Defying Violence with Democracy: Why Grassroots Civil Society-And Not "Nation-Building" from on High-Is Key to the Future of Iraq

By Boaz, Cynthia; Duvall, Jack | Sojourners Magazine, September-October 2006 | Go to article overview

Defying Violence with Democracy: Why Grassroots Civil Society-And Not "Nation-Building" from on High-Is Key to the Future of Iraq


Boaz, Cynthia, Duvall, Jack, Sojourners Magazine


The future of Iraq is in jeopardy, not primarily because of foreign occupation, aborted reconstruction, Iranian interference, unregenerate Baathists, venal Iraqi politicians, Islamist terrorists, or home-grown insurgents, but because the social body and the political mind of Iraq--the twin pillars of any nation--are endangered by this proposition: that the violence of a few will determine the prospects of the many.

In an article in The Washington Post in May, Nir Rosen of the New America Foundation, who has spent most of the last three years in Baghdad, wrote that every morning the streets "are littered with dozens of bodies, bruised, torn, mutilated, executed only because they are Sunni or because they are Shiite." Militias retaliate, stopping buses, demanding passengers' ID cards, and executing those of one sect or the other. Militias even enter hospitals "to hunt down or arrest those who have survived their raids."

Rosen said that he asked a Shiite friend if, in light of all this, life had been better under Saddam Hussein. "'No,' he said definitively, "They could level all of Baghdad and it would still be better than Saddam. At least we have hope.'" To explain this, a German report on the reconstruction of civil society in Iraq noted:

... the Ba'ath regime effectively used extreme levels of violence and the powers of patronage to co-opt or break any independent vestiges of civil society.... To take control over every part of the country and every segment of society, the regime (physically) eliminated any kind of self-initiative or independent organization. "Civil society" in Iraq was silenced by violence.

But subtract the dictatorship and offer the promise of democracy, however defective, and violence cannot silence everything. Suppression of speech has given way to a deluge of debate. Restricted to four newspapers under Saddam, Iraqis now have a hundred dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and periodicals. As for civil society, on May 23 The New York Times reported that "5,000 private organizations, including charities, human rights groups, medical assistance agencies, and literacy projects" have been registered in Iraq. "It was as if they already had it inside of themselves," said one Iraqi official.

The Times told the story of Najat al-Saiedi, a 35-year-old woman without a husband or a job, who nevertheless founded a group called Mesopotamian Orphan Relief. She and her volunteers gather donations from friends, and once a month "she picks her way around mounds of trash in Shoala in dainty sandals, taking blankets, slippers and towels to children." One delivery last month went to the widow of a Shiite man who had been shot with three of his brothers by Sunni insurgents. All 15 of their children had been left fatherless.

The real war in Iraq is between the few who believe that the score of how many heads roll determines who is ahead, and the many who know that Iraq will not get ahead until they lift their heads above the slaughter and defy those who block rebuilding the nation. It is a war between the few who vie for control by saturating the rubble with blood, and those who will fight for their right to a society that they establish themselves.

From Fear to Solidarity. The belief that a contest of violence will decide Iraq's fate will be self-fulfilling unless violent conflict is superseded by another kind of contest: between the many who wish to rule themselves and the few who wish to rule for their own benefit. The first is the primary impetus for democracy and the second the basis for autocracy or oligarchy.

How democracy germinates is a good predictor of its success. Because democracy is bottom-up politics, a government installed from the top--especially if it needs a military escort to function--is unlikely to be stable.

Democratization is a matter of transferring power from one entrenched, self-selected group to a commonly accepted framework for political competition, open to everyone, which only becomes stable when competitors agree to play by the rules rather than extort or shoot their way to power. …

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