THE SHIITE OBLIGATION

by Kanan Makiya
Wall Street Journal
February 7, 2005

The size of the turnout, irrespective of the outcome, establishes that the Iraqi elections will go down in the history books as a defining event in the future of the Middle East. For those millions of ordinary Iraqis who risked making the ultimate sacrifice by braving the bombs and the gruesome killings, this moment is what the 2003 war was all about.

In spite of the many failings of the occupation regime that ended in June 2004, a fledgling, closely watched democratic process is now a demonstrable reality in an Arab and Muslim country. Whatever else one may say about how flawed the electoral system designed by the U.N. was in Iraq, and how difficult intimidation made it for some Iraqis to vote in at least three of the 18 governorates, these were genuine elections with thousands of candidates and a myriad of manifestoes, replete with the kind of backward politics and ad hominem attacks that only the deep-felt hopes and fears of a nation actually wrestling with its own demons can give rise to.

The Arab world has seen elections before. However, virtually all of them were artificial affairs, their outcomes never in doubt. They were in the end celebrations of one version or another of autocracy, never a repudiation of them. That kind of state-management is not what has just taken place in Iraq. Millions of people actually made choices, and placed claims on those who will lead them in the future. To act upon one's own world like this, and on such a scale, is what politics in the purest sense is all about. It is why we all, once upon a time, became activists. And it is infectious. The taste of freedom is a hard memory to rub out.

No wonder the political and intellectual elites of the Arab world are so worried, and no wonder they were so hostile to everything that happened in Iraq since the overthrow of the Saddam regime. They had longed for failure. They trotted out the tired old formulas of anti-Americanism to impart legitimacy to the so-called Iraqi "resistance to American occupation." But the people of Iraq have put an end to all that. En masse, ordinary people took to the streets in the second great Iraqi revolt against the politics of barbarism exemplified by Abu Musab al Zarqawi's immortal words: "We have declared a bitter war against the principle of democracy and all those who seek to enact it."

The Iraqi elections are the second great Iraqi revolt against barbarism because the first took place during the uprising of 1991, when millions of Iraqis subjected to weeks of aerial bombardment took to the streets and begged the very allies who had been bombing them to help liberate them from Saddam's rule. Nothing like that had happened before, just like nothing like these elections has ever happened in Arab politics.

The nature of great historical turning points, and the source of the wonder and beauty that they bring into the world, is that we can't predict their outcome. The elections are ultimately about what it means to be an Iraqi in the post-Saddam era. They will produce a leadership in the shape of a National Assembly that will in turn create a government. But that is not nearly as important as the fact that the elections will give rise to the first draft of a document, the constitution, that will define the quality of being an Iraqi for decades to come. What will such a definition amount to? We all have opinions. But no one knows.

Having been subjected to the gravest of depredations, and having been scarred by a brutal dictatorship unmatched in its capacity for cruelty, the Iraqi people are today an unknown quantity. To be sure, the men and women who took their lives in their hands as they went out to vote are heroes. They are heroes in a way that it is difficult for people who have not been subjected to such abuse and intimidation to understand. But they are also victims. And, in spite of what so much of modern Arab culture has been trying to persuade us of in recent years, there is no virtue in victimhood; it is a debilitating condition, not a quality.

Iraqis have yet to come to terms with the meaning of their victimhood. They have yet to reconcile this debilitating condition with the political attributes of citizenship in a new Iraq. Above all, they have yet to create the leadership that is capable of making them reason through the very many pitfalls that coming to terms with one's own victimhood entails.

Therefore I am both a happy man today, and a worried one.

I am happy because the people of Iraq are once again taking responsibility for their own fate. But I am worried because it is not yet clear if any of the 7,636 candidates who had their names up for election are fully aware of the dangers that lie in store for their people. This time of course the threat to Iraqi life and well-being does not come from the Arab nationalism of the Baath, which subordinated Iraq to the mythology of a single supposedly yet-to-be-united Arab nation. It comes from the legacy of that totalizing ideology: the profoundly irrational and self-destructive politics of shrinking oneself down to the mere fact of one's own victimhood.

The terrible lesson of Palestinian politics is that a leadership that elevates victimhood into the be-all and end-all of politics brings untold suffering and misery upon its own people. Given political power, this kind of a leadership will in turn victimize. This is an iron law of social and political psychology confirmed by any number of recent historical experiences. The insurgents in Iraq fully understand this dynamic; in fact they are counting on it. That is why their goal is not to win over Iraqi hearts and minds; it is rather to inculcate a state of pervasive physical insecurity, conducive to the eruption of the most irrational forms of behavior. Theirs is a politics of fear and intimidation borrowed from that of the former regime which produced them, and it is a politics designed to create a backlash among those very Iraqis who so rightfully today wear the blue-black stain on their right index finger as a badge of honor.

