Strategies for Promoting Democracy in Iraq

The United States of Peace has published an interesting report "Strategies for Promoting Democracy in Iraq."

The report has a very good methodology combining the historical context and political theory to produce a very practical strategy of promoting democracy in Iraq.

Taking into account what I have read of research work in this domain, I can say that this report is very interesting.

I will quote from this report the sections: Summary, the approach of this report and strategies for promoting democracy.

PDF version of the full report

  • Social justice and economic development are essential for democracy in Iraq to succeed.

  • The idea of a democratic Iraq is not one imposed by foreign powers, but rather one that Iraqis themselves vigorously support.

  • Iraq has a tradition and history of democracy that can help promote the successful establishment of a democratic form of government in post–Saddam Hussein Iraq.

  • Many of the foundations of democratic governance began in Iraq's ancient Mesopotamian civilizations.

  • The nationalist movement in Iraq (1908–1963) had strong democratic impulses and emphasized cultural tolerance.

  • Sixty percent of the Iraqi population is under the age of twenty-five. They have known nothing but authoritarian rule and need to learn about democracy. The older generation of former democratic activists can pass on to younger Iraqis their memories and experiences of pre-1963 Iraqi society.

  • The establishment of an institution devoted to democracy could spread the concept of democratic government through workshops, contests, and grants to civil society organizations.

  • Citizenship and service learning programs in Iraqi universities could promote democratic principles among older students. A national reading project and essay contest could introduce younger students to democracy and strengthen the literary skills that are necessary for an informed citizenry.

  • The government should use the power of the Internet to involve citizens in the democratic process and improve education. Television and radio programs, coffeehouse events, national "town hall" meetings, summer camps for youth, and emphasis on common folklore could help overcome ethnic differences and promote tolerance and unity among the diverse ethnic cultures of Iraq.


The Approach of This Report

Throughout the world, people of good will sincerely hope that Iraq will be able to make a transition to democratic rule. In that spirit, this report offers proposals for projects that the Iraqi government and democratic activists might pursue to help promote the process of democratization. The proposals presented here are suggestions and can be modified as those who seek to implement them deem best. The proposals are based on the assumption that the promotion of democracy requires an active notion of citizenship and political and social organization. Consequently, the projects suggested below require a commitment of time, the creation of an organizational framework within which to implement them, and financial support from either public or private sources. However, many of the projects do not require substantial funding. Perhaps the most important factor supporting the suggested proposals is that Iraqis have demonstrated many times throughout their rich historical past that they possess the means to create a just and prosperous society. This report should be read as an effort to support the tremendous strides that Iraqis have already made in creating a democratic society following the fall of Saddam Hussein.


Strategies for Promoting Democracy

The Iraqi National Institute for Democracy

Building on the examples of other Arab organizations—such as the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Egypt; Muwatin, the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy; and MIFTAH, the Palestinian Initiative for Global Dialogue and Democracy—the Iraqi government should consider establishing a national institute designed to promote democracy. This institute could sponsor a number of national projects and provide training and resources, such as grants, for Iraqis who want to establish new political parties and civil society organizations or democracy "think tanks." The Iraqi National Institute for Democracy could also provide periodic workshops and seminars to help these organizations develop new programs as they expand.

The new institute would be publicly funded but autonomous, that is, not under the control of a particular branch of the Iraqi government. Following the model of similar institutes in other countries, the Iraqi National Institute for Democracy could be administered by a board of directors whose members would be nominated by the offices of the Iraqi president, vice presidents, and prime minister, and then appointed by the president.

One project that the new institute could sponsor is an essay contest on the theme "My Hopes for the New Iraq." This project would be modeled on a contest organized by the Women's Alliance for a Democratic Iraq (WAFDI) titled "Why I Love Iraq." WAFDI's initiative was intended for primary school students. The pilot project was implemented in Baghdad for first, second, and third grade students during the 2003–2004 academic year and offered a prize of $100 to the winning essay. The WAFDI essay contest could receive funding from the Iraqi National Institute for Democracy to expand it into a national program.

A contest on the theme "My Hopes for the New Iraq" could include not just secondary school students, but Iraqis of all ages. Allowing participants to achieve national recognition, and receive a small stipend, would certainly make such a contest attractive. In keeping with Iraq's position as one of the cultural centers of the Arab world—and the importance of the oral tradition in Arab culture—poetry that conformed to the contest's theme could form a separate category. Artistic works, such as documentary films, paintings, and sculpture, which could also be considered separate categories, would further enrich the project.

