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The Iraqis who braved violence to vote on Sunday in the country's first free election in 50 years were, like voters everywhere, expressing democratic belief in ownership over their political future. Many also believed, in accordance with the teaching of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the moderate Iraqi Shia leader, that voting was a religious obligation. If, as seems likely, the Shia parties associated with Mr Sistani have taken a substantial majority, elected officials who describe themselves as Islamic democrats will, for the first time, actually get the opportunity to govern after taking office.

In Iraq, the convergence of Islam and democratic values is a development of huge historical importance. Although Islamic parties won elections in Algeria in 1991, they were stymied by the secular regime that cancelled them after the fact. Turkey's ruling Justice and Development party has an Islamic character but, under Turkey's secular constitution, must disclaim its religious orientation. In Afghanistan, the constitution enshrines Islam, but Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, has stressed secular themes in his attempt to manage the country's warlords-turned-politicians and create a meaningful central government. Iraq now stands as the latest test of whether and how Islam and democracy can co-exist.

Many headlines in the wake of Sunday's poll have focused, rightly, on the continuing question of basic security. Nearly 40 Iraqis died as a result of violence on election day, and security remains the dominant issue on the Iraqi scene. Although voters turned out in large numbers in Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad, insurgent violence, coupled with a substantial Sunni boycott, seems to have ensured that the impressive final turn-out in the election nonetheless does not reflect an accurate demographic cross-section of the Iraqi population. As a result, although Kurds and Shia may consider the election legitimises the 275-member National Assembly that has now been selected, many Sunni Arabs will not see it the same way. Their disenfranchisement, though largely self-inflicted, now stands as the greatest challenge to the creation of stable and peaceful government in Iraq and the eventual withdrawal of significant numbers of US and UK forces.

So the great task that now faces the National Assembly is not simply one of designing institutions to implement their Islamic and democratic values side by side - a formidable challenge under the best of circumstances. The Shia, the Kurds and those Sunnis who managed to get elected to the Assembly must now design a constitution that will help end the insurgency.

What Iraq needs is a constitution that not only specifies individual rights and reconciles democratic principles with an official role for Islam, but that will also function as a kind of peace treaty, guaranteeing the Sunni minority - accustomed to running Iraq under Saddam Hussein and before - a real role in shaping the country's future. For this to happen, the Sunnis must have representation in the negotiations over the shape of the constitution, despite their absence in large numbers from the National Assembly. Not only that, a significant number of Sunnis must be prepared to stop supporting the insurgency and swing their support behind a political resolution.

Achieving this will not be easy. The substance of the guarantees is easy to imagine. Sunnis will want a guarantee of equal distribution of resources, such as currently exists in Iraq's Transitional Administrative Law. They will want an amnesty for insurgents, something that would almost certainly be granted at this stage.

But institutions are better guarantors of equal treatment than are parchment promises. Like any other minority, including the Kurds, the Sunnis will want numerical representation greater than their actual numbers. One time-honoured way to accomplish this is through an upper chamber, elected regionally or appointed, that might have a veto or even more substantial legislative authority. A convergence of Kurdish and Sunni interests makes some such solution possible.

For obvious political reasons, the Shia will resist such measures, at least initially. Mr Sistani has in the past expressed his disapproval even of the provision of the interim constitution that allows any three of the country's 18 provinces to veto the new constitution if two-thirds of their voters objected to it. His argument was grounded both in expedience - his constituents are, after all, the country's great majority - and in democratic principle.

It will be a big test for the Shia Islamic democrats to recognise that successful democracies in pluralistic countries must rely on more than majority rule to gain the loyalty of all segments of the society. Yet recognise it they must if the Shia want the Sunnis to put down their arms. The majority of the Sunni population still wants to live in a unified Iraq, not a Lebanon-like state of long-term civil war. Such Sunnis feel sympathy for the insurgency only to the extent that they see it as resistance against foreign occupation and as a mechanism for extracting as much as possible from the majority Shia population. Other Sunnis in the insurgency may still harbour the fantasy of expelling the US before an Iraqi police and military can be formed, and then reasserting the power of some new regime that would resemble the old Ba'ath party.

The only solution for the Shia is to offer a political option that would placate rational Sunnis, while relying on the continued military might of the US and UK to discourage those who strive for a renewed Sunni ascendancy. That would still leave the international jihadis who have been fighting alongside the insurgents; but in the end, this hardline faction will never go away of its own accord. Once planted, international terrorism can only be rooted out by an Iraqi government that enjoys legitimacy among all its citizens, Shia and Sunni alike.

The next six months, then, will amount to the toughest test that can be faced by any government of any kind, Islamic or otherwise: the creation of order out of disorder, and of broad legitimacy out of support that is today only partial.

The odds against success are daunting. But the alternative to a federal, power-sharing Islamic democracy in Iraq is no longer old-fashioned military dictatorship: it is chaos. The US and all its allies involved in Iraq owe it to those who will form the new government to give them all the assistance they can.

The writer, a professor at the New York University School of Law and a fellow of the New America Foundation, is author of What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building(Princeton University Press, 2004)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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