The Seed of Liberalism

— While in Iraq, Thomas Friedman had dinner with two muslim liberals, one being the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, the other a Shiite cleric named Sayyid Iyad Jamaleddine. Friedman is heartened, as am I, of their ambition to secularize the middle-east states.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have no idea whether these are the only two liberal Shiite clerics in Iraq. People tell me they definitely are not. Either way, their willingness to express their ideas publicly is hugely important. It is, for my money, the most important reason we fought this war: If the West is going to avoid a war of armies with Islam, there has to be a war of ideas within Islam. The progressives have to take on both the religious totalitarians, like Osama bin Laden, and the secular totalitarians who exploit Islam as a cover, like Saddam Hussein. We cannot defeat their extremists, only they can. This war of ideas needs two things: a secure space for people to tell the truth and people with the courage to tell it. That’s what these two young clerics represent, at least in potential.

I have been stressing the importance of the war of ideas. It has to be won. And it can only be won from the inside. What can we do to help? As Friedman stresses, we need to get the lights on in Iraq in order to create a stable environment for the free dissemination of ideas. But I think that aside from security and so forth, the USG must step aside, and not meddle in the coming ideological/theological controversy. If the locals see the liberals as pawns of US policy, they’ll recoil. Sadly, I’m sure we’re perfectly capable of fucking it up, to get these guys on the dole, and to delegitimize them to their people. Let’s hope not.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center