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'islamic democracy' in a new iraq - an interview with noah feldman
Noah Feldman, an assistant professor of law at New York University and an expert on Islamic thought, is the author of After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy, published in April 2003. Before the book had even reached the stores, Feldman was approached by the Pentagon about joining the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq as an advisor on the new Iraqi constitutional process. He arrived in Baghdad in late April, and served on the political transition team until July, when the Iraqi governing council and its constitutional committee were formed. In a Web-exclusive FRONTLINE interview, Feldman argues that Islam is not what stands in the way of democracy in the Middle East, and that the U.S. needs to recognize "Islamic democrats" as its best partners in Iraq. He spoke with FRONTLINE's Wen Stephenson on Sept. 30, 2003.

Can you tell me how your assignment to go to Baghdad came about, who contacted you? How did you end up there? Were you surprised to be asked by this administration?

I was asked by the organizers of the Coalition Provisional Authority (then in the Pentagon) to help them out in the strategic planning for constitutional design. As a lifelong Democrat I was a little surprised, but there are people in this administration who care more about substance than politics, and some of them pushed hard for me.

These autocrats [in the Arab world] tend to say, `Well, if not for us, you'd be stuck with the Islamists, the fundamentalists.' These guys love the argument that it's Islam that stands in the way, because that excuses their continued autocratic rule.

I was contacted by Ryan Henry, who is Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. He's the deputy to Doug Feith. ... He was supposed to put together a team of people to help advise Jay Garner. And he told his staff to go out and find someone who could speak Arabic, and worked on constitutional law, and would be suitable for this advisory position on the constitution. And if you do that search, you don't get a really long list.

So when did you arrive in Baghdad?

I made my first visit to Baghdad in late April. It was about a week or ten days before Bremer's appointment was announced. And I attended in Baghdad, at that time, a big conference.

The April 28th conference?

Yeah. The Baghdad show. I was literally, the previous ten days before that, I was trying to get paperwork done in time to get on the plane. And I think, literally, I went on payroll that morning, and got on the plane that afternoon.

It sounds like this is not an unusual story for people who were there at the beginning.

I think that's right.

A lot of scrambling.

A lot of scrambling. Why we were scrambling is a good question.

Your book, After Jihad, is fairly optimistic about the possibility of "Islamic democracy" in the Muslim world, including the Arab Middle East. Can you give a brief definition of what you mean by Islamic democracy?

Islamic democracy is real democracy that guarantees regular elections, equality for all citizens (men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims), and basic liberties of speech, thought, worship, and so forth. It is also Islamic in that the citizens can vote for laws infused with Islamic beliefs, ideals, and values, and the state can endorse Islam and fund religious institutions and education.

When I wrote the book I thought democracy in the Muslim world was a possibility the U.S. should explore -- but now we are actually trying to create a democracy in Iraq, and that democracy will, more than likely, be an Islamic one in the sense I've described. The test is on -- can it work?

When people talk about -- and it's obviously a big subject these days -- the "compatibility of Islam and democracy," what is really at issue here? I mean we don't often hear debates on, though maybe we should, the compatibility of Christianity and democracy, or of Judaism and democracy. And there are certainly examples of working democracies in the Muslim world. So is it really Islam that's at issue here? Or is it more the history and the culture of the Middle East, and the Arab Middle East in particular? Do you want to talk about that?

Sure. People are asking three different questions. One question is basically a theoretical question about the meaning of the religious teaching of Islam, and whether someone who accepts those teachings could ever consistently also accept the basic ideas of democracy. So people who have asked that question are interested in, for example, does Islam demand the sovereignty of God? And if that's true, how is that compatible with the democratic idea of the sovereignty of the people?

And that's not a purely theoretical question because it leads to the second question, which is: Is it likely that the vast majority of people in the world who are in fact Muslims could reconcile their religious faith with democratic practices? Because it could be that, for example, in some of the countries where there is democracy in the Muslim world, people haven't reconciled their faith, that there is an ongoing tension between them that's undercutting the society. That's one interpretation that's reasonable. So that's the second and, I think, slightly more practical version of the question.

