Yet, for all our errors, we did give the Iraqis a unique chance to build a rule-of-law democracy. They preferred to indulge in old hatreds, confessional violence, ethnic bigotry and a culture of corruption. It appears that the cynics were right: Arab societies can’t support democracy as we know it. And people get the government they deserve. ~Ralph Peters
But to state an obvious truth that our system of government depends on an entire culture made up of long-tested and established habits and practices that is not necessarily transferrable to all other societies is not to be a cynic. People with ludicrous, hyper-optimistic expectations of the impossible call people with an acquaintance with reality cynics when they are disappointed in their own unrealistic and possibly delusional hopes. No one who really knew anything about Islam in Iraq, the tribal and sectarian nature of Iraqi society and the complete lack of any heritage of representative government and any experience upon which they could draw ever believed that the democratisation of Iraq would succeed in doing anything other than politicising ethnic and sectarian identity in a dangerously heterogeneous society and making politics a rehashing of old grievances that would end up erupting into violence when these grievances could not be addressed otherwise.
As I wrote in February 2005:
Nonetheless, that road to unrest and violence has been made all the smoother by the direct politicisation of ethnicity, sect and religious fundamentalism. I want to stress that this is the fault of democracy to the extent that it has been allowed to exist in Iraq, and not attachment to ethnicity, sect or religion as such: on their own terms, these things are often quite good and healthy attachments, but when they become the cheap symbols and slogans of demagogues they are turned into some of the ugliest and worst fanaticism. Naturally this was unforeseen by the Bush administration, as it has no grasp of what these loyalties really mean or how powerful they really are beyond their own limited use of religion and national pride as props in their absurd performance during elections.
I also wrote the following in February 2005 in response to Krauthammer’s infamously dismissive “tribe or religion or whatever” crack:
I would be the last one to begrudge anyone expressing his loyalty to his people or religion, but it is also in just such a society where these loyalties are binding that mass politics is the most provocative and dangerous. It is no accident that democracies in tribal societies organise their politics along tribal lines, and also no accident that such societies are more prone to civil strife than most any other. The tribal or ethnic differences, which might have hitherto been merely facts of life and only occasionally cause for conflict, have become perpetual political boundaries about which regular contests are held. The Ivory Coast is a shining example of how democracy has ruined a perfectly stable and relatively prosperous African country by politicising ethnic groups and turning them into rivals for power.
Those of us arguing against the invasion understood this about Iraq a lot earlier than 2005. There were those who predicted the likelihood of just this sort of bloodletting back in 2002 and early 2003, having seen the horrors of Hutu majoritarianism in action and having left the disastrous wreckage of Yugoslavia behind us only a few years before. Anyone familiar with the history of the 19th and 20th centuries who was not an ideological democratist could not look on the introduction of democratic politics to developing nations with anything but horror at the terrible consequences that would follow.
Such people were not “cynics” in the sense that word is usually meant; they weren’t cynics of any kind. They were simply better informed and had a better understanding of the region that others thought, in their stupendous arrogance and hubris, they could transform by apparently doing little more than toppling a government and holding an election or two. Freedom is universal! Democracy for all! If you don’t agree, you’re racist and condescending! As we have all started re-discovering, or as some of us have known all along, some societies are suited to representative, constitutional and popular regimes, and others are not. Full stop. Cultural, religious and social habits create the vital foundations for any hope of successful representative, participatory or popular government, and Iraqis possess few if any of these. This is not a flaw or moral failing on their part, though Peters gets on his high horse and condemns them for valuing attachments that all normal people throughout time have valued more highly than the institutions of a government or other idols of the democratist.
More to the point, I would bet that many of the Iraqis do not desire such a type of regime if it would mean sacrificing or weakening their prior commitments to family, tribe, sect and religion, which, of course, a functioning mass democracy does require. (This is why, as a conservative, I have no great love for mass democracy, because these other things are far more important and essential to the stability and health of society than whether or not the mob gets a vote every two or four years.) Everyone likes freedom, and everyone likes the idea of an accountable, relatively just government, but how much is a given people willing to give up to have those things? What, in fact, are those things really worth? As it happens, most people are either obliged by duties to parents, elders or other authorities to not give up certain attachments and loyalties or they are themselves unwilling to give them up.
In this they are far more normal and like most people throughout history than we are. Our experience is supremely unusual and atypical. It is something remarkably rare, like a delicate orchid, that, if we value it, must be assiduously protected and tended; it is not something that can become the monoculture of the world (if such a thing were even desirable, which it is not). For all of the benefits that we can see in our system of government and our way of life, to a great many people who do not possess anything like either of these they appear and are freakish and horrifying. This may strike some as hard to take (though it is probably easiest for traditional conservatives of all people to understand more fully), but I believe that is the case. Of course you can find exceptions, people who do desire all of what we have (rather than wanting to be able to enjoy the benefits of Westernisation or democratisation without the necessary sacrifices from their existing way of life), most of whom end up emigrating from their home countries and come to the West to live the kind of life they know they will never have back home because the weight and constraints of these natural loyalties and affinities prevent it. Of course, even those who come here cannot shake off the traditions of their fathers like so much dust. Even emigres and exiles are defined and shaped by the traditions and place they inherited, even if they want to flee from both; in flight, they are forever haunted by their origins. This is also why it matters supremely to the nation that takes them in what kind of political and religious culture immigrants possess, how they understand the contestation for power and influence and what their political values are. This is more dramatically clear with Muslim immigrants in Europe, but the same thing is true of immigrants from Latin America or Asia.
“Islamic democracy” as such has succeeded nowhere; it doesn’t exist; it is a fantasy of people who know a little about democracy and less about Islam. Democracy in majority Muslim nations has succeeded to some degree to the extent that Islam has been officially and largely removed from politics (Turkey) or to the extent that, as in a place such as Mali or Indonesia, the Islam practiced by the people is traditionally of a far more eclectic and accommodating type that would not meet with the approval of any form of Islam practiced in the Near and Middle East today. However, Indonesia is a danger zone to the extent that Muslims in Indonesia have only experienced democratic government for eight years or so; prior to this were the dictatorships, colonial Dutch rule and then local kings and chiefs. Whether in the future Wahhabism or similar versions of Islam take hold of a large portion of Indonesian Muslims or not will likely be one large factor in determining whether that country will succeed as a democratic state or collapse even more rapidly into conflicts among its constituent regions and ethnicities. The entire project of the “freedom agenda” and democratisation presupposes that Islam and democracy are compatible in the Near and Middle East because of such exceptional examples. It is a very dangerous and foolish way to go about making policy for an entire region when you take the marginal and exceptional and regard them as the model for the rest to follow. This is to expect that all Muslims are as ecumenically-minded as Ibn Arabi rather than as strict and “dogmatic” as Hanafi, when Hanafi’s influence is, in fact, vastly greater and always has been. It is often an argument based in anecdotal experiences, “I met a very nice secular Muslim fellow once in college, so why can’t they all be like that?” or “I have been to Turkey a few times, and democracy seems to work just fine there!” Yes, so long as the army is always ready to step in and depose Islamist governments when they get too, well, Islamic–that’s what I call a functioning democracy! If the case of Turkey is not a particularly impressive one, why would anyone have expected better of Iraq (as artificial and arbitrary a “nation” as any that has ever existed, whose chief representative of secular nationalism we were setting out to overthrow)? People with some sense never did expect anything better, which is one of the reasons why they rejected the war and why they are calling for our soldiers to return home. Remaining in Iraq simply makes no sense, just as going there never really made very much sense (even if most of the government’s claims were true). Bring them home.