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Can Religious Extremist Groups Have a Role in Iraqi Democracy? - 2003-04-27

Shia Muslims make up 60 percent of Iraq's population, a fact that has sparked debate over whether a future democratic government there will be an Islamic theocracy.

Saddam Hussein's toppled regime was headed by the secular Baath Party and dominated by Iraq's minority Sunni Muslims. For decades, the regime suppressed the religious freedom of the country's majority Shia Muslim population.

University of Virginia professor Abdulaziz Sachedina said this situation has paved the way for what he describes as a possible Islamic alternative to secularism.

"We have had secularism in the form of Baathist government, for a long time, almost 30 years. We have been having this kind of atrocious ideology impinging on the rights of the people, rights of the women or minorities, or whatever we can think of," he said.

At a recent conference in Washington that focused on the role of women in Iraq's reconstruction, panelists also discussed the issue of religion and government.

Sanam Anderlini, of the group Women Waging Peace, called for a collective leadership that would include Islamic extremists.

"It is easy to preach whatever you want in an extremist way if you are excluded. But if you bring them in and say, you know what, what do you think? How are we going to do economic empowerment? How are we going to look after the welfare of kids? At least they will have a voice. At least they will be at the table. At least you know who they are," she said.

But Iraqi exile Rakiah Al-Kayssi, of the London-based Iraqi Jurists Association, flatly rejects the notion that religious extremists could play any role in a future democratic government.

"They have the ability to mobilize the people, and when they reach the power, they kill democracy. And they will stay in power," Ms. Al-Kayssi said.

On the NBC television program Meet the Press Sunday, Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher downplayed concerns that Iraq's future government will be dominated by Islamic extremists. He pointed, instead, to similarities with his own country.

"In Jordan, we have an Islamist political force. They are very active. They are part of the political spectrum in Jordan, but they do not control the country. But I think it will be a mistake to say, well, we are going to exclude anybody from Iraqi society," he said. "Islamists in Iraq are strong. They do have a voice. But there are others who have a voice, also, and it is very important to talk about an inclusive government, an inclusive society, rather than to exclude anyone." In a recent NBC television interview broadcast on the same program, President Bush said the United States wants a secular government in Iraq. "What I would like to see is a government where church and state are separated. And I believe there [are] enough people within Iraq that would like that kind of government," he said. "Maybe a nationalist government, a government that really honors the Iraqi history and the Iraqi traditions and Iraq, itself. But it must be a government that has got to, you know, represent all the people. And I believe that can happen."

U.S. officials have continually stressed the importance of Iraqis being in charge of their own government.

Barbara Bodine, deputy head of the U.S.-led Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq, said she expects what she called an "emerging leadership" to evolve during political meetings. Planned gatherings are to bring together hundreds of Iraqis and are aimed at working out Iraq's future government.