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WORLDVIEW: Young Iraqis will ‘make or break’ democracy

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Cautious optimism describes the mood in post-election Iraq, say Christians there, despite a new wave of bloodshed and suicide bombings.

The euphoria following parliamentary elections in December, when millions of Iraqis defied terrorists to vote for the third time in a year, has faded a bit. Sunni Muslims have mounted major street protests, accusing majority Shiites of rigging the vote. Various factions are engaging in intensive political horse trading as they negotiate to form a coalition government.

But protests, politics and horse trading are part of democracy, which is a lot more complicated than one-party dictatorship -– especially in Iraq.

“The process is slow, much like the birthing of the United States,” reports a Christian observer living in Baghdad. “But most people feel cautiously optimistic about the future. They’ll feel better when these newly elected politicians can get electricity flowing, but there’s a sense that Iraqis are truly beginning to take control of their country. There’s a certain quiet excitement.”

Sectarian divisions among Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and other groups remain a bigger long-term threat to Iraqi stability than the ongoing insurgency. If they don’t reach some kind of political consensus, Iraq still might shatter into warring fragments.

The future holds “a whole realm of possibilities,” says the observer. “We’ll see if any of the politicians are able to become statesmen. The tribal and ethnic nature of Iraqis has to be subordinated so they won’t be pulled apart. If they think about their children, they’ll do the right thing.”

Their children want to help forge a better Iraq –- if opinions among educated young adults in Baghdad are any indication. An American Christian who teaches English in the Iraqi capital sees a clear-eyed determination among her 20- to 30-year-old students.

“They are all keenly aware that they are the generation that will make or break democracy,” the teacher says. “They’re excited about that. They want to be a part of the world. They want to embrace freedom, but I don’t think they quite understand it. They’re trying to understand what democracy really means.”

It won’t necessarily mean American- or European-style democracy in Iraq, however. One thing proponents of democracy in the Middle East have learned in recent months is this: Be careful what you wish for. Shiite Muslims are the majority in Iraq, and many of them want to see the nation under strict Islamic rule by Shiite clerics.

In Egypt, meanwhile, recent parliamentary elections saw candidates backed by the radical Muslim Brotherhood win far more seats than expected. Islamist tactics included violence against Copts (Egyptian Christians) in Alexandria, which forced a Coptic candidate to withdraw from the campaign. If a fully free election were held in Egypt today, most political analysts agree, Muslim fundamentalists would take control of the nation.

But if the new Iraqi government manages to honor even half of the many rights promised in the recently adopted constitution, Iraq will offer a radically new political model for the Arab world.

“The (Iraq) election was a great event,” says the Christian observer. “It could be a turning point” –- if elected leaders can somehow create stability and deliver on the constitution’s ideals.

It will take years, not months, “but we’re encouraged,” he says. “We think there’s an opportunity for a good spiritual outcome to all this.”

He witnessed hope “extinguished” in 2004 as the initial enthusiasm created by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was crushed under an avalanche of insurgent terror and sectarian violence. Today, many Iraqis just want a chance at peace and a better life in material terms.

Others, however, are looking for deeper answers to hatred and chaos.

“It gives us an opportunity to witness to a God of love and life and hope,” the observer says.

One young Iraqi woman in the America teacher’s English class recently asked her for a Bible.

“She knows I’m a believer, but I was amazed that she asked of her own volition,” the teacher recalls. “I’ve prayed with her and tried to share some parts of the Gospel with her. Last time we hung out she said, ‘Can I have a Bible and read it for myself?’ I said, ‘Absolutely!’

“I know the Word of God does not come back void.”
Erich Bridges is senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

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  • Erich Bridges