Unfortunately, what came out of all this secularizing zeal was not democracy but militarism, absolute monarchy, fascism and variations of Stalinism. The religious revolution that now stalks the Muslim world has come as a reaction, in part, to the failure of modern secular politics. And yet many Middle East analysts sympathetic to the Bush administration, like Daniel Pipes, see a secular strongman, along the lines of Ataturk or Chiang Kai-shek, as the best option in Iraq, since elections in the short term would bring "Khomeini-like mullahs" to power. Neoconservatives are not alone in their distrust of clerics. This distrust split the left-leaning anti-Communist opposition in Poland too. It was hard for some dissidents to support the priests against the commissars. As Jerzy Urban, one of the last spokesmen for the Communist regime there, once remarked, it's either us or the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. But does it always have to be one or the other? Is the choice in Iraq really between Ataturk and Khomeini? Islamic democracy has no track record, since it barely exists as yet. In Iran, a democracy of sorts is controlled by a religious council. Perhaps Turkey comes closest to a European model we know, based loosely on religious values without being a theocracy. Yet even Turkish democracy is distrusted by many Europeans and is actually considered sinful by some Muslims.
The idea that modern democracy has to be secular in its ethos is, of course, rooted in European history. The Enlightenment was partly an assault on the authority of the church, especially in France. Political arrangements were to be subject to reason, not to theology. To be modern was to reject religion, or "superstition," and to believe in science. It was not enough, in the view of Voltaire, among others, to put organized religion in its place; it was necessary to "wipe out that rubbish." The belief in science as a solution for all human problems became a kind of superstition itself. Scientific socialism, à la Stalin and Mao, for example, led to all manner of crackpot experiments that caused the deaths of millions.
Of course, not all rationalists were so extreme. Many typical Enlightenment thinkers, like John Locke, were convinced that a political system based on enlightened self-interest could not survive without a strong basis in religious morality. The kind of anti-clericalism that inspired Stalinists and other authoritarians was more a product of the French Revolution than of the pursuit of democracy in itself.
In fact, anti-clericalism, much more than a history of religious zeal, formed the basis for many of the Middle East's bloodiest political failures: Nasserism in Egypt, Baathism in Syria and Iraq, the shah in Iran. These regimes were led by secular elites who saw religion as something that held their countries back or in a state of colonial dependence. The fact that a number of iron-fisted reformers, like Nasser himself, were routinely the objects of assassination attempts by religious zealots showed the gap between the secular "progressive" elites and the people they ruled. When organized religion is destroyed, something worse often takes its place, usually a quasi religion or personality cult exploited by dictators. When it is marginalized, as happened in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, it provokes a religious rebellion.
This is not to say that Muslim clerics are naturally disposed to democracy. But, as Michael Hirsh pointed out in a recent article in The Washington Monthly, a number of Middle East scholars -- Richard Bulliet, author of "The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization," among them -- have argued that religion for many centuries actually acted as a constraint on tyranny in the Muslim world. The destruction of traditional Muslim institutions, like religious schools and mosques, in the name of modernization left a social void in which extreme, political Islam would eventually thrive.
Ayatollah Khomeini was not acting as a traditional Shiite cleric but as a modern revolutionary who took power as a political strongman. And in the eyes of many believers, his worldly dictatorship in Iran undermined his stature as a religious figure, since mullahs are not supposed to act like politicians. Osama bin Laden is an amateur priest with more knowledge of Swiss bank transfers and media manipulation than of the intricacies of Islam. It would be hard to find a serious Muslim cleric or scholar who respects him.
It may be useful to reflect for a moment on how the West itself has coped with religion. The separation of church and state was indeed a necessary condition for democratic development in Europe and the United States, but the separation has never been absolute. Britain's constitutional arrangements include organized religion: the monarch is the protector of the Anglican faith. This may now be nothing more than a formality, but in continental European politics Christian democratic parties are still the mainstream. The first such party, the Anti-Revolutionary Party, was founded in 1879 by a Calvinist ex-pastor in the Netherlands named Abraham Kuyper. His aim was to restore God (not the church) as the absolute sovereign over human affairs. Only if secular government was firmly embedded in the Christian faith could its democratic institutions survive. That is what he believed and what Christian Democrats still believe.
I do not believe this. It is always tricky for an agnostic in religious affairs to argue for the importance of organized religion, but I would argue not that more people should be religious or that democracy cannot survive without God, but that the voices of religious people should be heard. The most important condition for a functional democracy is that people take part. If religious affiliations provide the necessary consensus to play by common rules, then they should be recognized. A Sharia-based Shiite theocracy, even if it were supported by a majority, would not be a democracy. Only if the rights and interests of the various ethnic and religious groups are negotiated and compromises reached could you speak of a functioning democracy.
