Question: What is the most extraordinary thing about the following extraordinary sentence?
BAGHDAD — After almost five years of war, many young people in Iraq, exhausted by constant firsthand exposure to the violence of religious extremism, say they have grown disillusioned with religious leaders and skeptical of the faith that they preach.
Answer: It is the lead of a story in today’s New York Times. The paper of record, which for the past few years could accurately be described as a body count with a styles section, is now acknowledging the realization of the most ambitious goal of the Iraq War: the de-radicalization of Muslim citizens. This is, in its way, more important than political reconciliation and even more important than hunting down al Qaeda. This is the long war stuff, the hearts-and-minds stuff.
The goal was to offer freedom as an alternative to extremism; the criticism was that it was a dream; the reality is that it is happening. From the Times:
Such patterns, if lasting, could lead to a weakening of the political power of religious leaders in Iraq. In a nod to those changing tastes, political parties are dropping overt references to religion.
And the revelations don’t end there. Sabrina Tavernise, who wrote the piece, notes that the extent of Iraqis’ wholesale rejection of jihad is unique in the region:
The shift in Iraq runs counter to trends of rising religious practice among young people across much of the Middle East, where religion has replaced nationalism as a unifying ideology.
It is impossible not to infer that the Bush Doctrine and the commitment of the men and women in uniform has facilitated this shift. Far from “creating more terrorists” as the failed cliché goes, the war has helped to nurture an appreciation for liberty among Iraqi youth. A 24-year-old Iraqi college student is quoted as saying she loved Osama bin Laden at the time of 9/11. Now, after seeing the efforts of religious leaders to curtail her daily freedoms, she rejects extremism entirely. While George Bush’s critics can make no useful connection between 9/11 and the war in Iraq, this young woman has no problem doing so.
Ms. Tavernise rolls out another shocker with the admission that Saddam Hussien was not the simple secular player that the war’s detractors had always claimed:
Saddam Hussein encouraged religion in Iraqi society in his later years, building Sunni mosques and injecting more religion into the public school curriculum, but always made sure it served his authoritarian needs.
Well, what do you know? Someone should tell Senator Carl Levin, who in 2005 described Saddam’s regime as “intensely secular.”
This Times piece represents a tectonic shift in the Iraq War and in the larger ideological struggle. From this date on, the War cannot be talked about in quite the same way. Those opposed to it can no longer snicker so easily when recalling the President’s assertion that people everywhere want freedom, and they may have to check their rage before declaring we’ve created more terrorists. There are some who understood that changing hearts and minds was the only way to triumph in the long run, but felt that Iraq was a huge setback in that pursuit. Martin Amis, a critic of the war, said of Islamism:
I think it will atomize. And also there will be sectarian strife within it. Also, I think that it is so fantastically poisonous that in its most millennial form, Islamism, not Islam, Islamism is so poisonous that it will burn itself out.
Amis may have thought going into Iraq was the wrong move, but there is little question that the embers have started to cool in Mesopotamia.