If one were to rely on the mainstream Western media, one would assume that the situation in Iraq represents nothing more than a disaster and a horrible error by the United States. This media spin, which is more pronounced and strident than any in recent memory, is based on two critical flaws in the way Western media work.
The first is the most obvious and is known to millions: the bias of Western reporters, and nearly all the experts and other sources on which they depend, against the Bush administration's policy of democratization in the Middle East. For such commentators, the failure of the Bush intervention in Iraq was a foregone conclusion. In many cases, including those of Arabist and ethnic Arab academic experts, opposition to democratization is based on breathtakingly prejudicial stereotypes.
Few American intellectuals would ever, in the 1950s, have predicted that the time would come when the very concept of "democracy" would be the object of so much polemical contempt in the democracies themselves. And fewer still would have predicted that Arab adherents, as so many now do, would one day reject altogether the appropriateness of democracy in their countries. When Arab academic and media figures declare that their people are unprepared for democracy, and cannot go beyond limited and culture-bound reforms, one wonders if they realize how arrogant and cruel they sound. In the past, we all seemed to agree that democracy was a universal and benevolent value, for which all peoples, at least outside the palaces, strove.
The second serious defect in the methodology of Western media, when dealing with Iraq, is their lack of knowledge about Islam. Reporters seem to continue to base their dispatches on off-the-street quotes and Iraqi official handouts. Much more homework needs to be done, especially considering that American lives have been sacrificed for the future of Iraq. Western reporters seldom study Islam or seek out authoritative representatives of the Islamic leaderships; and when, almost as if by accident, they encounter such figures, they seem never to know what questions to ask them.
Terrorism continues in Iraq and monopolizes headlines. But there is much more to be said about the situation in that country, and it has to do with much more than the restoration of public services and infrastructure. Perhaps the biggest story left unreported in the West is the extraordinary exuberance about the Iraqi election, set for January 30, among Iraqi Shias.
I know about this because I spend a great deal of time talking to Iraqi Shia religious leaders, some of whom commute back and forth between Iraq and the U.S. The effervescence among them must be experienced to be believed. One prominent Shia in the U.S. told me, "I call the president Imam Bush." (In Shia Islam, the imams are the chief religious guides throughout the history of the sect.) "He is a believer in God, he is just, and I believe he will keep his promise to hold a fair election on January 30," my interlocutor said. "He liberated Kerbala and Najaf [the Shia holy cities]. He has done more for Shias than anybody else in history."
Shias comprise at least 65 percent of the Iraqi population. It is clear that the January 30 election will produce a Shia-majority government. The Iraqi Shias have produced a unity ticket for the elections under the direction of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the leading Iraqi Shia cleric. Sistani has severely condemned any Shia who might obstruct the election. Sistani and his colleagues have managed to silence the disruptive Moqtada ul-Sadr in the interest of orderly elections.
Still, even if they can anticipate a Shia sweep in Iraq, Westerners generally seem unable to grasp the full meaning, for the Islamic world, of such a fact. Unequivocal Arab Shia control over their holy sites will represent a major, new historical chapter. Notwithstanding superficial Western reportage and alarmist propaganda by Arab Sunnis, Arab Shias do not obey the commands of Iranian Shias. Iraqi Shias never accepted Khomeini's conception of clerical governance, which had no basis in Islamic doctrine, and was actually a heresy. There is no serious evidence that, if a Shia majority is brought to power in Iraq, a Khomeinist regime would be established.
In addition, the Khomeinist scheme has been discredited in Iran itself, and that country's majority is trying to find a way out of it. Yet it is amazing to see Western media and politicians, as well as some Arab politicians and rulers, proclaiming the "menace" of Shia rule in Iraq. Naturally, the former Sunni elite who misruled Iraq with the support of Saddam, and Saudi-backed Wahhabi jihadists who hate Shias even more than they do Jews and Christians, seek to disrupt the electoral process in Iraq. But Westerners have no justification to back away from the commitment to elections in Iraq, merely on the basis of Sunni complaints or threats. Some Western experts warn that the triumph of the Shias would bring about a civil war in Iraq; but what other than a civil war is presently going on? Sunni terrorists wreak havoc and devastating bloodshed wherever they can. If anything, a definitive Shia victory would be a powerful incentive for Sunnis to cease their terrorism.
