A Democratic Iraq?

November 7, 2011

A look at the basic elements of democracy and freedom and how they have developed and at the effort to introduce democracy and freedom in Iraq.

To the Teacher:

President Bush said repeatedly that a major purpose of the Iraq war was to bring democracy and freedom to the Iraqi people. Such efforts have begun but face significant difficulties. This, then, is a unique teachable moment to help students better understand basic elements of democracy and freedom and how they have developed, particularly in the U.S.and to consider the effort to introduce democracy and freedom in Iraq. In the coming weeks and months, students will have an opportunity to build on their understanding by following events in Iraq.


1. Read the class this quote from President Bush (2/26/03): "There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values [after World War II]. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken. The nation of Iraq, with its proud heritage, abundant resources, and skilled and educated people, is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom...."
Ask: What does it mean to move toward democracy and to live in freedom?

2. Ask students to write for 10 minutes in response to the following: Imagine you are visiting a country for the first time, know very little about it, and want to know if the people live in a democracy and are free. Make a list of things you would look for. Be specific.

3. Have students form pairs to share their responses for a few minutes.

4. Have students share their responses with the whole class. As they do so, note them on the chalkboard. When you have made a substantial list, ask students to consider the three they regard as most important.

5. For discussion:

Are these three elements present in the United States? If yes, what do students know about the origin and development of each? For example, if students have prioritized, say, a constitution, what do they know about the origins of the U.S. Constitution? If they have prioritized freedom to vote, what do they know about who was able to vote after the U.S. became free of Britain?

It will be helpful for a later discussion of developments in Iraq for students to be well aware that various freedoms and aspects of democracy in the U.S. required long struggles, that African-Americans, for example, were enslaved, did not become citizens until a Constitutional amendment was approved in 1868 and were prevented from voting in a number of Southern states until Civil Rights acts in the 1960s. Women could not vote until the approval of another Constitutional amendment in 1920. Respect for diversity, tolerance for dissent, and maintaining civil liberties remain ongoing battles.

It may also be useful to point out that a nation like the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin had a constitution guaranteeing freedoms and democratic rights, but this did not prevent arbitrary arrests and lengthy imprisonments, denial of freedoms of speech and the press, and the murders of millions of citizens. Similarly, having the right to vote in today's Zimbabwe does not necessarily mean the votes will be counted fairly. The forms of democracy may be present but not their content.


Assign Student Reading 1: Some Background on Iraq, below.

After reading this material, students should write down and bring to class three questions which, if answered well, would help them gain a greater understanding of Iraq's background and potential for democracy.

Student Reading 1:

Some Background on Iraq

For almost a quarter of a century (1979-2003), Saddam Hussein was the leader of the Baath Party, the chief executive and dictator of Iraq. Iraq's legislature and judiciary were under his iron control and, with the help of the secret police and army, so were some 24,000,000 Iraqis. Any dissent, either political or religious, was suppressed. Saddam Hussein's rule was secular (non-religious), though he and most members of his government were Sunni Muslims, a minority in the country. He persecuted the Shiite Muslim majority (about 60 percent of Iraq's people) as well as the Kurdish ethnic minority. Arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and murder were commonplace. Even worse, if possible, Saddam Hussein ordered the poison gassing of many Kurdish villages and towns, causing thousands of deaths and maimings and suffering that continue to this day.

For hundreds of years and well into the 20th century Iraq was a province in the Ottoman Turk empire. After the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I, Iraq came under the colonial rule of Britain, which named an ally as king of the newly created country. In the 1930s Britain granted formal independence to Iraq, which agreed to align its foreign policy with Britain's. In 1958 the military overthrew Iraq's king and established a dictatorship. Saddam Hussein's Baath Party came to power in 1963, and Hussein became the supreme leader in 1979.

