The lingering effect of Baathist-era distortions and intensifying violence are hindering efforts to create a civic culture based on tolerance, cooperation, and individual initiative in Iraq.
The Baathist regime, especially under Saddam Hussein, eliminated freedom of association and expression and struck a false bargain of patronage and protection in exchange for the loyalty of a few. The state infiltrated nearly all efforts to create independent civic space while terrorizing even its most ardent supporters. It neutralized the traditional role of the ulama (Islamic scholars). The practices of shura (consultation), ijma (consensus), and ijtihad (independent interpretive judgment) that can be used to mediate the relationship between the ruled and rulers in Muslim societies were immobilized. Only the Kurdish north after 1991 and the Shiite hawza (religious academy) and its low-profile humanitarian assistance programs escaped complete state penetration.
It was not surprising, then, that the collapse of Saddam's regime left a public bereft of trust and initiative and yet expecting overnight recovery under American administration. The consequences are visible on every Iraqi street.
Yet, Iraq in the past year has experienced an awkward but hopeful rehabilitation of both traditional and more modern forms of civic culture. Inter-religious cooperation has been reinvigorated, interpretations of Islamic law have multiplied, and regional elites responsible for resource allocation are more often brokering decisions through negotiation instead of coercion. Markets and other public spaces have become
forums for heated but peaceful political expression. Iraqis have registered 965 local civic organizations, ranging from human rights, democracy promotion, humanitarian and women's empowerment groups, with the United States-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad. For every registered group there are many more organizations that are not registered. Unfortunately, only 35 registered groups are prepared to implement a long-term agenda of activities. The Kurdish north is an exception because ten years of development under semi-autonomy have led to a more robust and sophisticated civic infrastructure.
Despite this burgeoning civic activity, the rebirth of a civic culture has been stalled by the lingering influence of Baathist political engineering, especially Saddam's post-1990 policy of re-tribalization and his intensified use of state institutions as patronage mechanisms. Many emerging local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), from professional associations to human rights organizations, are simply extensions of tribes, business interests, religious factions or tight-knit family networks. These so-called triNGOs, biNGOs, riNGOs and fiNGOs tend to revolve around exclusivist agendas and personal gain rather than the promotion of a public good. Many are personality-driven, like the former regime, and attract membership by offering patronage and protection.
International agencies and organizations have been working for several months to support traditional forms of civic culture, to foster good practices among newer groups, and to exorcise the worst demons from the triNGO, biNGO, riNGO and fiNGO set. The CPA, the British Foreign Office, the United States Agency for International Development, the United States Institute of Peace, Women for Women International, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Danish group Civil Pillar, the Italian organization Intersos, and others are assisting civic groups with program and capacity-building support. Most of these activities are funded with the $350 million available for democracy, human rights and civil society promotion in recent U.S. aid packages and foreign donor commitments.
The recent deterioration in security conditions, however, has all but closed down these efforts outside the Kurdish north. The local-level interaction necessary to build relationships of trust among Iraqis, and between Iraqis and aid workers, has become dangerous for both sides. Rising insecurity is sharpening the ethnic, factional and tribal character of many organizations. Hegemonic forces in southern and western Iraq are using fear to monopolize associative life.
As the political and security challenges of reconstruction in Iraq mount, international priorities increasingly are directed to physical reconstruction and electoral preparations that, it is hoped, will produce positive short-term results. But such activities alone are unlikely to foster the kind of citizen-state and citizen-citizen relationships that serve as social adhesives during democratic transitions and contribute to long-term healing and reconciliation. Corrupted by the influences of the previous regime and distorted by rising violence, Iraq's emerging civic culture may give way to forms of social mobilization that undermine peace-building efforts.
Ray Salvatore Jennings is country director for the United States Institute of Peace in Iraq. The views expressed here are his own.