The wider regional and global ripples of a Shia government in Iraq are likely to be as significant as the transfer of power itself. A nonclerical Shia regime in Baghdad, governing Kerbala and Najaf, would powerfully encourage completion of democratization in Iran. Its success would also draw Lebanese Shias away from the extremist clerical leadership of Hezbollah. A stable post-Ba'athist regime in Iraq could provide a significant model for Syrians as they work their way out of the Bashir Assad dictatorship. Above all, however, a Shia regime in Iraq will provide a stunning exemplar of Arab-Islamic pluralism, that is, an alternative to the model of Sunni monolithism found in Saudi Arabia, and which the Saudis have sought to export throughout the global community of Sunni Islam.
The reactionary wing of the Saudi royal family may have a great deal to lose from successful elections in Iraq. To emphasize, Wahhabism, the official religion in the Saudi kingdom, preaches violence against Shias, and a Shia-led Iraq with a system of popular sovereignty would be an enormous humiliation to the Wahhabis. But more important, as the American architects of the Iraqi experiment have understood, Iraq has immense resources in terms of education and entrepreneurship, aside from the economic cushion of its oil.
President Bush is quite correct when he states that the terrorists hate Americans for who we are, not for what we do. The Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia, who encourage al-Qaida and other terrorists, including Zarqawi in Iraq, repudiate the very concept of voting, parliamentarism, and democracy. Shias do not reject these principles. A prosperous Shia-led electoral regime in Iraq, on its long northern border, could be the ultimate nightmare for the Saudi hardliners, particularly since the oil industry in the kingdom is centered in the Saudi Eastern Province, which has a Shia majority -- and Shias have suffered a near-genocidal discrimination at Wahhabi hands. Saudi Arabia has always dealt with Shia dissidence by labeling it as a product of Iran. But if Shia dissidents in the Saudi kingdom are inspired by Iraq they will gain immense credibility.
Finally, the worldwide effect of transitions to democracy, in countries typically considered impossibly distant from one another, cannot be belied. Looking at the last quarter of the 20th century, we observe a process that began in Spain in 1975, with the death of dictator Francisco Franco. The Spanish business class and political elite carried out a peaceful process of democratization. Spain was only the first such instance. Although Iran and Nicaragua later saw major convulsions in their societies, and brutal wars broke out in Yugoslavia and Africa, many more countries entered on the road of peaceful democratization, including, finally, Nicaragua and some of the ex-Yugoslav states. The number of countries that settled a change in their political affairs peacefully came to far outnumber those with recourse to armed conflict: they include the Philippines, all the rest of the former Baltic and East European Communist states (although Russia, as always, remains a problem), Taiwan, South Korea, Chile, Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey.
Many of these countries have a legacy of rule by ideological parties acting as a foundation for the state, typically with the backing of the military. This was the experience of Taiwan with the Guomindang, Mexico under the so-called Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and Turkey ruled by the Republican People's Party. Saddam's Ba'athism was merely a variation of this 20th century model, as was the Soviet Communism that is finally disappearing, one hopes, from Ukraine.
There should be no reason to doubt the universality of democracy, or the contagious nature of elections in Iraq, and, for that matter, in Ukraine. As Iraq's ballot boxes may trump the viciousness of its terrorists, the Palestinians may also join the new wave of democratization. Ukrainians vote, Palestinians vote, Iraqis vote, and a new phase in world history begins. This is the true meaning of globalization, especially in the age of the internet and satellite television.
Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia is much less a form of Islam than an ideology employed to keep the royal family in power, and if the removal of the ideological state may be effected peacefully in Kyiv, why not in Riyadh? Saudi subjects could leap ahead of their Iraqi neighbors, for I cannot imagine that if Ukraine succeeds in a bloodless democratization, Saudi subjects will not be inspired to ask why they, too, cannot follow the road of the Orange Revolution, rather than that of the black-bannered jihad, and voting boxes protected by American lives, in Iraq. And that will mean a decisive blow to terrorist jihadism throughout the world.