Remaking Iraq Without Guns

When the heads of the world’s leading industrialized nations meet in Georgia next week, they can do something unexpectedly positive for the Middle East, Muslim women, economic freedom and even democracy – if they take seriously a small but powerful idea on their agenda: microlending in Iraq. It’s obvious by now that the reconstruction of Iraq demands long-term thinking, which means using non-military “soft power” as much as hard ammunition. One of the best ways to achieve stability is by offering tiny loans to promote the creation of small businesses. Iraq has no dearth of budding entrepreneurs who could use the help. Chief among them are women, who have shown themselves able and eager to take on more roles.

An investment in Muslim women benefits men and children too. Testifying to this multiplier effect are the signs in some Afghan schools: “Educate a boy and you educate that boy; educate a girl and you educate her entire family.” Indeed, the 30-year record of microlending shows that Muslim women have helped nourish their neighborhoods and towns by building their own businesses. As for the repayment rate? A banker’s fantasy fulfilled: 98 percent.

With that in mind, suppose Washington joined a coalition of rich allies around the world – the Group of 8 nations as well as private foundations – to offer women in Iraq a coherent program of microbusiness loans. Pursuing this type of soft power could also compel government transparency in a way that even popular movements couldn’t. Only a broad and inclusive business class that can be taxed by the state will, in turn, convince the state to develop institutions that respond to people. Americans know this principle better than anybody. It’s called representation with taxation.

This approach to re-building Iraq could also help heal the rift between the United States and much of the European Union. International agencies have recognized that women are the great untapped resource in the Arab Middle East. The United Nations’ Arab Human Development Reports – written by Arabs – consistently emphasize three deficits in the Arab Muslim world: women’s empowerment, knowledge and freedom. By putting a dent in the deficit of Iraqi women’s empowerment, we can begin closing the gaps in knowledge and freedom. The World Bank appears to agree. While he was its chief economist, Nicholas Stern said that “increasing gender equality is as central to the idea of development as freedom.” When women get involved, he added, “education, health, productivity, credit and governance work better.” In short, there’s less corruption – a saving grace for a fledgling democracy like Iraq.

But the looming question remains: does Islam permit women to be entrepreneurs? In theory, yes. The prophet Muhammad’s first beloved wife, Khadija, was a wealthy self-made merchant. For years, he worked for her – something that Muslim men should be open to doing if they’re serious about emulating Muhammad’s life. Those Muslims who cite religion to oppose women as economic agents do so not because they fear violating the faith, but because they fear losing comfortable cultural certitudes and personal privileges. More sophisticated Muslims will argue that introducing free enterprise to the Arab Middle East amounts to Western imperialism, regardless of whether women benefit. That, too, is nonsense. The most tolerant strains of Islam have been spread through merchant trade rather than military conquest. Capitalism has such a noble history in Islam that an old saying goes, “May your pilgrimage be accepted, your sins be forgiven, and your merchandise not remain unsold.”

Theology and modernity can meet in today’s Iraq as they did a thousand years ago when Baghdad, the seat of the Islamic enlightenment, served as a crossroads of commerce. Iraq is precisely the place from which to remind Arab Muslims of their storied history, a golden age built upon the exchange of ideas as much as goods. However, to help Arab Muslims rediscover that glory, or anything close to it, America and the world will need to think bigger than elections. Drafting a democratic constitution for Iraq is important, but it’s hardly enough to ensure meaningful democracy. Let’s remember that Hitler became chancellor of Germany through free and fair elections. He did so by feeding off stubborn tribalism, economic malaise and resentment over military defeat. Iraq has the potential to incubate all three viruses, plus the remnants of a Baath Party built on the Nazi model. That’s why more lasting solutions lie in long-term thinking. And in the women of Iraq.

Irshad Manji is the author of “The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith.”


Read more on these topics: