Michael Totten

Swapping Bullets for Ballots

Iraq’s draft constitution is absurdly contradictory. Just look at the following two sentences which appear right next to each other.

a. No law may contradict Islamic standards.

b. No law may contradict democratic standards.


Now, surely there are individual laws which contradict neither. But there is also no shortage of laws in the 21st century which are bound to contradict one or the other.
I suppose this sort of deadlock is a small-government libertarian’s dream scenario. And whatever the drawbacks of small-government libertarianism, it’s obviously preferable to Saddam Hussein’s full-bore totalitarianism.
In the real world, though, Iraq isn’t at all likely to become a libertarian’s paradise now or ever. Liberal secular democrats and conservative Islamists will just have to learn to accommodate each other within this legal framework if the Iraqi state is going to do anything but melt down or fly apart into pieces. Neither secularism nor Islamism at gun point are workable, acceptable, or defensible in the long run. So while most Westerners (not to mention many Iraqis) are unhappy with the Islamist line in Iraq’s constitution, it’s most likely an inevitable part of any workable package.
Anne-Marie Slaughter put it this way at TPM Café.

I never thought I would take this position, particularly given what could be at stake for the women of Iraq, but I’m going to come down on the getting it done side. Let’s just remember, the compromises that our founding fathers made to get to a constitution — mediating between slave states and free states — included one that left slavery intact and defined each slave as worth only 3/5 of a person. Fred Kaplan has pointed to the many differences between the 18th century U.S. process and the 21st century Iraqi process, but a stark similarity remains: by agreeing on a set of principles as the ground rules for a national political process you give everyone involved a stake in trying to advance their interests through that process rather than through violence or secession. That is precisely what ordinary Iraqis, of any religion or tribe, have not had. And the sudden claim of the insurgents that the “jihad of word” is akin to “jihad by sword” and thus that their supporters should vote in the October referendum means that they are beginning to recognize that there is another field to play on that they cannot afford ignore.


She’s right. Islamists do not need to be defeated utterly. They need to be brought into a democratic mainstream. They’re not our cup of tea, so to speak, and they never will be. But if they can be persuaded to swap bullets for ballots everyone wins.

Join the conversation as a VIP Member