Foremost among those victims are the Shiites of Iraq, of whom I am one. Shiite parties and 111 coalitions are poised on the verge of a great electoral victory. But who is this mass of people, politically speaking? What do they stand for? What kind of a state do they want?

Since 1968, the Baath have been trashing the only idea that can hold the great social diversity of Iraq together: the idea of Iraq. Their answer to the question "Who am I?" was: You are either one of us, or you are dead.

True to their word, they killed anyone who dared to say he was a Kurd or a Shiite or a leftist, or a democrat and a liberal. Contrary to what many Iraqi Shiites tend to think nowadays, the Baath never wanted to build a Sunni confessional state in Iraq. Anti-Shiite sectarianism was introduced on a large scale after the uprising of 1991. The state that the Baath built in Iraq up until the 1991 Gulf War was worse than sectarian. It thrived on the distrust, suspicion and fear that it went about inculcating in everyone. In this sense it was consistently egalitarian. Atomizing society by breeding hate and a thirst for revenge was the regime's highest ambition and principal tool of social control. Every Iraqi -- Kurd or Arab, Muslim or Christian, Shiite or Sunni -- became both complicit in the Baathist enterprise and its victim at the same time.

When the Shiites become the majority in a duly elected Iraqi National Assembly, they will inherit the great burden of a fractured and deeply atomized country filled with minorities, all of whom have known suffering of one sort or another. How will they shoulder that responsibility?

A fateful moment of truth came in March last year, during the debate over the interim basic constitution. A conflict erupted not over the authority of the interim government or its shape, but rather over the very distant and abstract notion of how the permanent constitution should be ratified. At issue was the all-important question of minority rights and federalism. Specifically, the most contentious item of the draft was Article 61(c), which held that no future permanent constitution could be ratified if two-thirds of voters in any three governorates rejected it.

Article 61(c) embodied a principle previously widely accepted by the democratic Iraqi opposition in exile; namely, that an Iraqi democracy had to be principally about minority rights, and only afterwards about majority rule. In other words, the rule of law took precedence over public opinion and populist sentiment. After intensive discussion, the Iraqi Governing Council succeeded in reaching a consensus, and the crisis was overcome. Nevertheless, the incident showed that the idea of Iraq as a pluralist and accommodating whole was at odds with the Shiite sense of political entitlement arising from their own previous suffering.

The most fundamental truth of post-Saddam politics in Iraq is that only the Shiites are in a position to stop the legacy of dictatorship from snatching victory out of the jaws of its own demise in the shape of escalating confessional and ethnic violence in the years to come. I said that in 1993, but the point is a thousand times more relevant today.

By virtue of their numbers, the Shiites in the first place carry the greatest responsibility for that future, greater than that of any other ethnic or sectarian group in Iraq. They also have far more to lose than anyone else, and this too is a lesson the insurgents have understood well. To be sure, there are hopeful signs, among them Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's call for Shiite restraint in the face of terrorist violence. Yet the Grand Ayatollah is not a politician, and he has yet to find his moral equivalent among the politicians. The fact that Iraqis are still competing with each other over who has suffered the most, and who did or did not collaborate with Saddam, is a sign that whether or not Saddam is in jail, what he represented still lives on inside Iraqi hearts. Herein lies the greatest danger of all for Iraq's future.

The debate over Article 61(c) prefigures the most fundamental political struggle that will take place in the National Assembly of the new Iraq -- the struggle over what it means to be an Iraqi. As the majority in the coming National Assembly, the Shiite leadership will be at the forefront of this struggle. The selfish sectarian impulse, however understandable and natural, needs to be turned on its head into a new political idea that embraces the whole country, one that is neither Arab nor Islamic, but Iraqi.

This idea cannot be built in reaction to perceived enemies, real or imagined; nor can it be built on exclusions of any kind. It has to be founded on the principle of tolerance and forbearance. No other formula will work in Iraq. We Iraqis tried dictatorship; in fact we took it further than almost anyone else in the world. Still it did not work. The country all but fell apart. But for a new inclusive idea of Iraq to take hold, the Shiites in particular have to make a very real sacrifice; they have to think beyond what is in their own self-interest, narrowly conceived. In so doing they might just become the agents for a genuine democratic transformation of the whole Middle East.