Slate has long discouraged, and at times even forbidden, references to the excruciatingly overquoted Alexis de Tocqueville. Let’s suspend that rule for a moment. In the past 15 years, Tocqueville has been the house philosopher for would-be nation-builders largely because of his insights about what’s now called “civil society.” Perhaps the greatest strength of 19th-century America, Tocqueville observed, was the proliferation of voluntary associations—clubs, parties, churches, guilds, and other organizations. These groups—neither governmental and nor private—checked the power of the state, engaged citizens in public life, and developed ties that were not simply ethnic or religious.
Nation-builders aspire to replicate that civil vigor in new societies, especially in formerly totalitarian states like Iraq where secondary institutions were quashed. “Civilizing” has almost supplanted democratizing as the favorite goal of nation-building. George Soros has poured much of his fortune into civil-society projects. His Open Society Institute is a Bell Labs of civil innovation, seeding schools, NGOs, and organs of a free press all over the world. Harvard’s Robert “Bowling Alone” Putnam is a public-policy pinup for his writings on social capital and his Saguaro Seminar on civic engagement in America. Even Islamists have discovered the importance of civil society. Islamic charities and the Saudi government have been planting Islamic schools and mosques everywhere, recognizing that these local institutions help to build independent Muslim power in aggregate.
A new civil society will spring up naturally in Iraq. The quick bounce-back of mosques is the first sign. But it’s clear that if the occupation is to succeed in creating a milieu in which democracy can flourish, the occupiers will need to figure out how to nurture the right kind of civil society— that is, moderate and nonreligious groups that can compete with the rising power of the mosques.
Fortunately, civil-society-building is one area where there has been lots of recent progress and where technology really makes a difference. Here are six new ways to help Iraq’s civil society flower faster and better.
1. Encourage Internet organizing. E-mail and the Internet have vastly accelerated the proliferation of civil society groups. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, for example, began as a gleam in the eye of Jody Williams in the early ‘90s. Thanks to the Internet and the Web, she was able to recruit 1,300 NGOs to her cause, expand the campaign all over the world, get an international treaty signed, and win the Nobel Prize in a decade. Like-minded people can find each other almost instantly on the Web. Once they find each other, the huge availability of Net resources enables nascent groups to develop platforms, start campaigns, and enlist allies. Carl Gershman, president of National Endowment for Democracy, cites a recent case from Sudan. When the state of Khartoum passed a law forbidding women from working, local NGOs and activists immediately alerted foreign NGOs, mobilizing a sharp international response and leading to the law’s quick repeal.
In Iraq, the Web will build the NGO community at lightning speed. A few women in Baghdad who hope to lobby for women’s rights, for example, will immediately find advice via e-mail from other Arab women’s groups and Western ones. The Iraqi women will get educated faster than they ever could have a decade ago: The Internet will give them access to articles and papers they never would have seen before. These Baghdad founders will recruit through the Web: Interested women in Karbala, Basra, and Mosul will see what’s happening and enlist. The new organization will connect through the Net to related Iraqi groups—perhaps domestic violence or anti-rape enterprises—and form a coalition to lobby the government on women’s rights issues. Iraq is sufficiently wired and sufficiently well-educated that this Internet activism should spread like a virus. Iraqi lawyers can reconstitute a bar association in weeks and start planning a constitution. Doctors can do the same and work on public health. Engineers can come together and plan the rebuilding. (Consider Russia, where the Net has been essential in creating an NGO community. According to Eurasia Society President Bill Maynes, Russia has gone from 30 NGOs in the late Gorbachev years to 250,000 today.)
The United States and outside NGOs should be pushing to rewire Iraq faster, perhaps even installing Internet kiosks in key towns and neighborhoods—something that’s been tried to good effect in ex-Soviet states.
2. Use technology to flatten hierarchies. Iraq has been an incredibly hierarchical society, dominated by a privileged Baath elite and tribal chiefs. Technology can undermine this traditional order in a useful way. E-mail and the Internet flatten hierarchies since anyone can now contact anyone else and since any group can reach a mass audience for next to nothing. This flattening allows even tiny human rights groups, for example, to notify the world of abuses. In Iraq, this flattening will democratize power, enabling any ambitious group or person to push their ideas in front of decision-makers—something impossible when a narrow elite monopolized the flow of information.
