Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Democracy and the legacy of totalitarianism 

The recent events in Iraq re-spark the debate: are Iraqis capable of creating a democratic society? Were the neo-cons too optimistic in their claim that democracy and human rights are universal? Is America the modern-day Sisyphus, trying to achieve the impossible in the Middle East?

Lawrence Auster thinks the Coalition in Iraq might have gone about its task the wrong way, concentrating on trying to create democratic institutions and processes, without first creating a strong authority with the monopoly on the use of force. And the Iraqis aren't helping very much:

"[T]he desire of individuals for those nice things [freedom, democracy, etc.], even the desire of the majority of the people in a given country for those nice things, does not necessarily mean that they will possess the collective will to put down the lawless minorities in their midst and thus be able to have those nice things. It is not a sign of wisdom in our political and intellectual elites that they fail to see this elemental truth of political existence."

Zeyad at Healing Iraq provides a similarly pessimistic perspective in a specially translated article by Iraqi writer and columnist Abdul Mun'im Al-Assam:

"We, Iraqis, are not qualified to administer ourselves. Let us admit it. The time for truth has dawned. The time for confession. The whole world deals with us as minors: When we debate with each other, we do it with knives and sticks. When we disagree we grit our teeth and shake fists. When we love someone we take off the fig leaves that cover us. When we hate someone we hate the adversary up to his seventh neighbour. If it were not so, why did we fill Imam Ali's heart with anguish, if we could truly hear its beats? Why did the Ottomans resort to ruling us with Janissaries, if we could distinguish rights from duties? And why did they have to fetch us the kind Prince Faisal I from Paris to be our monarch, if we did not require someone to rehabilitate and teach us all about politics and parliamentary sessions? Why did they bring us the nice polite Miss Bell if it were not to teach us how to eat with a knive [sic] and fork? Why did they push Mishel Aflaq on to us if not to give us lessons on coups? And why do we have to live now under the auspices of Mr. Paul Bremer, with the world's consent, if we didn't need someone to polish our language, teach us discipline, and to respect traffic lights?"

Daniel Pipes, usually a strong voice of reason in all debates on things Islamic, also thinks that democracy in Iraq is a mirage, at least in short term:

"I therefore counsel the occupying forces quickly to leave Iraqi cities and then, when feasible, to leave Iraq as a whole. They should seek out what I have been calling for since a year ago: a democratically-minded Iraqi strongman, someone who will work with the coalition forces, provide decent government, and move eventually toward a more open political system."

So what's the story? I think we are discovering, once again, how difficult it is to make a normal society and normal nation out of people who have been brutalised for so long. Speaking from personal experience, I see how often intelligent and well-meaning Westerners underestimate the dreadful legacy that totalitarianism leaves in souls, hearts and minds of its victims long after statues are toppled secret police abolished. Autocracy infantilises the whole society, robbing people of their dignity, courage, initiative and energy. In many cases, the old society with its old ways gives way to the new only when there are few left to remember it. This is not an optimistic view, as it condemns us to decades of painful transition. Some societies are more fortunate than others: those with some traditions of democracy, freedom and openness move towards the ultimate goal (Germany and Japan after World War Two, Poland and Czech Republic post-1989). Those others are not necessarily condemned to failure, but they are condemned to a long and dreary wait.

In Iraq today we have to rely on respected imams and clan leaders to manage the transition to normalcy, but it will be the young people of Iraq who will make the new nation. It's their hearts and minds that we have to win, otherwise we're all in for a long ride.


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