History in the Making, Far From Iowa’s Caucuses

The charm of Iowa and New Hampshire: Canadian air masses; black ice and small towns; armies of journalists, clubby and obtuse; projections that do not project, experts who do not know; and finally, the candidates and their campaigns, multimillion-dollar insta-corporations careening to destruction, or surviving for another shot at becoming the Most Powerful People in the World. All of this is based on the say-so of yokels who were lucky enough to erect their peculiar political institutions on the equivalent of the Comstock Load, the system we wish Afghanistan and Iraq to emulate.

At the end of his book Five Days in London: May 1940 , John Lukacs said that we were now entering an age of “global democracy-unquestioned democracy, with its unforeseeable circumstances and conditions and perils.” What he saw is the same thing that a host of other observers, from Francis Fukuyama to V.S. Naipaul, have spotted-the insistence of people, all over the world, that their self-esteem be ratified. Once we lived in social structures that gave us whatever gratification we needed. Now these structures have lost the ability to soothe, even if they retain the power to control. Hence the itch for individual acknowledgment. Hence democracy.

But democracy, as we know, can give people what they want, and much, much more. Demagogues promise self-esteem and hand out concentration camps. So do insane religions. (Mr. Lukacs’ book was a thank-you note to Winston Churchill for holding off the era of global democracy, in an early, sinister incarnation led by the Führer .) Another sinister incarnation is upon us, in the form of radical Islam. For that reason, the most important political events in the world are happening not in Iowa and New Hampshire, but in Iran-and not in the elections scheduled for February, but in the hearts and minds of the Iranian people.

Iran was the first harbinger of radical Islam, when the Ayatollah Khomeini took power there in 1979. The Shah, whom Khomeini deposed, was an old-fashioned despot and an old-fashioned modernizer. He represented a brummagem royal dynasty that was only a few generations old. He gained status (he thought) by hobnobbing with American Presidents and the international jet set. He built the usual dams, power projects and urban slums.

The Ayatollah Khomeini was light-years ahead of him in media savvy. Long before the Internet, he got his message out via tapes of his sermons. He incarnated democracy, because he told Iranians that they could rise up, in the name of their faith, and change their situation. And behold, they did.

Iranians have now had almost a quarter of a century to admire their handiwork. Women must be covered, books smuggled. Their rulers defended their country against Saddam Hussein with human waves of suicidal boy-warriors. They have spent their resources more recently in blowing up Jews and trying to build atom bombs. The ruling elite is as corrupt as the nation is poor; their clerics’ robes are chiefly good for hiding cash. The only rules they truly care about are those that spring from sexual obsessiveness, or that preserve their own power.

Iran has an elected parliament, whose decisions can be vetoed by a council of mullahs. Thus reformers and hard-liners trade punches. Yet the former are as despised as the latter, for they are only willing to nibble at the edges of the system. When the terrible earthquake destroyed the mud-walled city of Bam and thousands of Iranian lives, no national leader of any stripe could appear there without a great wall of bodyguards. American charities, by contrast, were greeted with cheers. The days are long past when the C.I.A. could arrange coups. Let us not frustrate the aspirations of the Iranian people by solemnly negotiating with their oppressors.

The Muslim world has spread beyond its historical homeland via immigration, and with it, so has radical Islam. The battle for hearts and minds goes on in Germany and England and New Jersey. Will it be won by Mohammed Atta, whose Western education consisted of technical expertise and never an idea, and whose spiritual education consisted of Koranic self-immolation, capped by destroying a trade tower? Or can the Islamic diaspora produce some other synthesis?

Irshad Manji is a Canadian journalist and TV host, born in a South Asian family in Uganda, raised in a suburb of Vancouver. She has written a book, The Trouble with Islam , which makes her one of the bravest people on earth. Conservatives bellyache about the power of the liberal media, and liberals tremble at the power of John Ashcroft, but neither one issues fatwas. Ms. Manji praises the West for teaching her inquiry and pluralism, and she calls on Westerners now to direct some of that inquiry to the Muslims in their midst. “Dare to ruin the moment … When Muslims insist, ‘We’re democracies in our own way,’ you need pose only one question: What rights do women and religious minorities actually exercise?”

She ends with three theses for her co-religionists. “Will we snap out of our rites … in order to free Muslims worldwide from fear, hunger, and illiteracy? Will we move past the superstition that we can’t question the Koran? By openly asking where its verses come from … and how they can be differently interpreted, we’re not violating anything more than tribal totalitarianism. If my analysis is wrong, can you explain why no other religion is producing as many terrorist travesties and human rights transgressions in the name of God?” The race is on: in one lane, millions of uneducated, unemployed people, and billions in corrupting Saudi cash; in the other lane, common decency and a few brave souls. Your safety depends on it.

Your safety also depends, to a lesser degree, on what happens in Washington, and therefore, on Iowa and New Hampshire. On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, Paul Krugman wrote that Howard Dean and Wesley Clark were the great Democratic hopes because they alone understand how rotten and lying the Bush administration is, and dare to say so forcefully. That is such a clear analysis that it needs only a little adjustment to make it perfect. The United States, the Muslim world, and indeed the world are involved in a war that will last decades. George W. Bush, for all his limitations, senses the stakes. Messrs. Dean, Clark and Krugman would rather think about Enron. Take your choice.