Remembering Islam’s role in Iraq

By Justin Palmer

Now that we have won the war in Iraq we have to win the peace. This week’s outbreak of anti-American protests, from both within Iraq and without, shows that we must move faster than we thought in setting up a new Iraqi government. That requires recognizing some basic facts about the situation.

The first is that we cannot “Americanize” the country. Desiring to Americanize the country is taking a patronizing attitude toward the Iraqi people. I was stunned to hear many Americans reacting to the Shia protests by suggesting that, rather than working with them, we can impose whatever we see fit on the Iraqis and they should accept it. Every time I hear talk of that nature, I’m reminded of the quote from the movie Full Metal Jacket, that “inside every gook there is an American trying to get out.”

This won’t work. We should not act like the British did at the end of World War I, setting up a king in Baghdad only for him to be overthrown a decade after the British left because the Iraqis saw him as being imposed by the outside. We must respect their culture. We cannot remake the Iraqis in our own image.

But this venture was never about bringing America to Iraq. It was about bringing democracy to Iraq. Fortunately, we already have an outstanding model of government to follow. It’s a state based on religious tolerance, equal rights for women, anti-corruption, and–dare I say?–enlightened ideas. I am, of course, talking about the state founded by the prophet Muhammad. We should not rule out creating a Muslim democracy in Iraq.

Before continuing I want to define what a Muslim democracy is. It is a state based on the concept of “one person, one vote,” but not on the secular concept of removing religion from public life. It would be run in accordance with the values set down in the Koran, but would not require a Ayatollah or Mullah to tell the people exactly what the laws should be, as in Iran and Afghanistan. It would, in short, be keeping with the religious traditions of Islam, but also incorporating the concept of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Much has already been made of the influence of Islam in Iraqi affairs and not in a very positive light. The anti-American protests have mostly originated in local mosques, organized by Shia clerics who want to implement an Iranian-style theocracy in the country. When our officials approached them and asked for their help in setting up a postwar interim administration, the clerics rebuffed them in many cases. One pro-Western cleric was even publicly stabbed to death in a mosque in Najaf by anti-American Iraqis.

I don’t believe that this Shia movement is entirely homegrown. Iran is just across the border, and its government has a vested interest in keeping Iraq chaotic. But why should we do this anyway? After all, the United States was founded on the principles of separating church and state. Well, just because something worked here doesn’t mean it will work there. (Should we also introduce the Second Amendment into Iraq as well? How about legalizing abortion?)

Also, Iraq isn’t America and Islam isn’t Christianity. In contrast to Christianity, Islam has always had a political role. So? The key audience with which we’re dealing is Muslim, not Christian. We must therefore incorporate Islam into our long-term strategy for the Middle East. Who cares if the ACLU doesn’t like it? They’re not the ones who have been flying planes into buildings.

Throughout world history, the pulpit has always been the natural counterweight to the tyrant. In the modern Middle East, the levers of power have only been accessible to a select few, mostly monarchs and military officers. If you don’t see the analogy, try reading T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral about the power struggle between the English King Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett, a conflict that would sound familiar to any student of modern Middle Eastern affairs.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism came about precisely to offset the autocratic rule that pervades the region. Try as we might, we cannot put that genie back in its bottle. Our only hope for a long-term solution lies in outflanking the fundamentalists, and proving that Islamic rule does not require a theocracy. If we wish to win the war on terrorism, we must vanquish our enemies not only on the physical battlefield, but also on the intellectual and theological ones.