The recent “tiff,” as George Jonas over at the National Post described the brouhaha between the United States and Israel, pushed aside the emphatically more significant story about the Iraq election from the top of the mainstream media’s news cycle.
The election by all accounts was fair, yet there is obviously some distance to go before it might be said a culture of democracy flourishes in Iraq — the land once ruled by the great king Hammurabi in the second millennium before Christ.
Nevertheless, this can be said of the Iraq election, despite the violence of those who fear democracy: It is a transformative event in Arab history and its consequences will have far-reaching effects over time across the Middle East.
For more than 1,300 years, Sunni Muslims — first Arabs and then those who have followed them — have shaped Islam doctrinally, and dominated Muslim history with sword and fire.
Their words and written accounts, their narrative of Muhammad, his family and companions, were made into the official version of Islam to be absorbed without questioning by Muslims through the centuries. I speak of this from the inside experience of an individual born, raised and married among Sunni Muslims.
Sunni Arab dynasties took it as their privilege to rule by claiming the mantle of the prophet, and the authority it symbolized, for their own. They colonized the land between the Persian Gulf and the Atlantic and crushed mercilessly any opposition just as they had done at the outset of Muslim history by benefiting from the massacre of the prophet’s family.
Shiite Arabs as a minority mourned the terrible injustice done to the prophet’s family. They kept alive the memory of Karbala in modern Iraq, where Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad, was brutally killed in 680.
Shiite Arabs have been the persecuted minority, powerless and mocked by Sunni Arab rulers from the first century of Islam. Even after modern Iraq was created by Britain following the First World War and Shiite Arabs found themselves as a majority in the country, Sunni Arabs ruled over them.
It is a quirk of history that George W. Bush, by forcing regime change in Baghdad, broke the Sunni Arab imperium in the Middle East.
We have followed the effects of Bush’s monumental decision, which opened the door for democratic change in Iraq, as an example for the region, and how spitefully the Sunni Arabs have responded.
Shiite Arabs, at first with misgivings and then with maturing confidence, have taken hold of their rendezvous with freedom that Fouad Ajami, a Shiite Lebanese-American scholar of the Middle East, aptly described as the “foreigner’s gift.”
Iraqi leaders, religious and secular, have learned from their own history of persecution that freedom can only be defended through the legitimacy of democratic politics.
Shiite clerics in Najaf — Shiite Islam’s holiest city located in Iraq — have maintained their tradition of keeping religion separate from politics and this might prove to be the critical element in the advancement of Iraqi democracy.
Iraq is rich in oil and water and is now gifted with freedom. If Iraqi resoluteness in defending democracy remains unshaken, it will transform the region for better.