Blogs > Cliopatria > The Good Islamic Groups Do, or the Dangers(?) of Democracy

Feb 14, 2004 3:40 pm

The Good Islamic Groups Do, or the Dangers(?) of Democracy

In the Washington Post, there is a fine article by Anthony Shadid on the growing power of the Islamic Party. This is a Shi’ite group that is doing a fine job of positioning itself to win elections.

One reason for its rise is the power vacuum created by the American/British invasion and the failure to plan for the occupation. But that failure is only a small part of the article.

The bigger part is the portrait of an organization that helps the day-to-day lives of thousands of people. The article focuses on one Islamic party member, Salah Battat, and his daily work arranging jobs, restoring cut wages, making sure that his party controls the police department, reducing crime (some),and spreading the Islamic faith, as he and his party see it.

This fits with a pattern visible in many other countries (Egypt comes to mind). It is Islamic groups that provide many of the essential social services and, when possible, act as ombudsmen between individuals and the powers-that-be. They provide medicine. They help people find jobs. In short, they do what the governments we support should do. They do what we should be doing now. They treat people with respect, and they help people in a very basic way to have better lives.

I know that our forces (and those of other nations) have been attempting to do these things. But the coalition consists of outsiders, most hampered by ignorance of the language and the culture. That we have done as well as we have is a tribute to their energy (Certainly planning had little to do with it).

But at this point, it looks like we are failing to build an Iraq with a western vision of Islam. On the bright side, we have said that we want to spread democracy in the Middle East. The invasion did make it possible for the Islamic Party to flourish.

Is that the victory we fought for? Well, that depends on how attached we are to democracy. This quote by one of the secular parties indicates why the US and its supporters have opposed quick elections:

"What's the danger? The danger is direct, free elections," said Hikmat Othman Saad, the representative in Basra of the Coalition of Iraqi National Unity."At that point, a university professor and an illiterate person in the street will be equal."

If he represents the secular choice, then the illiterate, in their wisdom, will likely vote against secular interests. Because it makes sense.

Is that victory?

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Anne Zook - 2/16/2004

Yes, historically, religious organizations have stepped in to provide services that those of us in the USofA now expect to see provided by a government, but I don't view this same activity in Iraq with any favor. It's another sign of our failure there. a failure to adequately deal with the aftermath of our invasion.

I don't like to see the necessity for the religious organizations in Iraq at the moment. Such programs would be better administered by more "objective" organizations...if only we'd made the plans.

What good does it do anyone in a world torn by historical conflicts over interpretations of local superstitions if those old lines of friction continue to be emphasized in this fashion? None at all, as far as I'm concerned. Every time you send someone to their church for food, shelter, or work, you strengthen their bonds to their church and weaken their bonds with their country.

Here in the USofA, Bush's desire to implement similar "faith-based initiatives" causes me profound uneasiness on other grounds.

For one thing, well, statistics following Bush's 'faith-based' initiatives in Texas have shown that they don't work as well as government programs, which should be reason enough on its own to convince anyone.

For one thing, how can we find common ground with parts of the world very different from us if we revert to emphasizing those old superstitions instead of our freedom from domination by them?

I mean, it's fine for people on a personal level. Most people have their little fads and superstitions. Nancy Reagan had her astrology, which caused a few laughs. Many, many people read their horoscopes every day, their fortune cookies, their bible cards, their tarot cards, whatever, and that's fine. In private.

But no public office, much less the Oval Office should be used to cram someone else's superstition down the throats of anyone at all and certainly not those so poor or in need of assistance that survival forces them to accept the bible with the bread.

Our failure to provide a way in which these services would be available to the Iraqi people through a secular agency is going, as you pointed out, to bear fruit when it comes time for the Iraqi people to choose the form and content of their government. And, while I don't believe an "Islamic" government is necessarily synonymous with a repressive one, recent history in the Middle East doesn't hold out much hope that Iraq will stand as a beacon of inspiration for how democracy, tolerance, and religion can coexist.

Don't mistake me. On this issue, I would very much like to be proven wrong.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/15/2004

Two points.

First, religious institutions (nearly everywhere and everytime I've ever studied them) frequently step up to serve as social welfare institutions when other social institutions break down. Whether you call it charity, justice (tzedakah or zakat) or communitarian self-interest, societies find ways to provide for themselves, and religions bind people together in a powerful way when other connections fail.

Second, the reporter notes similar roles played by religious groups "in Lebanon and elsewhere." The "elsewhere" in this case is Israeli-occupied Palestine, where Hamas (and others, to a lesser extent) is a nearly complete self-contained government in all but name, from educational institutions to military and intelligence operations, job and job training programs and social welfare systems. This is a serious issue, because the ossification of these arrangements has severely limited the ability of the Palestinian Authority to claim widespread loyalty, or even substantial legitimacy.