To defeat Islamic State – a group President Obama calls the West’s “most urgent threat” – the United States and its allies are relying on more than military means. Merely retaking IS territory, such as the key city of Mosul in Iraq, would not be enough. The US needs to also counter IS’s core assertion: that people must be ruled only by an elite clergy, one supposedly with undisputed divine wisdom.
The best antidote to IS, therefore, is the opposite idea: representative democracy based on equality. It rests on the notion that wisdom is accessible to any individual, not just self-appointed ruling imams, and that open and fair elections bring the best governance.
The “front” for this war of ideas lies mainly in Baghdad. The success of Iraq’s elected government is as important as any fighter jet or coalition of nations. The Iraqi Army’s ability to defeat IS requires that it operate on behalf of a broad-based and legitimate government. Yet in recent weeks, Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, has faced severe challenges in his attempts to widen support for the regime through anti-corruption reforms and appointments of a non-political cabinet.
On Saturday, for example, protesters overran the legislative building out of the popular frustration over lawmakers not backing Mr. Abadi’s reforms. The event was a visible symbol of Iraq’s long struggle with democracy and the core need to treat all citizens equally.
Abadi’s reforms are necessary because the current political system, set up by the US after its 2003 invasion, is failing. It relies on Iraq’s major interest groups, Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, dividing up power. Each group’s leaders, however, have become addicted to the spoils of power. Corruption is rampant. Basic services, such as electricity, are faltering.
Abadi’s idea of neutral technocrats is one way to reflect the interests of all Iraqis, not particular religious or ethnic factions. He is hardly alone in this idea. He is backed by Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who rejects the notion of clerics running secular government, as is the case in neighboring Iran.
Iranians, in fact, are at odds with their system. Prominent figures are calling for full democracy and not what is known as “velayat-e faqih” (guardianship of the jurist). This is autocratic personal rule by a religious scholar. The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who set himself as the “Supreme Guide,” once wrote that universal rights are merely “opium for the masses.”
In both Iraq and Iran, political events are largely being driven by this struggle over the view that only a few individuals can reflect the truth needed to run society, and that they need not be held accountable to the people. The fight against Islamic State is as much on this battlefield of ideas as in the skies and territory of its caliphate.