A tall order, to be sure, but given the miserable record of secular politics in the Middle East, and beyond, it makes sense that several distinguished experts on Islam have taken issue with the Ataturkian solution in Iraq. Reuel Marc Gerecht, a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and a former C.I.A. specialist, has argued that devout followers of Sistani offer not just the best hope for democracy but also the only one. In Gerecht's view, Sistani's "Iranian blood and family in the Islamic republic has surely made [him] more sensitive to the pitfalls of clerical dictatorship," and "in the matter of democracy in Iraq, Sistani may again become one of America's most effective allies." Noah Feldman, an N.Y.U. law professor, has also argued forcefully that Islamic democracy is possible in Iraq, a democracy that guarantees not just that people can vote but also that they can "vote for laws infused with Islamic beliefs, ideals and values, and the state can endorse Islam and fund religious institutions and education."
The views of devout Shiites on the rights of women and other social issues may not be shared by most voters in the United States, but devout Shiites do claim to want popular sovereignty based on elections. The question is whether Sistani and his followers maintain this position because they are the majority in Iraq and elections would favor them, not the Sunnis, or whether they want an electoral system on principle. We will not know the answer until it is tested -- that is, until one faction or another loses an election and has to give its consent to being ruled by an alternative party. Sistani has worked hard to create a unified Shiite coalition, but Shiites are far from being united. A coalition between Chalabi and the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr could siphon off a number of Shiite votes.
In January, some 200 political groups will be vying for places in a 275-seat national assembly. As in Europe, in Iraq these parties are expected to form a patchwork of alliances (many of them no doubt along religious lines) and then work to appoint a prime minister and draft a permanent constitution. Elections for a full-term government are supposed to take place at the end of 2005. And apart from local elections for provincial leaders, the Kurds in the northern Kurdish region will be voting for a separate assembly at the end of January.
This sounds complicated, but it is not more so than the situation in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world. Three months ago, a group of Iraqi political delegates visited Indonesia to watch that country's democratic elections in action. Akif Khalik Ibraheem, of the Iraqi Independent Democrats, a largely Sunni party, said, "The most important lesson here is not to be deterred by the complexity and difficulty of the task -- it can be done." Mahdi Jaber Mahdi, a delegate from the Iraqi Communist Party, a predominantly secular organization, expressed a similar feeling, telling a reporter for Agence France-Presse that, like Indonesia, Iraq had a variety of religious and ethnic groups and that the important thing was to "manage that variety." He said that "the more democratically you manage these, the more you are assured the country will not be split."
The transition to democracy in Indonesia has not been easy, following as it has years of secular dictatorship, during which political Islam was suppressed, much as it was in Iraq. Yet the outcome has not been a fundamentalist Islamic regime but a democratic system, however flawed, in which Islamist parties have to cast around for votes like any other party.
To be sure, Indonesian Muslims are different from Arabs. Their religious habits are less puritanical. Fanaticism is not in their tradition. Women enjoy a higher status. But their politics can be just as brutal, even though often couched in the language of tolerance and consensus. President Suharto, who took power in 1967 after a bloody coup, suppressed political Islam by forcing the Muslim parties to merge into one representative body, which had to accept non-Muslims too. It was called the P.P.P., the United Development Party. The official ideology was not Islam but Pancasila, devised by Suharto's predecessor, Sukarno, as a kind of state religion to form a common moral basis for national unity. Pancasila is a Sanskrit term encompassing five principles: belief in the supreme being, a just and civilized humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy and social justice for all Indonesians. Anodyne enough, you might say, if a little disingenuous, for there was no democracy under Suharto. But Muslims, forced to give the state ideology precedence over Islam, felt robbed of their religious identity. Riots broke out in Jakarta, Chinese people and Christians were attacked and the old Buddhist temple in Borobodur was bombed. Not one to take even peaceful dissent lightly, Suharto cracked down hard. Official Muslim organizations decided to accept Pancasila.
Radical Islam, promoted and financed by Wahhabists from Saudi Arabia, began to attract a growing number of Indonesians for the same reason it appealed to Iraqis under Saddam Hussein: when all political opposition is crushed by autocrats, the mosque becomes the only place of political refuge. After an economic crisis led to the downfall of Suharto's dictatorship, the chaotic start of a new democracy created room for radicals, calling for an Islamic state, to operate more freely. Secular politicians refused to criticize the Islamists for fear of being accused of being anti-Islam, and moderate Muslims tried to ignore them. This pretense was no longer possible after a group named Jemaah Islamiyah, loosely linked to Al Qaeda, killed more than 200 people in a disco in Bali. Indonesians had to acknowledge that they had an Islamist terrorist problem.
