Iraq: Declaring Imagination

A. Heather Coyne is the chief of party for the U.S. Institute of Peace. She works in Iraq. The views expressed are her own.

Civil society in Iraq is still weak and vulnerable, constrained by the violence and a lack of resources. But despite those challenges, the dominant features of Iraqi civil society are its energy and dynamism.

From my post in Iraq, I hear the country's future in the voices of its activists. Take these conversations, from a brief walk down a corridor at a recent conference.

Taking Issue

A middle-aged man took my notebook to sketch a diagram of the relationship between economy, media, and military power, lecturing me that it was essential to separate control of each area in order to avoid dictatorship.

A young woman stepped out of a conversation on women's rights to explain that the minimum age of 30 for election to the National Assembly would muffle the voice of a new generation of leaders representing the most dynamic constituency in the society.

A local official in a three piece suit told me he was worried his community would not have a say in writing the new constitution because of its low turnout in elections and wondered what other mechanisms could protect the rights of this minority.

While much of the world debates whether Iraq is on the verge of a civil war or a new dictatorship, many Iraqis are making plans for a democratic future. That they do this in a climate of fear, violence, and constant struggle to access basic public services is a testament not only to their belief in the value of that future, but to their confidence that they will ultimately reach it.

The excitement about the future is not limited to a small circle of elites and activists. The pride so many Iraqis took in the election — as well as the frustration expressed by those who were unable to vote — are expressions of the same national characteristic: a fierce determination never to be left out of their own government again.

Iraqis have launched an array of projects to achieve their goals — forming organizations ranging from human rights groups to teachers associations to anti-corruption watchdogs.

But so far, these organizations have had limited success, due to lack of resources and expertise on techniques for political advocacy. While a number of U.S. initiatives have made supporting these Iraqi efforts a priority, the demand for training, materials, and grants far outstrips what the international community has to offer.

In my work here with the US Institute of Peace, I interact daily with Iraqis who are in desperate search of tools needed to bring about change. Dozens of academics jumped at a chance to attend our conference on the role of the universities in supporting civil society development. One of them told me it was a chance to “declare our imaginations” on what universities could do to serve the people of Iraq.

The Institute finds the same response to all its Iraq initiatives: political party representatives are fascinated with comparisons of constitutional processes from around the world; local officials eagerly study conflict management techniques in order to conduct workshops in their own communities; and religious leaders are hungry for books and materials that help them to reduce ethnic and religious tensions among their followers.

These same new leaders and activists are the ones often targeted for violence.

In the coming months, the constitution-making process offers the Iraqis and the international community an irreplaceable opportunity to make inroads on challenges of democracy and ongoing violence. It can be used to address concerns about minority rights and about the allocation of resources and decision-making power that fuel much of the insurgency. All of this can help isolate the hard-core elements advocating violence.

At the same time, the constitution process creates a demand for new mechanisms for public education and consultation. Civil society organizations have plans for newspapers dedicated to the constitution process, for public conferences to debate issues like federalism and the relationship between religion and state, for advisory boards that will funnel information between citizens and the drafting body. These are precisely the tools for political advocacy that will allow Iraqis to hold the government accountable to the people in the future.

The international community is needed to provide the resources to support these activities. If they step up, the constitution making process can serve as the crucible for Iraqi civil society to be the guardian of democracy in Iraq.

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