From the 1930s into the 1950s Iraq had multiparty elections, but they were largely controlled by a small number of landlords. In the 1970s, Iraq nationalized many of its largest industries, including its significant oil industry. (Iraq's oil reserves are the second-largest in the world.) Some of the money generated by these industries was invested in education and health systems. As a result, into the 1980s literacy rates and educational standards in Iraq were higher than those in other Arab nations. There was also a significant artistic and intellectual life and many professional societies. "In short, they had a lot of what we would call the building blocks for a...liberal democratic opening," says Michael Hudson, a professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. But after Saddam Hussein took firm control "a lot of these institutions, I think, were pulverized." (PBS)

Can this "liberal democratic opening" be reborn? President Bush thinks so: "The nation of Iraq, with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people, is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom," he said just weeks before the war that removed Saddam Hussein and put the United States in charge of Iraq's future. That future is now. After Hussein was deposed, much of Iraq was looted. Now the U.S. is supervising the distribution of food and medicine; trying to get disorganized hospitals and ambulance services back in business; restoring electric power; and rebuilding water towers, schools, offices, telephone exchanges and homes. Progress to date has been slow, and the U.S. is struggling to win the confidence of Iraq's war-scarred people and its diverse factions and to prepare the way for a free and democratic nation.

In his statement declaring Iraq's capacity to move toward democracy, President Bush noted that Japan and Germany had become successful democracies after their defeat in World War II. But Japan and Germany were conquered; while the U.S. says Iraq has been "liberated.". The U.S. says it wants to turn over control of Iraq to its people as soon as possible. In contrast, the U.S. and its allies controlled both Japan and Germany for years and dictated the forms of government for both. Japan and Germany had homogeneous populations, while Iraq includes three major groups with a history of conflict: Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and the Kurdish people in the north.

A major challenge in developing a democratic Iraq is its religious and ethnic diversity. The population is 75 percent Arab and 20-25 percent Kurd, most of it Muslim. The Muslims include Shiites who want to establish an Islamic state like that of Iran, Shiites who support a secular state, and Sunnis who would like to reestablish Baath Party rule. Iraqi exiles who have returned to their country have competing ideas about its future (one such group even has its own militia, which has clashed with American troopsóeven though the group has Pentagon support). Kurdish parties support a federal system that would continue the autonomy Kurds have had, under U.S. and British protection, since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. There are deep-seated conflicts among these groups. For example, in northern Iraq, Saddam Hussein once forced Kurds from their homes, which were then occupied by his Arab supporters. Now, with Hussein out of power, Kurds are forcing Arabs from their homes.

Nations bordering on Iraq also have ideas and concerns about the nation's future. Iran's Shiite rulers have sent agents into Iraq, apparently to promote the development of an Islamic state in Iraq. Iran's leaders are also worried about increasing American political and military influence in the region. American troops are in Iraq to its west and Afghanistan to its east. To its north are American bases in central Asia, to its south, American naval and air forces in the Persian Gulf.

The situation is complex. For example, the Americans detained an Iranian-backed brigade of Iraqi exiles in northern Iraq. But the U.S. also agreed to a ceasefire with an Iranian guerrilla group based in Iraq that is opposed to Iran's governmentóeven though the U.S. regards the group as a terrorist organization. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's religious leader, accused the U.S. of hypocrisy, saying "bad terrorists are only those who are not America's servants." (New York Times, 5/2/03) Another Iranian leader urged suicide attacks to force the Americans to leave Iraq.

Other neighboring countries are also greatly concerned about what happens in Iraq. Syria is on the U.S.'s list of nations supporting terrorist organizations, but Syrian leaders are now showing signs of trying to establish better relations with America. Turkey, which has a large Kurdish population that wants greater independence, is very worried about any independence movement by Iraqi Kurds. The royal rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan know that democratic change in Iraq can affect their own undemocratic regimes.

Another issue affecting Iraq's development is what role the United Nations will have in the process. European Union leaders want the UN to have a "central role" in Iraq's political and economic reconstruction. The U.S., however, wants the world organization to help with humanitarian aid but not have a larger role. However, the Iraqi economy is still mostly under UN control through what is known as the oil-for-food program. The program was created in 1995 to alleviate the suffering that was caused by the economic boycott of Iraq after the Gulf War. It allowed Iraq, under UN control, to sell some of its oil and to use the proceeds to buy food for Iraqis.
Later this spring the UN Security Council is likely to debate what part the UN should play in Iraq's economic and political future.



For discussion

1. Divide the class into groups of four to six students. Ask students in each group to share their questions and then to reach a consensus on what they regard as the three best questions. The group should name one student to report their conclusions.

2. As each group reports, write their questions on the chalkboard. Which can be answered immediately? Which are unclear and need to be reworded? Which contain assumptions or words requiring clarification? Which require factual information? Where might it come from? Which call for someone's opinion? Whose? Why? (For a detailed examination of student question-asking, see "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website).