And I would note, in passing, that people used to ask something really similar to both of those first two questions about Catholicism. If you read the literature on democratization, in the 1950s there's a lot of, "Well, northern Europe is democratized, as is the United States, because it's Protestant." But the difficulties of democracy in Spain, in Portugal, and even in Italy were often attributed, even within Europe, to the fact that those were Catholic countries. It sounds crazy today, but it was said for a long time. And if you go back to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s when Irish-Catholic immigration was at its height, you had plenty of people saying, in not so veiled terms, that, well, these were Catholics, so they weren't going to be able to live democratically because they owed allegiance to the pope in Rome. ...

Then the third version of the question is a very hard-nosed, political question. And it is close to the one that you mentioned about the Arab states. Can Arab states' political culture be transformed into a political culture that's capable of sustaining democracy? Or do the particular conditions on the ground there -- whether those are political, cultural, economic -- prohibit it?

And is that because Islam in the Arab world has a different kind of texture or flavor to it than Islam in, say, South Asia or Southeast Asia?

Well, it is true that Islam, as I say in the book, is very, very different in the way people practice it from place to place, though it does have some close family resemblances. I mean, many of the rituals are the same across places. But obviously, there are cultural differences.

But I don't think that Islam is what's standing in the way of democratization in the Arab world. I think what's standing in the way of democratization are autocratic rulers, whether they be presidential dictators or monarchs. And they have been able to retain control in the Middle East even though, elsewhere in the world, we've seen autocratic rulers collapsing in the wake of, say, the fall of the Berlin Wall. In part this is because some of them have oil resources available to them. And they trade those oil resources for Western support, and for buying off opponents of their regimes.

And some of them, although they don't have great oil resources, receive funding from Western countries or, sometimes, from other Arab countries who want to maintain stability at all cost in the region.

And one of the reasons that they are able to get away with this is that these autocrats tend to say, "Well, if not for us, you'd be stuck with the Islamists, the fundamentalists." And that's a nice argument. These guys love the argument that it's Islam that stands in the way, because that excuses their continued autocratic rule.

Is there a danger of not giving enough credence to that? Is there a danger of not taking the radical Islamists seriously enough?

Yes. There is a danger associated with naively believing that, if you held free elections in the Arab world tomorrow, they would elect a bunch of liberal secularists. And, unfortunately, there are some people, some of them even in our government, who expected that to happen in Iraq, or still expect that to happen in Iraq. And that's very dangerous because, in fact, the countries of the Arab world are in a situation where liberal secular values haven't been given a chance to flourish. ... And in first elections, you would expect a lot of people to opt for various Islamic parties, especially if those elections are held too quickly.

Because those Islamists have been the only real alternative? The only organized alternative?

That's right. They've been the only social alternative. But more than that, where they haven't had a chance to rule, they're clean. They don't look corrupt because it's hard to be corrupt until you have a government.

In Iran, by contrast, the Islamists look terribly corrupt. And people have no respect for religion because they see how bad the mullahs have been. But in other countries, the religious leaders often seem uncorrupt because they haven't had a chance to be corrupt. I suspect they're neither better nor worse than anybody else, in terms of corruption issues, when it comes to actually governing. But they look clean. And frankly, people are so sick of every other alternative, and they associate secularism with the autocratic socialist regimes that ruled them. So a lot of Muslims are open to the idea, in the Arab world, that maybe Islam is the answer. I don't think they want an Iranian-style government, because they've seen how much that's failed. But they still are open to Islamic values.

The other thing is that the Islamists speak the language of justice, and they do it very effectively. They're able to make the argument that the arrangements in these states are deeply unjust, and that the allocation of wealth is deeply unfair, and that oil money goes to sheiks who spend it on the ski slopes in Gstaad. And, that also resonates.

And the Islamists can tap in to a popular sense that all is not right. We have all these oil wells, and why is someone other than us seeing the wealth? Or similarly, in countries where there aren't oil wells, the sense that the society is just kind of stalled. And they say, "Well, we can break this log jam at the top." It makes them appealing.

