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Iraq: The Pitfalls Of Building Democracy On Ethnic, Religious Lines

The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq has outlined plans to transform the country from a dictatorship to a democracy. But the creation of democratic institutions in a country that has been governed for decades by military rule is a complicated process. One natural strategy is to organize constituencies along ethnic and religious lines. But as RFE/RL reports, this might be counterproductive in the end.

Prague, 28 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S.-appointed administrator for postwar Iraq, retired General Jay Garner, has taken on a difficult task to create democratic political institutions in a country that has been governed for decades by dictatorship.

The structure of Iraqi society, made up of complex ethnic, religious, and social networks, complicates the task. And Garner's main job will be to find the right power balance among the country's three main ethnic-religious communities: Arab Shi'ites in the south, the Kurds in the north, and the Arab Sunnis in the center.

Bakhtiar Amin, an Iraqi exile with two decades of experience in human rights and humanitarian work, summarized the job ahead by saying: "This is a reality. This is [also] the beauty of Iraq, that it's a multiethnic and multireligious society. The future government of Iraq has to reflect the ethnic and religious composition of the Iraqi society: a government which embraces all its citizens, all its various ethnic groups and religious groups, and respects this diversity and specificity of each one."

He's optimistic and said building democracy on religious and ethnic identity is possible if certain conditions are met. "I don't see any risk of explosion or the 'Balkanization' of Iraq or civil war in Iraq if we do things correctly, and don't repeat the errors of the past," Amin said. "We have to embrace all groups of Iraq, and live together in a pluralistic, constitutional, parliamentary, democratic, federal Iraq. That would be the solution, that will be the remedy."

Garner is now navigating among these forces in order to establish the basis of democracy in Iraq. As part of this effort, an ad hoc process of debate between tribal, political, and religious forces began earlier this month in the southern town of Al-Nasiriyah, and continued today in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Iraqi groups of every shape and form are organizing and taking advantage of freedoms they have not known for decades.

Antoine Sfeir is the editor in chief of "Les Cahiers de l'Orient" in Paris, a review of the Arab Muslim world. He said the reemergence of ethnic and religious identity is a natural response to the years of secularization under Ba'ath Party structure.

"We are now seeing the emergence of freedom in a country that has experienced a tyrannical and bloody dictatorship since 1968. These people were scared. They are now trying to get their freedom back. So the first freedom they have recovered is to assemble as a community. They are recovering an identity they partly lost in the former secular 'Ba'athist' society," Sfeir told RFE/RL.

Sfeir said he believes that allowing the forces in Iraq to organize will not necessarily lead to a split. But he said too much freedom at once is like a sick person receiving too much oxygen. And he said, in his opinion, the current emergence of a hegemonic Shi'ite community would be a worrying sign.

"Shi'ites express themselves as a community by masking their intracommunal divisions -- which really exist and stretch from the very liberal and secular Ahmad Chalabi [co-founder of the Iraqi National Congress] to pro-Iran ultraorthodoxy. And at the same time, the Shi'ite community has quickly filled the power vacuum with [shrines], around mullahs and ayatollahs. This represents the undeniable risk of a temptation for both hegemony and an Islamic state," Sfeir said.

Eugene Rogan said Washington is very much concerned about this possible hegemony by Shi'ites. Rogan is the director of the Middle East center at St. Antony's College in Britain. He explained that the U.S.-led coalition is facing the same dilemma as in 1991, when the U.S. encouraged Iraqi Shi'ites and Kurds to rise up against Saddam Hussein. Washington did not support that uprising, deciding instead that these groups were the wrong Iraqis to overthrow the dictator.

"So they once again face a situation where the demographic realities of Iraq may tear the country apart," Rogan said. "This is something which the Americans seek to avoid at all costs. And the only formula that seems to be viable would be a federal formula in which there would be a central Iraqi state governed from Baghdad, but with a fair amount of autonomy going to the Kurds in the north, Shi'ites in the south. However, the fact of the matter is [that] the Shi'ites represent an estimated 55 percent, an outright majority of the population of Iraq. It is very difficult to see how in the future democracy in Iraq, Shi'ites would not represent the main force in the government."

Hosham Dawod is a Paris-based anthropologist specializing on Iraq. He agreed that there is a danger that political parties could exploit ethnic and religious identities for their own ends. But he said these differences are likely to cool down with time. He said economic, social, and cultural changes will eventually free citizens from solely tribal, religious, or ethnic identities. Besides, he added, Iraqi national identity -- still a potent force -- could work to support tolerance.

"The Iraqis acknowledge that they are citizens of a state, members of a society -- the Iraqi society -- with a proper history, for good and bad," Dawod said. "So this general identity factor, which embraces all of the citizens, has to be developed. For the moment, forces like religion, regionalism, ethnicity, tribalism, and sects are being emphasized. But -- you know -- in the Iraqi modern history, we have managed this issue [peacefully] at the level of society."

Rogan of St.Anthony's said Iraqis very much see themselves as members of a common political community that is now being redefined. He said in order to avoid a clash within that society, it is important to capitalize on a common Iraqi identity. This means respect for majority rights and protection of minority rights.