Politics & Policy

Can It Be? Democracy Working?

The national elections in Iraq are putatively good news. What happened that was of great importance was the decision by the Sunni insurgents to permit people to vote without threatening death and mayhem. That license increased the participation rate from a little over 50 percent of eligible voters last January to about 70 percent on Thursday. We will not have long to wait before seeing whether the insurgents’ decision was an acknowledgment of political reality, or only a temporary maneuver calculated to reinforce their strength in showdowns to come. If a few weeks go by and there is a marked decrease in insurgent activity, then the events of December 15 will reasonably be viewed as a true turning point in this protracted struggle.

It is wise to remember that democratic exercises are pointless except as they commit the participants to accepting the consequences of losing. If a political movement takes part in an election only in order to measure strength, intending no commitment to be instructed by the election’s results, we have only illusory adjudications of power. There is insufficient evidence, as I write, of the strategic disposition of the Sunnis, either the secularists or the Islamists. When the insurgents gave out word that Iraqis were free to vote, was it implicit that voting in this election — held to choose 275 council representatives — frees them from prior obligations to ethnic and tribal attachments? In any case, there will be dissenters, as there are in societies with a long history of democracy, and the dissenters must be allowed to continue to dissent. But in a society unused to democratic dispositions, will the losers feel free to dissent from majority decisions at gunpoint? And is there anything that can be done to vitiate the perception that the resistance of the bitter-enders represents fidelity to the supernatural?

This has for a very long time been the critical point in our relations with Islam. When 9/11 came, many observers argued that most needed was the rejection of what happened as the doing of Islam. An effort was made to transcribe the views of peaceful Muslim leaders, and some rejections of terrorism were recorded. But they were not decisive enough to carry the day. There was, just to begin with, the great silence of so many Muslims who refused to condemn terrorism as contravening the teachings of Muhammed. There was also the fear among U.S. representatives abroad that spontaneous expressions of Muslim opinion would not assist our purpose. If polls reveal that 30 or 40 percent of Muslims in Chicago or in Birmingham applauded the attack on New York, it is not easy to plead the irregularity of the minority’s faith.

This does not mean that the effort should be abandoned — especially at this point, when there is formal hope, arising out of the elections, that democratic practices will take hold. Whoever the council chooses as prime minister must make this point most emphatically: that the Muslim faith is honored by rejecting theological presumption that refuses to share power with people of different faiths.

We cannot simply assume that because ten million Iraqis voted, they were indicating a willingness to subsume other concerns in the democratic ideal. To Iraqis the very idea of an election was novel. If it should all work out, Iraq will have nurtured democratic habits by indulging a total dictator for 30 odd years, and then submitting to an invasion by a western power. Acceptance of democratic rules can cause real changes of heart, and most of the western diplomats and warriors involved in Iraq pray in whatever theological idiom that this has in fact happened. They will be keen to spot some evidence that the change of heart is there. It would be informative to have word on that point from Saddam Hussein, who has talked about everything else in the world during his endless last days.


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