I think there's the tendency in the West to say, "Well, fundamentalism appeals to poor, hopeless people." Well, yeah. But it turns out that it often appeals to middle-class people too. If you look at the Islamists in Egypt, the Islamists have a lot of support among the middle classes. They do well among lawyers. They do well among doctors. Anyone who looks at the system, and can see that the system is broken, finds them appealing. They also have support among poor people, but it's not by any means restricted to that. ...

Let's get to Baghdad. So there you are, you're advising on the constitution-writing process for Iraq. You're there as part of an occupation following a U.S. invasion. It's a situation unprecedented, really, in the Middle East. This is heady stuff. What was it like to go from writing a book, arguing in fairly abstract terms, on the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and then in very short order to find yourself on the ground in Baghdad as a participant in the first efforts to set up a constitutional process for post-Saddam Iraq?

It was surreal. One minute in the library, the next surrounded by soldiers, heavy weapons, and bombed-out buildings. But also invigorating -- there is nothing like putting your money where your mouth is. I've been thrilled to hear Iraqis, who obviously haven't read my book (it won't be out in Arabic for a few months) espousing democratic values they see as compatible with Islam.

What was the first thing you did? I don't mean unpacking your suitcase. I mean what was the first thing you did officially to get this process started? How did it work?

Well, the first thing that we did was to meet with the Iraqi political figures whom we knew existed already. And most of those were from outside the country. So that's a telling fact.

So, Chalabi and the INC, for example?

Yeah. And Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, Ja'fari from the Da'wa party, the Kurds. And the reason we met with them is that they were, to begin with, the only game in town.

And who is "we" at this point?

I just mean the CPA. I mean Bremer and the team that was trying to help and advise him.

And you were part of a team of how many people who were specifically thinking about the political process?

There were probably a dozen people who were part of the group that was thinking about political stuff, each of us with our own area of specialty. I was the only person who was focused on the constitution. It was a really small group of people. ...

Now, at an unofficial level, my first personal thing to do was, as soon as possible, to get out into Baghdad without the Humvee in front of me and the Humvee behind me, which was the way we normally traveled, just to get in a taxi or just get in a car that belonged to someone who was willing to lend it out, and didn't mind if it came back a little beat up, and just get out into the city and see what the situation was out there, and just talk to people.

And the people were incredibly traumatized. I don't think this has been sufficiently reported or observed. And partly that's because the administration doesn't want to bring it up because they're focused on the fact of liberation. And critics don't want to bring it up because they want to focus on the potential for resistance. But the overwhelming sense that you got from talking to people was that they were just shell shocked. I mean 35 years of one regime followed by a bombing campaign -- I mean they lived through that "shock and awe." ...

So, the Iraqis were really shell shocked, in the literal sense that they had lived through this bombing, had been traumatized by the experience of this oppression, and then, possibly worst of all, were profoundly confused by the anarchy of the first few days. And that, I think, honestly, is something that no U.S. government official should be able to say was acceptable, in retrospect.

General Garner was not given political authority. So the people who want to blame General Garner for this, I think, are missing the point. He didn't have any political authority. And at the Baghdad conference on April 28, he said to the 300-odd Iraqis who were there -- maybe 50 from inside and 250 from outside -- he said, "I am not in charge of your politics. You are in charge of your politics. I'm just here to help you clean up the country." I don't blame General Garner for that at all. He was following a script. But the Iraqis were absolutely horrified. They were looking around as if to say, "It's got to be some kind of a joke. You're telling us we're in charge? We're just 250 guys who dropped in the door." ...

Are we still paying the price for that sense of disarray at the outset, in terms of the political process that's now going on?

We're paying the price in the security context, not in the political context. I think that the minute that Ambassador Bremer made it there, he made it clear that he was in charge. And it was good that he said that, because someone had to be in charge. And in fact, we counseled him to make it really clear to the Iraqis -- after we saw this meeting -- we made it clear that he should tell the ordinary Iraqis that there was a government, that he was the government for the moment.

