Sunday, January 30, 2005

Fingers Crossed

It’s early morning in Iraq. A historic day, one way or another. It seems improbable (though not impossible) that the Islamist/Baathist coalition (aka ‘the resistance’) can create enough havoc to stop the elections or drive turnout down to derisory levels. But they’ll be trying to kill enough voters and terrorise enough potential voters to discredit the elections, not only in the eyes of Iraqis but of the world.

If they succeed, their allies in the West will be rejoicing on the front pages of the Independent, Guardian and New York Times. Islamist groups worldwide will be emboldened by our defeat. The consequences for the Iraqis are unforseeable but unlikely to be pleasant.

If they fail, there will still be problems. The Sunnis will resent Shia political domination. The Shias will have to beware of what they now call ‘trumphalism’. Iran may poke the Shia fire. The Kurds will nurture new dreams of independence. The hereditary rulers of Syria and Saudi Arabia will be worried about losing their grip on power – with good reason. And ‘the resistance’ will still be shooting officials and chopping off engineers heads.

But a democratic Iraq, even if imperfect, could be a signal to the whole Middle East that there’s another way of doing things, of governing. This of course depends on there being enough Iraqis who really want democracy – and appreciate that democracy sometimes means that the other guy gets his way.

That’s the big question. Do they want it ? Can they handle it ?

I was never a fan of the project to democratise Afghanistan. The politics and culture of that fascinating nation are nearer to those of fourteenth-century England than to modern America. Imagine men from the Planet Zog arriving in 1350 to bring democracy to England.

Man from Zog : ‘Here you are, all registered, polling stations set up, we’ll check the count, carry on !
1st Great Lord – ‘Super. Knights – you’ll all be voting for me‘
Knight – ‘Super. Squires – you’ll all vote for the Great Lord ‘
Squire – ‘Yeomen – put your cross by the Great Lord’s name if you want to keep that farm
Yeoman – ‘Serfs – I’ll show you where to put the thumbprint tomorrow’.
Serf – ‘Yes, Master’

I thought that the Taleban were as good a government as Afghanistan could reasonably expect, modern Puritans. Relatively incorrupt, they brought an end to the capricious violence of the warlords who ruled in the post-Soviet vacuum. They also reduced the amount of heroin being produced. Sure, their views on women and homosexuals wouldn’t go down well in Islington, but by their lights they were a pretty good bunch.

Unfortunately they chose to support Bin Laden and so had to be overthrown – not because of their reactionary views but because after September 11 it was impossible for America to leave Al Quaeda’s bases untouched. The world – including any other leaders who might have been thinking about supporting, or turning a blind eye to, anti-US terrorists, had to be made aware of what the price would be.

The lesson seems to have been pretty effective.

Steve Sailer has an excellent film review (of John Huston’s ‘The Man Who Would Be King’) which touches on the subject of the Afghans and democracy. You can also get a flavour of the area today from this wonderful Chitral website – Chitral, on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, is in the Kafiristan (now Nuristan – see this post) area where Kipling’s novel was set. These are some of the stories. Sadly, conversions to Islam are rapidly eroding the unique Kalash culture which gave Kafiristan (Land of Infidels) its name.

Iraq is a different case – a much more modern country in every sense. Democracy is certainly within the bounds of possibility. And listening to Iraqis being interviewed on Radio 5 yesterday made me think. I paraphrase from memory.

‘We are afraid. But we were afraid for the last twenty five years. I am worried about voting – that I may be killed. But I have to do it.’

‘I want to vote’
‘Aren’t you worried about the dangers ?’
‘There is always danger here. I cannot stay at home when I can vote’.

‘We have been waiting a long time for this day. I must vote’.

These may not have been representative. But comparing these people with our low-turnout, low-commitment electorate, I felt the Chartists and suffragettes would recognise them as fellow spirits. We’ve been too cosy too long – don’t appreciate the price that others paid, generations ago, for our freedom and democracy. Iraqis are paying that price now.

Good luck to them, and to the Iraqi, Brit and US forces. It was good to see the TVnews tonight of Brit soldiers finding explosives in Basra - a few bombs less. Keep that curfew up for a day or so as well – I have a nightmare about the head-choppers making door to door calls in search or people with indelible ink on their fingers – a sign that they’ve voted.

Fingers crossed. And keep your eyes peeled, boys.

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