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Weissman: If You Believe in Freedom, Step Aside

If You Believe in Freedom, Step Aside

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Wednesday 30 March 2005

A frightening tale from Iraq shows how Mr. Bush's call to "democratize" the Middle East has already bogged down in the graveyard of impossible choices. The story first appeared in the Arab language press, then in the Times of London in a powerful article by Catherine Philp.

As Ms. Philp tells it, some university students in the southern Iraqi city of Basra were having a picnic at a local park, when dozens of armed men came running at them. The men were members of the Mehdi Army, the private militia loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

"They started shouting at us that we were immoral, that we were meeting boys and girls together and playing music and that this was against Islam," recalled Ali, an engineering student.

"They began shooting in the air and people screamed. Then, with one order, they began beating us with their sticks and rifle butts."

A Shiite cleric in a black turban stood over the students giving the orders, and one of the militia recorded the beatings on video. The militia later released some of the footage to the public as a warning to others.

According to reporter Philp, the video added to the terror:

It showed images of one girl struggling as a gunman ripped her blouse off, leaving her half-naked. "We will send these pictures to your parents so they can see how you were dancing naked with men," a gunman told her. Two students who went to her aid were shot - one in the leg, the other twice in the stomach. The latter was said to have died of his injuries. Fellow students say that the girl later committed suicide. Another girl who was severely beaten around the head lost her sight.

"We beat them because we are authorized by Allah to do so and that is our duty," Sheik Ahmed al-Basri said after the attack. "It is we who should deal with such disobedience and not the police."

Local police had been present at the park, but did nothing to protect the students. "What do you expect me to do about it?" a uniformed officer asked.

British troops, who have the ultimate say over security in the region, gave Ali a similar brush-off. "You're a sovereign country now," said an officer. "We can't help. You have to go to the Iraqi authorities."

In a sense horrific to contemplate, this was democracy in action, or at least majority rule. The main Shiite alliance had won 70% of the popular vote in the January election, and allowed the puritanical supporters of al-Sadr to rule the streets, shutting down shops that sold alcohol or music and forcing women to wear veils. No way would these firebrand enforcers of their medieval "Islamic law" permit co-ed picnics, with what they saw as "dancing, sexy dress and corruption."

This is one significant reality of Iraq and a nasty portent of its future. President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair might sell democracy as a universal delight, but the Shiite majority in Basra apparently have less savory views, more like Afghanistan under the Taliban or Iran under the Ayatollahs.

What, then, should Washington and London do? Knock heads until the Iraqis see the light? Or, get out and let them find their own way?

Neither course of action will produce anything resembling Jeffersonian democracy. Bush, Blair, and the neoconservative ideologues who cheer them on should have realized this before they set out to run someone else's country, let alone the entire Middle East. But, in their arrogant, faith-based rejection of reality, they fell victim to their own lofty rhetoric and the lure of Iraqi oil.

To temper any lingering missionary zeal, consider a few facts. Not all Iraqis, and not all Shiites, share the primitive and puritanical notions of Moqtada al-Sadr. Many Iraqis, Iranians, and others in the region seek to find their own compromise between tradition and the modern world, while others - mainly among the more educated - are openly secular. Freedom and human rights have strong supporters throughout the Middle East.

But how many? And for how long? Every reputable poll shows that a growing majority of Iraqis oppose foreign occupation and demand their national freedom. Very much like the rest of us, they also want to control their own culture and their own natural resources.

Al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army embodied these nationalistic feelings when they held off U.S. troops in the Shiite holy cities last year, and they continue to lead Shiite opposition to the continued presence of British and American forces in Iraq. The longer these outside forces remain, whether to knock heads or otherwise "create security," the more Shiites will support al-Sadr. And, sadly, growing numbers will do it even at the cost of their individual freedom.

So, the choice for Bush and Blair comes down to this: Get out of Iraq now, and risk another Iran. Stay, and make an even more repressive Islamic Republic almost inevitable.

When the deadly double bind plays out, please remember all the fine words about freedom and democracy. The ideals are certainly worth promoting, but not by self-interested outsiders with a gun in one hand, a cross in the other, and their eye on someone else's oil.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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