An Iraqi literally said to me -- in May, when I got there -- an ordinary guy on the street in a Shia neighborhood, said to me, "Who is the government?" I was just horrified. At first, I didn't even get the question. I can understand the Arabic words, but I didn't know what he meant -- "Who is the government?" And I said to him, "What do you mean 'Who' is the government?" He said, "You know, who is the government?"

After 30 years of dictatorship, I suppose that's how you phrase it.

Yeah, apparently. I guess so. So, I finally said to him, "Oh, Ambassador Bremer is the government." He said, "Oh, okay, as long as someone is in charge."

There was a whole crowd of people gathered around him. They were waiting with baited breath to hear the answer to this, because no one had told them. We didn't go through the streets with bullhorns. We didn't take over the TV and radio stations.

And the Iraqis, they had an expectation. They had an expectation that a certain number of things would be done. First of all, when you take over, you issue a general martial law order telling everyone to stay at home. Then you tell them who is in charge, and what your name is. Then you tell them who is not in charge, and who's out. Then you tell them that, on Monday morning, they have to go back to work. And then they go back to work. I mean, that was what all the Iraqis expected. And the way that the anarchy happened, they were just shocked, dismayed, and confused by it.

They were afraid of the looters. They were also afraid of doing anything without official government authorization. Because under Saddam, if you showed up in the wrong place at the wrong time, you'd get shot. I mean, in those early days, Iraqis wanted a piece of paper from a government person for anything they were going to do. They wanted some piece of paper. They would come up to you and say, "I want to stay in this looted house. It's empty. Can you give me a piece of paper?" And you'd sort of say, "Well, it's not going to mean anything coming from me." They were like, "No, no, no. A piece of paper, sir." They're not going to let you go until they get some piece of paper. ...

Speaking of pieces of paper, let me ask you about the constitution. What has to happen in order for there to be a workable, successful Iraqi constitution-writing process? In other words, what do you hope to see happen? What would be the ideal, best-case scenario for the process moving forward?

Best-case scenario is for the constitutional preparatory committee, appointed by the governing council -- it's got 25 members, one each for the 25 members of the governing council -- to reach a consensus on a method for selecting members of a constitutional convention. And that method could be either by caucuses done locally, around the country, or it could be by nomination by the governing council followed by a referendum to validate the nominees. It could be by general election. But I don't think that would be the right way to go right now.

But that's been mentioned a lot, hasn't it?

It has been. Grand Ayatollah Sistani has called for such a thing, although I think he will be satisfied with something that's representative, short of an election.

We need to get a consensus on how to do this, first of all.

How to get a constitutional convention? An assembly of people to actually draft a constitution?

Correct. Then that convention's got to have a subcommittee, a drafting subcommittee that will sit down and, to begin with, quietly, produce the first shape of a draft that will reflect some of the big consensus questions.

"We, the people of Iraq..."?

Right. "In order to form a federal, free, democratic Iraq..." And it's going to have to give at least some first answer, first cut to the question of federalism. Are we going to be three parts? Are we going to be 18 parts? What authorities are going to go to the federal government? What authorities are going to go to the state government? And it's got to give at least a first crack on, also, the church and state question, the religion and government question.

There, I think, again, there's an answer. It's probably going to involve strong guarantees of religious liberty and equality for everybody, men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims. It's also probably going to involve some kind of a state endorsement of Islam as a kind of official religion of the majority of Iraqis, or something like that. It might be nice if Iraqis didn't want that. But it's likely that, to get a consensus, it's going to have to include that.

And then, of course, there's all the other complex parts of a constitution. Are you going to have a presidential system or a prime ministerial system? Are you going to have one house of parliament or two? What Bill of Rights are you going to have? Are you going to recognize international obligations as binding or aren't you? A lot of pieces to the puzzle.

And those will come, in some form, out of a drafting committee. And then the body, the constitutional convention, maybe privately at first, then publicly, should debate these questions. There should be a public component to this debate.