Winners of the contest would be invited to discuss their essays on state-run radio stations, and the essays could be posted on the website of the Ministry of State for Civil Society Affairs. When the security situation improves, successful contestants could appear on Iraqi television to discuss their projects and the ideas behind them. Copies of successful essays and poetry could be published in prominent newspapers, such as al-Zaman, al-Sabah, al-Sabah al-Jadid, al-Bayan, and al-Ta'akhi; distributed in schools and universities; and disseminated with the help of civil society organizations such as WAFDI. Successful artistic entries could be posted on government Web sites and in museums and public galleries. Making the results of the contest public would encourage Iraqis to think in greater detail about their own hopes and aspirations for the new Iraq.

Citizenship and Service Learning for University Students

The concept of citizenship and service learning is one in which students apply what they have learned in the university classroom to their community. In this educational model, learning is not just an abstraction, but experienced in a very real sense by the student. Faculty members locate community partners with which their students can work and then assign students to work with these partner organizations. For example, university students studying to become teachers help elementary school students improve their reading and writing skills, thereby assisting teachers and schools. The university students gain a better understanding of how teaching takes place in an applied setting, while the teachers and children both receive helpful assistance. In this model of learning, everyone benefits.

Students could serve in many capacities, such as working as interns in civil society organizations, tutoring high school students, helping to improve the quality of recreational programs for young people, or providing services to elderly people who have lost spouses or lack family support by bringing them daily necessities and reading materials. Students in medical school could help provide medical services to areas of Iraq where such services are lacking. Students in the arts could work to beautify public spaces, offer theater performances, or organize exhibits of paintings and sculpture. Obviously, the possibilities for citizenship and service learning are endless.

Citizenship and service learning promotes a deeper level of civic understanding on the part of university students. Not only do they improve their learning process, but they gain an appreciation of giving to the community. Citizenship and service learning also helps university students understand whether they are really suited for a career by giving them direct experience with that career. But most important of all, this form of learning helps inculcate civic values in students.

The Ministries of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Education, and Civil Society Affairs could play an important role in promoting citizenship and service learning. The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research could offer academic credits to students who participate in this program. The three ministries could develop programs to give students the necessary training before they are sent to the communities and organizations with which they want to work.

A National Reading Project

A recent poll of 10,000 Iraqi urban and rural families, commissioned by the Ministry of Planning and Cooperative Development and conducted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), found that 85 percent of Iraqi youth between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four rejected the idea that political disputes can be resolved through violence. The poll revealed little evidence that young members of the families surveyed were attracted to radical politics. In a less encouraging finding, however, the poll revealed that young Iraqis, like young people in many societies today, are visual learners and spend relatively little time reading books. Of course, this lack of reading among Iraqi youth stems partly from the UN sanctions of the 1990s, when few books were published and when Iraqi families could ill afford to purchase reading materials. The decline in interest in books also occurred during a time when the Iraqi education system experienced a serious decline in quality.

A democratic society requires a literate citizenry. One way to promote reading skills among Iraqi youth, as well as to promote a deeper appreciation of the values of tolerance, respect for cultural diversity, and political participation, is to organize a national reading contest around materials that emphasize these values. The contest would entail students reading from a list of publications suggested by Iraqi university faculty and secondary school teachers that promote democratic values, including works on literature, the arts, religion, history, politics, and civic values.

The Ministries of Education and Culture could organize this contest, in which students would receive prizes for reading a set number of books. The ministries could post a list of books, sections of books, or short stories on their Web sites. Through government and private funding, reading materials could be published as supplements to Iraqi newspapers. Teachers could be given a small salary supplement for participating.

At the beginning of the reading project, students would be given a ticket. After they read a certain number of publications from the list of materials, teachers would discuss these readings with them to ascertain whether they understood what they had read. Upon successful completion of this process, students would have their ticket punched and could then exchange it for a prize. Possible prizes could be tickets to soccer games or small items offered by local merchants. Students who read an especially large number of publications could receive a government certificate to add to their school record, a form of national recognition.

Teachers could be encouraged to discuss in their classrooms the readings that their students found especially compelling. Classroom discussion would allow the contest to move beyond the individual reader and have a broader impact on the Iraqi elementary and secondary school system. The National Reading Contest could thereby serve as a curriculum supplement as well.

Using the Internet to Promote Democracy

One of the important developments of the past decade has been the dramatic expansion of the Internet. The explosion of information now available to people living in even remote areas of the globe has significantly affected all aspects of life. Authoritarian regimes deny their people access to information. It is no surprise, then, that the use of computers and Internet access were strictly controlled by Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. Since the fall of the Ba'ath Party, Internet use in Iraq has increased tremendously. From secondary school students who use it to find materials to complete homework assignments to women who gather before computers to learn from the experiences of women elsewhere how to promote their own interests in Iraqi society, the Internet has opened many avenues for change.

