My colleague Pete Wehner has already called attention to this Washington Post article on “Basra’s Wary Rebirth,” but I would just like to emphasize that it bears a close reading-not only for what it tells us about the current state of Iraq but also for what it says about the future prospects of political Islam.
The gist of the article is that, since the Iraqi army broke the Mahdist Army’s control of Basra, a harsh brand of Islamic law has been lifted and a semblance of more urbane life has returned. Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan writes: “Under the harsh constraints imposed by extremist Shiite Muslim clerics and militias that until recently controlled this city, men with Western hairstyles were threatened and beaten. Women without head scarves were sometimes raped and killed. Love was a secret ritual.” Now unmarried men and women can stroll in public, hand in hand; alcohol is sold and consumed in public; and secular CD’s and DVD’s are openly sold, many with lyrics or scenes considered risqué by Islamists. Of course the situation remains tenuous and many people are still afraid that the Mahdist Army will stage a comeback. Thus, Raghavan writes, “Samer Riad, 23, an artist, is still reluctant to paint portraits of women, another practice outlawed by the fundamentalists.”
What is fascinating is that the lesson of Basra confirms the lesson of Afghanistan and Iran: every place where a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam has been imposed it has proven to be wildly unpopular. It can only be imposed, in fact, at the point of a gun. That is probably true even of Saudi Arabia, which, lest we forget, is one of the most complete dictatorships on the planet. What this suggests is that President Bush and others who think that there is a fundamental desire for liberty inherent in most people are not being naïve. It is Islamists who are naïve (or simply deluded) for thinking that their crazed version of Islamic teaching provides a viable model for a modern society.