3. Among the issues raised by this reading are Iraq's history up to the deposing of Saddam Hussein (admittedly this is a very brief summary); factional differences among Iraqis; concerns related to bordering countries; and questions about the role of the UN. Students should have a grasp of these matters before going on to the next reading.


Assign Student Reading 2: Democracy in Iraq?, below. Once again ask students to prepare three thoughtful questions about the reading.


Student Reading 2:

Democracy in Iraq?

Every society, regardless of its form of government, requires law and order. Since the second half of April 2003 the U.S. military has been mostly in control of Iraq. But as of early May it lacked complete control. When major combat operations ended, looters broke into stores, palaces, museums, government offices, and homes throughout the country. Sporadic looting continues. Supporters of Saddam Hussein have ambushed American soldiers, and firefights occur daily. There have been anti-American demonstrations, some of which have turned deadly. In Falluja, a town west of Baghdad, American soldiers killed more than a dozen demonstrators and wounded many others during two days of clashes in which each side accused the other of firing first.

Other anti-American demonstrations have been peaceful though angry. In the holy city of Karbala where hundreds of thousands of Shiites came for a major religious holiday, a sheik and deputy to the country's most senior Shiite cleric, said: "Our celebration will be perfect only when the American occupier is gone and the Iraqi people are able to rule themselves by the principles of Islam." (New York Times, 4/22/03)

Shiite leaders in Iraq's holiest city, Najaf, have been providing money and appointing clerics to run key Iraqi cities. These religious leaders, in turn, have been appointing officials to run basic services like post offices and to establish their authority over the Shiite population, including large areas of Baghdad. They want to build an Islamic state similar to that ruled by Shiite clerics in Iran (though other Shiites oppose this plan.) Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says, "A vocal minority clamoring to transform Iraq in Iran's image will not be permitted to do so. We will not allow the Iraqi people's democratic transition to be hijacked...by those who might wish to install another form of dictatorship." (New York Times, 4/26/03)

But one of the most influential Shiite clerics recently issued a fatwa, or religious edict, declaring, "People have to be taught not to collapse morally before the means used by the Great Satan (the United States), if it stays in Iraq. It will try to spread moral decay, incite lust by allowing easy access to stimulating satellite channels, spreading debauchery to weaken peoples' faith in schools, governments, and homes." (New York Times, 5/3/03)

The U.S. and Britain sponsored two political gatherings of Iraqis in April 2003. These gatherings included Shiite clerics, Kurds, tribal sheiks, and exile leaders. The U.S. envoy to the first meeting, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the gathering, "We have no intention of ruling Iraq. We want you to establish your own democratic system based on Iraqi traditions and values." The majority of people at the two meetings agreed to work for democracy on such principles as federalism, nonviolence, respect for diversity, and a role for women. At the end of May, a national conference is supposed to pick a transitional government. This government will decide whether Iraq will have a single head of state or a leadership council.

What are the prospects for freedom and democracy in Iraq? An author of Shiite history and a professor at the University of Michigan, Juan Cole, says, "It's going to be a difficult process....Democracy in the sense of a large public with lots of civil society organizations being deeply involved in running the country, that's something that modern Iraq really hasn't experienced; and the necessity to cooperate, to compromise, all of those things are things that the current political forces are going to have to learn." (PBS)

"What is called democracy in the West," writes Newsweek columnist and author Fareed Zakaria, "is really liberal democracy; a political system marked not only by free elections but also the rule of law, the separation of powers, and basic human rights, including private property, free speech, and religious tolerance. In the West, this tradition of liberty and law developed over centuries, long before democracy took hold. It was produced by a series of forcesóthe separation of church and state, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, capitalism, and the development of an independent middle class....