And then the Iraqi public should also, then, get involved in the debate. People should start expressing their own views around the country. And there should probably be some process where, after the constitutional convention has agreed on a draft, that draft be sent out to the various parts of the country for local people to debate and argue about it, just to make sure the process is fully public, fully transparent, and involves Iraqis from all walks of life. It shouldn't just be an elite constitution rammed down the throats of ordinary people. Ordinary people have to feel buy-in to this constitution. They have to feel that they're part of the process, or it won't have any long-term credibility or effect.

And then that leads to a referendum, up or down, on the constitution, to ratify it?

To ratify. And I think ratification cannot just be by 50% plus one vote. It's got to be by a substantial supermajority of Iraqis. I don't know whether that's three-fifths, or two-thirds, or three-quarters, but it's something like that.

And that's pretty accepted?

I think they agree on most of the elements of what I just described. There might be some disagreement about details.

And then after it's ratified, I'm assuming it would call for national elections to actually elect a government.

Exactly, to elect a government pursuant to the constitution. And that would be, I think, the best-case scenario -- that that all happens smoothly in the next year or year and a half. I mean, the six months that Secretary Powell said should be seen more as a pep talk than a deadline. Because we have no leverage over the process. It's their constitution.

We have no leverage over the process? Over the speed of the constitutional process?

We really don't have any leverage over it. What are we going to do? Order them to sign a constitution? I mean, that would look totally illegitimate. If we even put pressure with respect to particular provisions, and someone on the commission doesn't like it, they're going to turn around and they're going to say to the public, "The Americans are pressuring us." And people are going to go to the streets.

We have a lot of leverage over the security situation because we've got 140,000 troops. But a constitution, to be worth more than the paper it's printed on, has to actually have national legitimacy. That's why it's really hard to be an actual democratizing power. It's relatively easy to be a pretend democratizing power, if you're actually colonialist. But we're not that. And so that makes it a lot harder for us, frankly.

You mention people going to the streets. If you are encouraging a transparent, open, public debate, how do you keep it from getting out of control? I asked you what the best-case scenario is. What would you not want to see happen? Are there any potential catastrophes here? What's the nightmare scenario?

It's a good question. One nightmare scenario is that they can't reach agreement on the question of federalism, that the Kurds will insist on a single, unified Kurdish region, which I think they're going to insist on, and that other people in the country are not prepared to say yes.

Now I don't think that's going to happen. I think that the rest of the country will probably go along, after a lot of grumbling. But you can imagine a scenario where the Kurds feel that they're not getting what they want out of the process, that they're not being sufficiently represented. And in that case, they can just quietly disengage from the process, go back north to where they already, in practice, control things. ...

The Kurdish leaders are in a no-lose situation because they're telling their people, "Look, be patient. Let's not anger the U.S. Let's go along with the process. Let's participate in the federal Iraq. Worst-case scenario, if it all comes apart, and the country turns out to be a bad joke, you'll have that independent state you've been wanting all this time."

That's a worse-case scenario, that the constitutional process just can't be resolved over this question, and the Kurdish popular opinion is not willing to go along with the leadership, and we end up with the country splitting.

What about Shiites and Sunnis? Is there a nightmare scenario there?

I guess there is. Although, the Shiite-Sunni divide, though real, has not devolved into intercommunal violence in the past. There have been tensions between these communities, but Iraq doesn't have a history of the kind of Northern Ireland-style, my denomination shoots your denomination, kind of thing. ...

Then what was the Baathist suppression of the Shiites?

Yeah, sure, the Baathists were Sunni dominated. And when, in '91, we urged the Shia to rise up alongside the Kurds, a lot of them did rise up because they knew that the Sunnis were oppressing them, and taking more of the state's resources for themselves, and denying them good jobs, and denying them basic religious rights. And then they were slaughtered and massacred by the Sunni government. But they weren't slaughtered by the government acting as a group of Sunnis. They were slaughtered by them as the Baathist government slaughtering rebels.

So it wasn't communal violence like we see in India, say, between Hindus and Muslims.

