Brian Conley and Isam Rashid
The Bush Administrationís final verdict is that the United States attacked Iraq to help spread democracy and freedom to the Iraqi people. Throughout the length of the conflict and the slow process to select a government, the idea of democracy has been increasingly questioned. Muhanad Subhi, an unemployed Iraqi, said that, while the Iraqis have the freedom of speech now, there is not a democracy, which is an important element to liberating speech.
“Nobody listen to us, for example, many times Iraqi politicians hear Iraqi people asking them to make a new government and they did not do it, because they didnít care for Iraqi situation-most of them are not Iraqi, they came with the occupation’s tanks.”
In the United States, freedom of speech is considered one of the major hallmarks of democracy, and is enshrined as the first amendment to the Constitution. After riots broke out all over the world in response to cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in a Danish paper, the place of free speech has been increasingly questioned and re-assessed. This is particularly true in countries that have majority Muslim populations, where there was a backlash against these cartoons, which were seen as an abuse of free speech and an affront against Islam.
Ibrahim Faisal, a 21 year-old student thinks it is important for people to understand the implications of their speech and to be respectful. He also said that free speech was a good thing to have but, “some people use it for evil because you can use it in two ways.”
A guard who was on duty at the Abu Hanifa mosque during large demonstrations against Denmark last February heard the Danish paper thought it would be acceptable to print the cartoons of Muhammad, since they had previously printed cartoons of Jesus. “They must be careful before saying that because that means this was wrong and to draw caricatures of our prophet is very wrong too because we respect all prophets.”
Condoleeza Rice, while Secretary of State for the United States, has declared the Middle East to be living with a “freedom deficit.” The United Statesí publicly professed policy is to work toward democratization of the Middle East.
Isam Hamdi, an engineer who, at 55, is old enough to have seen many changes in his country, said, “I donít believe there is real democracy anywhere in the world now. Even in the US look what happened in their last election, it was a fake election.”
With each democratic motion in the Middle East, the United States finds itself increasingly alienated. First Iraq voted in primarily religious hard-liners, close to Iran. Then Hamas swept the elections in Palestine.
Raghad, a housewife and student, feels that, “Free speech means democracy, but some times we feel there is no democracy in Iraq because of Occupation and their violence.”
The United Statesí heavy hand appears to be making some “progress” however, with the selection of a Prime Minister, and movements toward a 4 year initial government. For a few Iraqis, such as Raghad, democracy feels inevitable, with or without the presence of the occupation.
“In the west they have a real democracy, they have elections to vote for the government. In the Arab world there is no real democracy, there is no real election. Democracy is a new system. I think in the future free speech will be better in Arab countries. It only takes time.”
Raghadís words appeared to ring hollow with her fellow Iraqis. Muhanad hopes the freedom of speech will be better after the occupation ends, “because the new Iraqi government will have to be a democratic government.” However, he, like most Iraqis, stressed there would only be a true democracy if there is an end to sectarianism and in-fighting. If this doesnít happen, he fears, “they will use their militias to kill anyone who speaks against them.”
Iraqís long history of being led by strongmen and dictators has made Iraqis cynical of the idea of democracy. Ibrahim agreed with Muhanad and he explained, “At the end of occupation there will be a strong Iraqi government, they will investigate anyone using free speech, especially against them.”
Although Iraqis remain suspicious of the prospects for democracy and free speech, they also recognize the steps taken today. Iraq is no longer under a direct totalitarian regime, and for that most Iraqis seem grateful.
Despite the end of the regime, Isam Hamdi wanted to emphasize that free speech is still a very dangerous thing in Iraq, “No one can speak freely because Iraqis are afraid of the militias and occupation forces, so how can they speak?”
Ibrahim and Raghad agreed with each other, both rushing to express their happiness with the removal of Saddam before the other. Under Saddamís government, no one could speak freely, they were always being watched, and spies were always close by.
Ibrahim offered one example of a change by freedom of speech, saying there are some good accomplishments, “like what happened when the Iraqi government changed the salary for retired workers.”
Raghad chimed in her agreement while offering an opposing point, “Yes, but not always, like what happened with the Iraqi flag, most Iraqi people did not agree to change the flag but the change succeeded.”
Again taking the long view, Mr. Hamdi still hopes democracy will return to Iraq, and to the world. “This government, is not an Iraqi government, they came to Iraq with the occupation. Iraq will stay in this dark tunnel for a long time at the end of occupation. Iraq will see the sun again, after that we can build democracy and real free speech.”