What Iraq needs now is for us to remember that it is not defined by its political leaders, nor by its violent minority, nor by its past, nor by its neighbors near and afar, but by the aspirations and will of its people.

What Iraq Needs Now
Photo courtesy NYTimes

Looking at Iraq today, one might be tempted to shake one's head, cry or shrug, as if to say "well, at least it's not our problem anymore." The uptick in violence in recent months directly preceding and following the U.S. withdrawal of troops is seen as a harbinger of renewed sectarian violence. Rising human rights violations and increasingly authoritarian measures by the current government prompt some to state that Iraq is reverting to its old ways. And, in April, a bill was introduced into the Iraqi parliament that would strictly control freedom of speech and association.

What Iraq needs now is for us to remember that it is not defined by its political leaders, nor by its violent minority, nor by its past, nor by its neighbors near and afar, but by the aspirations and will of its people.

Iraqi citizens have embraced, defended and advanced democracy in ways large and small, and they continue to do so every day. Iraqis have risked and given their lives to vote in elections, exercised their freedoms of assembly and expression to demand basic services from their government and exercised their right to self-determination in negotiating the withdrawal of U.S. troops. And they've reached across ethnic, religious and sectarian lines in spite of those who use violence to keep them divided. Even when their rights are being brutally denied, Iraqis are defending themselves and speaking out, something that rarely happened in Saddam's time.

More Iraqis need to recognize that it is not only up to their political leaders to point the way toward democracy; it is up to them to be an active, vocal, informed and organized citizenry. For Iraq's violent authoritarian legacy to be firmly relegated to the past and for Iraq's fragile democracy to become strongly-rooted, its citizens must take up the reins of democratic leadership. In practical terms, this means that all Iraqi citizens who have tasted democracy in a post-Saddam era -- whether by casting a vote or reading a newspaper article critical of the Iraqi or U.S. government, or being part of a civil society group that solved a community problem – must continue to expand their role as a democratic citizen in every domain of their life.

Democracy is much more than a political system - it is a way of life. That is something we tend to forget when assessing development in countries transitioning from authoritarianism. For the values of democracy to become a part of the culture of Iraq, those values need to be wrestled with and debated and discussed. For them to resonate and be relevant, they need to be seen in the context of Iraqis' daily experiences and cultural heritage. Contrary to what Americans mostly perceive through news reports, this wrestling with what democratic values and rights mean in Iraq in terms of family, community, school, work and political life is happening.

The place where it might be happening the most is in schools and universities. As we've all heard before, a classroom is a microcosm of society. What is taught and how it is taught often reflect both the positive and negative social values of the larger society. In Iraq, formal education spaces have a complicated history. While the university system was one of the best in the region in the 1960s and ‘70s, it has since suffered from a prolonged period of neglect, politicization, and corruption under the Ba'ath regime. Matters were made worse after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, when the system suffered massive infrastructural destruction and students and academics fled. On the bright side, since 2004, subjects such as human rights and democracy are being taught much more widely and freely. Primary and secondary school students are being exposed to human rights and civic education. And through U.S. and international aid programs, the quality of teaching these subjects is improving. There is still a long way to go: academic freedom remains under threat and the pace of education reform is painstakingly slow.

But through my own work on human rights and civic education in Iraq over the past four years with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), I've witnessed participatory teaching methods which promote critical thinking, dialogue, and problem-solving skills slowly taking hold, changing attitudes and behaviors. Whereas some students were once apt to say, as one professor told me, "Why are you teaching us human rights? We don't have any," now they are more likely to organize to defend them.

The agony and the ecstasy of the Arab Spring can inspire for a time, but only an education system that succeeds in eradicating illiteracy and building a culture of democracy and respect for human rights and dignity can really save Iraq from despotism and insecurity in the long run. Hussein may be gone but the remnants of the mindset and fear he sowed are still present in the education system and, by extension, the society. The good news is that they can be overcome.  A reunion of civic educators held in March in the northern city of Erbil coincided with the 24th anniversary of the Halabja massacre when over 5,000 Kurdish civilians were killed with chemical weapons by Hussein's army. Halabja was just one of many such chemical attacks ordered by Hussein as part of his violent repression of Kurdish revolts in the late 1980's known as the Anfal campaign. On the morning of the anniversary, I saw the Arab participants rise at the beginning of the day and call for a minute of silence, saying to their Kurdish colleagues "we stand in solidarity with you remembering the victims of Halabja."

Looking at Iraq today, one can dare to be hopeful if one takes the long view. According to the most recent poll available and conducted by National Democratic Institute in November 2010, most Iraqis want democracy. Citizens, including many in the government, are more informed, engaged and connected with the outside world than ever before, and some are also taking steps to repair relationships with each other. Even if many of Ira.q's politicians continue to disappoint, they can change through the pressure of an educated, organized and purposeful citizenry.

While the future of Iraq rests now more than ever in the hands of Iraqis, and rightly so, the international community must continue to support their democratic aspirations. The international media can do its part, by not only shedding light on human rights violations and acts of violence, but by covering those Iraqis who speak out against violence and are taking action to advance democracy.

Democracy is not an end state anywhere; it is always in the making. Iraqis will continue to experience setbacks. But it is their resiliency and ability to respond to those who would threaten or hold back their democracy that matters most.

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