3. Promote independent media. A free press is a must for a successful civil society. Media that the state doesn’t control keeps the government in line and educates and galvanizes citizens. It undermines the influence of any single party or leader. One dismal tendency in recovering nations is that oligarchs and political parties tend to dominate media ownership, creating a press that is nominally free in many cases without being truly independent. Political parties use their newspapers and radio stations to preach the party line and are generally less concerned with truth than victory. Oligarchs do the same for their business interests. In a country like Russia, the papers and airwaves are still filled with propaganda, even if there’s more variety to it than there used to be.
Soros’ Open Society Institute has been strongly focused on fostering independent media in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Soros’ team and other groups are retraining journalists accustomed to state propaganda, providing seed money to independent media operations, and prodding states to write laws that protect press freedom.
4. Womanize. Recent research in economics and social science suggests that women are a better investment than men. Investing in women-owned business has proved hugely successful in the world of microcredit (more on this in the next article). Harvard President Larry Summers has for years been emphasizing the huge long-term returns of investing in the education of girls. Women’s rights groups, women’s education, and all kinds of women’s activism hugely benefit both civil and political society. Women’s involvement tends to moderate political extremism. Encouraging female-centered civil society groups would help undermine the male-dominated elites that have done so much damage to Iraq.
5. Don’t hold elections too soon. It’s tempting to push a rebuilding nation to democracy as fast as possible, but the quicker the elections, the weaker the civil society. In the early days of any recovering society, the most extreme and most visceral groups will hold sway—the organizations that have the strongest religious, ethnic, or ideological affiliations. Early elections ratify the power of the extremists: In Bosnia, a too-fast vote put the most unpleasant Serb, Croat, and Muslim candidates in office, calcifying ethnic divides.
Delaying elections gives time for other, less nasty kinds of civil ties to form. Business and professional associations spring up, uniting people with shared economic interests. Other kinds of interest groups—human rights activists, environmentalists, or property rights advocates—get a chance to promote their agendas. These new groups give people a reason to vote that’s better than ethnic identification.
Early elections also tend to crush civil society because they concentrate power in political parties, says the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Daniel Serwer. If elections are quick, political parties become the vehicle for anyone who wants to do anything since everyone is competing for a share of the electoral influence. If elections are put off, citizens do things on their own, starting NGOs and associations to serve their own interests. Later elections leave more space for the growth of a pluralistic society where all kinds of institutions—not merely political parties—serve a variety of social functions and compete for citizens’ attention.
6. Remember: Not all civil society is good civil society. University of Colorado professor Roland Paris, author of the forthcoming At War’s End, notes that civil society also includes separatist, authoritarian, and extremist groups. The KKK is as much a part of American civil society as Habitat for Humanity. In Iraq, we must be on guard for theocratic groups—extreme Islamist mosques, schools, and political parties—and ethnic cleansers—Kurdish groups that want to roust Arabs and vice versa. The nasty groups will find it just as easy as the nice ones to organize on the Internet and exploit flattened hierarchies.
The American occupiers will need to distinguish among three kinds of civil society groups: those that should be banned, those that should be tolerated, and those that should be encouraged. The first group includes nascent terrorist organizations and extremist theocrats tied to Iran. As an earlier piece argued, the American occupiers must suppress groups that promote violence and religious dictatorship. The second group includes most mosques, peaceful anti-American political parties and NGOs, and even the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, which, after all, might be a useful secular counterweight to rising Islamist organizations.
The groups we should encourage are those that make a broader appeal than simple identity politics and that discourage violence. For instance, as Slate reader Margot Main suggests, the United States should make friends with new labor unions since they bring together people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. And we should be doing everything we can to help human rights groups, environmental groups, chambers of commerce, and professional associations.
The best way of all to guarantee a vigorous civil society is to transform Iraq from a command economy that lives and dies on oil revenues into a diverse, free market. The next installment in Iraq’s Progress will explore all sorts of new ideas about reviving the Iraqi economy, from oil trusts to Hernando de Soto’s insights about property rights.