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So Karbala in 2003 is not Philadelphia in 1787. Surprise! The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny was a great historical attainment, and it is surely too soon to allow the measure of what has been gained to be lost in the din of complaint (some of it cheap, some of it not cheap) that has characterized the aftermath of the conquest. Still, one of the lessons of this war is that big things can be done not only for big reasons. The Bush administration is now busy with little reasons. There was certainly something less than Churchillian about the Halliburton and Bechtel contracts. But the doctrinaire mentality of the liberators of Iraq, their way of lowering the occasion to their sectarian level, is even more alarmingly apparent in their naive notions about the relation of religion to democracy in Iraq.

The Bush administration seems to be unreflectively transposing the simplistic ideas of American conservatism to the distinctly un-American circumstances of Iraq. For decades, American conservatives have preached that religion is not the enemy of democracy. This is not exactly false, but the proposition needs to be formulated more accurately. Religion is not the enemy of democracy in America. For America was founded by religious dissenters who sought freedom of religion; they regarded liberty as the condition of their godly lives. But even this is not the whole historical picture, because the devout fathers and mothers of America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries exploited the spiritual opportunity of the new world in two ways. There were those who escaped the oppression of their creed by other creeds so as to establish the oppression of other creeds by their creed—who objected to the intolerance that they had themselves experienced not because it was inimical to the spirit of religion but because it was directed at the wrong target. The Puritans in New England established what one of them sinisterly described as “a well-bounded toleration,” in which civil institutions, while not strictly theocratic, were designed to enforce the authority of the dominant faith. And there were those—Roger Williams (who was banished by the mullahs of Massachusetts), Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the other prophets of decency—who magnificently recoiled from all intolerance, from all ideals of uniformity and coercion in affairs of belief.

It was a revolution in Western life when the party of religious tolerance in America triumphed over the party of religious intolerance in America, and the separation of the civil from the ecclesiastical was immortalized in the Constitution. If ever there was an American exceptionalism, this was it. But it is the exceptionalist character of the American dispensation in religion that should alert us to the dangers of presuming that the rest of the world is cheerfully hospitable to our divine innovation. After all, there is no faith, certainly no monotheistic faith, that does not believe that it is in the exclusive possession of the truth; and insofar as various monotheistic confessions in the West have succeeded in mitigating the exclusivist temper, and found ways to reconcile their doctrines, however uneasily or inconsistently, with the demands and the dignities of democracy, this was accomplished after centuries of painful struggle, in which liberalism in religion—and liberalism more generally—gained its own “martyrs.”

In its planning for the war and its aftermath, the Bush administration clearly viewed the Shia of Iraq as agents of progress, and nothing like the Shia of Iran. The romanticization of the Shia was owed substantially to a proper sympathy for their fate in the years of Saddam Hussein’s rule. The ecstatic wildness of the crowds at the Arbein assembly at Karbala, which Saddam Hussein had prohibited for decades, was a profoundly deserved political exhilaration. But it was not only that. We must not fall into the old mistake of interpreting religious ideas and actions as symbolic versions of political ideas and actions. Religious people take religious instructions seriously, even literally. What happened at Karbala was also the delirious release of ancient theological passions. These are not the passions that the construction of an open society will require. The freedom that we have delivered to the Shia of Iraq is the freedom to be themselves, not the freedom to be us. And so one of the true believers told a reporter from The New York Times that, “We want an Islamic state here similar to the Iranian model. We tried liberalism, Communism and secularism, but none of them worked, so why not try an Islamic state?” It is chilling to learn that the rule of Saddam Hussein is regarded as Iraq’s experiment with secularism. A cleric ominously explained that, “[a]fter all, the Shiites are the majority in Iraq and if we want to apply the democracy that the West is propagating for Iraq, then the government should be elected by the majority, and the majority are Shiite.” It was our worldview that the sheik was flagellating, adding that “anyone supported by the United States is cursed by us.” Does this mean that democracy is impossible in Iraq? Not at all; but the Bush administration will flounder in its efforts at democratization if it does not grow somewhat less mesmerized by God.

This article originally ran in the March 5, 2003 issue of the magazine.