Both the Iraqi government and the organizations of civil society can make further use of the Internet. The Iraqi government can develop curricular material to be used by elementary and secondary school teachers and make it available on the Internet. A number of government ministries could participate in this activity, including the Ministries of Education, Higher Education and Scientific Research, and Culture. Creating such a website would be especially helpful, given the shortage of up-to-date textbooks in many school districts throughout Iraq. Although most Iraqi schools do not have computers, teachers could be given access codes to computers in Internet cafes where they could review new curricular materials. As more computers become available in the schools, these materials would become easier to access.

What types of materials would be especially useful in promoting a better understanding of the principles and functioning of a democratic government? As noted above, Iraq has an important democratic tradition that is largely unknown to Iraqi youth. Speeches by representatives who served in the pre-1958 parliament and those of Iraq's important democratic activists, such as Kamil al-Chadirji, leader of the National Democratic Party, could be posted. Postings could include statements made by Iraqi nationalists, both secular and religious, during some of Iraq's most important historical events—for example, clerics who issued fatwas defending Iraq during the British invasion between 1914 and 1918, or activists who participated in the 1920 Revolution, the 1931 General Strike, the 1948 Wathba, the 1953 Intifada, the United Electoral Front, which competed in the June 1954 parliamentary elections, and other important nationalist events. Postings that emphasized the unity of the Iraqi people, antisectarianism, and respect for cultural diversity—all key building blocks of democratic values—would underscore the importance of Iraq's democratic tradition.

Thus, one way to increase the quality and quantity of societal knowledge about Iraqi politics and society, and by extension a deeper understanding and appreciation of democratic values and practices, is to increase Internet access. As the Arab Human Development Report has indicated, Internet usage in the Arab world is still very limited compared to other regions of the world. One positive step, therefore, would be for the Iraqi government to facilitate access to the Internet. This would be especially important to poorer sectors of society. Following a model designed to promote civic involvement that was first suggested by the Italian author Umberto Eco to the municipal council of the city of Bologna, the Iraqi government could issue identification cards that would allow citizens free access to Internet terminals located in post offices or other municipal buildings in their communities. Like Bologna's residents, residents of Iraq's cities and towns could use their government-issued Internet access cards at these terminals.

Universal Internet access would allow students to study materials not available in the classroom and permit citizens to learn news from around the world. Moreover, the government could publicize on these Internet terminals how citizens could connect to the Web sites of government ministries and civil society organizations, laws affecting their everyday lives (e.g., laws relating to conducting business and economic investment), and suggestions for contacting the office of the municipal or provincial advocate (see below) if they are experiencing problems with government services.

Creation of a Web site Designed to Counter Insurgents' Misinterpretations of Islam

One of the main impediments to promoting democracy in Iraq is the ongoing insurgency. The insurgency is supported and funded by many elements who were part of, or had close ties to, the former regime of Saddam Hussein. Although the former regime was extremely secular in orientation, and suppressed efforts by Iraqis, both clerics and laymen, to express their religious beliefs in public, these same elements now carry on their insurgency in the name of Islam. While most adult Iraqis do not consider insurgents who engage in suicide bombings, assassinations, and murders to be true Muslims, it is critical that Iraqi youth understand that violence and killing are not condoned by Islam if a strong democracy is to be built in Iraq.

The Iraqi government should consider the efforts of a Yemeni judge, Hamoud al-Hitar, who challenged jailed al Qaeda members in a Sana'a prison to a debate over whether Islam sanctions violent and terrorist acts. Judge al-Hitar offered to declare support for the al Qaeda members if they won the debate. However, if he won the debate, he demanded that these young Yemenis renounce terrorism and violence once and for all. As would be expected of a judge well educated in Islamic law, he won what became a series of debates. The admission by many al Qaeda members that the judge had won the debates resulted in many terrorists being released from jail. Once released, they not only cooperated with authorities to bring other terrorists to justice, but also joined Judge al-Hitar in his efforts to spread a true understanding of the peaceful nature of Islam. Perhaps most significant, many former terrorists argued that they did not know that Islam did not condone the killing of innocent people and had been led by terrorist leaders to accept beliefs that were not part of the Muslim religion.