Exactly. It was an organized, efficient, vicious, quasi-genocidal campaign.

It was the state that was killing them. It wasn't their Sunni neighbors, necessarily.

The state. Absolutely. It definitely was not their Sunni neighbors. It was Saddam's army and police. And they killed -- the old estimates were 100,000.

But they're much higher now, aren't they?

They're much higher. And frankly, I would expect to see those estimates rise because I've seen some of these unexplored mass graves where you see -- you're in the middle of a neighborhood, and then there's like three football fields with moved earth. And you don't know how many bodies are in there. It could be only a corner of it has bodies. But if it all has bodies, you're talking about tens of thousands. And there are several hundred unexplored sites still in the country.

I mean, it was pretty extreme. And most of those people were killed in '91. So it was a massive campaign of extermination.

Are there other nightmare scenarios?

There are two other nightmare scenarios. One is that the Sunni population ends up without a leadership that's willing to buy into the constitutional process. They say, "Well, we're the big losers here because we were favored by the Baathists. So we're not going to enter into any constitutional process. We're just going to try to be spoilers. So we're going to keep up the suicide bombings, the terrorist attacks. We're just not going to stop." That's a nightmare scenario. That's the most likely of the nightmare scenarios.

And the last nightmare scenario is that the radical Shi'i -- of whom there are a much smaller number than people think, but they exist -- who have sort of coalesced around Muqtada al-Sadr, will reject the constitution, will claim that whatever draft comes out is insufficiently Islamic, which they're going to claim in any case. The nightmare scenario is that enough people agree with them, and go to the streets, that they make the constitution look irrelevant, or look unattractive to many Shi'i.

And, if that happens, the whole thing really could break down as well. Right now, Muqtada has not shown a capacity to put a lot of people on the street. And he's become a lot less influential than he appeared to be three months ago. But he could flare up again if he had an issue to galvanize people around. And the constitutional text, no matter what it is, will be such an issue for him because it won't be as good as he wants. I mean, he doesn't want a democracy.

Jacques Chirac was quoted in The New York Times on Sept. 21 as asking, somewhat rhetorically, whether Iraq's majority Shiites are "the real symbol of tomorrow's democracy?" And answering his own rhetorical question, he said, "It is not so obvious." Why wouldn't Iraq's Shiites be a "real symbol" of democracy in a future Iraq? What underlies Chirac's skepticism?

Chirac seems to be falling prey to a misconception, especially prevalent in France and among his party (like his interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy) that Muslims somehow are not ready for democracy. This is absurd, and France proves it, since French Muslims participate in French democracy, even as some question France's radical secularism.

In fact the Shi'i elites in Iraq are saying they want democracy, not an Islamic state on the failed Iranian model. The late Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim called for a democratic state that respects Islam. Just this past Saturday in Detroit, I heard Ibrahim Ja'fari, past president of the Iraqi governing council and leader of the Da'wa party (an Islamic party) call for a pluralist, egalitarian, democratic Iraq -- and the Christian Iraqi-Americans in the audience gave him a standing ovation.

So there are some radical dissenters within the Shi'i world, like Muqtada Sadr -- but their influence seems to be on the wane.

Let's assume for a moment that the radical, rejectionist wing represented by al-Sadr doesn't wreck the whole process. So why the fears of a Shiite majority dominating Iraq? Does it have to do with the history of Iran, right next door, and the shadow of the Iranian revolution? Or is it more the Shiite-Sunni history in Iraq, and the fear of score settling?

I think that the fears that are out there, whether well-justified or not, are associated with Iran. There's also a fear among many elites that if you keep somebody down long enough, and they rise up at some point, and take power, they're really going to mistreat you. That's something that happens all over the world. And so people are concerned about that, too.

But I think mostly there is this perception that, somehow, Shiites must be more radical, must be more committed to their religion than Sunnis. Now, in fact, although there are some very dangerous Shi'i fundamentalists, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, who pull all kinds of terrible terrorist things, we now know, post-9/11, that there are some pretty evil Sunni fundamentalists, too.

