,” he said.
He was once asked to give lectures on theology to 40 Sudanese guerrilla leaders during that country’s civil war and expected to find most men to be Christian or members of a native religion. “I was surprised to learn that slightly more than half of the men were Muslim and were eager to hear about doctrines of human rights that were compatible with the Koran,” he said. “One man said to me, ‘I cannot believe that only Jews, Christians and secularists can be compassionate. There must be something compatible with Islam.’”
Reuel Gerecht, a former Middle East specialist for the CIA, said he’s been “deeply admiring of President Bush since Sept. 11 because he understood the big picture, that there’s an overall connection between tyranny and Islamic fundamentalism. There are many reasons for that, some going back several centuries but some that are as recent as the end of World War II,” he said.
President Bush has been able to “understand that there must be a change in the Middle East and there needs to be a change in the system. One of the striking features of the modern Middle East is its absorbing capacity,” Gerecht said. “They’ve absorbed communism, fascism, every kind of government but democracy.”
He spoke of Islamic clerics in Iran who have “non-stop discussions of democracy,” which he feels is very encouraging. “The Middle East is in the process of taking off and is having a more democratic age that has not been greater since the collapse of the European empires after WW II. The world is really more open (to change) than people give it credit.”
When asked by a student why Israel is the only democratic country in the Middle East, compared with 61 percent of governments through the world, Gerecht pointed out that democratic government came with the initial settlers in Israel from their European homes.
“Tony Blair said that the ideals of democracy are Western ideals, which is a good, kind, generous and false idea. Israel is a bitter, isolated region of the world,” Gerecht said.
Novak agreed, adding, “Who would’ve imagined that the Ukraine would’ve become democratic.” However, the road to democratic government is not an easy one, as seen in Poland during the late 1980s and the fall of communism.
“After the people had it and life didn’t immediately improve much, people became disillusioned. We need to see some steady improvement along the bottom of society for democracy to work,” he said.
“Looking at Israel is cheating,” Will said. “They are a foreign implant from Europe with that same culture.”
Another student asked how the United States could provide democracy through violence and maintain at least militaristic control and presence from the other side of the world.
“Iraqis will motivate themselves to participate in their government. They will come out of the Green Zone governed by Americans,” Gerecht said. “They will become responsible for their own government and one of the first decisions the elected government will make will most likely be the withdrawal of American troops.”
The evolution needed from Iraq’s current state to a democratic government is unclear, Will said. “It takes time to develop a sense of acceptable behavior, and to expect Iraqis to do in three years what we [in the United States] did in 110 years is almost impossible.”
WITH THREATS OF VIOLENCE against voters coming out daily in the weeks preceding the election, one student asked what kind of impact that would have on the voter turnout.
“I think people in the Sunni triangle would be most terrified,” Gerecht said. “Iraq became a majority Shiite state in the last 200 years, and people aren’t fully appreciating the fact that if you add up all the people that have died since the fall of Saddam, the majority of deaths were Sunnis killing Sunnis. That’s a civil war,” he said.
“It’s believed that 90 percent of Shiites want to vote, which is a big step in our direction,” Novak said. “We were lucky in Afghanistan that the Taliban was such a horrible regime that there was no opposition to democracy. Providence seems to be working in Iraq.”
“If the Sunni people decide not to vote in the election, they lose,” Will said. “It’s a choice and it will be hard, if their participation is low, to tell what was done by choice and what was done by fear.”
“If any three provinces in Iraq do not accept the new constitution, it will not be enacted,” Novak said. “I think you need that clause” to protect those Iraqis that did not vote out of fear or threats.
When the newly elected government takes place, the inevitable census will undoubtedly create tensions as well, Gerecht said.
“The census will reveal that Sunnis are less than 20 percent of the population,” he said. “Americans have adopted the policy of polite bribing since the fall of Saddam, offering positions not subjected to democratic mandate to keep the peace. The new government is not going to grant the Sunnis the veto over the future of the country.”