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The evident limits to the application of democracy in Iraq

By Bashdar Ismaeel - posted Thursday, 24 September 2009

There is no region in the world more difficult to apply “off the shelf” Western notions than in the Middle East. The Middle East, the undoubted cradle of civilisation, has had its lands soiled with much blood. Nowhere are rivalries as bitter or animosities as historically entrenched and deep rooted.

With the rich heritage and millennia old civilisations comes a disparate patchwork of ethnicities and religions who often have claimed the cramped lands as their own at some historical juncture.

A prime example of age-old tensions, where the historical battle for land, supremacy and influence, compounded by an ethnic mosaic that has been stitched together in an artificial manner, is Iraq.


Judging the context

If democracy was going to be difficult to apply anywhere in the Middle East, Iraq would be high on the list. Six years since its liberation from tyranny, the “new” democratic Iraq, a perceived success on paper, struggles to plant real seeds of comfort and assurance of a future where its many communities and sects can truly flourish in one place.

However, as the US administration has realised - after thousands of lost lives and billions of dollars of expenditure, not forgetting a shattering of its foreign policy image in the process - democracy and western ideals are not something you can simply “hand-over”. Democracy is not like a modern piece of machinery you can hand to Iraqi farmers and workers, so that they can leave their previous ways for a new efficient and technologically advanced solution.

One must judge the context in which you intend to deploy a notion or initiative and carry out detailed feasibility studies. As the Bush administration discovered, Iraq as a harmonious unitary state, even in the face of the eradication of evil, is just a pipe dream. Temporary euphoria or gains can not bridge long-term socio-ethnic grievances.

Moreover, if all sides do not have the appetite to implement democratic notions and truly embrace each group within the greater Iraqi banner as “brothers” then no amount of US or foreign intervention or new diplomatic initiatives will ever truly matter.

Shoe-throwing shame

A great example of some existing out-dated mentalities in the Middle East and particularly in Iraq is the infamous shoe-thrower and newfound “celebrity”, Muntazer al-Zaidi, whose antics as he launched his shoes and insults at US President George W. Bush last year, resulted in imprisonment: he was released early last week.

Although, the actions of al-Zaidi, who became an instant hero across the Middle East, may have summed up the sentiments of many Iraqis, such action by a professional Iraqi journalist in front of international cameras does the image of Iraq, and the perception of it been bogged down by old fashioned ideas, no good.


The US undoubtedly embarked on a number of costly blunders, especially in the first few years post-liberation. At times the US has done its image no favours, especially with Abu Ghraib prison scandals and the general perception of its military operations. However, the idea that Bush is the fulcrum of all evil in Iraq is naïve, short-sighted and thinly papers over the historical cracks that are commonplace in Iraq.

Is it because of the US that, in the six years since liberation, Sunni and Shiite sectarian hit squads have been at logger-heads? It is understandable that anti-US anger may see the US soldiers as direct targets for a large number of insurrections, but why should this mask the deadly civil war that took place for more than a year between them?

Iraq’s lack of political and economic progress is not the direct fault of the Americans and its leaders have been just as culpable in prolonging the Iraqi agony. Why can’t al-Zaidi have saved one of his shoes for his failing leaders? More importantly, one wonders why no one dared to take such actions against Saddam Hussein. It is due to the advent of such new freedoms in Iraq that one can even dare to take such action - perhaps America can take some solace from this fact.

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This is an edited version of an article first published in the Kurdish Globe on September 19, 2009.

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About the Author

Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel is a London-based freelance writer and analyst, whose primary focus and expertise is on the Kurds, Iraq and Middle Eastern current affairs. The main focus of his writing is to promote peace, justice and increase awareness of the diversity, suffering and at times explosive mix in Iraq and the Middle East.

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