Rebuilding Iraq’s Civil Society

The New York Times(!) has a very interesting article on the growth of charitable organizations in Iraq in the wake of Hussein’s fall:

Since 2003 the government has registered 5,000 private organizations, including charities, human rights groups, medical assistance agencies and literacy projects. Officials estimate that an additional 7,000 groups are working unofficially. The efforts show that even as violence and sectarian hatred tear Iraq’s mixed cities apart, a growing number of Iraqis are trying to bring them together. “Iraqis were thirsty for such experiences,” said Khadija Tuma, director of the office in the Ministry of Civil Society Affairs that now works with the private aid groups. “It was as if they already had it inside themselves.”

The new charity groups offer bits of relief in the sea of poverty that swept Iraq during the economic embargo of the 1990’s and has worsened with the pervasive lawlessness that followed the American invasion.

The burst of public-spiritedness comes after long decades of muzzled community life under Saddam Hussein, when drab Soviet-style committees for youth, women and industrialists were the only community groups permitted.

Mr. Hussein stamped out what had been a vibrant public life. Since the founding of Islam in the seventh century, charity has had a special place in its societies. As far back as the 19th century, religious leaders, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, formed a network called Al Ashraf that was a link between people and the Ottoman-appointed governor of Baghdad.

The Iraqi Chamber of Commerce dates from the 1930’s, and its volunteers plunged into Baghdad’s poor areas to conduct literacy campaigns in the 1950’s, around the time of the overthrow of the monarchy.

Today’s groups have picked up that historic thread and offer hope in an increasingly poisonous sectarian landscape that Iraqis may still be able to hold their country together.

Indeed, one of the most singularly important parts of democratization – if not the most important is the rise of civil organizations. Charities, service organizations, interest groups, etc., all of them are critical to the democratic health a nation. One can write the best constitution ever put to paper, have a government that was structurally perfect, but still see democracy falter without the key bedrock of civil society.

Of course, all this comes about in a sea of disruption and deprivation that is only slowly getting better for many Iraqis – but ultimately the majority of Iraqis are optimistic about their future and slowly but surely Iraq is emerging from the tyranny of the Hussein regime. As always, democratization is a long and difficult road, but the increase in Iraqi civil associations is one more sign of the progress being made.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.