MARGARET WARNER: For historical and cultural perspective, we turn to Michael Hudson, a professor of international relations at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. He's written widely on the politics of the Middle East. Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. He recently authored "The Islamists and the West: Ideology Versus Pragmatism." And Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan. His recent book "Sacred Space and Holy War" is about Shiite history and its modern experience in Iraq. Welcome to you all.
Professor Cole, what does Iraqi history tell you about the prospects for democracy taking root in Iraq?
JUAN COLE: Well, it's going to be a difficult process. Iraq had multiparty elections back in the 30s, 40s, 50s, until the military coup in 1958. But that was a system that really favored a handful of large landlords. Democracy in the sense of a large public with lots of civil society organizations being deeply involved in running the country, that's something that modern Iraq really hasn't experienced; and the necessity to cooperate, to compromise, all of those things are things that the current political forces are going to have to learn.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Gerges, what's your read on this period from, what is it, '21 to '58 when the British were in charge and they did install this sort of monarchy and some parliamentary democracy, did it create the building blocks at all for representative government?
FAWAZ GERGES: Well, in a way it did. But in another way it reinforced Arab and Muslim misperceptions or perceptions that really the West cares very little about democracy. As you know, Margaret, in the eyes of many Arabs and Muslims, democracy is closely associated with the western colonialism and hegemony. For example, when Britain constructed modern Iraq in the 1920s, he paid little attention to local sensibilities and national frontiers, it imported a local king and crowned him as king without discussion and consultation with Iraqis, and in this particular sense I think also Britain used the notion of divide and rule in order to consolidate its control of Iraq.
And to take it a bit to the present now, I think there's a widespread perception that the United States also does not really care about democracy and it uses democracy as a stick to punish its enemies, the Iraqi president and the Palestinian president, while shutting its eyes and ears for human rights violation. Let's hope now that the Bush administration lives up to its, really, promises, not only assisting Iraqis in rebuilding their lives, but also in really fully empowering and allowing Iraqis to fully determine their political future.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Hudson, let's go back to the history for a minute, because even after the British period ended, you've now had 45 years of a really autocratic repressive rule. What impact do you think that had on the prospects for democracy? For instance, were there any institutions of dissent that now, that could come to the fore now?
MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, I wouldn't say there were institutions of dissent. But I think one of the interesting things that happened in the modern, more recent Iraqi history was the rapid and impressive development of its social and economic infrastructure. We forget now that Iraq was in such a bad state at the moment. But if you look back to the mid 80s, even while they were fighting a very debilitating war against the Iranians at the time, the numbers for Iraq in terms of per capita GNP, health standards, literacy, educational levels and so forth were very impressive.
And there were many professional associations and societies, a very vibrant intellectual and artistic life. In short, they had a lot of what was we would call the building blocks for an ultimate kind of opening, liberal democratic opening. But unfortunately, especially after 1979 when Saddam really took control of the Ba'athist revolution, making what was already a kind of an authoritarian, one-party situation much more tyrannical, unpredictable and frightening, a lot of these institutions I think were pulverized, and the question that General Garner and everybody else, I suppose, is asking now is, can these things be resuscitated in some way.
But what you see, of course, in this enormous outpouring of enthusiasm, but also confusion and insecurity, is those organizations that did survive, deep beneath the surface. And these tended to be religious organizations, they tended to be local, they tended to be oriented to Shiite networks or ethnic groups or even vestigial kinds of tribal groups, and what you're seeing now then is this kind of raw expression that has to be somehow molded into something more tolerant.
MARGARET WARNER: So Professor Cole, pick up on that. Do you agree that while they weren't institutions of dissent to the authoritarian rule, they were the kinds of institutions that might provide building blocks for democracy?
JUAN COLE: There were institutions of dissent, the Shiite clerics often dissented from Saddam and were assassinated in some cases because they did so. The difficulty is that Saddam repressed people so much that he drove many of those institutions somewhat underground. And you have movements like the Suder movement in Najaf, Koufa, the slums of East Baghdad, which is a somewhat extreme movement and now has its own militias patrolling neighborhoods.
And the way the Americans went into Iraq and kind of got rid of the Ba'ath regime without having immediately in hand anything to replace it has allowed some of the more extreme movements to assert themselves as paramilitaries in these urban areas. How you draw them, then, into a more of a parliamentary discourse, a give and take, a compromise, how you disarm those militias that have sprung up and now have arms depots, that's going to be a question that the Garner team has to answer.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Gerges, you said that you hope the Americans would let the Iraqis have the kind of government they want. What do you think are the prospects that if they were to have a free election they would choose a kind of Islamic state on the Iranian model, something that the Americans have made clear they would not want to see happen?
FAWAZ GERGES: Surely, Margaret, I think the Bush administration has not only underestimated the strengths of religious fervor in Iraq, that Iraqi society has become much more religious, in particular in the last 18 years as a result of course of the brutal economic sanctions that have bled Iraqi civil society dry but also the power and strengths of conservative religious forces.
