Playing Hookie in Iraq

Readers who feel like ruining their day should type Iraq into the Google News search. Just this morning, we have: Witnesses tell of Iraq prison abuse

Ukrainian parliament calls for immediate withdrawal of peacekeepers from Iraq

Iraq insurgent attacks kill 17

As vote approaches, attacks taking toll on Iraq authorities

Deadly attacks pockmark Iraq

Bush painted himself into corner on Iraq elections

Britain to send additional 400 troops to Iraq

One gets the idea. And this snapshot doesn't take get the bombings of churches or mosques into the frame, or the ongoing exit of native Christians from Iraq over fears of violence, a shift in ethnic governance, or a blatantly Islamic government.

That last point, right now, is the U.S. government's biggest gamble. Bush has said he will accept an explicitly Muslim government and an Iraq constitution that nods to Allah's law as long as these are arrived at democratically and they acknowledge minority (that is, Sunni and Kurdish) rights.

After reading my nominee for best political essay of last year, I think the president has made the right call on this one, but it could break either way.

The essay (forwarded to the GetReligion crew by Phillip E. Johnson), titled "An Islamic Democracy for Iraq," is by one Ian Buruma and ran in the December 5 New York Times Magazine.

The piece (and I really encourage GR faithful to read it rather than rely upon my slim reed of a summary) tackles the idea that what we would want, ideally, in Iraq is a resolutely secular government, and finds it lacking. Specifically, he looks at some of the secular governing movements of the 19th and 20th centuries:

Ataturk said in 1917 that he would change Turkish social life in one blow. And that, in 1923, is what he proceeded to do. Women were stripped of their veils, Islamic schools were closed and dervish brotherhoods were banned. Even wearing the Turkish fez was forbidden in the new society ruled by "science, knowledge and civilization."

Similar revolutions happened or were tried elsewhere. After the Meiji Restoration in Japan in the 1860s, Buddhist temples were razed in the name of civilization and enlightenment. The May 4, 1919, students' revolt in China was an attempt to replace Confucian tradition and religious "superstition" with "Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy." In Persia, during the 1920s, Reza Shah Pahlevi tried to modernize his nation, later to be called Iran, by leveling mosques, murdering or arresting clerics and banning the chador.

What came of this "secularizing zeal," writes Buruma, was not democracy but "militarism, absolute monarchy, fascism and variations of Stalinism." In fact, "The religious revolution that now stalks the Muslim world has come as a reaction, in part, to the failure of modern secular politics." Further down, he elaborates on this last point, and spells out the reason for the failure:

[A]nti-clericalism, much more than a history of religious zeal, formed the basis for many of the Middle East's bloodiest political failures: Nasserism in Egypt, Baathism in Syria and Iraq, the shah in Iran. These regimes were led by secular elites who saw religion as something that held their countries back or in a state of colonial dependence. The fact that a number of iron-fisted reformers, like Nasser himself, were routinely the objects of assassination attempts by religious zealots showed the gap between the secular "progressive" elites and the people they ruled. When organized religion is destroyed, something worse often takes its place, usually a quasi religion or personality cult exploited by dictators. When it is marginalized, as happened in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, it provokes a religious rebellion.

Buruma is by no means calling for a monolithic Islamic state in Iraq. Rather, he argues that "the voices of religious people should be heard." The "most important condition" in a democracy is that "people take part" and "If religious affiliations provide the necessary consensus to play by common rules, then they should be recognized."

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