Yet there's somehow this perception that, since Iraq didn't really have Sunni fundamentalism in any great numbers, the fundamentalism that is in Iraq is Shi'i. I actually think that's a mistake. Sunni fundamentalism is starting to get a toehold in Iraq already. And since fundamentalism tends to be an avenue which, when combined with politics, works for the dispossessed, now that Sunnis are becoming less dominant you can expect them to embrace more aspects of fundamentalism. And that means that, in the long run, the Sunni fundamentalism may be as much of a threat in Iraq as Shi'i fundamentalism.

So, I think it's a mistaken fear, the fear of the Shi'is. I mean they don't have much political experience in running things, it's true. But their senior leadership has been very cautious to say we don't want an Iranian-style model. We don't want ourselves, the clerics, to run the state. We want there to be politicians who are not clerics to do it.

But is there something about Shia Islam, in particular, that makes democracy a more complicated proposition for Iraq?

I, personally, don't think so. There are those who would argue that Shi'i Islam, because of its emphasis on the influence and importance of the mullah, is especially conducive to the kind of philosopher king model that Ayatollah Khomeini came up with, and then instituted in Iran. But I think that, basically, that model has been discredited by the last 20 years in Iran. The failures of Iran are seen to be the failures of rule by mullah. And I don't think that most Shiites are very attracted to that idea anymore, frankly.

I thought it was interesting that Sheik Saghir [one of the Shiite clerics on the constitutional committee] was quoted in the paper today saying, "We don't want an Islamic government in Iraq. It would be a loss for Islam." Is it possible that we could see an even more secular, less Islamic, form of democracy than we've been talking about here?

I don't think the Shia want a society in which they can't vote for a candidate who espouses Islamic values, but neither do they want a society in which mullahs are running the show. I mean, what they want is a democracy that's truly democratic, but in which the state will still support mosques, in which religion will still have a role in public discourse. But in which religion will not be shoved down the throats of the people.

I mean, when I see quotes like that, I have to tell you, it makes me feel -- vindicated is too strong a word -- but it makes me feel like those are the kind of people who are the Islamic democrats I'm describing in the book, and who are potentially our best partners in Iraq. And, you know, the number of Americans whose instinct is to say, "Well, anyone who is saying that, they can't be telling the truth," or words to that effect -- it's mystifying to me at this late date. Those are our partners in Iraq. They're the ones who are capable of getting the public behind the idea of democracy, and making it not look like some Western imposition, but like something that grows out of Islamic values.

When I wrote the book -- not that long ago, the book came out less than five months ago -- some people were saying, "This is naive. There are no Islamic democrats." You know, a lot of people were saying that. And some people still say that. And I want to say to them, "I didn't invent these guys on the governing council. I didn't invent these guys on the constitutional committee." I didn't even know that Ayatollah Khomeini's grandson, Sayid Hussein Khomeini, was going to come out and say these things publicly that he's been saying in favor of democracy, because he was still in Iran and he couldn't say them publicly. It took the war for him to go to Iraq and speak freely. I mean, he's in D.C. this week. It's pretty darn telling that the grandson of Khomeini is espousing democratic values, and saying the state should not be dominated by Islam, and it shouldn't be ruled by mullahs.

So these guys are out there, they're saying this. We're working with them in Iraq. They are participating in the structures of constitutional government. And although there's no guarantee that it's all going to work out for the best, these guys are our partners. They want to work with us. So we should be at least somewhat optimistic about the prospects of success with these guys on our side.

There are still a lot of potential problems and dangers, of course. I don't mean to discount those.

It's tough, isn't it? The guys you're talking about must be thinking, "We just can't win. We're trying to tell you that we're on your side."

Yeah, and all the American audience can see is that guy is wearing a turban, he must be bad. And, you know, there's an irony to this, because Americans, you know, we're perceived by Europeans as being much more religious people than Europeans are. And we don't think there's anything odd about combining our secularism as a government with people's religious commitment. You know, people in Europe think we're religious fanatics.


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posted october 9, 2003

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