But I think here I want to stress one point, is that we have been talking a great deal about the Shia community. The Shia community is highly complex and diverse, there exists several political current within the Shia community.While the conservative religious forces are now very emboldened and well organized, let's remember there are many Shia who are highly nationalistic, there's a strong sense of nationalism, and let's remember that the Shia community played a leading role in the Iraqi state since 1920s, they were even leading players in the Saddam Hussein government.
So while I think the conservative religious forces are very powerful at the moment, we should not really over-exaggerate their power, because the Shia community is not only divided across or along religious lines, but also along ideology, class and interest, there's a great deal of momentum and complexity within the Shia community.
MARGARET WARNER: That raises the larger issue, even larger issue, Professor Hudson, of Islam and democracy. And there's of course a raging debate on this. What are the elements in Islamic thought and culture and tradition that are conducive to democracy, and what elements are either lacking or perhaps even hostile to it?
MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, I think to take the hostile ones first, in the sense Islamic history the way it has played out I think has been, in a sense, hostile or at least unfamiliar with the democracy as we understand it. You have a history of dynasties and rather traditional autocratic rule, within the Islamic framework. But on the positive side, there are elements in Islamic texts and Islamic political theory that place great emphasis on the importance of consultation, on the importance of developing consensus, a kind of sense of the meeting, and of course on the importance of rulers operating within some kind a rule of law. Now, to be sure, that law traditionally has been Islamic law, but there's a sense that there should not be uncontrolled license given to rulers.
So when you consider all of these things, I don't accept the, I guess, widely held view that Islam is sort of antithetical to democracy. But as Dr. Gerges was suggesting and Dr. Cole, it kind of depends on who is doing the talking. And at the moment we're seeing a very rough kind of Shiite expression, which doesn't bode well, I think, certainly for the future of an Iraq, which after all is not a Shiite population. It may be a majority Shiite population, but it is also a Sunni population, it's also a Kurdish population, it is also a place with a national identity.
And it also is a place, as my late colleague, Hannah Batatu, wrote in a magnificent book about the old social classes of Iraq, a place where political thought and ideologies from the communists to the constitutionalists to the nationalists, to the Arab nationalists, they were all there. And I suspect they're all going to come back. So the Islamists don't, and I think shouldn't have the field all to themselves.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Cole, pick up on this theme about Islam and democracy. For example, most would say that a tolerance for dissenting views is an important component of basically any democratic system. Is that compatible with Islamic culture and tradition?
JUAN COLE: Well, Islam is not one thing. There are lots of different kinds of Muslims. There are people whose religion is Muslim but who have a secular point of view. There are other people who are very devoted to Islam as a political project. Islamists are the people invested in political Islam about whom we're mainly talking I think when we discuss this subject. And there may be problems.
For instance, the center movement that I mentioned had as one of its tenets that one may only follow one religious ruler's fatwas or rulings. And they have clashed even with other Shiite groups. So there is a kind of intolerance in some of these more extreme factions, and I would just say that although they may be not the majority of Shiites in Iraq, as I said, there are many middle class secular people, they are the ones right now with the guns and with the political momentum. And therefore they have a lot to say about the future of Iraq.
And as I have suggested before, you saw similar things happen in Lebanon in the 1980s, and ultimately those Shiite militias were turned into political parties and had to contest elections in parliament, Hezbollah and Amal both do in Lebanon, and the best case scenario is that you get the people in the Suder movement and you get the people in the Supreme Council and these other Shiite movements into a democratic give and take. That can be done, I think, but it's not easy and the problem is that nobody from those groups showed up today except a low level delegation from Syria.
MARGARET WARNER: And Professor Gerges, do you agree with that, that even if parties start out as religiously based, that in the proper democratic environment, they can come to be part of a functioning give and take democratic society?
FAWAZ GERGES: Absolutely, absolutely. I think Turkey is a classic case of how religiously oriented parties evolve and develop. I think the Islamists have really ended on a major transformation in many countries, and, Margaret, here, in the last decade there have been some major intellectual efforts on the part of must rims trying to reinterpret their Islamic doctrine and stress what Professor Hudson says, the Shura, the consultation and the representation as respect of Islam doctrine.
And I think we should not allow the current social and political turmoil to blind us to the fact that Muslims are really deeply struggling to redefine the boundaries between religion and politics, and also to prevent the hijacking of Islam by the fringe, and I think the challenge for the Iraqis at this moment, how to revive the dormant middle class, which used to be one of the largest, how to revive and secularize or liberalize secular and political culture in Iraq, which also used to be very impressive, and of course I will argue how to create the foundations and the building blocks of representative democracy in the next few years down the line.
MARGARET WARNER: Professors Gerges, Cole and Hudson, thank you all three.