Why the Iraqi Uprising?

As of this writing, several Shi’ite areas of Baghdad have declared themselves free of the American occupiers, and Shi’ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr appears to be in command of an army made up of thousands of Iraqis (including some Sunnis), with backing from Iran. American forces are facing their worst crisis since the toppling of Saddam.

If Al-Sadr prevails, Iraq or the portion of it that he rules will be governed by Islamic law, like the Islamic Republic of Iran. This prospect doesn’t seem to have dampened his popular appeal in Iraq, despite the fact that in Iran itself the mullahs are trying to stifle a formidable democracy movement.

How could Al-Sadr have developed such a commanding movement? What happened to all the Iraqis who were supposed to be thirsting for democracy?

The problem is not only that Iraq has no democratic tradition. President Bush has pointed repeatedly to the examples of Japan and Germany after World War II: two countries that had no democratic traditions, and where plenty of naysayers were predicting that democracies couldn’t be established. They were wrong then, he says, and they’re wrong now.

But after World War II, both German National Socialism and the State Shinto that gave rise to Japanese militarism were dead ideologies. An open Nazi in 1946 Berlin wouldn’t have made many friends; likewise, after Hirohito declared that he wasn’t really a god, it would have been tough to carry on his struggle. But the radical Islam of Al-Sadr and others like him has not been discredited in Iraq or around the Islamic world today. Far from it.

It is likewise out of focus to assume that Al-Sadr’s movement takes its impetus simply from the resentment that any occupying force will arouse in a proud people. Here the President’s analogies are helpful. After World War II, long-standing hatreds were overcome by overwhelming empirical evidence of American good will, reinforced daily in Germany and Japan. Not that all was smooth sailing from the beginning — and even Hollywood noticed. Humphrey Bogart’s little-known Tokyo Joe records a largely forgotten period of postwar Japanese history, during which the American occupying forces were viewed with considerable suspicion, as well as overt and covert opposition from groups that couldn’t get over thinking of them as the enemy. But eventually this melted away.

So far Western largesse has not generated this good will in Iraq, but maybe it will, given time. After all, the occupation of Japan lasted for eight years. But to say that radical Islam has not been discredited is the same as saying that political Islam is still potent, and that we ignore it at our own peril. Yet despite daily confirmations of this from around the globe, American officials have remained reluctant to acknowledge that Islam has any political dimension at all. When National Guardsman and Muslim convert Ryan Anderson was arrested in February on suspicion of trying to pass information to al Qaeda, a Guard spokesman, Lt. Col. Stephen Barger, was asked about his religion. He answered: “Religious preferences are an individual right and responsibility, and I really can’t get into it.”

Yes, but religious preferences are not solely an individual’s business; Barger should have known better — or been allowed to speak honestly about what he knew. From its inception, Islam has presented itself not just as a religion in the Judeo-Christian sense of the term, but as a comprehensive set of laws for the ordering of society, including political life. Pious Muslims generally believe these laws to be the laws of Allah himself, and therefore immediately superior to any societal structures arrived at through elections: you don’t vote on the law of God.

Secularism entered the Islamic world only as a Western import, and has always encountered considerable resistance on Islamic grounds — most notably from radical Muslim theorists who laid the intellectual and theological groundwork for today’s jihadist terror groups. The Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, executed by the strongman Nasser in 1966 as a threat to his relatively secularist regime and revered by radical Muslims around the world today as a martyr, heaped contempt on Western notions of freedom as illusory. True freedom, he insisted, could come only from obedience to the laws of Allah, not from the constructs of the secularists, which were ipso facto idolatrous — and it was every Muslim’s duty to wage war against these idolatrous regimes until Allah’s laws were obeyed.

Al-Sadr is proceeding from the same assumptions. Until such assumptions are taken seriously, there will be more and more Al-Sadrs.