You might conclude from this that Suharto had it right. His rule may have been harsh and corrupt, but at least he kept the Islamists in their box. Democracy is resulting in terror. Yet this would be the wrong conclusion. Not only were Suharto's authoritarian methods largely responsible for the birth of religious extremism; democracy is proving to be the best cure -- for moderate Muslims, still the majority in Indonesia, are so appalled by the bloody mayhem caused by the terrorists that they won't vote for any party associated with them. This has forced the Islamist parties to publicly reject the extremists.
Will Iraq be like Indonesia? Will democracy allow the differences between Arabs and Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, religious and secular, to be solved without violence? In principle, you would have to say that it would. But the Iraqis have problems that the Indonesians did not have to face. They have to build democratic institutions under a hated foreign occupation.
It is very difficult to build a democracy as pupils of foreign tutors who arrived in bombers and tanks. Even though the foreign occupiers say they want an Iraqi democracy too, anyone or any party believed to be on the side of foreigners is discredited from the start. The more those foreigners insist on secularism, the more the local people may turn to radical Islamism. And the more violence the Islamists unleash, the less likely it is that Iraqis can vote in safety. This is particularly true of the so-called Sunni triangle north and west of Baghdad. It is all very well for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and for leading Shiites and Kurds, to say that it would still be better to have elections, even if many people can't take part, but that won't do. "There is no perfect election in the world," Sa'ad Jawad Qandil told The Boston Globe. Qandil is a senior official in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, a major Shiite party better known as Sciri. "If there are some minorities who cannot participate because of security, that is not a reason to cancel the decision of the majority." Well, yes, it is. For if the Sunnis can't vote, Iraqi democracy won't work, because without the consent of this minority, the majority can never govern in peace.
There are other problems with a democracy incorporating a patchwork of faiths and denominations. A two-party system is not really feasible. Yet in a multiparty system, small parties can have too much influence, as they do in Israel. Most Israelis are secular people, but tiny orthodox parties can sometimes make or break governments. Perhaps the early Zionists, almost all secular, socialist kibbutzniks, gave too much away to the religious, by letting them set the rules for marriage, among other things. The fear was that without such a deal, the ultra-Orthodox would not recognize the state of Israel. But the founding fathers of Israel cannot have anticipated that autonomy in spiritual affairs would lead to so much clout in secular politics.
It is also true that the religious, in Europe, the United States or anywhere, often do what their priests or mullahs tell them to. Until not so long ago, many people in countries with Catholic or Protestant parties did just that. But at least they voted, and by consenting to the democratic rules, they managed to live together without going at one another's throats. If Shiites and Sunnis can do so in a future Iraq, by voting for religious parties, then so be it. But first they have to be able to vote without getting killed. That is the issue, and not religion per se. The answer will be shaped by a foreign occupation, which made democracy possible, but then, by its very presence, might help to snuff it out.
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: 12-05-04: ESSAY Ian Buruma is the author, with Avishai Margalit, of "Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies."Continue reading the main story
This essay, the sixth in a series exploring prospects for political reform throughout the Middle East, analyzes the unique perils facing democratic governance in Iraq, particularly the dangerous Islamist alternatives masquerading under the guise of theocracy.
Iraq's transition from autocracy to multiparty elections has made it something of a test case in the Arab world. Although the Sunni-Shia divide has created difficult obstacles to good governance, it has led to a wider embrace of power sharing, at least as a political principle. Iraq's Islamist parties play a dominant role in politics, but pose less of a threat to democracy than those of other Arab countries, in large part because of the endorsement of free elections by Iraq's most influential Shia religious leaders.
At the same time, Iraq's corrupt system of patronage politics illustrates the dangers of democratic electoral politics unrestrained by a strong legal tradition or an independent judiciary. Moreover, Iraq's democracy currently faces a severe threat from radical Shia militias who, despite poor performance in elections, believe they can leverage their role in the fight against IS to gain permanent extralegal powers, with the ultimate aim of hollowing out Iraq's democracy and turning it into a ideological Islamist state based on the Iranian model.
This essay, the sixth in a series exploring prospects for political reform throughout the Middle East, analyzes the unique perils facing democratic governance in Iraq and the dangerous alternative of rule by militia gangs paying lip service to Islamist slogans.
Download other essays in this series.