A time is approaching when those who speak so glibly about Muslim grievances and Muslim feelings are going to have to make up their minds. In Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has now issued two statements denouncing the very concept of "democracy" as a blasphemous Greek term alien to the Arab and Muslim world and inviting anathema and murder on all those who even rehearse for it. For good measure, he denounces Shiite Islam as a detestable heresy in itself. And for convenience, he names his organization "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia," with what seems like the endorsement of Osama Bin Laden.
On the other side of this battle, senior Shiite clergy have described voting as a religious duty, have foresworn personal revenge on Sunni and Baathist elements, and have made public assurances that they do not wish for a Khomeini-style theocratic regime in their country. I don't think that voting is at all a religious duty, but in this context I see what they mean.
More and more, meanwhile, the media mantra about Iraq being divided among Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd is looking illogical and asymmetrical. It reminds me of that other misleading shorthand about Bosnia a decade or so ago, where the contending forces were identified as Serb, Croat, and Muslim. Obviously, one of these three categories is not congruent with the other two. In the Bosnian case, the "Muslims" were not ethnically or confessionally fundamentalist, whereas the Catholics and Orthodox Christians, or at least their leaderships, were. In the case of Iraq, it is scarcely ever pointed out that the majority of Kurds—20 percent of the population—are formally Sunni, while the "insurgents" are based on a minority of a minority—the Tikriti and other clan groups who were the clientele of the Baathist regime. No "insurgency" based on a minority of a minority has ever succeeded militarily, even if regularly resupplied from a friendly neighboring state. And this group has further isolated itself by making an alliance with imported Bin Ladenists: an alliance that (however often it is denied) was in fact the signature of the declining days of the Saddam dictatorship.
While the fascists and the fundamentalists make common cause in opting to ruin the society rather than let it breathe, the advance of semi-secular concepts among the Shiite majority and the Kurds is rather better than one might have dared to hope. In a rather bewildered tone, the New York Times has been reporting on the political renaissance of Ahmad Chalabi, now increasingly the public spokesman of the mainstream Shiite coalition and No. 10 on its electoral list. (Chalabi? But surely he is a discredited con man, tool of the neocons, stranded without a popular base and exposed as a trickster?) The Times having taken this view, it must seem odd when it discovers and reports that Chalabi has been sent by the Shiite leadership to tell Tehran to stay out of the process or that when he returned from Iran to defy the trumped-up CIA charges against him, he was given a Kurdish peshmerga escort all the way to Najaf. (For my previous pieces defending Chalabi, click here, here, and here.)
A photograph of Chalabi, addressing a large Shiite meeting in the south of Iraq, appeared in the Times of the Sunday before last. What the story did not say, in the words of one of his close aides to me recently, was that "Dr. C brought a group of Sunni leaders to the Shi'a heartland in order to show both sides that our list is not sectarian. We then took the Sunnis to Najaf to let them see the Imam Ali shrine for the first time in their lives. It was a great moment." This contrasts rather boldly with the pathetic liberal default position that violence, and ethnic and religious difference, demand that the elections be "postponed." To do so would be an open surrender to violence and, if sincerely meant, would further mean that no elections could ever be held, lest they inflame sectarian differences. These divisions arose, before we forget, as the consequence of a divide-and-rule fascist regime that engaged only in rigged plebiscites.
The best rumor of the week, maybe slightly too good to be true, is that after the vote the Shiites will support a leading Sunni Kurd for the presidency, with the prime ministership going to Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Chalabi, or another prominent secular Shiite. Remaining senior posts would go to men like Ghazi al Yawer, or other prominent Sunni social and tribal elements, who can help extend a hand to those many Sunni Iraqis who do not feel themselves represented by religious gangsterism and who see that the "Party of the Return" and other ex-Baathists offer only a dead end. (In this category, by the way, would belong the so-called "Association of Muslim Scholars," oft-quoted as authoritative but well-known to Iraqi Sunni bloggers as a clerical front group set up by Saddam himself.)
All this may seem optimistic in a week's time, but it is the way in which brave Iraqi democrats are actually talking. It's also mixed news for the Bush administration, which has identified itself far too closely with Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his group. Not only has the CIA's hand-picked candidate been caught exporting vast quantities of cash in U.S. dollars, he has also been spreading no-bid contracts around the place and has used Iraqi media as if they were his own personal property. The recent boast of Allawi's defense minister—that he will arrest Chalabi if he goes on making a fuss about this—is likely to prove an empty one.
The extraordinary and undeniable thing is that, in a country that was dying on its feet and poisoning the region a couple of years ago, there is now a real political process that has serious implications for adjacent countries. The way back to Baathism and personal despotism is blocked, and the task of the clerical fanatics is in the long run an impossible one. (Ask yourself: When was the last time you read about Muqtada Sadr's supposedly unstoppable "Mahdi Army"?) Crudely but firmly, the coalition forces are meanwhile acting as the militia for those who have no militia. Whatever happens next week, this is some cause for pride.