Here's to the State of Mississippi

Friends and relatives of Thomas Hamill, the Mississippi civilian kidnapped in Iraq, gathered together on Easter Sunday to pray and express their love for him. Americans of a certain age might have looked twice at the photos of the crowd outside Mississippi’s Noxubee County Courthouse: it was racially mixed.

It’s almost fifty years now since the murder in Mississippi of 14-year-old Emmett Till, killed by white men for talking to a white woman. In the 1960s the murders of Medgar Evers and three voting rights activists from the North made Mississippi seem even to other Americans like a dangerous, foreign place. It may have been more realistic in 1963 to imagine blacks enjoying full equality with whites on the moon than in Mississippi. Bashing Mississippi became de rigueur for the legions of then-fashionable folk-protest singers. Phil Ochs sang in “Here’s to the State of Mississippi”:

And here’s to the schools of Mississippi —
Where they’re teaching all the children that they don’t have to care,
All the rudiments of hatred are present everywhere,
And every single classroom is a factory of despair,
And there’s nobody learning such a foreign word as “fair.”
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of —
Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of!

Ochs could have been singing about today’s Fallujah, but not today’s Mississippi. Government sanctioned segregation is long gone. Justice prevailed in Mississippi because most Mississippians supported core American values: they took seriously the realities of living in “one nation, under God ??¢â???¬ ¦ with liberty and justice for all.”

Will we really be able to do the same thing in the Iraq where Thomas Hamill is held captive today — overcome deeply ingrained hatreds and establish a viable government that guarantees equality of rights for all its citizens, including women and non-Muslim minorities who are denied so many rights by Islamic Sharia law?

In this case Saddam Hussein’s long rule may work to our ultimate advantage: there are already indications that Iraqi women are not interested in giving up the freedoms they enjoyed for so long under his relatively secular rule and returning to the virtual chattel status they have under Sharia.

But that is simultaneously the appeal of Moqtada Al-Sadr and other clerics: they present themselves as the exponents of the pure Islam that Saddam forsook. Throughout Islamic history reformers and opportunists like Al-Sadr have insisted that only by returning to the practice of Islam in its fullness can whatever evils the umma is suffering be alleviated and the former glories of the great Islamic empires restored. Because Islam has always had a political dimension and eschewed the secular/sacred distinction, this kind of thinking militates against the establishment of any viable secular democracy, which as a form of government is regarded as a rival to the law of Allah, the Sharia.

In line with this, the Rand Corporation has recently released a plan that advises Western analysts to learn a bit about divisions among Muslims. Cheryl Benard, author of the report, declared: “The United States and its allies need to be more discriminating in the way they perceive and interact with groups who call themselves Islamic. The term is too vague, and it doesn’t really help us when we are looking to encourage progress and democratic principles, while being supportive of religious beliefs.”

According to the BBC, the report distinguishes four major groups in the Islamic world:

  • Fundamentalists, who “reject democratic values and contemporary Western culture”;
  • Traditionalists, who “are suspicious of modernity, innovation and change”;
  • Modernists, who “want the Islamic world to become part of global modernity”; and
  • Secularists, who “want the Islamic world to accept a division of religion and state.”

Contrary to the talk of Islamic radicals being a “tiny minority of extremists” that still dominates American political discourse, the BBC says that the Rand report acknowledges that although “the modernists and secularists are closest to the West,” generally they’re “in a weaker position than the other groups, lacking money, infrastructure and a public platform.”

One major mistake many strategists and analysts have made was overestimating the numbers and strength of the last two groups, particularly the Secularists. How can Iraq be reformed like Mississippi if most of its people don’t share the core assumptions that led to that reform? If the Iraq that holds Thomas Hamill hostage is ever going to become more like his home state, a thoroughgoing ideological reform effort there may ultimately be more important than any military initiative.