Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Culture of Democracy in Iraq

Despite the heady images of Iraqis holding up blackened thumbs as they emerged from voting booths, the Iraqi democratic experiment may not give birth to the secular, liberal democracy that Washington hopes. All indications, in fact, are that religious zealots are gaining ground throughout the country. An example of this worrying trend, unfolded recently in Basra, when local students decided to have a picnic. Local fundamentalist Shia thugs quickly descended on the students to punish their "immorality."

“There were dozens of them, armed with guns, and they poured into the park,” Ali al-Azawi, 21, the engineering student who had organised the gathering in Basra, said.

“They started shouting at us that we were immoral, that we were meeting boys and girls together and playing music and that this was against Islam.

“They began shooting in the air and people screamed. Then, with one order, they began beating us with their sticks and rifle butts.” Two students were said to have been killed.

Standing over them as the blows rained down was the man who gave the order, dressed in dark clerical garb and wearing a black turban. Ali recognised him immediately as a follower of Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric. Ali realised then that the armed men were members of Hojatoleslam al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army, a private militia that fought American forces last year and is now enforcing its own firebrand version of Islam.

The picnic had run foul of the Islamist powers that increasingly hold sway in the fly-blown southern city, where religious militias rule the streets, forcing women to don the veil and closing down shops that sell alcohol or music.

Islamic militants like al-Sadr, whose brief rebellion against US forces ended after his followers sustained heavy casualties and more moderate Shia leaders including the powerful cleric Al-Sistani prevailed upon him to join the political process, are pushing the new Shia-dominated Iraqi government to adopt the Sharia, a strict code of Islamic conduct, as national law.

In Basra, however, Islamic militias already are beginning to apply their own version of [the Sharia], without authority from above or any challenge from the police.

Students say that there was nothing spontaneous about the attack. Police were guarding the picnic in the park, as is customary at any large public gathering, but allowed the armed men in without any resistance.

One brought a video camera to record the sinful spectacle of the picnic, footage of which was later released to the public as a warning to others.

It showed images of one girl struggling as a gunman ripped her blouse off, leaving her half-naked. “We will send these pictures to your parents so they can see how you were dancing naked with men,” a gunman told her. Two students who went to her aid were shot — one in the leg, the other twice in the stomach. The latter was said to have died of his injuries. Fellow students say that the girl later committed suicide. Another girl who was severely beaten around the head lost her sight.

Far from disavowing the attack, senior al-Sadr loyalists said that they had a duty to stop the students’ “dancing, sexy dress and corruption”.

“We beat them because we are authorised by Allah to do so and that is our duty,” Sheik Ahmed al-Basri said after the attack. “It is we who should deal with such disobedience and not the police.”

Students fleeing the attack begged local police to do something about it. Their pleas fell on deaf ears. The local police refused to confront the Shia militia and British soldiers stationed in Basra refused to intervene since Iraq is now a "sovereign nation."

When the students tried to organise demonstrations, they were broken up by the Mehdi Army. Later the university was surrounded by militiamen, who distributed leaflets threatening to mortar the campus if they did not call off the protests.

When the militia began to set up checkpoints and arrest students, Ali fled to Baghdad.

A British spokesman said that troops were unable to intervene unless asked to by the Iraqi authorities.

Colonel Kareem al-Zeidy, Basra’s police chief, pleaded helplessness. “What can I do? There is no government, no one to give us authority,” he said. “The political parties are the most powerful force in Basra right now.”

President Bush's effort to "democratize" the Middle East is predicated on the notion that most people want a westernized version of freedom, which includes the right of dissent, rule of law, secular government and tolerance of minorities. The evidence that most Muslims desire these things is thus far lacking, however. As is evidence that Muslims who do desire such Western ideals are capable to restraining militant Muslims who do not. Leaders of the Shia coalition that won 70 percent of the vote in Iraq's recent national election have insisted that they do not wish an Iranian-style democracy. But al-Sadr's participation in that coalition, and his growing militancy and influence, brings the coalition's resolve to avoid theocracy into question. If Basra becomes dominated by Islamist fanatics like al-Sadr, it won't be long before they hold sway over most of Iraq. One hates to think that 1500 Americans died to impose the Sharia on Iraq.


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