This story suggests the need for the Iraqi government to be more proactive in educating Iraqi youth about the true teachings of Islam. One way to do this would be for the Iraqi government to recruit Muslim clerics, both Sunni and Shi'ite, to answer questions about politics and society posed by Iraqi youth. This could be accomplished through a weekly television and/or radio program that answered questions mailed to them or posted on a website administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Clearly, a better understanding among Iraqi youth of Islam's strictures against terrorism and violence will contribute to a political and social environment more conducive to the growth of democracy.

Expanding the Coffeehouse Culture

One of the most venerable Iraqi institutions is the coffeehouse, which has always played an important cultural and political role in Iraqi society. Traditionally, the coffeehouse was the venue for poets and intellectuals. The al-Zahawi Coffeehouse named after Jamal Sidqi al-Zahawi, the Haydarkhana Coffeehouse associated with Maruf al-Rusafi, the Hasan Ajma Coffeehouse associated with Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, and the Brazil Coffeehouse frequented by the famous short story writer Abd al-Malik Nuri are just some examples of Iraq's many famous coffeehouses. Coffeehouses provided the stimulus for the creation of important literary journals, such as New Thought, which was founded in the Swiss Coffeehouse. Coffeehouses also helped promote democracy. Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Buland al-Haydari both wrote famous poems about the persona of the informer in which they describe the efforts of poets to deliver poetry that conveys opposition to the state, but in ways unintelligible to the government informer lurking in the coffeehouse. Prior to 1963, Iraqi nationalists would return to specific coffeehouses after engaging in political demonstrations. Thus the coffeehouse became a place where its customers could learn the nuances and subtleties of subverting the repressive state.

Iraqi coffeehouses have traditionally promoted egalitarian values by obscuring the lines of social stratification between the wealthy and the poor. Those who could not afford to purchase a newspaper could often read a copy in the coffeehouse. Those who could not read would find someone there who would read the newspaper aloud. In this manner, the coffeehouse has promoted civil society by expanding a sense of community in the cities, towns, and villages of Iraq.

A very effective way to promote civil society in Iraq, and by extension greater support for democratic institutions and practices, would be for the Iraqi government to offer long-term loans at nominal interest rates to organizations that seek to establish new coffeehouses for civic-minded purposes. In return for receiving a low-cost loan, the sponsoring organization would be required to host a certain number of events, or provide specific services, that would promote the expansion of civil society. A poetry society, for example, might offer poetry readings on designated nights of the week. A theater troupe might offer plays. Women's organizations might use a new coffeehouse to offer a lecture series exploring ways Iraqi women could assume a more prominent role in public life. In coffeehouses in poorer neighborhoods, university students enrolled in citizenship and service learning programs could offer reading instruction. Artists could use the coffeehouse to present new works that express civic themes. These are just some of the many ways the tradition of the coffeehouse's contribution to Iraqi society could be continued.

National "Town Hall" Meetings

In keeping with the proposition that a strong democracy depends on the availability of information and a sense of trust among the populace in the integrity and competence of its government representatives, this report suggests creation of a monthly national "town hall" meeting. Members of the Iraqi government, including at various times the president, vice president, prime minister, speaker of the parliament, and cabinet ministers, would appear on state-run television and radio on one evening each month to answer questions posed by telephone or through the Internet from Iraqis throughout the country.

First and foremost, the very existence of these town hall meetings would increase the bonds of trust between the citizenry and the government, provided Iraqis felt that government officials answered their questions honestly. Second, these meetings would provide a barometer of public opinion for government officials. Third, these meetings would strengthen bonds among different sectors of Iraqi society, as callers saw that their concerns and problems were shared. Finally, these meetings would strengthen government officials' sense of accountability.

To expand the reach of the town hall meetings beyond the television and radio audiences, their proceedings could be published on government Web sites. Iraqi newspapers could carry summaries of the proceedings. Of course, town hall meetings would be most effective if the government responds to the problems brought to its attention during the meetings. It could, for example, appoint government commissions or other official bodies to investigate matters of widespread concern.

Youth Programs

Creating a Youth Channel on Iraqi State Television

Given the large percentage of Iraqis who are under the age of twenty-five, the Iraqi government should be especially concerned with the needs of Iraqi youth. One way to organize programs for Iraqi youth would be to create a television channel especially for them. In the morning, this channel could offer children's programs that incorporate learning materials for preschoolers, especially reading and mathematics. If done in a creative way, such programming, which has been very successful in other countries, could help prepare children for elementary school.