"Washington officials often say that American democracy is not necessarily the model for Iraq. Perhaps, but the central philosophy behind the American Constitution, a fear of concentrated power, is as relevant today as it was in 1789. 'In framing a government,' wrote James Madison in Federalist No. 51, 'you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.' Order, then liberty. In Iraq today, first establish a stable security environment and create the institutions of limited government—a constitution with a bill of rights, an independent judiciary, a sound central bank. Then and only then, move to full-fledged democracy." (Newsweek, 4/21/03)

Another issue for Iraq is the fact that three-quarters of Iraq's people are Muslim. Are democracy and Islam at odds? While Islamic history records mostly autocratic rule, Islamic texts and political theory, says Professor Hudson, "place great emphasis on the importance of consultation, on the importance of developing consensus, a kind of sense of the meeting, and of course on the importance of rulers operating within some kind of law." (PBS)

As Iraq's people have already shown, Muslims range from those who uphold strict adherence to Islamic law and a unity of mosque and state to those who have a secular point of view, who practice Islam but who want a separation of religion and politics. In the Middle East, neighboring Turkey is the best example of a country whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim but whose government is democratic. One Muslim thinker, Azizah Y. al-Hibri, has written, "The most significant debates are not about secularization versus promotion of Islamic forms of government." He supports democratization "in a manner consistent with Islamic law, a process... neither Western nor secular."

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan research group, published a study in January 2003 that reviewed the history of U.S. use of its military to overthrow a government. It reported that democracy followed in such places as Panama and Grenada. But in those places, unlike Iraq, there were few ethnic and religious rivalries and a constitutional system already existed. In Iraq one must be created from scratch.

An author of the study, Minxin Pei, says, "I think we're going to have big trouble ahead. Germany and Japan were developed, modern societies, but developing countries like Iraq have so many internal characteristics that aren't conducive to that kind of change. High levels of inequality, a distribution of power that favors entrenched elites, a weak national identity—the odds are against you in the first ten years." (New York Times, 4/27/03)

Some, like Joseph Montville, a diplomacy program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, think that the biggest question is not Iraq's history, but how committed the U.S. is to building democracy in Iraq. "We can get ourselves together enough to bomb somebodyóthat's not a problem," he says. "But after we've bombed, everything usually becomes kind of a mess. The military doesn't want to play policeman, and the administration doesn't want to get involved in nation-building." (This was the experience after U.S. takeovers in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.)

But Tom Zeller of the New York Times writes, "So far in Iraq, the indication is that the investment—of time, of money, of skill—will be more substantial. Basic services are slowly being restored, oil is beginning to flow again and security is expanding...."

In Iraq, as in Afghanistan, the future of nation-building, freedom, and democracy is unclear.



For discussion

1. Consider student questions on the reading, as in Lesson Two.

2. Important issues that students might not raise include the following. These may be important to clarify and discuss:

  • elements of democracy such as federalism, respect for diversity, women's roles, separation of powers, head of state (a single executive or a leadership council?), civil society
  • historical developments in democracy's history, including the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the rise of capitalism, the development of a middle class
  • Madison's comments about control, especially the government's control of itself
  • Islam and democracy
  • the U.S. record on promoting democracy in countries under its control

For future classes

1. The reshaping of Iraq, whatever form the country eventually takes, will obviously be a continuing process. Teachers might find it useful to make regular student assignments about events in Iraq and what they reveal about the development of democracy and freedom. Consider having students frame a set of questions as a basis for examining events in Iraq. For example: What has happened in Iraq during the past week that does or doesn't promote democracy and freedom? Why? What significant problems must be solved? What are some possible solutions? How effectively are U.S. officials helping to solve them? What makes you think so? How satisfied are Iraqis with what is happening in their country? What makes you think so?

2. Opportunities abound for independent and small-group inquiries. For example:

  • Why are there divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims? What is the historical background for them?
  • -Who are the Kurds? What is their historical background?
  • How did the Ottomans rule Iraq during their centuries of control?
  • What is the early history of Iraqi civilization and such cities as Ur?
  • What role did the Renaissance (or the Enlightenment or the Reformation) play in the development of democracy?
  • How did the U.S. and its allies promote democracy in Germany or Japan after World War II?
  • In her column in the New York Times (4/30/03), Maureen Dowd makes the argument that the U.S. is an empire (seeking to take control of other countries), but is reluctant to admit it. She quotes Niall Ferguson, an Oxford professor who has recently published a history of the British empire. He says: "The great thing about the American empire is that so many Americans disbelieve in its existence. Ever since the annexation of Texas and the invasion of the Philippines, the U.S. has systematically pursued an imperial policy.  It's simply a suspension of disbelief by Americans. They think they're so different that when they have bases in foreign territories, it's not an empire. When they invade sovereign territory, it's not an empire." What is your view of this opinion?


PBS, "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer," 4/28/03
The Independent, 4/5/03
Newsweek, 4/21/03
New York Times (various issues)


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org