Pothole theory may be tested in Middle East

April 19, 2005|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA - Here is one of the most fascinating debates going on among Middle Eastern intellectuals: Should Islamist parties be included in the democratic process?

Oddly, this debate has been provoked by the Iraq war, whose alleged aim was to undercut radical Islamists. Now that President Bush's Mideast focus has shifted to democracy promotion, he confronts an irony: The strongest political forces in many Arab states are religious.

Thirteen years ago, when violent Algerian Islamists nearly took power by the ballot, many Mideast moderates and U.S. officials recoiled at the notion. "One man, one vote, one time" was the slogan of radicals who wanted to use elections to achieve an Islamic state. Washington backed the Algerian military's cancellation of the election.

Today, that thinking seems to be shifting. According to Beirut Daily Star editor Rami Khouri, participants at a recent U.S.-Islamic world forum in Doha, Qatar, did not debate whether Islamist groups should participate in elections, "but how they can do so in a manner that is acceptable to all concerned."

More intriguing, the Bush administration also is revising its thinking on the political role of Islamists. It labels Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories as terrorist organizations. Yet both deliver social services to their publics and are likely to do well in coming elections.

Mr. Bush suggested that if Hezbollah laid down its arms, it could be accepted as a political organization.

"Maybe some will run for office and say, `Vote for me, I look forward to blowing up America,'" Mr. Bush said. "But I don't think so. I think people who generally run for office say, `Vote for me, I'm looking forward to fixing your potholes.'"

Let's call this the pothole theory of Middle Eastern politics - get the Islamists into the game and they will learn to play by democratic rules, lay down arms and focus on pleasing their voters. Is it safe to apply the pothole theory to the region as a rule of thumb? One compelling test is going on in Iraq.

In January elections, a list endorsed by the leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was the winner. The list included the two major Shiite Muslim political parties, Dawa and SCIRI (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). Both at one time called for a state governed by religious law.

The man who is set to become Iraq's prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the leader of Dawa, insisted in a January interview that his list had no desire to create an Islamic government like that in Iran. "Our society doesn't want this," he said.

Iraq's religious parties are not jihadi parties that pursue armed struggle against impure Muslim regimes or the West. They want to play a role in Iraq's national system, not to reconstruct an Islamic empire.

SCIRI and Dawa have signed on to a set of democratic precepts agreed to by all political parties. U.S. and Iraqi lawyers drew up the transitional administrative law that will govern Iraq until Iraqis hammer out a new constitution.

Iraq has other political parties and organizations that can offset religious parties - notably the secular Kurdish parties. If religious groups push too hard to roll back women's rights, these parties will push back.

Some of these factors are unique to Iraq and can't be copied elsewhere. None guarantees that Iraq won't experience secular-religious tensions. But they offset the danger that religious parties will use democracy to install a theocracy. The lesson from Iraq is that religious parties must be bound up within a political structure that keeps them democratic. Otherwise, the pothole theory could lead to a wreck.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays at The Sun.

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