Programs offered later in the day could be directed toward older students, combining entertainment with learning. For example, a program on folk poetry could both delight and educate viewers, as could a program on music that focused on the lute or the qanun (Eqyptian lap harp). Programs could also discuss the problems of teenagers in all societies, as well as preview possible careers for students nearing graduation from secondary schools.

Other programs could interview young Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, Turks, Iranians, or students from the Gulf area, just to give some possible examples. Organizations such as UNESCO, the Arab League, the United States Agency for International Development, and the European Union might be approached to help fund such a television channel. Iraqi university students interested in a career in the visual media could serve as interns at the channel, where they could help generate ideas for new and innovative programming. If Iraqi youth were involved in the development of this channel through public opinion surveys conducted in secondary schools and universities, and their opinions were taken seriously, the channel could be very successful and serve as a vehicle for promoting a more positive outlook among young people.

Summer Camps for Iraqi Youth

Although Iraq is not a sectarian society, those who would return it to authoritarian rule have tried to create conflict among Iraq's ethnic groups. To offset this destructive effort, it is important to inculcate in the next generation of Iraqis a respect for cultural diversity and a tolerance for difference. One way to promote appreciation for cultural difference is to encourage interaction among young people from different ethnic groups.

Obviously, there are many means to accomplish this end. One way would be to organize a summer camp program for Iraqi youth. Because the summer is quite hot, the best venue for these camps might be the cooler climate of Iraqi Kurdistan. While Iraqi students enjoyed themselves at camp, they could also be learning. Unlike the summer camps organized by Saddam Hussein's regime, which were intended to indoctrinate Iraqi youth into an authoritarian political culture, these camps would stress the inherent worth of all cultures, as well as the cultural commonalities of all Iraq's ethnic groups. Their programs would be designed to educate campers in the history and heritage of Iraq's major ethnic groups. Performances by folklore troupes, photographic and artistic exhibits, ethnic foods, storytelling, movies, and the celebration of ethnic and regional holidays could all be incorporated to support the camps' goal.

Using Folklore to Enhance Respect for Cultural Differences

During the rule of 'Abd al-Karim Qasim (1958–1963), the Iraqi government placed considerable emphasis on Iraq's folkloric heritage in government-sponsored television programs and publications. Prime Minister Qasim's focus on folklore was extremely popular among Iraqis at the time. Many urban Iraqis still maintained close ties to rural areas from which they had only recently migrated. They found folklore, or what is referred to in Arabic as "popular culture," highly attractive because it reflected both a concern with their cultural origins and a set of values and practices that were egalitarian in nature. Instead of emphasizing difference, as was often the case in "high" culture, folklore stressed what all Iraqis, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and others shared. Much of the Iraqi population saw folklore as contributing to the building of a national culture and, by extension, promoting a common definition of political community.

Saddam Hussein's regime allowed the continuation of this emphasis on folklore. However, Saddam tried to use folklore to promote his own cult of personality. The concepts of heroism and toughness were used to promote Saddam's image as Iraq's father figure and military leader. Despite Saddam's efforts to manipulate folklore for his own political ends, the Journal of Popular Culture (Majallat al-Turath al-Sha'bi) was extremely popular under his rule, as were television programs that emphasized folklore themes, such as Aspects of Baghdad (Baghdadiyat), and historical works that emphasized folklore, such as the writings of al-Jahiz, including his famous book on misers, al-Bukhala.

One way for the Iraqi government to counter efforts to create sectarian feelings among the Iraqi populace would be to fund television and radio programs and films that emphasize folkloric themes. The current television program City Diaries (Yawmiyat al-Madina) is one such example. Programs that discussed music, sports, marriage rituals, artisan production, and proverbs, jokes, and riddles—both contemporary and historical—would foster greater national solidarity, especially if they dealt with the folklore of all Iraq's ethnic groups.

The creation of new museums throughout Iraq containing exhibits highlighting all of Iraq's ethnic groups would likewise contribute to a sense of national unity. The promotion of folklore would also serve to create a greater respect for tradition in the good sense of the word.

The Office of Public Advocate

To ensure that all citizens have equal and effective access to government services, the Iraqi parliament could create an Office of the Public Advocate in all of Iraq's major cities and provinces. The public advocate would act as the guardian of the public's interests, apart from any particular government or political party. The Office of the Public Advocate could report to Iraq's Court of Cassation, the highest court in the land. Public advocates should be appointed for a lengthy period (e.g., six years) and should be individuals of high moral stature and reputation. They could be drawn from the legal profession, the court system, or the education system. As a respected member of the community, immune from political pressure and serving for an extended period of time, the public advocate would add to the sense of confidence that Iraqis have in their government.


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