Thu, Feb 03, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Successful Iraqi election marks a big half-step forward

Arab liberals, who generally struggle to mobilize support, can find cause for guarded optimism in the results of Sunday's elections

By Barry Rubin

The relatively successful election in Iraq is a major victory for democracy, but not necessarily for liberal reform in the Middle East.

This is an important distinction. The anti-democratic forces who tried to stop people from voting there were Sunni Muslim Arab terror groups, ranging from supporters of former president Saddam Hussein's dictatorship to followers of Osama bin Laden's extremist Islamism. Because Sunni Arabs, comprising less than 25 percent of the population, knew that they could not win a democratic election, many of their leaders urged a boycott.

By contrast, 75 percent of Iraq's population is composed of Shia Muslim Arabs, who know that they will control the new regime, and Kurds, who want local autonomy. Thus, a vast majority of the population were sure that a democratically elected government would serve their interests and eagerly participated in the poll. Indeed, Shia Muslim clerics ordered their people -- including women -- to vote, warning that to stay home on election day was a sin.

But if high turnout, albeit based more on communal self-interest than belief in democracy, was the good news from Iraq's election, the bad news is the leadership they chose, which is not democratically minded. Liberal reform parties that tried to transcend communal identities and appeal to all Iraqis did not do well.

The victorious coalition follows Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who can be described as a moderate Islamist, but many of its members are extreme. In the future, especially without al-Sistani, who is 74 years old, the new regime could turn into a dictatorship.

This ambiguity in Iraq is a good example of the problem faced by Arab democratic reformers elsewhere. They have compelling arguments, but they lack large numbers of followers. Already the reform movement has changed the debate in the Arab world, but it still faces a long road ahead.

For a half-century, reformers explain, Arab nationalist regimes have been a disaster, creating societies and economies that rank low by every statistical measure of development, while leading their countries into countless costly but fruitless wars and crises. At a time when democracy is spreading, they remain dictatorships.

But the most powerful alternative to the status quo are powerful Islamist opposition movements that have no real answers for these ailments and merely seek to impose another flavor of dictatorship. The terrorism generated by many of these groups is an increasingly large domestic threat that only further disrupts society.

Besides battling these more powerful Arab nationalists and Islamists, Arab liberals must deal with a wide range of issues, including the modernization or moderation of Islam, relations with the US, the Arab-Israeli conflict and women's rights. In each case, they must decide whether to confront or endorse the sacred cows of nationalist and Islamist ideology. There are no easy answers.

Consider Islam. Proposing secularism -- the historic approach of Western liberals -- is political suicide. Calling for the modernization of Islam by permitting clerics to reinterpret its laws in light of contemporary conditions is more acceptable. But this also has a potentially dangerous drawback, too. After all, this is precisely what the radical Islamists have done by, for example, reversing the traditional Islamic opposition to suicide bombing.

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